Women in Jesus’ World 5

So, we are now ready to ask, What did Jesus think of women and How did Jesus treat women? I provide a series of questions for your consideration.
A good place to begin here is with D.M. Scholer, “Women” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels or with B. Witherington III, Women. (These items can be found in the first post in this series.)|inline

My recommendation: list all the evidence about women in the Gospels and sort out according to the above categories and then ask the following questions. Be fair with the evidence: do not be disrespectful of Judaism’s attempt to follow the Torah or with the Jesus movement’s Jewish origins.

10.1 What are the similarities of Judaism and Jesus in how they treated women?
10.2 What are the dissimilarities?
10.3 Did Jesus “liberate” women? If you think so, examine all the data in the light of the above outline, and specify how and to what extent Jesus “liberated” women.
10.4 Did Jesus have “women disciples”? Why or why not? If so, describe the nature of their following of Jesus. Were they apostles? were they preachers? were they healers? were they teachers? What roles did they perform?
10.5 What is the impact of Jesus’ healing of women?
10.6 What does Jesus say about motherhood? about the family? about children?
10.7 Did Jesus “liberate” women from Jewish purity laws? Did he expect females connected to him to follow laws for menstruants?
10.8 Did Jesus join his followers in regular table fellowship? Was this offensive to Jewish society?

Primary evidence:
Mark 1:29-31; 6:17-29; 7:9-13; 7:24-30; 9:33-37; 10:13-16, 19; 12:40-44; 12:18-27; 15:40-41, 47-16:1;
Matthew 1:1-17; 5:27-32; 8:14-15; 9:18-26; 12:46-50; 13:33; 19:3-9, 10-12; 21:31; 23:37-39; 24:41; 25:1-13; 27:55-56; 27:61-28:1;
Luke 1:26-38, 41-45, 46-56; 2:36-38; 4:26, 38-39; 7:11-17; 7:36-50; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 15:8-10; 17:35; 18:1-8; 23:49; 23:27-31; 23:55-24:1
John 2:1-12; 4:4-42; 7:53-8:11; 11:1-44; 12:1-11; 19:25-27; 20:1

I’ll give now a review of a major book about Jesus and Women. The following is a review of Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger’s important book, Transformative Encounters, and was not published. It was written to be read at an SBL meeting, and then the session fell through and I was left with this review. Somewhere out there in cyberspace this review appeared earlier.|inline

“From Jeremias to Ilan: Jesus and Women”
1.0 From Jeremias to Ilan

Because Tal Ilan’s Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine has become somewhat of a consensus report of how women fared at the time roughly contemporary with Jesus, and because Joachim Jeremias’s appendix to his Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus was Ilan’s monograph’s John the Baptist, I want to set the context of Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger’s edited book, Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-Viewed into what has happened since the study of Jeremias. TE is a reflection of our day as much as Jeremias was of his day; and Ilan’s study belongs to our day. Furthermore, I have been requested to examine only Part Two: Historical Re-Construction and Contextualization and to do so as a historian. So, I am asking the following: since Jeremias, has our knowledge of Jewish women at the time of Jesus become clearer? do we know more now than we knew then? and has scholarship improved since Jeremias? if so, how?

