Women in Jesus’ World 3

Jewish Women and Marriage

First, we look at adultery: a Jewish man could only commit adultery by sexual intercourse with a woman already married. Jesus differed with this general Jewish stance by arguing for strict monogamy (Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:32). The Hebrew Bible prescribes death for adultery (cf. Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:20-21); but Jewish traditions varied on this law’s implementation (cf. Susanna 44-45; 2 Enoch 71:6-7; Matthew 1:18-25).|inline

What then about the suspected adulteress, the Sotah? How to prove adultery? The Hebrew Bible stipulates a ceremony of drinking “bitter waters” that will work to prove the guilt or innocence of the woman (Numbers 5:11-31). By the time of the rabbinic documents, the ceremony was revoked; it is very likely that at the time of Jesus the ceremony was being hotly debated or was on its way out as a form of establishing innocence or guilt (cf. mSotah 5:1; 9:9; tSotah 14:2, 9). Its efficacy, obviously, was questioned. Joseph’s dilemma about Mary belongs in this context.

Some thought the waters were also testing the male (mSotah 5:1) and they came to the view that, if the husband was free from sin, the ceremony would work (bYebamot 58a; bSotah 28a). Some rabbis thought if the woman had “merit”, the punishment of the waters would delay punishment for a period (sometimes years)(mSotah 3:4-5). Since “merit” was connected with Torah-knowledge, R. Eliezer then states that teaching one’s daughter the Torah can lead to sexual promiscuity (mSotah 3:4).

A later rabbinic debate concerned the ceremony as obligation or option: “ [quoting Numbers 5:14 and then commenting] ‘and a jealous spirit came over him’: This means that it is voluntary [to subject one’s wife to the bitter waters], in the opinion of R. Ishmael; but in the opinion of R. Eliezer, he is obligated” (Sifre Numbers 7).

Second, divorce: the inefficiency of the “test of bitter waters” led to a greater emphasis and practice of divorce.
Divorce as demand: some sages demanded divorce for a variety of practices: R. Judah the Patriarch demanded divorce for the appearance of unchastity. Remarriage to the first wife was sometimes permitted (mGittin 4:7). Divorce was expensive for the man had to return the ketubbah. Was it primarily upper class?

There was also the issue of the sufficient cause for divorce proceedings: Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (erwat debar, unclean thing) became the exegetical ground for debates. Shammai: sexual immorality; Hillel: anything he doesn’t like; Akiba: finding a more attractive woman (mGittin 9:10).

Others thought divorce was always bad “and the very altar sheds tears for him” (bSanhedrin 22a). This is the case with Jesus and the Dead Sea Sect.

Stance of the texts: divorce, in Judaism, was determined by the husband, not the wife (Josephus, Antiquities 15:259; mYebamot 14:1). But there is evidence that some men were forced to grant divorce: for affliction with boils and protruding polyps, for collecting dog dung, or for working as coppersmith or tanner (mKetubot 7:10). In fact, there is evidence in Judaism for women abandoning their husbands (though surely they lost their ketubbah): Josephus, Antiquities 18:110-112; Vita 415; bBabba Mesia 84b).

Third, a considerable issu was widowhood: a widow was among the weakest members of society, unless she had an unusually large ketubbah. Remarriage was the standard recommendation of the rabbis. Death, however, had to be proven; until then the wife was in a state of aggunah (mYebamot 16:5-7; bYebamot 115a, 126a). Some saw the state of widowhood in idealistic terms: Judith; Luke 2:36-38; Acts 9:39; yShabbat 10:5.

Fourth, what about Yibbum (Levirate marriage)? If a husband dies, the husband’s brother is to marry his widow (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Genesis 38:8-10; Ruth 4:5-6; Mark 12:19-25). This law was practiced (mYebamot 8:4; bYebamot 15a-b) though humane exceptions were developed. However, another alternative evolved by the 2d-3d c. CE: halitzah. Here the brother legally stated his preference not to marry the widow and frees her to remarry (mBekhorot 1:7; bKetubot 64a).

First, what about Punishments and Judgments? Women were treated absolutely equally in matters pertaining to punishment. Because of Numbers 5:6 (where men and women are seen as equals), R. Ishmael said: “it [the scripture] has thus made it explicit in regard to all the laws about damages found in the Torah that women are to be regarded like men” (Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, Mishpatim 6; cf. also bYebamot 84b; bTemurah 2b; bQiddushin 35a).|inline

However, when it came to punishments (stoning, crucifixion, hanging, flogging), women were given more physical consideration (e.g., though a man was stoned naked, a woman was not; mSanhedrin 6:3). Cf. Jesus and the woman caught en flagrant (John 7:53-8:11).
Second, what about Women as Witnesses?Some evidence prohibits female legal witness: Josephus, Antiquities 4:219; Sifre Deuteronomy 190; bSanhedrin 27b. Other evidence permits female legal witness: tSanhedrin 5:2 – “testimony that a woman is qualified to give….” These included: the origin of a swarm of bees (mBaba Qamma 10:2), the death of someone’s husband (mYebamot 16:5), chastity or defilement of a female war captive (mKetubot 2:9; mSotah 6:2), the elder of twins if the woman is a midwife (tBaba Batra 7:2), and that a specific male was a priest (mKetubot 2:3). Because of this, it is unwise to make the simplistic claim that the use of women as witnesses to the resurrection would never have been believed — though I think it is a fair argument, it deserves to be nuanced.

It is safe and wise to see that there was a general prohibition that had many exceptions.

Third, what about Inheritance? The woman cannot be the legal heir of her husband’s estate and a daughter can be legal heir only if she has no brothers (Numbers 27:8). The wife inherited only her ketubbah (mBaba Batra 8:1). At the time of Jesus, debate ensued about daughters and inheritance and the laws were eventually developed that permitted daughters to inherit. Which led to principles of circumvention: men could write in extras into a woman’s ketubbah (bBaba Batra 138a-b; mKetubot 8:1; tKetubot 9:2) to ensure that a woman was maintained adequately.

And there was the issue of guardianship: a man could appoint his wife as guardian of his estate after his death (here the wife does not “inherit” the property but benefits from it)(mKetubot 9:4, 6); and she could be guardian as well over the children (tTerumot 1:11; mBaba Batra 8:17).

About Scot McKnight

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

  • Vicki

    Scot, I’m looking for a link to “Women in Jesus’ World 2″ and can’t seem to find it. Is there one?

  • J.J.

    How was the interpretation of Tenth Commandment expanded? Under a strict interpretation, it would only cover males: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or
    maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your
    neighbor;” the “neighbor,” therefore, would be male.


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