Women in Ancient Jewish Society
Life could be hard in first-century Israel but if you were a woman, it could be even harder. Women had fewer social freedoms than men, and women had fewer legal rights. Furthermore, many, but certainly not all, women were financially dependent on a male relative. Generally speaking, they were dependent on their father if they were unmarried, or on their husband if they were married, or, if they outlived both their father and husband, which was not an uncommon situation, they were financially dependent on their son. (This made the widow of Nain’s situation particularly pitiful because she had even outlived her only son.) But most women did some kind of work that benefitted the economy of their household. That is, in the ancient world, most able-bodied women, and even children, worked. Only women from the higher classes didn’t work, but these ladies made up a small percentage of the population in Israel.
As well as having a lower profile in society, the average woman had a lower profile in the Jewish religion. Women could be prophets, however. Prophets such as Anna, who is mentioned briefly in Luke’s Gospel, held a respected place in Jewish society. Philip’s four daughters were renowned as prophets. But there was no covenant symbol or ceremony, such as circumcision, that initiated girls or women into the Jewish religion. And women could not become Jewish priests. Women couldn’t even go beyond the court of women in the temple at Jerusalem, whereas Jewish men could have access more closely into the heart of the temple complex. And at that time, as far as we know, women couldn’t become rabbis, Jewish teachers of scripture.
It is true that a few ancient Jewish rabbis have said terrible things about women. Some even discouraged women from being taught the scriptures. But not all Jewish rabbis were anti-women. At least one Jewish rabbi had female disciples. Some of these female disciples even travelled with him and supported his mission from their own money. This rabbi treated women with respect. He taught both his male and female disciples the same theology—he didn’t have one version for men and another version for women—and he equipped them to tell others his message. This rabbi was known as Jesus of Nazareth. Our Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth
During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ status as a rabbi was not in doubt. Even his opponents acknowledged this and some of them debated scriptural interpretations with him. Unlike the teaching of some other rabbis, however, Jesus’ interpretations and his teaching were not demanding or complicated or “heavy.”
In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
A yoke is a farming implement that joins two animals, such as oxen, together so they can share the workload evenly and become more productive together. Sometimes, an older, more experienced animal is yoked with a younger, less experienced animal, so that the older animal can “train” the younger animal (with its movements) while they work together.
By using the illustration of a yoke, Jesus is asking people to share and be partners with him in his work, in his ministry. He is also saying that he will train them. As well as being an agricultural implement, “yoke” was a technical term used in the context of rabbinic teaching. Every rabbi had their own “yoke”, that is, their own interpretations of Old Testament scriptures which the rabbi would pass on to his students, his disciples.
Being a disciple of a rabbi was like being an apprentice. Disciples usually spent long hours with their rabbi. Some of Jesus’ disciples had spent three years with him, sometimes 24/7, being trained. Others spent less time with him. But for many disciples, the goal of this training was to become a rabbi themselves.
Let’s look at some of the women who spent time with Rabbi Jesus and were taught by him.
Mary of Bethany
Luke 10:38-42 NIV:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village [Bethany] where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
From this passage we can see that Martha was a good woman. Martha welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her home and appears to be preparing food for them. (Note that Martha does not seem to have a father or husband or son, and that she seems to be the one in charge of her own largish home.) Being hospitable and serving a meal to travellers was an almost sacred duty in the culture of that time. Martha was doing a very good thing, the expected thing, but Jesus says that Mary had chosen the better option, the one thing that was necessary. Exactly what was Mary doing that was so important? What could be more important than looking after Jesus and the other weary travellers?
Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him speak. She was probably sitting alongside Jesus’ other disciples who included men, or perhaps were all men. Moreover, sitting at someone’s feet was the usual posture of a disciple who was being taught; “sitting at one’s feet” was an idiom. We see the same idiom in Acts 22:3 where Paul describes his own rabbinic education and says, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel [a famous rabbi], educated strictly according to our ancestral law …” (NRSV).
What Mary was doing was culturally inappropriate, something that was against society’s norms. She was neglecting the physical needs of her guests, ignoring the woman’s role, and sitting with men being taught. Yet according to Jesus, Mary had chosen the one thing that was really necessary: to be with Jesus and learn from him. And he promises that Mary’s choice to be among his disciples and learn will not be taken away from her.
