The society that Jesus lived in was thoroughly male-dominated. Women in First Century Palestine had few rights and were seen as inferior to men. In this blog we will look at some of the ways Jesus promoted the rights of women and protected them from exploitation. My main reference is a book called Women in the Ministry of Jesus, by Ben Witherington III.
Firstly, women in this society were not allowed to testify in court, because they were seen as too emotionally frail to serve as reliable witnesses. By contrast, Jesus prophesied about a woman who would testify on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 12:42). Remarkably, God also chose women to be the first witnesses of the most important event in history: the resurrection of his Son. This was certainly a great surprise to the twelve disciples (Luke 24:10-11).
Secondly, men did not speak to women in public. By contrast, Jesus had a long conversation with a woman (a woman from a hostile ethnic group, the Samaritans, no less!) in public, which again surprised his closest followers (John 4:27).
Thirdly, the legal system of the time allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason, even for burning his dinner and could simply send her away with no financial support; his wife had no right to protest. But Jesus taught that divorce is wrong (Mark 10:2-12), and that a man who divorces his wife is causing her to commit adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). This was because women who were divorced could be driven to transactional sex or prostitution as a means to support themselves.
Fourthly, rabbis (religious teachers) of this time never had woman disciples. Jesus had no women in his inner circle of disciples (this would have been seen as highly inappropriate given that they slept together during travels), but he did have woman disciples (Luke 8:1-3).
Fifthly, women were seen as sources of temptation to be blamed for men’s sins. John 8:3-11 illustrates the double standard, because a woman caught in the act of adultery was to be stoned but the man had presumably been allowed to get away. Jesus acknowledged her guilt but showed her mercy. He also disdained the idea that women are at fault when men yield to sexual temptation; rather, a man has only himself to blame for his lack of self control (Matthew 5:27-28).
Sixthly, women were not educated: “Apart from the role of the woman in the home in giving her children some basic religious instruction (and even this was disputed), a woman had no educational functions except in very rare cases” (Witherington III, p. 9). By contrast, when a woman was criticized for listening to Jesus teach when she could be working in the kitchen, Jesus praised her passion for learning (Luke 10:38-42).
Seventhly, women were seen as unimportant and unworthy of praise and recognition. By contrast, Jesus praised certain women for their righteousness (Mark 12:40-44; Mark 14:3-9), told parables that were relevant especially to women (Luke 13:20-21; Luke 15:8-10; Luke 18:1-5), and showed special concern for women when prophesying about the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-28).
In summary, it would be inaccurate, not to mention anachronistic, to portray Jesus as an advocate of modern Western gender norms. He did not promote the confounding of male and female roles in society, church or family. However, it would be correct to say that Jesus promoted the idea that women and men are of equal value, despite living in a society which believed otherwise.
Jesus' special care and concern for the so-called weaker sex were not without result. It would probably be fair to say that in most church congregations throughout Christian history, women have significantly outnumbered men.