First, in preparation for this paper I sat down and read Ilan’s book cover-to-cover and then I read Jeremias’s appendix. I was surprised how little a difference there was between the two in substance. I was disappointed that Ilan did not cover “motherhood” as a separate chapter but neither did Jeremias and I wondered if Ilan let Jeremias’s categories shape her own. More importantly, over and over the two studies came to the same substantive conclusion, citing often the same evidence (though Jeremias frequently has no more than a reference when Ilan cites the texts in full). For example, when it comes to issue of the seclusion of Jewish women in their homes, both contend that while the rabbinic texts but especially the Alexandrian texts evidence some strong statements about seclusion, that evidence is not realistic for the common Jewish woman. If Jeremias gives the Alexandrian evidence more attention, more than it ought to for understanding women in Jesus’ world, he backs away from that evidence for a more realistic description of women as participants in Jewish society, publicly. For a second example, Jeremias and Ilan examine the evidence about the married woman in nearly the same categories, citing most of the same evidence. Here we have a litany of statements about age of marriage, marrying relatives, betrothal, conjugal duties and rights, polygamy, divorce and levirate marriage. With varying nuances of emphasis, especially Ilan’s emphasis on the “female body,” the two walk the same path and depict a very similar Jewish woman. A third example surprises if it also excites scholarship: both Jeremias and Ilan carefully warn about the use of rabbinical evidence when in search of information about common Jewish women. Both assign much of the evidence to the “upper class” and dismiss their rigid categories (say, for instance, about divorce or polygamy since they are more options for those who could afford such procedures) as unrealistic for the common Jewish woman.

Nuances, however, give way to some distinct differences and these highlight some of the changes that have emerged as a result of serious attention to women in the ancient world. Besides the fundamental embarassment of the role women were given in biblical scholarship at the time of Jeremias’s work, there are at least two items that need to be placed on the table. First, Ilan has been able to dig out more evidence for the participation of Jewish women in the “religious life” than Jeremias, and her study of this material will shape future studies. Jeremias looked over too much here; further, he shaped what he saw in light of his overall negative depiction of Jewish women in Jewish society. Second, methodologically, Jeremias’s work is famously eclectic in its approach to evidence, though in this appendix he is less prone to cite the Amoraim and later midrashic texts. However, Ilan’s work is methodologically admirable: she stratifies the evidence – from Ben Sira, the Maccabean writings, and Josephus, to the tannaim where she neatly separates the tannaim from the amoraim as well as halakhah from the aggadic traditions. For me, it was disappointing that the substantive conclusions changed no more than it did after such methodological rigor. (Perhaps my surprise emerges from Gospel criticism where slight tradition-critical differences can lead to either a Dom Crossan or to a Marc Borg or to an EP Sanders or to an NT Wright!) Some might criticize Ilan maximalist approach for not assessing the historical veracity of each tannaitic tradition but I think much of the evidence she cites would endure most tests.

If methodologically there has been a significant shift in our studies of women in the ancient world, no doubt in the wake of Jacob Neusner’s critical works, apologetically and functionally the differences since the time of Jeremias are dramatic. Jeremias concludes his appendix with three major functional conclusions: first, that women following Jesus was an unprecedented action in Judaism; second, that Jesus made women equal to men in Jewish society; and third, that Jesus’ view of divorce was “entirely new.” And precisely here is where Amy-Jill Levine, and those who preceded her study, has the eagle’s nest in her hands: description is often not as important as use of that description. Jeremias uses the negative depiction of women to lionize Jesus as a hero of emancipation. I am not sure attachment to a Jewish teacher for a woman was unprecedented; I am less sure that Jesus made men and women equal; and it is simply wrong to say that Jesus’ view of divorce was “entirely new”; those connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls believed nearly the same thing. A similar point from a different angle: if we do discover that Jesus differed from the tannaim does that indicate (1) that Jesus was unlike Judaism or (2) like Jews from the lower classes? Without taking us too far afield, it is not inappropriate to wonder if Jesus’ so-called strict statement about divorce, now embedded in Q 16:18, is really nothing more than a critique of the Herodians and upper-class Jews who could afford divorce. Both Ilan and Jeremias recognized that divorce was expensive; the poor in many situations could not afford it; thus, perhaps the strict logion of Jesus was as much social critique as it was halakhah. And I am not denying the latter.

