Jesus' Radical, Counter-Cultural Views on Women in the Gospels - An In-Depth Study
Introduction: Understanding Social & Cultural Views on Women in the First Century A.D.
Jesus’ radically counter-cultural treatment of women within the first century A.D. reveals His value for them despite society's view of them at that time as merely property (SOURCE: Tatha Wiley, PhD) to be controlled (SOURCE: Claudia V. Camp), whose sole purpose in life was to produce and nurture children (SOURCE: Greg, Forbes, PhD and Scott D. Harrower, PhD). Some scholars, like the French-American Samuel Lucien Terrien, believe a women’s status at that time was “slightly above that of a Greco-Roman slave" (SOURCE: Samuel L. Terrien). Women were often considered to be “impure, subordinate and inferior human creatures(s)” in the post-exilic period (SOURCE: Greg, Forbes, PhD and Scott D. Harrower, PhD). Jesus, on the other hand, defies tradition by allowing women not only to be active participants in His ministry but also to be contributors to His ministry.
While Greco-Roman philosophers like Philo of Alexandria portrayed women as mentally inferior (SOURCE: Philon d’Alexandrie), Jesus praises followers like Mary for defying social norms while acting as a student of His teachings (Luke 10:38–42 NLT).
The Gospels record a number of women who are models of faith, including the first evangelist, with whom Jesus shares His identity as the Messiah before anyone else in scripture (John 4:1–42). Jesus defends women (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), and He even highlights women’s example at times when His own disciples fall short (Mark 12:41–44, Luke 21:1–4). Jesus chose women to be witnesses of His Word, preachers of His resurrection, and Apostles to the Apostles. While Jesus’ behavior and attitude towards women was considered radical at the time, it is important to remember that Jesus asks the same treatment of women today, as He treated them two thousand years ago.
Women as Contributors and Participants in Ministry - Luke 8:1-3
By including women in His following Jesus defies social traditions. Plato even proclaims at that time: “women were inferior to men, advocated their subordination, and believed that evil men could be reincarnated as women" (SOURCE: Plato). Three women are named by Luke as those who supported Jesus with their own resources: Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus healed of demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza and Herod’s business manager; and Susanna (Luke 8:1–3). Allowing women to follow Him throughout His ministry tour across towns and villages preaching the Good News was risky for Jesus’ ministry and likely caused Him to lose some followers, who believed women should not have been traveling with men. Society often viewed women involved in philosophical pursuits as invading male space—an action that was unacceptable (SOURCE: Dr. Lynn Cohick, PhD). American New Testament Scholar Ben Witherington III, Ph.D., gives more context: “For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous . . . but Jesus rejects much of rabbinic teaching on women’s ‘flightiness,’ inferior nature, and monthly ritual uncleanness.” Having women traveling alongside Jesus could have been seen as embarrassing (SOURCE: Jacqueline Lloyd, PhD). These women not only joined Jesus in His ministry tour, but also contributed to His ministry.
As we look closer at the Greek text in Luke 8, it says the women were “deaconating,” which comes from the Greek word diekonoun, which means ministering out of their monetary resources, referring to ministry of the Word, ministry of the table, and apostolic ministry (SOURCE: Barbara E. Reid, PO, PhD). Diakoneo means to serve, wait on, or minister to as a deacon (SOURCE: Carol A. Newsom, PhD and Sharon H. Ringe, PhD), demonstrating that Jesus affirmed them not only as participants in His ministry but also as contributors to His ministry.
While some have suggested that these women ministered in domestic service, the term diakonia in the early Christian community does not refer to domestic chores but to eucharistic table service and to proclamation of the Word (SOURCE: Carol A. Newsom, PhD and Sharon H. Ringe, PhD). Paul uses the same word when referring to his own ministry (Rom. 11:13, 2 Cor. 4:1) and the people who contributed to his ministry (Rom. 15:13). The same Greek word has been used to describe ministry to the Lord (1 Cor. 12:5), as well as God’s reconciliation to us through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18) and even the ministry of the disciples (Acts 6:1–4).
These women were not simply doing household chores on Jesus’ ministry tour—they were active participants in His ministry.
Within this passage, the Gospel demonstrates to readers that Jesus views women as contributors to His mission and valuable partakers in His ministry. Jesus’ ministry tour stirred the world at that time, since, as mentioned previously, “unchaperoned women sharing the preaching tours of a celibate male teacher is discontinuous with . . . the Judaism at the time" (SOURCE: Dr. John P. Meier), but we can still apply Jesus’ timeless actions to our society today. Jesus valued His male and female followers alike—despite how society viewed them. It is amazing that in a time period when women were not even counted in the census (SOURCE: Cynthia A. Jarvis, MDiv, and Elizabeth E. Johnson, PhD), Jesus said they were valuable in His eyes (as does Luke, who chooses to include them in his account). Dr. Barbara Reid, O.P. Ph.D., describes the women following Jesus as “business partners with Jesus, financing the mission, accompanying Him as he goes from town to town, and participating in the proclamation of the Good News.”
