Women in Jesus’ World 2

The Issue of Purity

Because of the value placed upon virginity and upon purity in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Leviticus 12), Jewish halakhah (legal rulings) focuses on items not normally discussed openly in modern Christian contexts. In many cases, the items are considered private information today. But for ancient Judaism, these items were part and parcel of what obedience meant.

It begins with virginity: if a woman is a virgin at marriage, indicated by blood from the rupture of the hymen, the married couple is assured the child is their own. Since giving away a daughter in marriage commanded a significant price (bride-price) in ancient Israel, the father needed to protect his daughter’s virginity; since surrendering virginity involved the ketubbah at the time of Jesus, the young woman would want to engage in intercourse only with her husband. As a result, at the time of Jesus virginity was primarily a symbol of innocence.

This concern, inevitably, led to accusations against a woman:

There are several examples of a husband suspecting his bride’s virginity (bKethubot 10b; yKethubot 1.1, 25a) but in no case did a rabbi ever find the woman guilty. Maybe this last clause needs to be emphasized by those who want to stretch the evidence about Jewish males.

Second, and this sometimes comes into play with Joseph and Mary, Galilean rabbis suspected every couple from Judea of pre-marital contact (mKethubot 1:5); the Judean laws permitted one of the partners to veto the marriage after “time alone.” Some evidence suggests this pre-marital contact began in order to prevent Roman soldiers from deflowering young Jewish women but the evidence also suggests that the practice continued after that threat ended.
Third, with respect to female purity, Jewish law often addresses the Menstruant (Niddah): some Jewish evidence depicts menstrual blood as magical (cf. Josephus, War 7:180-185). OT laws stipulate impurity for a woman during menstruation; everything she touches is also impure; following menstruation she is impure for seven days; sacrifices are required only for abnormal flow of blood (cf. Leviticus 15:19-30). Notice: the concern is the purity of the worship center (Leviticus 19:31).

Naturally, sexual intercourse with a menstruant was prohibited. Cf. PsaSol 8:12; CD 5:7). Later rabbis saw grave consequences for failure to observe this law. The “fence around this law” included abstinence both before and after menstruation. E.g., R. Ishmael b. R. Yose: “Do not have marital relations with your wife the first night after she immersed” (bPesahim 112b).

What then about irregular bleeding? Such led to advice from the rabbis: the rule was that menstrual blood caused impurity; non-menstrual bleeding did not cause impurity. Most advice was lenient in this matter. Anytime blood was discovered it was a possible source of impurity; thus, rabbis were consulted and they decided reasonably and in most cases leniently (tNiddah 6:17; 7:3). Women became specialists in judging these matters (bNiddah 13b). All women are immersed after death to ensure purity (tNiddah 9:16; bNiddah 71a; bMoed Qatan 27b).

What about reality? It is highly likely that most Jewish women obeyed the laws of menstrual purity but did so within reason. Remember: impurity was primarily about a state or condition to permit worship in the Temple and not a moral issue. If a menstruant accidentally touched someone or something or if a man accidentally touched a menstruant, that man merely had to immerse himself in a mikvah and the next morning he would be clear (“wash and wait”).

The Gospels come into play here. Jesus twice comes into contact with women judged niddah: the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-34) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42). Several options: (1) Jesus may have thought the first was non-menstrual blood and the second not unclean just because of her nationality; (2) he may have disregarded impurity laws when compassion was needed; or (3) he may have seen himself as a “contagion of purity” (see Cohen; McKnight).

Fourth, the essential command is: “Be Fruitful and Multiply”: the rabbis made this commandment from Genesis 1:27-28 central for a man. Some thought the commandment was not completed until either two sons were born or one son and one daughter.

What about the purpose of Sexual Relations? Rabbis debated whether the purpose of sexual relations was only procreation or also pleasure. But the latter is clearly taught generally: “Our rabbis taught: … Three things benefit the body without entering it: washing, anointing, and sexual intercourse; three things are like the world to come: Sabbath, Sun, and sexual intercourse” (bBerakot 57b).

Others thought of sexual relations to be solely for procreation; e.g., the Essenes (Josephus, War 2:161). Some thought sexual relations should not take place on the Sabbath (Jubilees 40:8) or in the City of Jerusalem (11QTemple 45:11). Permission was granted during pregnancy and during nursing (tNiddah 2:6); R. Eliezer stated that relations occurred during the “third watch” of the night (bBerakot 3a; =2am to 6am; cf. also bNedarim 20a-b). Improprieties in sexual relations would lead, in deuteronomic categories, to various punishments (death, defects, and daughters).

Sixth, there is also the issue of Pregnancy and Childbirth:

First, Infertility was a problem in need of explanation and some thought it was the woman’s fault (e.g., Apocalypse of Enoch 98:5) while some later rabbis thought disrespectful husbands led to barrenness (Derekh Eretz Zuta 9). Women were allowed to divorce twice in order to demonstrate fertility (tYebamot 8:4); others, because of love for one another, prayed for a miracle (Song of Songs Rabbah 1.4).