Mary was not just a passive learner. Later, she would choose to do another fine thing when, in a room filled with disapproving onlookers, she lovingly anointed Jesus with her expensive perfume (John 12:1-8; cf. Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14: 3-9). Did she knowingly anoint Jesus as a prophetic act foretelling his death? (cf. John 12:7). Mary was criticised and misunderstood because of her extravagant act of ministry, but Jesus defended her actions and he told Judas, among others, “Leave her alone” (John 12:7). These are some of my favourite words in the Bible; Jesus did not want the men to harass Mary or hinder ministry.
We know that Mary’s sister Martha also became a disciple of Jesus. One of the strongest affirmations of faith in the Gospels comes from her mouth. In John 11:27, Martha acknowledges that Jesus is more than a rabbi and she tells him, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
More about Mary and Martha here.
The Samaritan Woman
Another woman who knew Jesus’ identity was the Samaritan woman who we can read in chapter four of John’s Gospel. Again, cultural conventions were broken when Jesus struck up a conversation with her. A man speaking to a woman who was not related to him in a public setting was not the done thing. Plus, she was a Samaritan, and there was a centuries-old animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. But Jesus ignored this long-standing feud. He ignored the rules that said he couldn’t talk with a woman not related to him. Not only that, he asks to drink from her cup. This was truly astonishing and the biblical text points out that Jews do not “associate” with Samaritans. The Greek word for “associate” in this verse commonly means “the sharing of eating utensils and dishes.” And that’s exactly what Jesus wanted to do; he wants to drink from the Samaritan woman’s cup.
Jesus then begins talking with her about theology, a life-giving theology. The woman responds and asks genuine questions that Jesus answers. She is thirsty. The conversation between Jesus and this woman is the longest conversation recorded in the Gospels. As Jesus teaches her, she becomes increasingly aware of his spiritual stature and says, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responds with, “That’s me,” or “I am him.” This is one of the few times in the Gospels where Jesus openly shares his true identity with someone.
Jesus had taught her theology. He had revealed who he was. The woman then acts on this knowledge and on the experience she has had with Jesus. When she realised who Jesus was, she left her water jar and ran into the village and told everyone about Jesus. Because of her, many Samaritans came to Jesus and became believers.
More about the Samaritan Woman here.
Galilean Women and Joanna
Most of the women who Jesus taught were not from Bethany (near Jerusalem) like Mary and Martha, or from Samaria; most of Jesus’ female followers were from Galilee a region further north. Luke 8:1-3 mentions that many women from Galilee travelled with Jesus and they provided for him out of their own resources. They used their own money. Here Luke identifies just three of the women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna—but adds that there were many other women in this group. Matthew tells us in his Gospel that many women from Galilee travelled all the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and witnessed his crucifixion (Matt. 27:55-56).
I’ve often pictured Jesus roaming around Galilee with just twelve male disciples, but on several occasions, at the very least, there were many women with him also. How many is many? Did the women outnumber the men? We can only speculate as to how many women were among Jesus’ followers (cf. Acts 1:13-14). Note also that there were more than twelve male disciples.
No one can quite figure out how Jesus could have had so many female disciples without causing a scandal, especially considering that they travelled with him. And how can we explain Joanna, who is mentioned in Luke 8:2-3 & 24:9-10? Joanna was used to palace life and was possibly an aristocratic woman. But she chose to travel the dusty streets with Jesus and (perhaps) stay in the homes of strangers in Galilean towns. Can you imagine the gossip this would have caused? And the strain on Joanna’s marriage? But Jesus’ words, his healing power, his love and acceptance, and the purpose he gave to both women and men were powerful and transformative. And both women and men responded.
Mary the Magdalene
One woman who was prominent in this group of female disciples is Mary Magdalene. We don’t know when she became a follower of Jesus, but we hear quite a bit about her in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mark and John record in their Gospels that Mary Magdalene was the very first person to see Jesus alive after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1ff, cf. Luke 24:1ff). A woman is the first witness of the resurrection.