It is important to note that these women did not simply join Jesus for His “celebrity status”—they were likely forced to sacrifice quite a bit to join His group. Joanna had a high social status and likely gave up her wealth and position as a privileged member of Herod’s court when she began following Jesus (SOURCE: Lynn Cohick, PhD). It is possible that Joanna could have also helped the disciples not only financially but also by “easing tight political situations and calling on her clients to help her new Christian ‘friends'" (SOURCE: Lynn Cohick, PhD). As we look closer at this passage, we can conclude that Jesus valued people more than popularity. It would have been easy for Jesus to dismiss women from joining His following and making Him “look bad” or even ruining His reputation, since they were considered seductive by popular figures like Philo (Hypothetica)—but instead, Jesus embraced them, allowing women to follow Him and participate in serving within the ministry.
Women as Disciples and Receivers of God’s Word – Luke 10:38-42
When Western readers hear the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha works hard in the kitchen preparing food for Jesus while Mary simply sits at Jesus’ feet, they might be frustrated (like I was) that Jesus took the side of the “lazy sister.” But when we look at the full cultural context of this passage, it conveys a much different message than the twenty-first-century Christian might recognize.
English New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, Ph.D. shares the importance of cultural context within this passage: “far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many reading in Turkey, the Middle East, and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This was probably what really bothered Martha.” The phrase “to sit at the feet of” (Luke 10:39) is a technical term meaning “to be a disciple of,” Luke implies that Mary is a disciple and her behavior is to be emulated (SOURCE: Ben Witherington III, PhD), since Jesus praised her actions rather than scolding her. Witherington further notes that “at that time, for a rabbi to come into a woman’s home and teach her specifically is unheard of.” Jesus felt the value of teaching was worth risking a possible public scandal, since she was a female follower.
In the Greek world, philosophers and moralists who associated with women drew criticism, and some men even divorced their wives if they were seen speaking with a man in public (SOURCE: Craig S. Keener, PhD). Women’s gender roles in the first century included serving and preparing food (SOURCE: Turid Karlsen Seim, PhD), which is reflected in Martha’s reproach; she expects Jesus to side with her and tell Mary to leave her position at His feet to help her, but instead, Jesus affirms Mary’s actions.
Austrialian New Testament and Greek scholar, Greg W. Forbes, Ph.D. and Austrialian Systematic Theology scholar, Scott D. Harrower, Ph.D. in their book, Raised From Obscurity, said they believe it is unlikely Jesus was trying to make a political statement in the privacy of their home, but Jesus does turn gender roles upside down, giving women a new focus in life: “the first priority for a female disciple is to listen to the teaching of Jesus. For Jesus, women in God’s kingdom are no longer solely defined by socially regulated roles." By responding in this manner, Jesus tells the world, the Kingdom of God has different expectations for women than society does. In other words, Jesus characterizes women in guidelines established by “kingdom parameters, not socially regulated norms" (SOURCE: Greg, Forbes, PhD and Scott D. Harrower, PhD).
Mary represents the true disciple because she humbly sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to the Word of the Lord (SOURCE: Robert W. Wall, PhD). It’s important to note that the phrase “sitting at the feet” is used throughout the bible to describe a student picking up a teacher’s ways in an attempt to become a rabbi (SOURCE: N.T. Wright, PhD). Luke uses the same phrase (Acts 22:3) to describe how Paul learned at the feet of Gamaliel (SOURCE: Barbara Reid, OP, PhD) . When Jesus heals a demon-possessed man, the phrase is used again: “A crowd soon gathered around Jesus, and they saw the man who had been freed from the demons. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed and perfectly sane, and they were all afraid” (Luke 8:35). Jesus’ response to Mary reveals He believes women are to be both disciples and receivers of His word.
Jesus defies first-century gender roles through giving women the ability to be taught by a rabbi. Jesus’ defense of Mary as she takes on an unconventional role sitting at His feet reveals Jesus’ belief that men and women alike have the same primary task in life: “to be a proper disciple" (SOURCE: Ben Witherington III, PhD). Jesus' praise of Mary reveals He values both men and women as disciples in His ministry.