In brief, then, I am saying this: Jesus distinguished himself, as Bruce Chilton has recently argued, within Judaism not over against Judaism. Consequently, we don’t need to lionize Jesus at the expense of his Judaism for it was as a Jew that Jesus did what he did; his differences from other forms of Judaism were precisely that: differences within Judaism not departures from Judaism. And here is perhaps the telling point: no one in the Jesus traditions questioned women following Jesus, no one said the women who came into contact with Jesus should be back home, and no one said menstruants ought to be bottled up in female quarters. Criticisms of Jesus were aplenty; most of them had to do with his associations, but so far as I know no one criticized Jesus for permitting women to listen to him, for traveling with him, and for approaching him for healing. Put simply, Jesus’ associations with women were entirely within the spectrum of Judaism. If Jeremias and Ilan are basically accurate in their depiction of Jewish woman, their use of that material are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

And at Ilan’s end of the spectrum we find all the essays collected in TE. To these we now turn.

2.0 Jesus and Women Re-Viewed in View

It would be unfair to each author or tedious to my audience to summarize and evaluate each essay; instead, I want to corner my remarks to general, methodological, and substantive points.

First, the essays are methodologically diverse, though the use of the social sciences comes to the fore: this can be seen in the essays by Sean Freyne, Marianne Sawicki, and Carmen Bernabé Ubieta. This diversity, however, does not lead astray from a general conclusion of a feminist orientation: women were more significant in Jewish society than the texts let on. Thus, a leitmotif is that if methodological rigor is applied we can find more about women than we previously knew. I think here of Sawicki’s claim that Susannah and Joanna, women mentioned in Luke 8:1-3 as followers of Jesus, were business partners who had previously hired Jesus as an exorcist for visitors to the royal administration in Tiberias. Elaine Wainwright’s essay, even if it moves rather illogically from women as healers to women as healed, nonetheless uncovers details about the important social function women played in ancient Greece and Palestine as healers and so were attracted to Jesus the healer.

Second, claims about the importance of women in the early Christian movement are trumpeted and their clarion call needs to be heard even louder. Tal Ilan begins these notes with a subtle contention that it was the women who “conjured up” the notion of Jesus’ resurrection and so at the very foundation of the Christian movement that emerges from the Jesus movement is the witness of women. Marianne Sawicki chimes in at the same note: women were the key witnesses, and those who were moving information from one side to the other, in the early Christian belief about resurrection. If these women witnesses played such a crucial role, I would like to add a note of my own. For nearly fifteen years I have taught in my classes the following scenario: Joseph probably died when Jesus was young; Jesus was deeply influenced by the piety of his mother, and I take the Magnificat as a credible, even if constructed much later, testimony of what he would have learned from his mother Mary; and, if these two be correct, then some of the fundamental motifs of Jesus’ vision for Israel were shaped by his mother: social reversal, the covenant faithfulness of Israel’s God, and the ever-continuing mercy of God on the poor. One ought not to criticize a book for what it does not do, but I would have liked something about Mary in a book that seeks to look at Jesus and women. I think her influence on Jesus has been deeply underappreciated. Protestants at least have a feeble alibi.

Third, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to the sharp if at times rapier-like in its points of Amy-Jill Levine’s critique of Christian scholarship, both feminist and otherwise, for its unintentional but nonetheless real polemical statements and overall approaches to the Jesus traditions. She has amassed a virtual list of unintentional conclusions and approaches to women in the Jesus traditions that result in anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. I quote one thunderous part of a paragraph: “The suggestion that Jesus was the only Jewish man to treat women with compassion is at best ahistorical-apologetic; the connection between ‘friend of women’ and ‘friend of sinners’ is at best overdrawn. The implication that the Jewish system tortured women is slanderous” (pp. 334-335). Jesus was a wonderful man; Jesus permitted women to follow him; Jesus seemed to permit women to eat with him and his followers in the evening; Jesus healed women. These are nice things Jesus did. But these actions don’t make Jesus non-Jewish and they don’t suggest at all that Jesus was breaking boundaries in Judaism. Perhaps he got some Jewish males all cranky about it but the record of such doesn’t survive. In short, Levine reminds that we don’t need to lionize Jesus by demonizing Judaism. Jesus stands on his own as a son of Abraham; he doesn’t stand as a solitary, emancipating man. We are accurate in pointing out that Jesus differed from the Pharisees and probably from the Sadducees, perhaps even with the Essenes, but that doesn’t push Jesus over the edge of Judaism. It would be fair to say that most Jews differed with these groups! Differing makes Jesus a Jew among other Jews, and maybe even in the majority. Furthermore, and I merely echo what has been said before: that Jesus differs from the rabbis does not always say that much. I find this tendency in both Jeremias and Witherington. I am not sure either intends it but both at times suggests that in differing with the rabbis Jesus is taking a new stand over against Judaism.

