Christians for Biblical Equality

Jesus and Women

Kevin Giles

CBE paper 2010

Before we look at what Jesus said and did in regard to women, five introductory points need to be made.

First, let me stress, I am not setting Jesus and Paul in opposition.[1] What I am arguing is that as followers of Christ we should give a certain priority to Jesus’ teaching as both Paul and we are disciples of Christ and that we should understand and interpret Paul’s teaching in the light of the Gospels, not vice versa.[2] In seeking to work out what the New Testament says about the relationship of the sexes beginning with Jesus I take exactly the opposite path to my debating opponents, the hierarchical-complementarians. They start with 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and read the whole Bible through this lens. One difficult and exceptional comment in the Pauline corpus is set over everything else in the Bible. This is one text theology at its worst.

Now to Jesus


2.      Jesus was a man of his age. [3] He did not drive a car, watch TV or go to supermarkets. In his world women were dependent on men all their life and their education opportunities were very limited. He would never have imagined a world where women would be leaders of nations as presidents and prime ministers, managers of large businesses, judges, doctors, and carpenters. What this means is that whatever Jesus taught or did was within the confines of what was conceivable within his cultural setting. He certainly fully affirmed woman and saw them standing side by side with men but to suggest he had much the same agenda as a modern day feminist is to divorce him from his historical context.

3.      For this reason we should not set Jesus’ view of women in stark contrast, even opposition, to that of Jewish people of his day. [4] True, Jewish authors writing just before the New Testament or contemporaneously, such as Ben Sira, Philo and Josephus, and the early Rabbinical writings, which come from the century after the New Testament, are a rich mine of misogynist comment.[5] However, thoughtful Jewish and Christian scholars have pointed out that while what is quoted from these Jewish sources is accurate it only reflects the views of a small number of androcentric, socially conservative educated men, and even from their writings positive comments can be found, as they can be found in the works of others of that time. What Jesus did was build on and develop the noblest views of women found in Judaism and then take bold and daring steps forward.

4.      How Jesus inaugurated a completely new estimation of women is much the same as how he brought change to so much in Judaism. As a usual rule he did not directly attack what the Jews held dear. Rather, he subtly subverted what was taken for granted and assumed, opening up other possibilities. [6] So we note that he did not directly attack the central institutions of Judaism. He did not tell people to keep away from the temple or denounce its worship but what he taught on the temple undermined its centrality and it ceased to have significance for Christians. He never told his hearers not to observe the Sabbath but what he said about and did on the Sabbath led the early Christians to abandon Jewish Sabbath observance. He never abrogated the Law of Moses but Paul summed up early Christian belief when he wrote, ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10:4). It is the same with women. Jesus never denounced the patriarchy of his day, or the demeaning views of women held by many Jews, but what he said and did resulted in a distinctly Christian view of women that no one before his time had even dared to imagine.

5.      Jesus said not one specific word about how the church was to be organized after his departure to heaven. Church leadership structures were worked out as the church gradually took form in the culture of that time.

Given this information it is clear that we cannot ask of the Gospels many questions in our twenty first century minds. What is reasonable to ask for the purposes of this study are questions such as, ‘Did Jesus endorse patriarchy?’ Did he teach male ‘headship’/leadership as an unchanging and unchangeable creation ideal? Did he ascribe certain roles for men and others for women? Did he make it plain that he thought women should not be leaders in the Christian community?

Jesus as an agent for change

Jesus subverted hierarchy among his disciples.

Possibly the most revolutionary teaching that Jesus gave was on leadership and the exercise of authority. It is so revolutionary that 2000 years later most of his disciples still cannot comprehend it, and the community he founded, the church, in its historically developed institutional form, simply ignores it, embracing enthusiastically the hierarchy he opposed. In so many discussions on leadership in the home or the church the issues of who is in charge, who has the authority to make decisions, who has control, comes up. Human beings feel that someone has to exercise authority over others to make things happen. On seven occasions in varied wording Jesus told his disciples not to concern themselves like unbelievers do with who is first, who is ruling, who is most honored, but rather to concern themselves with humble, costly service for others (Matt. 20:26-28, 23:11, Mk. 9:35, 10:43-45, Lk. 9:48, 22:7 and by example, Jn 13:4-20). When James and John ask to be first in the kingdom Jesus says to them,

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10: 43-45).

Commenting on these words the German New Testament scholar, Jurgen Becker, says,

In this double saying [Jesus] bases greatness and preeminence in the [Christian] community on serving and subordination in it. Thus out of a horizontally structured power pyramid, which in those days characterized every community, including the family, is made a vertically leveled equality of all members in mutual service.[7]

Luke has a variant of this story. It is while Jesus is eating his last meal with his disciples before his arrest, trials and crucifixion that, “a dispute arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Lk 22: 24). In reply to them Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it shall not be with you; rather the greatest among you must become as the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Gk diakoneo)” (Lk. 22:25-26). After the meal John tells us Jesus took a basin and a towel and washed the disciples’ feet. He demonstrated in this profound way that Christian leadership is first and foremost about humble, sacrificial service for others, not about authority or prestige. He then said to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:13-14). In his definitive study on footwashing in the ancient world and of the washing of the disciple’s feet by Jesus John Thomas concludes that what Jesus does is unique. He writes, “the account of a superior voluntarily washing the feet of an inferior is without parallel in antiquity”.[8]

Total incomprehension or disobedience to this teaching is illustrated when Christians start pontificating on the authority of husbands, pastors and elders. This becomes gross when men tell women they must gladly accept the authority of the men set over them. Did not Jesus make it plain that in his community leaders are those who stoop to serve? Here we need to recall that the genesis of the title, “minister”, goes back to Jesus who spoke of himself and of his followers as those who serve/minister (diakoneo) or are servants/ ministers (diakonoi) (Mark 10:43, Lk 22:26). So the right question disciples of Christ should ask in debates over the leadership of women in the church is, “Can women be servants/ministers in the life of the Christian community?” Not, “Can women exercise authority over other people?”

