A feminist is someone who supports equal rights for women: someone who believes that women should have the same political, religious, social, and economic rights as men. It has absolutely nothing to do with putting down men in order to elevate the status of women.
Despite the strongly negative understanding of women and women’s rights in his day, the historical Jesus refused to treat women as inferior to men in any way. In his prophetic speech and action, Jesus — Yeshua — was a feminist.
Earlier it was perhaps better but, by the time of Jesus, religious attitudes and behavior toward women had drastically changed. In theory, women were held in high regard by first-century Jewish society, but in practice, this was not always true. First century Jewish culture was strongly patriarchal; and women in Palestine, suffered various forms of ingrained prejudice against them.The daily prayers of Jewish men, for example, included this refrain: “Praised be God that he has not created me a woman.”
The woman’s place was to be in the home: to bear children and to rear them. Men were not even to acknowledge and greet women in public. Some Jewish writers like the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE), taught that women should never even leave their homes, except to go to the synagogue. Women, back then, had a very restricted position. They had little access to property or inheritance, except through a male relative. Any money a woman earned belonged to her husband. Men could legally divorce a woman for just about any reason, simply by handing her a writ of divorce. A woman, however, could not divorce her husband.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, women were restricted to the outer forecourt, the “women’s court,” which was five steps below the court for men. In synagogues women were separated from the men and not permitted to read aloud. They were also not allowed to bear witness in a religious court.
All four Gospels, however, portray Jesus as boldly moving beyond the religious and cultural misogyny of his days. There are many examples, but here are three sets I like to stress:
First: Jesus spoke to women in public, which was a religious and cultural taboo.
Recall for instance when Jesus arrived at the village of Nain during the burial ceremony for the son of a widow. Breaking the socio-religious taboo, he spoke with the widow and raised her son from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17) On another occasion, when Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, he encountered a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.
He touched her and cured her. Publicly reprimanded for curing the woman on the Sabbath by the local religious leader, Jesus called him a hypocrite and then used a surprising title for the woman. He called her a “daughter of Abraham.” (Luke 13:16) The expression “son of Abraham” was often used to describe Jewish males but women were never called “daughters of Abraham.” With this title, Jesus boldly challenged the contemporary religious prejudice against women.
In the Fourth Gospel, we see Jesus again ignoring restrictive codes of behavior on behalf of women. One day on a journey, he had to pass through the Samaritan city of Sychar. Jacob’s well was there. Worn out out by his journey, Jesus sat down by the well. It was about noon. A solitary Samaritan woman, on her way to get water, approached him. Normally women drew water only at dawn and at dusk. A woman appearing at midday, and alone, was considered improper. The woman had probably been ostracized by the “reputable” women in her town, perhaps because she had had five husbands and currently did not have one. Jesus spoke to her. A lengthy conversation ensued. The woman herself remarked on Jesus’ impropriety. “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jewish people disliked and shunned Samaritans. Remember as well that it was considered inappropriate for men to speak to women in public. Jesus, however, respected the Samaritan woman at the well and acknowledged her thirst for religious truth. He revealed TO HER his identity as the Messiah. (John 4:4–26)
Jesus also rejected the anti-woman blood taboo and refused to view such women as unclean. Women who were menstruating or had any “flow of blood” were considered ritually unclean. Anything or anyone touched by an “unclean woman” was also considered unclean. In the Gospel of Luke we find a dramatic story about such a woman. She had had had a flow of blood for 12 years. (Luke 8:43-48) Due to the constant bleeding, this woman lived in a continual state of uncleanness which brought upon her social and religious isolation. Against the taboo, she touched Jesus’ cloak. Jesus cured her and he said absolutely nothing about her ritual impurity. Surprisingly, he addressed her as “Daughter,” said her faith had saved her; and told her to go in peace. Jesus recognized the dignity of women in situations that, according to religious codes, demanded a condemnatory judgment. Think for instance about when one of the Pharisee leaders asked Jesus to eat with him. Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house for the meal. But then a “sinful woman” heard about Jesus being there, entered the house and then washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. To the amazement of his host and all at table, Jesus then said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” This account is not anti-Pharisee per se. Jesus was stressing that even religious leaders can be blind to human compassion, forgiveness, and support. (Luke 7:36-50) Recall as well the woman caught in adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. (Had they set her up?) They confronted Jesus and asked whether the punishment for someone like her should be stoning, as prescribed by Mosaic law. (They were trying to trap Jesus….) Jesus began to write on the ground
as though he did not hear them. When the woman’s accusers continued their challenge, Jesus stated that the one without sin should cast the first stone. All of the accusers then walked away, leaving only Jesus and the accused woman. Jesus then asked the woman who had now accused her. She said no one. Jesus did not condemn her. He told her to go and sin no more. (John 8:3-11) In both cases Jesus stressed that women have dignity and deserve compassionate understanding.
Second: Jesus moved beyond the sexist boundaries of his days by accepting women as his disciples.
Contrary to rabbinic practice, Jesus taught women about the Scriptures. The women with whom Jesus spoke were very likely illiterate, since the rabbis did not consider it appropriate for women to learn to read in order to study and read the Scriptures. The well-known Martha and Mary story, however, highlights Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of Mary’s desire to learn and be a disciple. She “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Luke 10:39) This was the typical position for a male disciple. To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant that that person was one of the rabbi’s disciples.
In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus is described as journeying from village to village, preaching and proclaiming the Reign of God. Male disciples were with him but also several women disciples: Mary the Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna; and others. Jesus, by calling women disciples, did something startlingly new.
Third: Jesus not only had women disciples, but the Gospels assure us that these women were prominent recipients of Jesus’ self-revelation. Directly from Jesus and not via one of the men.
Jesus, as mentioned earlier, told the Samaritan woman at the well that he was the Messiah. He told Martha, the sister of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) And….in all four Gospels, women disciples were the first witnesses to the Resurrection.
As I have noted in previous reflections, Jesus of Nazareth did not ordain anyone nor did he give any kind of blueprint for how the institutional church should be structured or organized. In his words and personal life example, however, he did clearly indicate how one should live in his Way….in his Spirit. We today, men and women, can not only learn from Jesus but find in his Way as well the encouragement and support for equality, respect, and collaboration in life and ministry. Healthy structures and organizational styles come from that foundation. Structures and organizational styles, however, are also flexible and provisional until something better comes along. They are the responsibility of creative contemporary believers. Let’s move ahead without fear or reluctance to change what needs to be changed.