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When assessing the history of women’s role and position in society, it is notably the period of the New Testament which proved to be a major turning point in the status of women, and was the starting point for the near-equality experienced in today’s society. Graham Stanton observes that ‘The status of women was markedly inferior to that of men throughout the ancient world, including Judaism.’1 Thus, by looking to the society preceding that of Christ, one can only understand what a profound influence Christ had on the previous Jewish and Greek customs of women.
The society in which Jesus lived was strongly patriarchal; the worth and dignity of women was not recognized, the women’s role was domesticated, to be a faithful wife and mother, and women who stepped outside this role were vilified. Women had almost no role at all in the wider arena of social life, in politics and religious affairs 2. By looking to the Old Testament the earliest evidence of such a society is indicated in the Book of Job, and arguably the Old Testament is a record of the mistreatment of women by men. Women were considered to be the cause of evil doing, a temptation to men, and a hindrance to his spiritual life.
If my heart has been enticed by a woman,
or if I have lurked by my neighbor’s door,
then may my wife grind another man’s grain,
and may other men sleep with her. ( Job 31:10 -11)
‘Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
It is a woman who brings shame and disgrace’ (Sirach 42:14)
This patriarchal society which had no time for women in discussions, decisions or pleasures, left women as objects to fulfill the men’s sexual desires and produce children, they lived their lives under the control of men, mainly their fathers and husbands. This belief came about from what was stated in Exodus 20:17, that a woman was a possession of the husband, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife…’ Indeed in Jewish religious and social law, women, slaves and minors were often placed in the same category. The religious authorities had little respect or liking for women, the Rabbis were fearful of women as they were seen as a source of sexual temptation. Additionally, the Shema was not to be recited anywhere, where you could hear a woman’s voice or see her legs or her hair.
However, there were exceptions to this 1st century treatment of women, E. Schussler Fiorenza argues that ‘Although in rabbinic Judaism women are categorized with children and slaves for legal and religious purposes, the biblical stories about women indicate that women were not perceived as minors or slaves in everyday life.’ Such examples she uses are women including Ruth, Esther, Hannah, all of who are seen to have typical female roles and behavior, yet, ‘they are not perceived as minors or slaves in everyday life.’3 Certainly Deborah is also an important figure for the raising of the female status in the Old Testament, she was a Judge and was consulted by the Israelites over several issues, and it can be understood that the majority of her rulings were correct.
In the face of threat created by Jabin, the Canaanite king, she roused Barak to lead the Israelites into battle, and ultimate victory. Thus she was clearly a heroine. Certainly then, as J and K Court observe, women’s status was relative and could depend on various factors: family, employment, or religious background, and Jesus’ preaching and teachings of equality for all could only be possible ‘in so far as such notions of equality are conceivable in the context of Jewish life and faith.’4
However, through the scriptures of the Old Testament God asks his people to ‘act compassionately toward those around you’ (Deuteronomy 24:17-22) but no account can be found of men respecting the human rights of women, thus they over look God’s commands. Such a corrupt system, constantly producing injustice and fear, was in true need of a change. ‘Jesus overturned the social and cultural mores of this day and challenged legalistic traditions.’ 5 He showed no discrimination to others and ‘treated all persons with respect, regardless of their race, sex, age, physical condition, political preference, economic status, or educational level’.
6 He told all persons, ‘You have worth and value, and there is rejoicing in heaven when you as an individual become part of My family’ (Luke 15:1-10). For God created both men and women in his image, both equal and complete, ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27). He did not separate one from the other in the ruling of the world for one cannot function without the other, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18). It is this concept which Jesus tried to revive in his teachings.
Throughout the New Testament, there are many references to women that demonstrate how Jesus reacted differently to women, and how he promoted the status of women. ‘Jesus talks to women even though they are outcasts-much to the surprise of his disciples, as he was offending all the normal conventions.’7 Jesus presents women as worthy and faithful through acts of forgiveness and numerous miracles performed on them. He also removes from women the domestic image that society had previously molded them into, and presents them as disciples equal to men, as shown in Luke 10:38-42 where Jesus favors the sister Mary who ‘sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said’ rather than her sister Martha who was pre-occupied with the traditional female obligation of house work.
Also in Luke 11:27-28 Jesus states ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’ rather than the woman who brings life into the world, here again specifically telling women they are bound to no duty except to that of the Lord. Jesus, within this passage is shown to view women as equal to men, he makes no distinction, since Jesus’ main concern is to teach those who are willing to learn. This is a radical move away from Jewish thought, since up until this point it was unheard of within Judaism for a religious teacher to teach women.