Here we should carefully note that at the heart of what divides hierarchical-complementarians’ and egalitarian-complementarians-evangelicals is the issue of authority. One side believes God has given men ‘authority over’ women, at least in the church and the home, and the other side believes that Jesus calls on his followers to lay aside claims to have authority over others and concentrate on serving our brothers and sisters. This fundamental and profound divide is seldom recognized and less often addressed. The hierarchical-complementarians have got everyone focusing all attention on mainly one Pauline texts, 1 Timothy 2:11-14, which they tell us gives men “authority over women” in the home and the church. In so doing they have eclipsed the teaching of Jesus on leadership as service. The challenge for evangelical egalitarians is to get the whole church focused primarily on what Jesus our Lord and master said many times that forbade Christians from seeking to have authority over others, especially in the church and the home.

If we give priority to what Jesus taught on authority, I believe, we would then have the key to rightly understanding the Timothy passage. We would then see that rather than endorsing ruling over people, claiming to be first, this text depicts such behavior in women or men as a ‘deception’ from the devil.

Jesus subverted family prioritisation.

Most of us have heard many times from the pulpit that Jesus supports family values. In these words the claim is usually being made that Jesus endorses the modern nuclear family of a dad, a mum and two children and he opposes divorce, and sometimes even women going out to work, at least full time. When we come to the Gospels what Jesus actually says on the family is discordant with what we are so often told. To start with he would have had little comprehension of the nuclear family, largely separated and independent of the extended family, or of the division between going out to work and working at home. In a subsistence farming economy everyone works and works from the home. But this is only the beginning of our problems with what Jesus actually said about the family.

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, as in contemporary Western middle class church life, it was and is believed that after God himself the family is next in importance. To our family in the human sphere we owe first allegiance. It is true that Jesus speaks against divorce, affirms the commandment to honour father and mother (Mk 7:9-13), warmly welcomes children (Mk 9:36-37) and uses family language to speak of discipleship (Mk 3:34-35, Jn 1:12-13). However for him, and for his disciples, he says there is something more important than the family, doing the will of God. In his ministry Jesus lives independently of his biological family choosing instead to make the twelve his family (Matt. 12:46-50). In Mark when his mother and brothers come seeking him he identifies his true family as “whoever does the will of God” (Mk 3:31-35). In calling on people to follow him Jesus demands that they leave their occupations and families (Matt. 4:18-22, Mk 1:16-20, c.f. Lk. 18:18-25), and even ignore important family responsibilities like burying a dead family member (Matt. 8:21, Lk. 9:59-62), and he warns that becoming a disciple may well divide the family, setting brother against brother, Father against son, mother against daughter (Matt. 10:21-23, 34-39, Lk.12:51-53). Matthew has Jesus commending celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 19:10-12). Surprisingly in that culture where women were subject to either to their father or husband, “some women” broke with their families, or at least partly so, to obey Jesus’ call to follow him and traveled with him and the twelve (Lk.8:1-3, c.f.  23:49, 24:10).  They too were included in his “family”. The Roman Catholic commentator, Joseph Fitzmyer, says that this passing comment about women literally following Jesus is very important (Lk. 8:1-3). It indicates that Jesus “differed radically from the usual understanding of women’s role in contemporary Judaism”.[9]

In Luke’s Gospel another brief aside highlights one other key element in Jesus’ teaching on family life. For the Jews of Jesus’ day and for many Christian’s today woman’s highest calling is to bear children. This is an important and noble responsibility that only a woman can fulfill. However, when a woman in the crowd once called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nurtured you”, Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk.11:27-28). For Jesus the highest calling for men and women is to hear the word of God and do it. There is nothing more important. Only women can bear children and breast-feed but Jesus here teaches that a woman can be an exemplary disciple and not be a mother, and by implication that a woman’s role is not restricted to mothering.

Jesus subverted the Jewish purity laws.

In Judaism the purity laws are very important and prominent. To break them could be a capital offence. For many Jews of Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees, keeping these rules were of utmost importance. Jesus relativised them making moral purity more important than cultic purity (Matt. 23:25-26, Lk. 11:41), undermined them by insisting that nothing from without could defile a person (Mk 7:1-15), and in practice often ignored them (Mk 2:15-17, 5:28, 39-40, 41). Jesus’ subverting of the purity laws is dramatically illustrated in the story of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years (Mk. 5:25-34). A woman in this condition was considered unclean at all times and a danger to every law abiding Jew because contact with her passed on her impurity. She was a social outcast. When she touched Jesus he took no offence. He obviously did not consider himself unclean as a consequence. Rather, he healed the woman, sending her away with his blessing. This story marks the end of the idea that menstrual blood makes a woman unclean.

