Christ is primarily known as the savior of the world – his sacrifice being for all who want to dwell with God (Jesus’ blood removes our sin so that we are able to be in the presence of the sinless God). But Jesus did something quite significant and often overlooked (as evidenced throughout the writings of the New Testament): He raised the status of women to the same level as men. Many would argue that men and women have a few different responsibilities in regard to the family and church, but in God’s sight the sexes have equal standing: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
There is a great deal that can be written on this topic–including the contradictory teachings of, and actions by, some church leaders and Christian men. But first, let’s look at some social mores that exhibit the status of women in Israel and the surrounding cultures at the time Jesus walked the earth, and some that are still with us today in various parts of the world.
Female babies are of low worth: In past and present non-Christian cultures, female worthlessness is widespread. Female babies were commonly the victims of infanticide. While that continues today, in places where ultrasound is available many more female fetuses are aborted than male fetuses (especially in China and India). Christians do not value females less than males and do not abort or kill female babies.
- Polygyny and divorce: Polygyny was permitted though not very common in ancient Israel; it was relatively common elsewhere. In Greece, a man had one wife but he also had a legal mistress (so, essentially, a 2nd wife). Polygyny was not approved by God, though there are a number of instances of it recorded in the Bible. The NT clearly reiterates God’s will that one man be married to one woman; polygyny is not allowed in Christianity. A man could divorce his wife easily in ancient Israel, but the NT does not allow for this.
- Complete control of wife and children by father or husband: In Rome, fathers had total control over family members, and a husband had absolute power over his wife; he could sell a daughter to her future husband. All these powers became illegal some years after Christianity became legal in Rome (374/313). Women also were granted the right to own property and have guardianship of their own children. In Greece, wives had segregated quarters and could not visit male guests of her husband’s in her own home. As in ancient Israel, women in Greece were not to speak in public. Women simply had a very low status in Greece and ancient Israel, and in Israel at the time of Christ, women’s legal witness was virtually non-existent. This obviously changed with Christ’s work.
- Clitoridectomy: The removal of the female clitoris, and often other genital parts, is a common practice in many African countries (and is found in countries where Africans have immigrated to). This is condemned and outlawed in Christian-based countries.
- Binding feet, China: In order to be more attractive to men, girls used to have their feet bound so that they remained “small.” The fact is, the foot only became very disfigured and it often became severely infected. Because of Christian missionary pressure in the 19th century, the Chinese government outlawed the practice of female foot binding in 1912.
There are other practices around the world (past and present), like burning or burying widows alive (in India), arranging marriages of female children (this still occurs in China, India, and parts of Africa), maintaining double standards for adultery, and the forced wearing of veils, that make obvious the widespread low status of women but which are condemned by Christianity. As Alvin Schmidt, author of How Christianity Changed the World, said in an interview, “Geroge Sarton, a historian of science, once said, ‘The birth of Christianity changed forever the face of the Western world.’ As far as I know, Sarton had no love for Christianity. He merely said what history revealed to him. Another historian, for instance, has said, ‘The birth of Jesus Christ was the turning point in the history of women.’”
Now let’s look more specifically at how women were viewed and treated by Israel when Christ lived, and what Christ did to elevate women. Today when we read the New Testament (NT) text alone, we simply cannot understand how radical so much of what Jesus did was; our culture reflects in so many ways the changes that Jesus began. The radical things Jesus did seem normal to us now, so we must look into the context of the times to fathom the changes that he wrought.
At the time of Christ¹ women existed for the pleasure of men. If a woman did not bear a male child or didn’t please her husband in some way, he could divorce her with ease. A woman could not divorce her husband. Women were not to speak in public with men (men should not even give a greeting to a woman in public), they were not to testify in court, they were not supposed to read the Torah (Law), nor were they to be taught. As a rabbinic teaching advised (Sotah 3.4), “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than committed to a woman . . . . If a man teaches his daughter the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery.” Also, women were set apart from men in synagogue worship, either by a partition or by being in separate rooms.
Each one of the above negative aspects of womanhood in ancient Israel was reformed by Jesus, as it was never God’s will that such treatment of women exist. First, regarding a man’s ease in divorcing his wife, Jesus told his disciples that it was not to be—that instead a man could divorce his wife for unfaithfulness only (Matthew 19:4-9). Second, what about women speaking to men in public? To the great shock of his disciples, Jesus not only spoke to women in public, but also to a Samaritan woman publicly (she was very shocked as well) (John 4:5-29)–both no-nos in ancient Israel. In speaking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, Jesus also taught her. Jesus both spoke and taught to Martha in public (John 11:25-26). Jesus taught Mary, Martha’s sister, and commended Mary for wanting to learn from him (Luke 10:38-42). Another woman followed Jesus in order to be healed. She was not only healed by him, but he talked with her and blessed her publicly (Mark 5:25-34).
These are not the only interactions that Jesus had with women. There are very many recorded in the NT. Of very real significance, however, is Jesus’ appearing to women first after his resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). This put women in a whole new realm of being chief witnesses. Remember, women could not testify or be a witness in court. The fact that Jesus appeared to women first, and told them to go and tell the male disciples of his resurrection, had to have really driven home the message of women’s spiritual equality to the disciples—once they accepted the truth of Jesus’ resurrection that the women were telling them. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the believers, both male and female, met and prayed together (Acts 1:14). As the fellowship of believers grew they met in houses for “church,” and many of these houses were owned by women. The possibility of the women as leaders in these early churches will be included in another of this series.
Note 1. How Israelite men viewed and treated women changed and varied through time, and was no doubt influenced by the cultures that surrounded them. This essay is interested only with the status of women at the time of Christ.
The second and third articles in this series can be found here:
Works Cited and Recommended Reading
Anonymous. “Women in Ancient Israel.” Bible History Online. n.d. http://www.bible-history.com/court-of-women/women.html (accessed June 2011).
Cabal, Ted, General Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
Cowles, C.S. A Woman’s Place? Leadership in the Church. Kansas City : Beacon Hill Press, 1993.
Dunn, James, General Editor. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Faulkes, Irene Bonney. “Question of Veils in India.” Dr. Irene Faulkes Articles. 2011. http://revirene.org/Question%20Of%20Veils.htm (accessed June 2011).
Garrett, Duane A, General Editor. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Schmidt, Alvin John. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
—. Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1989.
Zondervan. “Interview with Alvin J. Schmidt.” Zondervan. n.d. http://www.zondervan.com/media/interviews/product/pdf/0310264499_authintrvw.pdf (accessed June 2011).
© Vicki Priest 2014, 2012 (This is an edited version of a series of articles first posted at Examiner.com, 2011, and transferred from withchristianeyes.com)