It is the evangelist Luke, who seems to show the most interest in women using Jesus’ positive references to women which were so different to the views at the time and including many unique stories of Jesus’ encounters with women in his Gospel that the other evangelists omit. Luke 18:1-8 shows a man in a superior position as a Judge supposedly working for what is true and Godly, however, with no sense of true loyalty or justice, compared to a widow with real faith, totally committed to God. It is only through the Judge’s selfish need does he ‘see that she gets justice’. By putting this story in of two contrasting characters, Luke must obviously be aware of women’s hard deal in society, and also aware of some men’s response to the superior positions that they hold in the first Century world.
Thus this story is used to illustrate the faithful and faithless. Most of the references to women in the Gospels are there to portray positive examples of persons with great faith. Jesus welcomed the inclusion of women as disciples with the understanding that they could respond with obedience and commitment to the word of God. Luke 8:1-3 states by name women who followed Jesus in Galilee and to Jerusalem where they were present as faithful and active servants at the crucifixion. The three women were named as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who had apparently left everything and became disciples of Jesus as a result of the healing they had received from him, and followed him until the end. As Fiorenza states, ‘the women are thus characterized as true disciples of Jesus who have left everything and have followed him on the way, even to his bitter end on the cross.’ 8
All four Gospels report that it was the women disciples who first saw and believed Jesus’ resurrection, however in Luke 24:10-11 the male disciples did not believe them. Mark too, shows that in the New Testament writings the status of women has been improved. Just as in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, he presents four leading male disciples who hear Jesus’ call to discipleship, so at the end of his Gospel he presents four leading women disciples. He mentions them by name which is demonstrating their importance, since one has previously noted from the story of Bethany (14:1-11) that the author of Mark’s Gospel did not always see it necessary to include the name.
It is significant that in this passage of Mark 14:9 where Jesus pronounces that ‘wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’ This is in reference to the anointing of Jesus in Bethany by a woman. This verse shows to a reader two things, firstly that from the start Jesus treated women as equals since he is willing to identify and make clear the great act that the woman has performed. Secondly it shows to one that although Jesus realised the great act the woman had performed, the author of the gospel did not believe it was worth noting the name of the woman. Certainly Fiorenza believes the name of the ‘faithful disciple’ has been lost since ‘ she was a woman.’9 Hence, again highlighting what the early status of women was, even in the Christian world. Also in Mark’s Gospel it is included the idea that Mary Magdalene was the first human to have Jesus appear to her (Mark 16:9).
Mark writes; ‘He appeared first to Mary Magdalene… but when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her they would not believe it.’ Therefore, here clearly one can argue that although Jesus himself accepted women and believed them to be equal. Nevertheless, 16:9 demonstrates that despite the fact his male disciples would like to believe they followed Jesus and all he taught them, they evidently did not for they refused to believe Mary Magdalene, thus one can state from studying Mark’s Gospel that the author was indeed keen to encourage women into apostolic and ministerial leadership, which was a drastic change to the status of women. This is the radical difference in Jesus’ ministry, and the gospels will not let the Christian Church forget this, although as Stanton observes, the early church did not always follow his teaching regarding women. However, this serves only to establish the increasing likelihood that Jesus’ teachings were authentic. 10
Jesus uses his power and authority to try to bridge the gap between men and women in society by his acts of compassion. He is not afraid to be touched by a ritually unclean woman who is suffering from a hemorrhage, or when he brings a widows dead child back to life in Luke 7:11-17 which shows Jesus’ genuine compassion for women as he shows with men and children alike, his ‘heart went out to her’ 7:13 and he raised her son from the dead. Jesus challenged the Jewish mentality that women as witnesses to Jesus’ preaching had no value or significance by drawing women to be apart of his discipleship and ‘thereby giving a value to their presence and making them effective witnesses to his life and message.’ And it was ”Finally…the women who, drawing close to the dramatic events of his crucifixion and death, when ‘all the disciples deserted him and fled.'(Matthew 26:56) and when Peter denied him, followed him and were present at his crucifixion, death and burial”11 they are portrayed as dedicated and faithful follows who have been able to see through their suffering.
The one woman who even at the time of Jesus’ birth through to today holds a superior position in the church is Mary mother of Jesus. Mary is shown as a dedicated and obedient disciple of Jesus, ‘She agreed to accept Jesus’ birth and to be obedient to God’s will while knowing well that this would place her in a position of being a social outcast’.12 The Gospel writers support her and highlight her considerable strength and bravery from the beginning of the Gospel- Jesus’ birth, through to his death at the end of the Gospel. It is telling that Luke compared to Matthew tells the birth story from Mary’s point of view rather than Josephs’, as we have seen Luke is strongly aware of the difficulties which beset women in New Testament society and hugely supports Mary mother of Jesus who he feels represents the faithful and long suffering women and disciple.