The logic of what has just been said is not that Jesus unlike other Jews of his day was not interested in purity. He was. He simply had another understanding of purity. For him, the purity that God wanted in men and women was not cultic but ethical.

Jesus subverted the Jewish androcentric understanding of marriage.

In the longest account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, Mathew has “some Pharisees” ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). Behind this question lies a debate between the differing rabbinic schools over the interpretation of Moses words that allowed divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). The followers of Shammai argued that Moses’ words limited divorce to the infidelity of the wife. Hillel was much more generous to men. He argued that Moses’ ruling allowed that men could divorce their wife for a minor thing, such as burning her husband’s meal. Akiba went even further. He said that Moses’ words allowed men to put aside their wife if they found a more attractive woman. Jesus’ protagonists wanted him to rule on which position was the right one. They wanted to know how much freedom he thought God had given to men to divorce their wives. The question was one hundred percent androcentric.

In reply, Jesus sidesteps the debate about the interpretation of one text by taking his male audience back to the Garden of Eden before the fall where God instituted marriage as a “one flesh” union between a man and a woman. In marriage, Jesus says quoting Genesis 2:24, a man and woman “are no longer two, but one flesh”. He then adds, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate”. When the Pharisees responded by next asking Jesus why Moses allowed divorce (v 7) he replied, Moses allowed divorce because of the “hardness” of human hearts. What they are to understand is that Moses’ words were a concession given to those living in a fallen world where marriages breakdown, not the creation ideal. In going back to the creation order Jesus rejects the agreed assumption of his questioners that marriage is simply a contract initiated by a man, that a man can annul if he so wills by giving a bill of divorce to his wife. As far as Jesus is concerned man and woman are created by God with equal dignity and worth to complement each other and in marriage they are bound together in a life long union. Men have not been given special prerogatives in this relationship that would allow them to break this union.

Jesus hermeneutic is to be carefully noted. He makes the creation ideal the norm, and the ruling of Moses that addresses a fallen world where marriages breakdown contingent. Given the prevailing scholarly view today that nothing in the creation narratives speak of a pre-fall subordination of women[10] his hermeneutic is hugely significant. It makes the creation order that places man and woman side by side in dignity and authority, alike responsible for procreation (Gen. 1:27-28), the ideal and relativises all comments in scripture that could be taken to give special rights and privileges to men.

In conclusion Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity and marries commits adultery”. Only Matthew has this exceptive clause. In the Mosaic Law a man could only commit adultery with another man’s wife, not by sleeping with an unmarried or widowed woman. Here Jesus rules that if a man divorces his wife – with most commentators I take this to mean simply to marry another (not married) women – he commits adultery. In Mark’s account of this teaching we find the additional words, “And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:12). Mark makes it explicit that the same rule applies to men and women. Faithfulness in marriage in the Jesus community means exactly the same for man and woman.  Men have no concessions given to them alone.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce actually says more about marriage and the personal and social equality of the sexes than it does about divorce. What Jesus says in response to a question about divorce subverts the androcentric view of marriage held by his protagonists replacing it with a partnership model.

Jesus subverted Jewish social norms on male-female social interaction.

The Jewish Rabbis gathered male disciples and taught them the law. They did not have female disciples and as a general rule they were opposed to women studying the law. I say “as a general rule” because on this matter we have a classic example where Jewish texts can be quoted either to show that Jesus stood in stark contrast to the prevailing Jewish norms of his day or conversely that he conformed to Jewish norms.  Professor Tal Ilan, a Jewish woman Biblical scholar, sets out the conflicting evidence in detail in her book, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine.[11] She concludes that most Rabbis held that women should not be taught the law in any formal way, but they could be taught in the home the laws of purity.

Professor Ilan also discusses what the Jewish sources say about men talking to women in public. On this matter she finds basic agreement. In the first century the Rabbis taught their disciples to “exercise special care not to enter into conversation with a woman”.[12] However, on this matter her comments do not necessarily give the whole picture. In the villages and around the home the ordinary people, men and women, probably spoke to one another with a large degree of freedom. We cannot simply assume that what the Rabbis taught their disciples was the practice in everyday life for most Jews.

In contrast to recognised Jewish Rabbis, Jesus had female disciples. His call to come “follow me” was in the first instances addressed to the men who traveled with him as his close companions and were called “the twelve” or “the apostles” (Mk. 1:16-20, 6:7 c.f. 6:30). After this, however, his call to come “follow me” became a general invitation to become a disciple addressed to men and women without distinction (Mk. 8:34). A few women, as we have already noted, traveled with the twelve at some period, literally “following” Jesus in his travels (Lk. 8:13, c.f.  23:49, 24:10).  In the Synoptic Gospels those who accept his invitation to become his disciple are said “to believe” (Mk 1:15, Lk. 8:12-13, Matt. 18:6). In John’s Gospel “a believer” and “a disciple” become synonymous terms (Jn 1:12, 2:11, 6:28-29, 21:23). The historic disciples were definitely not a ‘men’s club” on an excursion, women disciples were prominent.

