Jewish women of first century Palestine were severely limited. Like the greater Greco-Roman world, Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was staunchly patriarchal and, generally speaking, a woman was to remain unobserved in public life. Prior to her marriage she answered entirely to her father and it was preferred that she not leave the home at all. Furthermore, if the situation warranted it, her father could sell her into slavery before she came of age to marry.
It is not surprising, then, that Jewish women in Palestine, like women in other parts of the Greco-Roman world, were discouraged from moving freely in society. She could venture out into public in order to accomplish some of her domestic duties, but only after she was heavily veiled. Interaction of any kind with men was forbidden. In some cases even a greeting between a man and a woman could lead to divorce.
In the realm of religious practice, a Jewish woman in Palestine experienced a limited reprieve because of scriptural directives regarding women. The Torah mandates that honor be shown to a mother (see Exodus 20). Also, the spiritual significance of the mother was manifest in the fact that Jewish lineage for her children was determined by her bloodline independent of the father. Finally, a Jewish woman in Palestine was afforded the opportunity to enter into Nazarite vows (see Numbers 6), participate in feasts and associated sacrificial meals (see Exodus 12), offer sacrifice (see Luke 2:22-24), and serve in the Temple (see Luke 2:36-38). Beyond these, however, women’s worship experiences were generally limited to those activities that could be carried out within the privacy of the home and which served to preserve and pass on religious traditions and practices to children.
While this depiction of the treatment of women may be troubling at best to readers today, it represents the general conditions that women faced in day to day living two millennia ago. Without question, there were exceptions to these general rules and no doubt there were many Jewish women of Palestine who lived full and happy lives within their own socio-economic, spiritual, and cultural niche. However, as a general rule, it is evident that Jewish women in Palestine enjoyed limited civic rights, were restricted in religious involvement, and were valued almost exclusively for their procreative abilities and domestic services.
Understanding the socio-cultural and religious norms and their impact upon Jewish men and women in Palestine in the first century allows one to draw a conclusion regarding the ministry of Jesus. The four Gospels, Acts, and the writings of Paul, not only bear witness of Jesus’ divine mission, they also document Jesus’ desire to raise the status of women, even if it meant challenging the current social practices of the day. Indeed, Elder James E. Talmage taught that “the world’s greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus the Christ.” Some examples of the Savior’s breaks with social norms of the day include: conversing with, and bearing witness of His divinity to, a woman at a well in Samaria (see John 4:5-29), inviting women to travel with Him and be His disciples (see Luke 8:1-3), publicly expressing compassion to the widow of Nain both in conversation and in the act of raising her son from the dead (see Luke 7:11-15), allowing women who were ritually unclean to touch his person (see Luke 8:43-48), and on at least two occasions, allowing women to unveil their heads in public to use the strands of their hair to wash or anoint His feet (see Luke 7:36-39; John 12:1-3). Christ also taught with parables whose central figures were women (see Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 18:1-8; Luke 15:8-9), and He allowed a woman to temporarily abandon certain domestic duties in order to be instructed at His feet (see Luke 10:38-42).
These, and many more examples in the Gospels, constitute radical departures from the accepted norms of the day. Taken together, we may see the Savior’s earnest desire to institute reform and generate spiritual equity within the bonds of discipleship. In His day, such a reformation was repugnant to most. Nevertheless, it was so. Under Jesus, a woman enjoyed greater privileges than her peers in Palestine and the Greco-Roman world.