More could be said, in fact. In particular, what Levine’s article makes me acutely aware of is this: we, whether we are Christian or Jewish, don’t need to find in Jesus the fountainhead of all of our causes. Jesus did treat women kindly; but he didn’t call them to be apostles; he didn’t send them out into the Galilean villages to announce the arrival of the kingdom; and he doesn’t appear to have empowered any women to heal though they were, if the studies of Ilan, Sawicki, and Wainwright are accurate, part and parcel of the Jewish social system of healing. Jesus falls short of what our sensitivities want; historians say this; apologists claim too much for Jesus in this regard.

Fourth, I would like to point to what I think is a noticeable gap in TE. Many would contend that for Jesus’ table fellowship was a central medium of his mission, especially in its inclusionary nature, and in the practice he embedded his social vision for Israel. One doesn’t have to agree with all the particulars that have been raised in these discussions to think that table fellowship was important for Jesus. A question not asked in TE was this: “Did Jesus permit women to dine with his male followers? Was the table truly open commensality – for one and for all? And what was the context for Jesus’ inclusion of women at meals?” Last year I asked Kathleen Corley about this and have since read her very nice study of women and meals in the Synoptic tradition: her evidence for women dining with males is not overwhelming. The archaeological evidence from Machaerus reveals two dining rooms, one for men and one for women (Corley, 69); the evidence from Philo, as she says, reflects the customs of upper class aristocratic women in the Diaspora as they attended banquets. Ben Sira 9:9, however, sounds an important note: “Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood (Gk: ‘by your spirit’) you may be plunged into destruction” (9:9). This suggests that women and men did dine together; but almost certainly it reflects upper class customs and it probably reflects banquets rather than common meals. The evidence, in other words, is hardly compelling though the Jesus traditions are a little clearer in this regard.

There are two facts I would like to lay before you and then suggest a possible way of approaching that evidence: first, there is evidence that Jesus and his followers dined with women. The entire Mediterranean had opinions about the participation of women in banquets; Corley argues that Jewish women would have accompanied their husbands to banquets and that they would have participated in the Seder. Thus, we are led to think of meal participation with Jesus as possible, especially if his meals took on a celebratory nature. What about common meals, the kind Jesus would have enjoyed in the cool of the day? What is the evidence? I think here of Luke 7:36-50 (when Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman); 10:38-42 (Jesus dining with Mary and Martha, though we are unaware that others were present); Matthew 11:19 (only if ‘sinners’ indicates sinful women); and the parabolic Matthew 25:1-13 (the ten virgins, only five of whom entered the banquet). The last can be ignored since it reflects the customs of an unusual meal, a marriage banquet; the dinner with Mary and Martha shows at least that Jesus ate with women – and this is seen in an interpretation that favors hospitality (JB Green), contemplation over distracted service (traditional), or in egalitarian ministry (Schüssler Fiorenza); the evidence is not clear enough when it comes to the term ‘sinner’ for an implied ‘prostitute’ so I would dismiss Matthew 11:19; and clearly Luke 7:36-50 implies the presence of women at a meal with Jesus. If the first fact is that Jesus ate with women and included them in his meal, the second is this: no one seemed to be upset that Jesus did this. In other words, we don’t have evidence that Jesus was criticized for eating with women per se; for permitting a ‘sinful woman’ to anoint him, yes. But what ought to be noted is that this meal took place at a Pharisee’s home and that the woman was permitted to enter; the eruption occurred only when she decided to anoint Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). Let us assert here that it is hard to imagine a Pharisee permitting a ‘sinful woman’ to enter his home; if we then contend that the scene is historically unrealistic, we can at least contend that at the literary level no one thought it improper for a ‘sinful woman’ to enter a Pharisees house – and I, for one, am not so sure there is all that much difference. I consider it possible that a Pharisee somehow agreed to let the ‘Jesus people’ have a night at his house and that meant letting all them join in, including ‘sinful women.’