Dorothy Sayers rightly says, Jesus “took [women] (them) as he found them and was completely unselfconscious”.[13] I give some examples of Jesus amazing freedom in relating to women in a totally positive way.

  • Jesus healed the woman who breached the purity laws and touched him sending her away with the blessing, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease” (Mk. 5:34).
  • He went gladly to a sick little girl and when he arrived “he took her by the hand” and healed her (Mk. 5:41).
  • When a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, begged Jesus to cast out a demon in her daughter, what he says is matched by the woman who we might say daringly, “bettered him” in the exchange. Jesus takes no offence. His ego is not dented by the woman’s clever reply. To her he says, “For saying that you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mk. 7:24). When he was confronted with a grieving mother, “he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’.’’ He then raised the boy (Lk. 8:11-17).

The longest dialogue between Jesus and a woman is given in John chapter 4. By the well in the village of Sychar, which you can visit today and I have drunk from, Jesus spoke with a woman about her life and living water and he revealed to her that he was the coming Messiah. When the male disciples who had temporarily left him returned, John tells us, “they were astonished that he was talking with a woman” (Jn 4: 27).  We should note that this discussion was not about the weather, the weight of the water jars, or what women should wear. It was an evangelistic conversation with profound theological content. What is more John has this woman go to her village where she tells the men what Jesus had said and John adds, “many … believed in him [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39).  In this passing comment John allows that women can lead men to faith by preaching. We must conclude that Jesus had no reservations about talking theology with, or evangelising women, or of women evangelizing men.

One encounter between Jesus and women of special significance is found in the account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha (Lk.10:38:42). When Jesus entered the home Martha greeted him and then got busy with domestic chores. Her sister in contrast “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”. She took the role that men took in that culture. Men sit and listen to guests and women go to the kitchen to prepare food. This is what happens, I have personally discovered, when you visit a home in a rural setting in Lebanon or Jordan today. Nothing much has changed. Not surprisingly given this cultural setting Martha became quite angry. She says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”. Instead of rebuking Mary, as the first readers of Luke’s Gospel would have expected, Jesus commends her for choosing “the better part” and chides Martha for being “worried and distracted by many things”. Joseph Fitzmyer explains why. This story, he says,

makes listening to the ‘word’ the ‘one thing’ needed. Priority is given to hearing of the word coming from God’s messenger over preoccupation with all other concerns. Martha wanted to honor Jesus with an elaborate meal, but Jesus reminds her that it is more important to listen to what he has to say … . Moreover, Luke in this scene does not hesitate to depict a woman as a disciple sitting at Jesus’ feet.[14]

One sits at a teacher’s feet to learn.

Another very significant story that illuminates Jesus’ uncomplicated and affirming relationships with women is that of his anointing by a woman. This was unquestionably a very important story in the early church since it is one of the few stories recounted in all four Gospels, albeit in variant forms.[15] Mark sets his version of the story immediately before the Last Supper thereby adding significance to it and he has the woman anoint Jesus’ head. In the Old Testament a prophet anointed the head of the Jewish king. The implication is that this unnamed woman prophetically recognizes Jesus as the Anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus is not embarrassed by her action, and allows no criticism of her. He is in fact so taken by her action that he says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mk 14:9). Has this been done? No, she has been forgotten. Of the three disciples that figure most prominently in Mark’s passion story, one of them, Judas, betrays Jesus. He is remembered and demonized. Another, Peter, denies him. He is remembered and lionized. The third, an unnamed woman, who publicly anoints him as the Messiah and is warmly commended by him is generally forgotten and ignored.

Jesus subverted circumcision.

Every male child in Israel according to the Law of Moses was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Lev. 9:1, 12:3, c.f. Lk.1:58, Phil. 3:5). It was the absolutely necessary outward sign of incorporation into the covenant community established between God and Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17: 10-14). A sign of covenant acceptance was needed by men and men only because throughout the Old Testament epoch men were recognized as leading and representing their family. They were designated “sons of Israel ” or “sons of Abraham”. In Israel, it was men who were of first importance. Professor Tal Ilan surveys the Jewish texts that reflect first century Jewish values and categorically says, “every source views the birth of a daughter as a disappointment”.[16]

In Judaism the covenant sign of acceptance with God was given to males only; in Christianity the new covenant sign, baptism was given to men and women alike. Somehow Christian baptism subverted what was so basic to Judaism, circumcision, and in doing so subverted the idea that God dealt with men in the first instance, and that women were of secondary importance to God. Christ changed this. In the community he founded men and women are alike directly answerable to the God and alike equally precious to him. They are equals in sin and salvation and this is to show itself in how they relate to one another in a social context, especially in the Christian community, the church. The absolutely revolutionary idea that God is just as much the God of women as of men is given profound expression when once Jesus designates a woman whom he heals on the Sabbath in a synagogue as “a daughter of Abraham” (Lk. 13:16). For his audience men were “sons of Abraham”, women were daughters and wives of some man.