In the second century document called The Gospel of Mary, written about Mary Magdalene there are indications towards the role that she carried with the disciples that is ignored in her presentation in the New Testament. ”We find Mary Magdalene consoling the disciples after Jesus’ ascension ‘Do not weep and do not sorrow and above all do not be indecisive. His grace will be with you and will protect you.’ Peter turns to her and says: ‘Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than other women. Tell us those words of his, which you remember and know, not us…”.
13 This shows Mary holding a somewhat authoritative position towards the disciples and the passage indicates Mary had a personal relationship with Jesus outside that with the disciples, of such an authoritative position that she holds, however, was omitted or not specified in the New Testament, although the Gospels did write that Jesus accepted her for who she was and with her past, however, they failed to specify the closeness to which their relationship is suggested to be, and it can be deduced that she (and conceivably other women) had a much more significant role in the early church than is presented in the New Testament documents themselves. The evangelists throughout the different gospels are expressing their views about the role of women through the mouth of Jesus and his encounters with them. However, these views however honest they may seem considering the society they are writing for and are apart of, may still be somewhat constrained when deciding whether to write of a women having a greater and closer relationship with Jesus than men, would seem ridiculous and absurd to the people at that time.
As Graham Stanton observes, the early church soon after Jesus’ time on earth did not always follow Jesus’ example in its treatment of women. Indeed it could be said that Paul and other later New Testament authors reverted back to a more Jewish approach to women and therefore distanced the early Church away from all that Jesus had done to promote the status of women. However, although it is true to say the Pauline teachings imply that in the worshipping congregation women should not have an authoritative teaching role, thus they should not have an equal status with men within the church. Nevertheless some of the teachings still keep the theme that in the kingdom of God any person baptized is a part of Jesus Christ’s kingdom and can no longer be differentiated from another Baptised believer, therefore all are a apart of one unity in Christ. Paul has thus understood Jesus’ essential message that all are welcome into God’s kingdom: ‘There is neither Jew not Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.'(Galatians 3:28)
However, he also establishes some rules that seem to diminish women but are actually aimed at creating order and dignity in the church. Although Paul clearly expresses his view that all people are equal in Jesus, in a letter to Timothy concerning the worship of men and women he does not deny the different roles both women and men should play, emphasizing clearly woman’s role of bearing children and prohibiting women to teach and lead a congregation ‘or to have authority over a man'(1.Timothy 2:12). It is later in his instruction to the Corinthians that Paul places restriction on what women can do: ‘women should remain silent in the churches.
They are not allowed to speak’ he then states that ‘A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the women is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason the woman ought to have authority on her head because of the angels.’ (1.Corinthians 11:7-10) Paul’s rules about the conditions for worship, although they may seem sexist, actually reflect the times.
Women were usually covered apart from their heads and hands, however, to avoid distraction when worshipping it would be customary to cover their heads, so the only focus would be solely the Lord. Even though Paul has rules inside the equality of worship, he still stands by the view that ‘In the Lord, however, there is neither woman without man nor man without woman. For as woman came from man. So also man is born woman, and everything comes from God.'(1 Corinthians 11:11-12)14 But it is passages such as ‘Now as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything’ (Ephesians 5:24) that have caused the most controversy and have been taken as literally wives being the husbands possession. For in traditional Western marriage services today the words ‘I obey’ARE often no longer included.
It has been noticed that the Pauline and Petrine writers seek to limit women’s leadership roles within the Christian community to roles that are culturally and religiously acceptable. However, ironically, these claims cannot allege the authority of Jesus. The status of women in modern times has a great deal to do with Paul and other later author’s teaching. Certainly the practice of women covering their head before they went into churches was a common practice up until the II World War. This shows the long lasting effect of Paul’s teachings in the church on the status of women.
It is important that when looking at the texts written about Jesus’ teaching shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion that they must not be taken necessarily at face value, they must be interpreted in their cultural setting, so they may seem obscure to our standards and values in the twenty-first century. Even today, although huge developments have happened to the status of women since Jesus’ time, women are still thought in some countries to be of less social standing than their male counterparts, it is only in the developed countries that equal rights for men and women have been fought.
There has been great dispute over the acceptance of women priests in the Church in the Western World. The argument against there being women priests within the Church of England, found much of its weight from the later New Testament authors, and much of what Jesus had taught was ignored. The main emphasis of the argument was placed on the idea that male and female were created to be equal but different, many against the ordination of women would have used this beginning to base the development of the role of priests as a male responsibility.