Now if we, as is customary, compare Jesus to the rabbis, his practice looks innovative and shocking and paradigmatic and emancipating. Christian scholarship has made much of this comparison. Rabbinic evidence indicates that a woman’s role in meals was to serve, not to eat with and dine alongside and recline next to the men – and not to join in on the theological discussion. But this functional use of rabbinic evidence precisely illustrates where we have come since Jeremias: this approach is polemical, unhistorical, and results in an unfair representation both of Judaism and Jesus. The volume we are examining in this session illustrates the benefits of this methodological shift. And I have a few pieces of evidence that just may shift the historical context of Jesus’ meal with women away from the rabbinic toward a more believable and geographically-proximate source. I am suggesting that women ate with Jesus on the model of the Roman meals that were transferred from Rome to Galilee through the administration at Sepphoris. While we don’t have to think of Petronius’ famous meal at Trimalchio’s home when we think of Roman meals, such a party description places before our eyes some realistic details we might otherwise not know, even if it also reveals details that lead to the debaucheries of one like the Marquis de Sade.

Here is a source of evidence we might consider; I have not seen him cited in any of the literature on this question. Valerius Maximus, in his Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, says this: “Women used to dine seated with their reclining menfolk” and he then adds, “a form of austerity which our age [the time of Jesus] is more careful to retain on the Capitol than in its houses” and then adds laconically “no doubt because it is more important to the commonwealth that discipline be maintained for goddesses than for women!” (2.1.2). The implication is that household meals involved less hierarchy. Later Valerius Maximus says that the Roman youth would inquire who was eating at a meal so that they would not recline prior to the arrival of their seniors; and when the meal was done the seniors were permitted to leave first; and their talk was dignified by the status of those with whom they dined (2.1.9; cf. 2.1.10 on elders role in providing an example for the youth). This concern echoes the humorous parable of Jesus about rank at meals (Luke 14:7-11). Again, he says the “men of old” took their meals in the open air and ate simple meals (2.5.5). Meals, according Valerius Maximus, became a medium of reconciliation (4.2.3) and the example of Cicero and Crassus, as told by Plutarch (Cicero 26.1); meals were as well as a place of powerful criticisms (Val.Max., Facta 5.1.ext. 2b) as well as the setting for some famous ‘speeches’, as David Aune has demonstrated. Perhaps some of Jesus’ strongest words were mediated by those who heard him in the quiet symposium after a meal. Dennis Smith, for instance, has argued that the posture of ‘reclining’, which is Jesus’ when mentioned, accords with the Greco-Roman customs.

Perhaps some will want to argue with this use of Roman and Greek evidence; or that there is counterevidence that indicates women were not part of the common meal (but cf. also Corley, “Women,” p. 493 n. 36); or that Valerius Maximus is not a good source. Without disrespecting such views, the recent studies that Jesus worked in Sepphoris, or at least knew what was going on there, have much in their favor; and that at Sepphoris Jesus would have encountered a blend of Roman and Greek culture first-hand through the Herodian presence; and that surely the Roman customs of meals were actually present in Sepphoris. Since Jesus’ parables show an occasional hint of knowledge of such practices, as can be seen in the Parable of Ranking Guests (Luke 14:7-11), I think it can be suggested that Jesus may well have learned the value of the presence of women at meals from this Roman presence in Galilee. He probably also knew about the kind of behavior described in the meal of Herod Antipas and Herodias (Mark 6:17-29). The liberal spirit of these meals gave him courage to include women in his meals, though without the dancing girl! – and perhaps he needed little courage for the Galilean Jews before him had already been permitting women to join in meals with male guests. Rabbinic evidence might lead some to think of Jesus’ innovation here; a broader sweep of evidence, not to mention common sense, leads to Jesus doing what came natural for any Jew of first century Galilee. In fact, maybe the practice was established in Judaism prior to the hellenic spirit. I know more work needs to be done. Kathleen Corley, in fact, thinks the meal practices of Jesus and the early Christian movement, with respect to the role women played, were indistinguishable from the surrounding contexts, Greek, Roman, and Jewish. She says they were each marked by “convivial inclusivity” (Private Women, p. 185).