What actually transpired to make circumcision of no religious importance for Christ’s followers is not explicitly spelt out in the New Testament. Jesus said not one word against circumcision and as a Jew of his day we may presume he accepted that boys should be circumcised to mark them out as sons of Abraham. Paul certainly taught that circumcision was not necessary for Gentile believers (Rom. 4:1-12, Gal. 4:15-29, 6:15) but nowhere does he advocate that Jews abandon the practice. What we know is that very early in the ministry of Jesus baptism was practiced, symbolising incorporation into his ‘family’, the new people of God, and then it became the norm in the early Christian mission (Jn 3:5, 4:1-2, Acts 2:38, cf. Matt. 28:19). We also know that from earliest times baptism was administered to men and women. In the Christian community the confession, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and baptism made one a Christian. In the most important of all matters men and women stood on an equal footing, something not the case in Judaism. This was revolutionary. It was the end of privilege for men in relation to God and for men in relation to women. This newly given equality before God in due course had practical outcomes, one of which was the end of circumcision as a sign of acceptance by God given only to men.

Jesus subverted the idea that women could not be factual witnesses.

Josephus says that according to the Jewish law women could not be factual witnesses[17] and the Rabbis express the same opinion.[18] Thus in normal circumstances a woman’s testimony in a court of law was not wanted or sought. Nevertheless, we do have examples of women giving testimony in a law court and texts where Jewish authors support this practice in special circumstances, such as when no other witnesses are available.[19] However, the Jews did have a positive appreciation of the religious witness of women. Women are frequently extolled for testifying to God’s wondrous works in the Old Testament and in other Jewish writings before or at the time when the New Testament was being written. We can think of the praiseful testimonies of Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Judith. The Gospels also reflect an openness to commending the testimony or witness of women to God’s goodness. We can mention Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna as examples.[20]

In commending women such as those just mentioned who bear witness to their faith Jesus stands within his Jewish milieu but in making women the first factual witnesses of the resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10, Lk. 24:1-12, Jn 20:11-18), he does something extraordinary. What is more Jesus sends the women to inform the frightened and dispirited male apostles that he has risen (Matt. 28:7, Jn 20:16-18). In commissioning the women “to go” and tell the male apostles that he is risen Jesus makes the women, as Thomas Aquinas said, “apostles to the apostles”.’[21] If God could choose women for this lofty ministry we tread on dangerous ground if we limit their ministry to certain spheres we men devise.

Twelve male apostles.  Do they imply “male headship”?

No one so far has found anything in the Gospels that suggests Jesus subordinated women to men, except the appointment of the twelve apostles who were all men. Most conservative evangelical and charismatic advocates of the permanent subordination of women make much of the fact that the twelve were all men. Generally they ignore all else that Jesus says and does in relation to women, concentrating all their attention on this one historical detail. For them this one fact unambiguously indicates that Jesus endorsed “male headship”. What can we say in reply?

First of all we have to make a distinction between what Jesus did and what he taught. He certainly chose twelve men to be his closest companions, and certainly he prepared these men for leadership after his departure. What we have to ask is, was this choice of men theologically grounded or simply pragmatic and cultural? Just because he choose twelve men does not indicate he thought only men could be priests/pastors, or that God had given ‘headship’ distinctively to men, anymore than his walking around indicates he was opposed to other forms of travel. If he wanted his future followers to understand that only men could lead in church we would expect him to have spoken of the leadership, or to use a non biblical popular expression, ‘the headship” of men. He does not. If we want to get stuck on mute historical details, we could also ask, whey did Jesus chose twelve Jews and no Gentiles? Why did he not have at least one Gentile apostle?

It seems a number of practical factors led him to select twelve men.

§  One would have been that for women to travel for weeks on end and to sleep, often in the open, with men was not an option in that cultural context. Luke it is true has women following Jesus (Lk.8:1-2) but possibly this was only while he was in a town or moving from one town to another.

§  Another factor was sure to have been that the cultural expectation was that men would provide leadership. If Jesus had chosen six men and six women as the future leaders of his followers he would have indicated that he had a very radical social agenda, and nothing in the Gospels suggests this. The kingdom he had come to establish was ultimately not of this world, even if it had radical social implications to be worked out in this world.

§  At a more theological level, it is to be noted, that Jesus depicted the twelve as the counterparts of the twelve Old Testament patriarchs who constituted God’s people, Israel (Matt.19:28, Lk 22:30). The twelve disciples or apostles according to this typology constitute the new Israel, the church.  If people were to see this symbolic paralleling the twelve had to be men like their Old Testament counterparts, the twelve sons of Israel.

§  Then there is the fact that the main task given to the twelve is that of bearing witness to the ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ (Lk. 24:48, Acts 1:21-23). In Judaism the witness or testimony of women in support of factual matters, as we noted above, was generally rejected. Thus even Paul when recounting the resurrection witnesses in 1 Cor. 15:5-11, does not mention the women who were first to the empty tomb and first to see the resurrected Christ.

One final point: in the New Testament there are two types of apostles. First there are the twelve apostles who were all witnesses of the key historical elements in Jesus’ ministry – and therefore can have no successors. And second, the larger number of “missionary apostles” such as Barnabas, Apollos and Timothy etc, of which Paul was a special case, who came on the scene after Jesus had ascended. Among this larger group of apostles at least one woman, Junia, is mentioned (Rom.16:7).[22] It would seem that both groups of apostles are in mind when Paul says that apostles are “first in the church” (1 Cor. 12:28, c.f. Eph. 2:20).