Second, some concern with miscarriage: often was seen as punishment (bShabbat 32b) but others invented more realistic explanations (odors, fears).

Third, childbirth: rabbis saw three reasons for death during childbirth (the laws of niddah, dough-offerings, and Sabbath candle lightings done improperly). Painless childbirth is a reward (Josephus, Antiquities 2:218 about Yochebed, Moses’ mother). The woman’s life was more valuable than the infants (mShabbath 18:3; tYebamot 9:4).
Fourth, nursing: rabbis saw the milk as a miracle and it was a transformation of menstrual blood (Leviticus Rabbah 14.3). The nursing mother was given incentives (less work, exemption from fasts, opportunity to use birth controls – called “absorbents”). Some (wealthy) mothers hired wet-nurses but most thought nursing should continue for 24 months.

Seventh, how is motherhood understood in general? Judaism assigned women generally to the home, their role in that context was honored. R. Joseph, when he heard his mother approaching, said: “Let me arise before the approach of the Shekinah [the very presence of God!]” (bKiddushin 31b). Further, children were considered Jewish only if the mother was a Jewess (matrilineal principle)(bYebamot 23a).

Attitudes toward Women

First, there is the issue of hierarchy that it was believed was created for the world by God: men are to lead and rule over women. Thus: “Ten decrees were ordained … for Eve… The fourth is that her husband would rule over her” (ARNB 42). It was also believed that women, by cunning, sought at times to rule rather than to obey (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 13:431; 18:255). Ben Azzai ruled: “There are three whose life is no life at all: … everyone whose wife lords over him” (ARNA 25).

Second, sometimes there are moral judgments made in (what can only be called) a chauvinistic, sweeping fashion about women. Thus, women are:

morally inferior (Ben Sira 42:14),
susceptible to sexual immorality (Test.Reuben 5:3),
deceitful (Josephus, Antiquities 5:294),
light-headed (bQiddushin 80b),
seductive (Sifre Deuteronomy 221),
penurious (Sifre Numbers 110),
gluttonous (mTohorot 7:9; tTohorot 8:16),
smelly and have squeaky voices and are sexually passive and dress differently (Genesis Rabbah 17:8).

Third, consequently, males were warned about women in two areas:

(1) Talking openly with women: “don’t talk too much with women” (mAbot 1:5) and those who do will inherit Gehenna. But clearly this means that talking too much can lead to seduction and sexual immorality (bNedarim 20a). While no law, the principle got even stricter over time: “A man should not speak with a woman in the market, even if she is his wife, much less another woman, because the public may misinterpret it” (ARNA 2).

(2) Looking at a woman: Ben Sira prohibits men from looking at any woman other than one’s wife (9:5; 41:21). Some warned men about the beauty of women (Test.Reuben 3:10-12; 4:1; Test.Judah 17:1; Test.Benjamin 8:2). “He who looks at a woman’s heels, it is as if he looked at ‘that place,’ and if he looks there, it is as if he had intercourse with her” (yHallah 2:4). Cf. Jesus at Matthew 5:27-28.

Fourth, to preserve chastity and to prevent sexual misconduct, some — and it is no longer possible to tell how many/often — restricted the movement of women. Some rabbis contend that if women didn’t go to the city they wouldn’t get raped (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23 and Sifre Deuteronomy 242). Since women were beautiful, they were to be kept at home (cf. Judith 8:4; tQiddushin 1:12; Ben Sira 42:11). R. Meir: a husband “allows his wife to speak with her siblings and neighbors” but a “wicked man” is one “who sees his wife go outside with her head uncovered… and she spins in public and bathes with men” (tSotah 5:9; bGittin 90a); tKetubot 7:6). But there is abundant haggadic evidence of women being public persons: they purchase in the markets, they traveled, and they went to Jerusalem for the feasts. It is possible that upper-class sages were able to restrict the movement of their wives; the poor women had to be part of the economy of the family.

Fifth, what about separate quarters for women? There is some archaeological evidence for separate women’s quarters in the homes of the upper-class; these would have been places for women to retire in their impurity and to shield them from contracting impurity to others.

Sixth, did women wear headcoverings? It is probable that women covered their heads in Jewish society. R. Ishmael: “a warning to the daughters of Israel, that they not go out with their heads ‘unbound’” (bKetubot 72a). Some women evidently didn’t unbind their hair even at home (yHorayot 3:5; bYoma 47a; ARNA 35). To humiliate a woman, her hair was unbound (Susanna 32; mSotah 1:5; mBaba Qamma 8:6). Women expressed destitution by cutting off their hair and selling it (Test.Job 22:3; 23:7-10; yShabbat 6:1; ySotah 9:16). The woman who anointed Jesus and washed his feet with her hair did something socially volatile (Luke 7:38; John 12:3). Wigs were worn: some wore them in order to conform to the law of binding hair while at the same time adorning themselves with beauty.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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