Moreover, many scholars use the passage from 1Timothy:2:8-15, ‘I permit no women to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep; silent,’ to suggest that women should not be in a position to teach with authority in the Church. ‘They argue that Christ was male and chose male apostles and that females cannot form legitimate succession or play the crucial part in the sacrificial and sacramental acts of the Eucharist.’ 15 Peter Vardy argues that just as Christians misapplied Jesus’ essential message to the Jews, ‘similarly Christian Churches and individuals have done the same to women’
Women in terms of the Roman Law were considered inferior to men, and it was the Roman law which became the basis of the churches law. Women were also considered to be responsible for bringing sin into the world and for being a continuous source of seduction, and they were considered to be ritually unclean because of their monthly blood flow, thus almost as definition to the Roman Law and understanding women could not be ordained simply because they were a woman, as it would be inappropriate for an inferior, sinful and unclean person to represent God. It was such strong feelings as these that became so deeply imbedded in the Churches thinking in past centuries that have remained up until today. The Church of England is currently paving the way for women bishop however there is strong opposition and splits within the church and so it could take another twenty years before a woman is made a bishop in Britain.
Passages in the Bible emphasize the order of creation of men and women and reflect the ‘household code’ of their positions in the family and home. Therefore although some traditionalists still believe that women have a different role from men and are subordinate to men by God, through the creation, others maintain that ‘before God all are equal’16. For women to be equal in the Christian church the very fact that circumcision was to be replaced by baptism was a very important factor. Since women now could become equal and have the same status as men did before God. Fiorenza REF? believes this ‘generated a fundamental change in women, not only in their standing before God but also in their ecclesial social status and function.’ She bases this argument on the fact that previously in Judaism women could never be viewed as equal since they could not be fully initiated into the religion due to circumcision. Therefore although much of the New Testament writings show women to be subordinate to man, the actual initiation into the Church is balanced.
The sense of oppression that women have felt for centuries in both religious and everyday life seems to have stemmed from the very roots of religion, in the creation story and also from the misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in the Bible ‘…Feminist groups both within and outside the church have accused the church of propagating a negative view of women…’.17 The Feminist Movement has developed today as a result of the injustices women have suffered in the past and their desire for equal rights and opportunity in the future in all aspects of life.
Mary Wollstonercraft applied the principle of natural rights to women arguing that women have equal worth with men and therefore have the same rights. Today it is seen as an act of discrimination for women not to have the freedom to be ordained; the last few decades have witnessed increasing sensitivity regarding woman’s rights and the need to redress injustices committed in the past. This new freedom has opened up new roles in all fields of work. The church although slow and reluctant to incorporate ‘ a true evaluation of women’ (Galatians. 3:28) into its institutions and rituals has finally succumbed. The position of women in the church reflects the changes in society and so today women find themselves challenging men in all walks of life.
In conclusion, the status of women in the New Testament has a great deal to do with how the individual authors of each book viewed women. Certainly the Gospels indicate to the reader that Jesus wished to depict women as having just as many rights as men in the eyes of God. Furthermore, he showed that he himself saw women as equal beings to men, since he allowed them to become his disciples, as in the case of the Galilean women. So the gospels project them as being Jesus’ true disciples. The period of the New Testament marks a significant change in the role and attitude to women, which seems to have been initiated by Jesus. It was this dramatic change in attitude to women (although the early church did not always reflect these teachings) that has finally become the standard to which modern day women aspire and society have accepted.
‘People are welcomed by Jesus irrespective of race, status, or gender, and those who are called to leadership are chosen on the basis of God’s gracious spirit not on accidents of birth.’18
1 ‘The Gospels and Jesus’ Graham Stanton, 1989, p102
2 ‘The Puzzle of the Gospels’ Peter Vardy and Mary Mills, Fount 1995 pg170
3 ‘In Memory of Her’ E. Schussler Fiorenza 1983, pg 109
4 ‘The New Testament World’ J. and K. Court, Prentice-Hall, 1990
5 ‘Equal to Serve’ G.G. Hull 1989, pg85
7 ‘Puzzle of the Gospels’ Peter Vardy and Mary Mills, 1995, pg173.
8 ‘In Memory of Her’ E. Schussler Fiorenza 1983
9 ibid pg 316
10 ‘The Gospels and Jesus’ Graham Stanton, OUP (1989) pg202
11 ‘Mary Magdalene and Many Others’ Carla Ricci, BURNS & OATES (1994), pg144
12 ‘The Puzzle of the Gospels’ Vardy and Mills, pg175
13 ‘May Magdalene and Many Others’ Carla Ricci, pg147
14 information from ‘Paul’s teaching on the Ministry of Women’ P. Nelson, Whittles Publishing (1996)
15 ‘The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology’ IVP(1996) pg 595.
16 ‘ Paul and the Eschatological woman’ R. Scroggs. Pg266
17 ‘Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology’ pg380
18 ‘Oxford dictionary of the Bible’ W.R.F. Brownig. Pg 398