I conclude, the fact that Jesus chose twelve men to be the twelve apostles proves nothing. It definitely does not indicate that Jesus believed in male ‘headship’. What it seems to indicate is that Jesus on this matter followed the cultural norms of his day but we do not take culture as revelation.

The evangelists.

In contemporary Biblical Theology the individual contribution of each of the evangelists is highlighted. It evident that each of the Gospel writers edited his sources so as to emphasis what he thought was most important and would speak most forcibly and relevantly to the people to whom he was writing. Discerning these emphases in the Gospels is called ‘redaction criticism.’ This discipline positively embraces the fact that God has given us four non-identical yet complementary accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus and then seeks to discern what is distinctive in each Gospel. All of the Gospels are gospel/good news, seeking first of all to proclaim Jesus Christ as saviour and Lord. None of them were written with a specific agenda to advance the lot of women, yet each of them has material that speaks highly of women, depicting them in a very positive way and giving to them roles not known in that cultural setting. Much has been written on this. We can only very briefly summarise some key findings.


Women are not prominent in Matthew’s Gospel but Matthew consistently brings out the exemplary qualities of women of faith.[23] Surprisingly Matthew lists four women in his genealogy with which he begins his Gospel, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife (1:3, 5, 6). Why he does this has aroused much debate.  Whatever else may be said two things are clear, these were all marginalised women whom God used to further his purposes, and in each case they were devalued and disempowered as women yet they took initiatives to overcome their predicament and powerlessness. Later in his Gospel when he mentions women disciples Matthew draws them as gladly serving and following Jesus at some cost to themselves (8:14-15, 27:55), strong in faith (9:22, 15:28), spiritually insightful (15:22, 26:6-13), first to discover the empty the tomb, first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to bear witness to this miracle (28:5-7).[24] In all this Matthew shows that the has the same high regard for women as his Master and that he recognizes God can use women to further his purposes in the world in significant ways. In other words, it seems that Matthew is encouraging his readers to look beyond the lowly status of women, a taken for granted reality in the cultural of that age, seeing them rather as they were in creation before the fall (Gen. 1:27-28) – equal in worth, sharing dominion, alike responsible for family life.


One of the special features of Mark’s Gospel is that he consistently depicts the twelve male disciples as fluctuating between belief and unbelief and that he can be quite negative about them. As in Matthew’s Gospel women are not prominent in Mark’s Gospel yet again like Matthew they are drawn very positively. Immediately on being healed Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and his immediate disciples (1:29-31). The woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years shows extraordinary faith and is healed by Jesus (5:21-34). The Syrophoenecian women is bold in reply to Jesus and her words please him (7:24-30). Sitting by the temple one day Jesus sees many rich men giving large gifts but it is a widow who gives all that she has, two small copper coins, that Jesus warmly commends (12:41-44). Just before his passion it is a woman who anoints Jesus as king. What she has done will be long remembered, he says (14:2-9). In the final passion scene as Jesus is dying Mark writes, “There were women looking on” who had “followed him” in Galilee (15:40-41): no male disciples are said to be present. And Mark ends his Gospel with a group of women going to the tomb in which Jesus had been laid only to be told by an angel that he had been raised and it was their responsibility to go and tell the male disciples (16:1-8). Thus again we find one of the evangelists in a modest way making the point that women were quick to recognise who Jesus was and believe and they were exemplary disciples. In contrast to the male disciples Mark depicts the women disciples as consistent in their following and he makes it plain that it was women Jesus commissioned to tell the male disciples of his resurrection.


When we come to Luke we have something very different. Luke goes out of his way to mention women and to extol their leadership in word and deed. He mentions by name thirteen women who do not appear or are not named in the other Synoptic Gospels;[25] he gives women a very prominent place in the birth stories;[26] he has three parables that positively mention women not found in the other Gospels;[27] at least nineteen times he pairs men and women;[28] he depicts Mary the mother of Jesus as strong in faith at all times (1:26-56, 8:19-21, Acts 1:14), and he has angels tell women first of all that Jesus has risen (24:1-10). Luke introduces Anna as a prophet who speaks the word of God faithfully (2:36-38) and he describes the young Mary as a prophet who speaks in the power of the Spirit (c.f.1:46-55).[29] Later in Acts Luke has the Spirit poured out on men and women believers alike and as a consequence empowered to speak for God (Acts 2:17-18).