This sort of conclusion is represented in the essays of TE. Here we find essays that are not restricted by rabbinic categories, not limited to Jewish evidence, and not fenced in by old-fashioned traditional conclusions. The essays are challenging, always refreshing, and at times daring. Sean Freyne said something in his essay that we need to remind ourself of: “It is noteworthy, though perhaps predictable, that the role of women in the Jesus movement has received relatively little attention in recent writing, despite the remarkable resurgence of historical Jesus studies in the past decade or so” (p. 162). Anyone who looks at recent books that deal with the life of Jesus will notice that he is right. Should we name them, or should we all ask our role in this neglect? I am suggesting that it is the term “inclusion” that tells the real story. Women are, by using the term ‘inclusion’, seen in functional terms: they are used as evidence that Jesus was a liberator and that means they are assigned to the sections of books where you find other Jewish undesireables as learned from rabbinic categories. How Mary influenced Jesus is a silent chapter; John the Baptist usually gets plenty of attention. Which is more determinative for Jesus? And how women shaped the Jesus movement a mute section; but the apostles and the early Christian preachers find a significant presence. Kitzberger’s collected essays are a first step toward the recovery of women in the Jesus movement.

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.

  • Ben Cachiaras

    Thanks, Scot. In light of the evidence that Jesus’ view and treatment of women didn’t differ as radically as the Jeremias-shaped preacher would typically indicate, how does one come to preach and teach about Jesus’ treatment of women? It’s fine for scholarship to note these nuances — that Jesus remained within the Jewish tradition, and was not necessarily demonstrating a radical position unheard of at the time — but to make that point runs the risk of misleading the common listener who is a child of our own day. The fact remains that however “liberated’ we want to cast women in the first century, by comparison, there is no comparison to our own. So when preaching John 4 or other passages in which Jesus encounters women, it seems to me that my audience probably does need to pause and think about the fact that this woman was not just a Samaritan, but indeed a woman, and that in itself says something about Jesus’ ministry and about women. I’m concerned that in the preaching of this information, in our correction of perhaps over inflated notions that Jesus was the fountainhead of all liberation of women, we may miss the fact that indeed he did lift up, include, bless, and empower women in remarkable ways, because the issue, it seems to me, is not the subtle differences between how women were thought of in THOSE days only, but helping peopel see the radical difference in how women were viewed by all segments of Jewish society THEN as compared to how they are viewed today. Would you say it is true that despite the helpful correction you lay on the typical Jeremias type finding (Jesus wasn’t the only one who treated women with dignity), the larger truth needing to be spoken is that not everyone treated women with dignity, but Jesus clearly identified with those strands of Jewish society that did, and in fact, pushed it to new levels, even if he didn’t pioneer such paths. For me, it’s important to know whether the gospel has the power to serve as a trajectory which leads to liberation. If Jesus himself didn’t demonstrate or believe in that implication or trajectory, it’s hard to make that case.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, probably right. The key is not to “win” for Jesus at the expense of Judaism. Instead, simply affirm Jesus’ welcoming of women and say at times that what he did was sometimes done by others in his Jewish world. Again, the issue is not to hold Jesus up by criticizing Judaism. We can do the former without the latter.


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