My favourite Bible passage about Mary Magdalene is in John’s Gospel where we get to hear her speak (John 20:2, 11-18). John 20:16 is especially moving when Jesus simply calls her name “Mary,” and she responds with “Rabboni” which is an Aramaic word meaning “my master-teacher.” I am certain there was a strong, mutual affection between the two. But I don’t go as far as what some other people suggest: I don’t think they were married and there is no evidence she was ever a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name in over a dozen verses in the Gospels and we should not downplay her role as one of Jesus’ foremost disciples. We should be especially careful that we don’t downplay the significance that she was the first person to see Jesus alive at the beginning of a new era, at the dawn of a new covenant, and that she was commissioned by Jesus to announce the message of his resurrection.
Mary indicates that Jesus had been her rabbi, her teacher. Jesus would have taught her theology, but she also had first-hand knowledge of the theology of Jesus’ resurrection. Following Jesus’ instructions, Mary went and told the other disciples the remarkable news, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).
More about Mary Magdalene here.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
We don’t know whether Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the Samaritan woman or Mary and Martha of Bethany, had children. The fact that the biblical text doesn’t provide this information is interesting as being a mother was considered the primary role of women in the ancient world, including, or especially, in Jewish society.
On one occasion Jesus had the opportunity to affirm the virtue and importance of motherhood. A woman in the crowd cried out and said to him, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you” (Luke 11:27). This was meant to be a huge compliment to Jesus and his mother Mary. How did Jesus respond? Did he accept the compliment?
Jesus replied with, “Blessed rather are those who are hearing the word of God and obeying it” (Luke 11:28 NIV). In no way did Jesus indicate that being a mother was necessary, or the only way, women can obey God’s word. I’m very grateful I could be a mother, and I love being a mother and grandmother. But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus promote motherhood, or fatherhood, for that matter.
Yet Jesus’ mother was blessed. She was not only blessed because of her special role as the mother of the Messiah, she was also blessed because she had faith in the word of God and was willing to put her faith into action and comply with God’s will. The Bible says this about Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45 NIV). Furthermore, Mary was the mother of Jesus but later she also became his disciple (cf. Acts 1:13-14).
In Luke’s Gospel, in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus said that a wise person is someone,“. . . who comes to me and hears my words and does them” (Luke 6:47). Jesus wants both women and men, girls and boys, to be continually coming to him in a close relationship; he wants us to be continually hearing his words; he wants us to be continually putting those words into obedient practice. This kind of discipleship is our highest calling!
At a time when women were regarded as odd and inferior by men and were excluded from many aspects of society, Jesus was interested in the lives of women. He came into this world through the body of a woman. He allowed women to touch him and to talk to him. He had sympathy for them. He healed them. He treated them with respect and dignity, even if they were diseased or were outcasts. He engaged them in conversations. He asked them questions and he gave them answers. He called them by name. Moreover, he understood that women were interested in theology and that they needed to know theology for themselves. He accepted them as disciples. And he died so they could be redeemed and fully included in the new covenant community of God’s people, the church.
Jesus ignored social customs and taboos that placed women at a disadvantage. He was undeterred by the religious restrictions Judaism placed on women. And when Jesus extended the invitation, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” many women accepted his invitation.
Jesus had many female disciples, and he entrusted his teaching to them. And after their encounters with him, these women were equipped. They were equipped to talk about theology to others; they were equipped to worship him; they were equipped to serve him and serve others in his name; they were equipped to carry on his mission alongside the male disciples. Jesus is still calling women. He is still equipping women, as well as men, through his Spirit and his Word to be his agents and continue the work he started.
Jesus wants us to come to him and learn from him in a continuing relationship. He will teach us, guide us, and equip us to be effective in life and service, if we allow him. If we come to Jesus and do things his way, if we take on his yoke in partnership with him, he promises that we will find rest for our souls. In the process, we will become more like our rabbi Jesus and this is our highest goal.
From Dorothy Sayer’s essay, Are Women Human?
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.”
 Martha’s statement is similar to Peter’s statement in Matthew 16:15-17: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Partnering Together Series
3 things disciples can do to build unshakeable houses (Luke 6)
Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel
“Come to me”: A brief commentary on Matthew 11:28-30
Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
Working Women in the New Testament