Luke’s focus on women and his positive estimation of them has been widely noted. Why he gives this redactional emphasis has been much discussed.[30] According to some scholars Luke’s interest in women is part of his general concern for the oppressed and marginalised in Jewish society. These include the poor, tax collectors, widows, sinners, lepers, Gentiles, the Samaritans and women. This is unquestionably a major motif in Luke’s Gospel. In the Magnificat Mary speaks of the Messiah “lifting up the lowly” (1:52), and in his sermon at Nazareth Luke has Jesus quote Isaiah 61:1-2 where the prophet has the Spirit-anointed Messiah setting the oppressed free (4:18-19).  But perhaps more needs to be said. Luke pays more attention to women than any of the other marginalised groups and he is more affirmative of them. On the basis of this observation others have argued that Luke was a proto feminist who set out to undermine and oppose patriarchy.[31] Luke certainly gave added emphasis to Jesus’ stress on the dignity and contribution of women but I would argue that like Jesus he must be set in his historical context not in our twenty first century Western culture. Luke, it is true, emphasises Jesus’ concern for the oppressed and he has the highest regard for women but Luke does not depict Jesus primarily as a social reformer, let alone a modern day feminist – and I am not using this word pejoratively. Rather, Luke like the other Gospels writers, depicts Jesus primarily as the savior of men and women (Lk 19:10). His life and death make possible the forgiveness of sins. However, in saying this the point must be emphatically made that all the Gospel writers and Luke in particular understand that the salvation Jesus offered had profound social implications.  It “lifted up” the poor and oppressed, including women, and it demanded that those saved “love their neighbour as themselves” (Mk 12:31, Lk 10:29-37).  Because it was not possible in a society dominated by others for Jesus or his first followers to implement the social outcomes of the Gospel in the world at large Jesus applied them in the first instance to the communal life of his disciples. However with the passing of time the social implication of his Gospel did gradually transform the Roman Empire from below. His disciples were transforming salt, yeast and light.

I would thus argue that Luke’s lifting up of women speaks first of all of his concern to see women accorded spiritual and social equality in the Christian community, the church. In other words his focus on women is a reflection of his ecclesiology.[32] In the Jesus family everyone, especially women, are to be accorded equal dignity and given equality of opportunity to use Spirit-given gifts. The hierarchical ordering of the world is to be inverted. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves” (22:26). Commenting specifically on the male-female pairing so common in Luke’s two books the German theologian, Helmut Flender, writing well before the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s had taken off says, Luke “deliberately extended and developed” male-female parallels to emphasize that in the new community founded by Christ “man and woman stand side by side before God. They are equal in honour and grace, they are endowed with the same gifts, and they have the same responsibilities”.[33]


The author of the Fourth Gospel records seven encounters between Jesus and women, four are found only in this Gospel; the other three are distinctively retold. They are:

1. the miracle at Cana (2:1-11); 2. the meeting and discussion with the Samaritan women (4:4-42);  3. the woman taken in adultery (8:1-11);[34] 4. the death and resurrection of Lazarus (11:1-53);  5. the washing of Jesus’ feet immediately before the Last Supper (12:1-8); 6. the women waiting beneath the cross (19:25-27); and, 7. the resurrection encounter in the garden (20:11-18). Each of these stories deserves extended discussion. To do this in this chapter is not possible.  Instead I will quote Jane Kopas’ conclusions to her helpful discussion on John’s portrayal of women.[35] She first says that John’s accounts of Jesus’ encounters with women do not ascribe to women “stereotypical passive female” roles. Rather in John’s Gospel

The women who encounter Jesus are for the most part  initiators and doers –his mother approaches him with a request, the Samaritan woman questions him and discourses with him, Mary takes it upon herself to wash his feet, Mary Magdalene actively seeks Jesus though she knows how to wait. In all these instances there is a receptive dimension, but it is coupled with boldness and activity that comes from a trust in the relationship.[36]


What have we discovered?

  1. Jesus is not depicted in the Gospels as a radical social reformer and definitely not as a modern day ‘feminist’ – however this word is understood.
  2. Nevertheless, Jesus consistently subverted the patriarchal culture of his day by consistently affirming women, offering them salvation, calling them as disciples, teaching them, endorsing their ministry and witness and by making marriage a partnership where both man and woman are equally responsible in everything.
  3. Not once does he utter a word that could suggest he had anything but the highest estimation of women. In contrast to most of the religious leaders of his day he uttered not one word that would suggest women lacked qualities only found in men.
  4. When it comes to male and female roles we find not one word in the Gospels that suggest Jesus allocated some roles to men and some to women. Certainly Jesus acknowledged that God had made half the human race male and the other half female but he made it plain that he thought being his disciple made the same costly demands on men and women.
  5. In relation to ‘male headship’ we find not one saying in all the Gospels that suggest that Jesus thought that God had set husbands over their wives, let alone that this ordering was a creation given.
  6. When it comes to leadership in the church Jesus is virtually silent on who should give leadership, on church order, and on what church leaders should be called. On only one matter was he explicit and adamant. Those who would lead were not to assume preeminence or make claims to personal authority; they were to be servants. Servant leadership, Jesus made plain, was open to men and women. He may even have thought women would be better at it but of this we cannot be sure.