Women as Evangelists Proclaiming the Good News – John 4:1-42
As we further investigate the Gospels, we also find that Jesus views women as evangelists charged with proclaiming the Good News. When Jesus approaches the Samaritan woman at the well, He violates a number of social norms. First, and most obviously, the woman was a Samaritan, and Jews did not associate with Samaritans because of their strong hatred for them (SOURCE: Leonard Swidler, PhD). As earlier mentioned, Jesus violated the “rabbinic opposition to public discourse with women” by speaking to this woman in the open daylight (SOURCE: Robert Gordon Maccini). Jewish sages suggested avoiding unnecessary conversation with women because of sexually ambiguous situations that could lead to further sin (SOURCE: M. Ketub. 7:6).
While these customs may seem over the top from the perspective of those living in Western culture, these cultural standards still exist in Middle Eastern societies, where many believe “social intercourse between unrelated men and women is almost equivalent to sexual intercourse" (SOURCE: Euripides), and cross-gender conversations at wells similar to the one in this passage, often led to marriage (SOURCE: Alex 2.3.4.).
So, we must ask, Why would Jesus risk His reputation simply to speak with this woman? Because Jesus valued this woman’s contribution to His ministry.
The Gospel of John presents the Samaritan woman as “theologically astute" (SOURCE: Lynn Cohick, PhD). Jesus viewed her a future evangelist and proclaimer of His truth. Why else would He have revealed His identity to this woman before any other person recorded in the Gospels? Their conversation is as follows: “The woman said, ‘I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus told her, ‘I am the Messiah!’” (John 4:25–26). Jesus, our sovereign Lord, had a purpose planned out for this woman before this conversation even came to be—after all, scripture says our God has every word written in His book before it happens (Psalm 139:16). Jesus pursues this woman despite cultural norms. Not only does He initiate the conversation, but also He continues His lengthy discourse with her in broad daylight (SOURCE: Lynn Cohick, PhD). Until this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has only spoken with men — except for His conversation with His mother, Mary, at the Cana wedding (John 2:3–4).
As we examine the language further, we can see the words recorded in Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples are almost identical to those that describe the Samaritan woman’s actions (SOURCE: Leonard Swidler). The text says, “Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus” because of what the woman said (John 4:39). The Greek language reads “episteusan . . . diá ton logon" (SOURCE: Leonard Swidler). When Jesus recites the prayer at the Last Supper, He says He is praying not only for His disciples “but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message,” (John 17:20), which in Greek is “pisteuont on diá tou logou.” The language here reveals the signifciance behind the Samaritan woman's actions in preaching the euangelion, the “Good News” of Jesus the Christ (SOURCE: Leonard Swidler). Jesus views women as important components in His ministry.
The woman at the well is the first evangelist recorded in scripture to share Jesus’ identity with the world. Jesus must have thought highly of this woman to reveal His identity as the messiah to her before anyone else. It is Jesus’ self-revelation to this woman (John 4:42), which leads to the Samaritans’ Christological revelation that Jesus is not simply a prophet but the “savior of the world” (SOURCE: Hendrikus Boers, PhD). North American New Testament and Christian Orgins scholar, Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. points out that Jesus’ choice to reveal His identity to this woman is nothing short of “extraordinary (and) . . . contrasts starkly with his veiled allusions to Nicodemus,” the Pharisee and respected member of the Sanhedrin whom Jesus spoke with just before His conversation with the woman at the well.
John’s Gospel narrative clearly “[affirms] the value of women’s testimony to Christ" (SOURCE: Craig S. Keener, PhD). Although this event happened thousands of years ago, Jesus expects the same of His followers today—female and male. He expects us to share the Good News with the world, just as this brave woman did with her community. The woman at the well serves as an evangelistic example for all believers to follow: “What is most significant is that this woman becomes the first model of a worshiper in Spirit and truth that the Father sought for himself. The barriers of past moral character, gender, and ethnic religion were not the final determinants of the kind of person God would seek" (SOURCE: Craig S. Keener, PhD). Jesus views women as partners in ministry and evangelists to His truth.
Women as Witnesses of Jesus, Apostles to the Apostles– Matthew 28:1-11, Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18
The most impactful inclusion of women in the Gospels is in Jesus’ resurrection narrative. In all four Gospels, we see Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-11, Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18). In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the only woman mentioned, while Mark includes Mary the mother of James, and Salome, Matthew includes “the other Mary” with Mary Magdalene, and while Luke describes an even larger group of women at the scene of the tomb including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women. We should not be alarmed by the fact that Mary Magdalene was the only woman mentioned in all four Gospel accounts, the other Gospel writers might not have felt it was important to include the names of all the women who were there (SOURCE: Richard Buckham, PhD).
