We’ve created a lot of ads and messages about Jesus and women’s equality. Mostly because research has uncovered a lot of misconceptions out there regarding Jesus and how he thought about and treated women. It seems some cultural and religious traditions and norms have been conflated with the actual story of Jesus from the Bible (the most comprehensive record of Jesus’ life we have). So let’s explore four ways Jesus promoted women’s equality.
1.) GENEALOGY. Before he was even born.
The Gospels are four different accounts of Jesus’ life written by four of his followers. The first one that appears in most Bibles is written by Matthew. He starts his story the same way many biographical books began back then — by tracing Jesus’ genealogy.
If you’ve ever read the Bible or other ancient Near Eastern texts, you’ll see this pattern of tracing family trees: “so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, etc.” We often skip these dry and boring sections of the text. But the genealogies in the Bible and similar ancient texts were less about historical records and more about proving a point about a person’s heritage or their claims to royalty or fortune.
Matthew includes a few clues in the genealogy that help us understand how Jesus thought about gender equality. He includes five women. That would have been very strange for the time. Stranger still are the women he chose to include as Jesus’ ancestors.
Tamar: A woman who pretended to be a sex worker to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant so she could keep her place in the family after her husband died. We know, it’s a crazy story. But it was really important in their culture at the time that she received justice according to their law. And justice for her was to have a family if she so desired. In fact, her father-in-law, upon realizing what happened, called her “more righteous than I.”
Rahab: A sex worker/brothel owner who hid spies from Israel and helped them gather intelligence on the defenses of her city, so they could be successful in conquering it.
Ruth: A widow whose love and loyalty were so confounding, she chose not to pursue the certainty of well-being she could have had by going back to her childhood family home after the death of her husband. Instead, she followed her mother-in-law to a strange land and married a close relative of her husband’s family to secure their welfare (again, it was culturally necessary at the time to ensure survival).
Bathsheba: A woman who was raped by the king. He saw her bathing and decided he wanted her. So he sent her husband to the front of a bloody war where he was all but guaranteed to die (he did), so he could rationalize his forcing himself on her. She became the king’s wife and experienced the loss of an infant child.
Mary: An unwed teen mom who, according to the law at the time, could have been stoned to death in the streets. She would no doubt have been gossiped about and ridiculed.
Of the dozens of women mentioned in Hebrew Scriptures, why were these five women chosen? Is it because they had to do desperate things to survive? Is it because each of them demonstrates different aspects of the plight of gender inequality in most cultures? Is it because they persevered in spite of seemingly impossible circumstances? We don’t know. But the story is certainly trying to tell us something about how we think about and judge women and the role they played in shaping Jesus’ identity.
2.) TALKING. Talking to women you didn’t know was a no-no.
He didn’t care. Jesus addressed women directly and publicly, something that was culturally confounding at the time. It even confused his own followers and closest friends. And he seemed to do it all the time with all kinds of women. Foreigners, enemies, widows, and sex workers, and in every recorded case, he connected with them personally with kindness and grace. In one often-cited case, he spoke to (1.) a Samaritan who was (2.) a woman and who was (3.) collecting water at a well in the heat of the day. Those three details tell us how culturally inappropriate it would have been for him to initiate a conversation. Samaritans were considered almost subhuman by most Jewish people at the time because of their racial impurity. Unknown women were never spoken to because they were traditionally considered property to the men in their lives. And if she’s collecting water by herself in the middle of the day, it likely means she was an outcast even among her own people, as women would generally collect water in the morning to stay cool and together to stay safe. We find out later she was likely an outcast because she’d been with so many men. But Jesus didn’t just speak to her; he asked her for a drink of water! To take water from her, from a vessel that she touched, and to drink it would have been unthinkable. But it demonstrated to his followers and all who heard the story that his movement would require people to think differently.
3.) EQUALITY. Jesus didn’t tolerate double standards.
During his ministry, some men brought a woman before Jesus. They accused her of adultery and then quoted the laws that said she should be killed. He successfully defended a woman from being executed publicly for committing adultery. They were looking for Jesus to condemn her as well. But he didn’t. You see, adultery is one of those things that requires two participants. But they didn’t bring the man caught in adultery before Jesus, just the woman. The whole situation reeked of hypocrisy, and Jesus had very little patience for hypocritical men when it came to sexual infractions of his day. So, he stepped in and protected the woman. He wouldn’t stand for the double standards.
4.) FOLLOWERS. Some of his first and most important followers were women.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the stories of Jesus more often than just about any other follower, including the other men in his inner circle known as the apostles. She is a central figure in just about every significant moment in his story.
Mary the sister of Martha (a different Mary than Mary Magdalene) is depicted sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teachings. While that might seem very insignificant, that posture is reserved for disciples listening to their Rabbis. In that time, Rabbis didn’t take on women as disciples. It just didn’t happen. Jesus didn’t just allow it, he encouraged it.
Joanna was another loyal follower. She was married to a wealthy official named Chuza, whom the Bible identifies as a critical member of the government that would eventually have Jesus delivered to the occupying Roman forces for execution. Joanna and other wealthy women bankrolled Jesus’ mission. That’s right. Jesus’ love movement was funded by women.
Though some have tried to minimize their critical role in the creation of Jesus’ radical love movement, there’s no question women were essential.