[1] The general scholarly consensus is that Paul’s theology reflects the teaching of Jesus, albeit in the light of the resurrection and applied to another context. See J. M. G. Barclay, “Jesus and Paul”, in G Hawthorn, R. P. Martin, D. Reid eds, Dictionary of Paul and his Writings (Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 1993) 492-503
[2] See the seminal study by John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994) and more recently, Richard H. Burridge, Imitating Jesus. An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007).
[3] Important post 1970s studies on Jesus and women including the following, B. Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge, CUP, 1984); E. Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (London: SCM, 1983) mainly pages 105-160; Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996); Women in Christian Origins, eds Ross Kraemer and Mary D’Angelo (Oxford: OUP, 1999); R. Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002); D. Scholer, “Women”, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds J. B. Green, S McKnight, I. H. Marshall, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1992), 880-887; Mary A. Beavis, “Christian Origins, Egalitarianism, and Utopia”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 23.2 (2007), 27-49; K.E. Bailey, Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008), 189-275. See also K. N. Giles, “Jesus and Women”, Interchange, 19 (1976), 131-136 and “Jesus and Women”, in S. Clifton and J. Grey, Raising Women Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts ( Sydney: Australian Pentecostal Studies, 2009), 89-110.
[4] However, one of the finest essays on Jesus and women does just this. See J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM, 1969), 359-376, first published in German before the Second World War. The 1969 translation referred to is of the 1962 third German edition.
[5] These are extensively documented in R. D Chesnutt, “Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman Era”, in Women in Earliest Christianity, vol. 1, ed. C. D. Osburn (Joplin, Miss.: College, 1993), 91-130.
[6] On this see W. R. Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech (Louisville: Westminster, John Knox, 1994); V. L. Wimbush, ed., Rhetorics of Resistance (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997); R. A. Horsley, ed., Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004); S. Baden-Saye, “Living the Gospels: Morality and Politics”, in S. C. Barton, ed., The Gospels (Cambridge: CUP, 2006) 264-283; J. B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 91-94, 140-141.
[7] Jesus of Nazareth (New York: W. Gruyter, 1998) 313.
[8] Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community (Sheffield: Academic, 1991), 187.
[9] The Gospel According to Luke, 1-1X (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979), 696.
[10] W. Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982); J. J.  Scullion, Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers and Preachers (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982); J. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990); M. Maher, Genesis (Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1982); C. Amos, The Book of Genesis ( Peterborough, UK : Epworth, 2004); T. L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (Oxford: OUP, 2001); T. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis” in L. E. Keck et al eds, The New Interpreters Bible (Nashville, Ten.: Abingdon, 1994) etc. See also R. Hess, “Equality without Innocence: Genesis 1-3”, in R. W. Pierce and R. Groothuis eds, Discovering Biblical Equality ( Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2005), 79-95. What is more in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) this understanding of Genesis 1-3 is made binding on all Roman Catholics. Pope John Paul 11 unambiguously teaches that women’s subordination is a consequence of the fall to be opposed by Christians.
[11] (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 190-204.
[12] Ibid, 126.
[13] Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971) 47
[14] The Gospel According to Luke, 2, 892.
[15] Matt. 26:6-13, Mk. 14:3-11, Lk. 7:37-50, Jn 12:1-8. There may have been in fact more than one anointing.
[16] Jewish Women, 46.
[17] Jewish Antiquities, 4.219
[18] Sifre Deuternomy, 19:15. See in more detail, Tal Ilan, Jewish Women, 163.
[19] For details see Ilan, ibid, 164-5
[20] On this see R. G. Maccini, Her Testimony is True: Women as Witnesses According to John (Sheffield: Academic, 1996), 83-96.
[21] It seems Rabanus Maurus (c. 776-856) was the first to give this title to these women and Thomas Aquinas followed him.
[22] J. E. Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle ( Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2005).
[23] In more detail see L. Chouinard, “Women in Matthew’s Gospel”, in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, vol. 1, 425-444.
[24] It is to be noted also that only Matthew has the story of Pilate’s wife who because of a dream tries to dissuade Pilate from involving himself with the death of Jesus – see Matt. 27:19.
[25] See 1:5, 2:36, 3:19, 4:26, 7:11-17, 8:1-2, 10:38-42, 11:27-28, 15:8-10, 18:1-8, 24:19.
[26] He makes no mention of “the wise men” but he has three “wise women”, Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, as key players in the Christmas story.
[27] 13:20-21, 15:8-10, 18:1-8.
[28] 1:5-45, 1:26 and 2:16, 2:22-28, 4:25-27, 4:31-39, 7:1-17, 7:36-50, 8:1-3, 8:4-17, 10:29-42, 11:31-32, 13:10-17,13:8-20, 15:4-10, 17:34-35, 18:1-4, 21:1-3, 23:50-56, 24:11. Not all these parallels are of equal importance but their number suggests a deliberate redactional intent. G.Theisen and A. Merz, The Historical Jesus (London, SCM, 1998), 220 speak of “gender-symmetrical pairs”.
[29] The Magnificat is a prophetic oracle (c.f. 1:67).
[30] See T. K. Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts (Nashville, Ten.: Abingdon, 1994); A. Black, “Women in the Gospel of Luke”, in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, vol.1, 445-468.
[31] L. Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women ( Philadelphia: Westminster, John Knox, 979), 280, speaks of Luke’s “vigorous feminism”.
[32] My original post graduate research under Professor C. K. Barrett was on the church in Lukan theology. I have published on this specific topic, including some of this material in my book, What on Earth is the Church? An Exploration in New Testament Theology ( Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995).
[33] St Luke: Theologian of Redemptive History (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 10.
[34] This story is not found in the earliest handwritten manuscripts of John’s Gospel but it is widely thought to reflect authentic Jesus tradition.
[35] “Jesus and Women: John’s Gospel”, Theology Today, 41 (1984), 2001-2005. On the same topic see also Frank Wheeler, “Women in the Gospel of John”, in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, vol. 2, 197-224 and more importantly Raymond Brown, “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel”, Theological Studies, 36 (1975), 688-699.
[36] Kopas, “Jesus and Women”, 205.