The fact that a woman’s testimony was included as an eyewitness in the Bible is astonishing considering women's testimonies were excluded from the Torah, and a woman’s testimony would not have been accepted in the court of law (SOURCE: David Daube, PhD).
Including women in the most significant moment in all the Gospel accounts speaks of the value Jesus—and the Gospel writers—saw in women. While most historians back then would have been embarrassed to include a woman’s perspective, the Gospels depict women as heroes. English New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright Ph.D., examines this passage further: "Every time the point is made (about Jesus choosing twelve male disciples)—and in my experience it is made quite frequently—we have to comment on how interesting it is that there comes a time in the story when the disciples all forsake Jesus and run away; and at that point, long before the rehabilitation of Peter and others, it is the women who come first to the tomb, who are the first to see the risen Jesus, and are the first to be entrusted with the news that he has been raised from the dead. This is of incalculable significance. If an apostle is defined as a witness to the resurrection, there were women who deserved that title before any of the men. Mary Magdalene and the others are apostles to the apostles." Wright concludes his argument by stating we should not be surprised when Paul later calls Junia, a woman, an apostle in scripture(Romans 16:7), since the other women had previously served in that same role.
Looking further at the passion narrative, we recognize that women were not simply bystanders at the resurrection: They were witnesses. These women were the first models of faith recorded in the Gospels—faithful disciples in both hearing and acting on the Word (SOURCE: Barbara Reid, OP, PhD). While society viewed women as second-class citizens, Jesus actively uses them in His ministry, even commissioning Mary Magdalene to “go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Matthew’s Gospel includes additional details in Jesus’ conversation with the women, commanding them to “Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there” (Matthew 28:10). Jesus’ compassion and love for these women is further demonstrated when He greets them telling them not to be afraid when He speaks with them after His resurrection (Matthew 28:9–10).
Scottish New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham, Ph.D., emphasizes women's active role in Jesus’ resurrection narrative: "These women, I think we can say, acted as apostolic eyewitness guarantors of the traditions about Jesus. . . . For as long as these women were alive, their witness, “We have seen the Lord,” carried the authority of those the Lord himself had commissioned to witness to his resurrection. . . . They surely continued to be active traditioners whose recognized eyewitness authority could act as a touchstone to guarantee the traditions as others relayed them and to protect the traditions from inauthentic developments. . . . It would be a mistake to envisage the women’s role of eyewitnesses as a passive one" (SOURCE: Richard Buckham, PhD). Jesus reveals His view of women as one of honor and trust, as people He believes are able and worthy to carry His message and take on the role of witnesses to His resurrection.
Why This Reserach Paper Topic?
Two years ago, I moved to Denver, Colorado. It was love at first sight—the city, the free-spirited “you do you” culture, and of course the mountains. But I quickly noticed something different about the city from other places I lived: Being a Christian there is unusual. My friends had a lot of questions.
Today, after months of investigating the Gospel accounts, I feel confident saying Jesus was radically pro-women within His culture 2,000 years ago. He believed in women’s rights, values and talents before society did. When women were not considered as intelligent or capable as men, Jesus allowed them to sit at His feet and took the time to teach them as a rabbi would to a disciple. Jesus shares revelations about Himself and His identity to a female, at the risk of His reputation, with the intention of having her later go and share that Good News with her village.
While all of these passages grew my passion for defending the truth that Jesus values all people who are His image-bearers (Genesis 1:26–27), it was reading Korean Biblical Scholar, Dr. In-Cheol Shin’s perspective on the resurrection narrative that completely blew me away. Dr. Shin pointed out that when the male disciples were absent after fleeing from Jesus following His arrest, it was the women who stepped in. Without Jesus’ female followers, the disciples would not have known about Jesus’ resurrection and the need to travel to Galilee. Jesus’ plan all along was to include women in a crucial role in His ministry.
So, how does this lesson apply to me today as a Youth Minister of fifty students, male and female, teens and young adults? I am going to continue to be my students’ chief encourager, teach them God’s Word, and disciple them. While some might disagree when I disciple young adult men in college and some in their 30s who need direction and to be guided in God’s truth, like the woman at the well, I am going to keep sharing this amazing news with anyone who wants to listen to me.
I work at a church of 3 full-time pastoral staff, and although some churches might have the resources to provide a male volunteer or male pastor to lead young men, unfortunately, ours does not. That might mean taking extra precautions and praying diligently and working hard to find them male role models, but at the end of the day, I am going to do what Jesus has told me to do: Go, find my brothers and tell them about the Good News that Jesus has risen and allows us to join Him in His incredible Kingdom of God.
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