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The prominence of Women in the New Testament: Women-Injustice#7; Justice#18

The prominence of Women in the New Testament: Women-Injustice#7; Justice#18 June 4, 2021

I have been arguing that in the New Creation male and female are equal in authority among the people of God (within the church). Many will respond to this by noting that the NT has statements that express male headship (most notably 1 Cor 11:2-16).

Before we can delve into the “problem” passages, it is critical to recognize the prominence of women in the NT. It is against the backdrop of women as equals to men that some of the statements in the NT, which appear to place women in a subordinate role, must be read.

Women in the NT[1]

The presence of women in the life and ministry of Jesus, a first-century rabbi, is surely one of the more surprising aspects of His ministry.

Throughout the Gospel narratives, men, especially the twelve, are regularly doubting and lacking understanding; whereas women are consistently portrayed positively (e.g., they have faith: cf Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50).

Jesus is depicted as One who sat and openly talked with women.

He even met with non-Jewish women. In John 4, Jesus dialogues with a Samaritan woman, who herself expresses shock that Jesus would speak with her: “‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?’” (John 4:9). Jesus also dialogues with a Syrophoenician woman (see Mark 7:24-29; Matt 15:21-28), whom Matthew calls a “Canaanite” (Matt 15:22) in order to accent the incredible nature of the encounter.

Jesus also had female disciples. Luke tells us of Mary “who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word” (Luke 10:39). In stating that Mary was “seated at the Lord’s feet,” Luke captures Mary in the posture of a disciple.

The Gospel of Luke notes that on the way to the cross, “following Him was a large crowd of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him” (Luke 23:27). Luke adds that while Jesus was on the cross, “And all His acquaintances and the women who accompanied Him from Galilee were standing at a distance, seeing these things” (Luke 23:49).

Jesus also encounters immoral and unclean women. In Mark 5 an unclean woman touches Jesus. When Jesus inquired as to who touched him, the woman “afraid,” likely because she knew she had crossed a cultural boundary, “came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33). But Jesus, instead of rebuking her, replied, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction” (Mark 5:34).

The Gospel of Luke seemingly goes the extra mile to make sure its readers recognize the presence of women in the life and ministry of Jesus. In some instances, the presence of these women should have brought shame to Jesus. Jesus, however, affirms the women and shames the men!

Thus, when a woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37) interrupts Jesus at a dinner hosted by a prominent Pharisee, Jesus does not rebuke the woman, but instead tells the host, “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

Jesus then turns to the woman and says, “Your sins have been forgiven” (Luke 7:48). While those in attendance were muttering about Jesus’ claim to forgive sins, He again turns to the woman and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).

The presence of women throughout the ministry of Jesus is most notable in the resurrection accounts. The account of the women at the tomb of Jesus goes beyond merely an historical anecdote acknowledging their presence. Jesus commissions the women to tell the men: “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren” (Matt 28:10).

Significantly, the gospels note that the ones to whom the women are to bear testimony are the disciples themselves: “But go, tell His disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). Consequently, Mary Magdalene exclaims, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

In doing so, the Gospels acknowledge that women are empowered as the first eyewitnesses who testify to the resurrection of Jesus.

It has been well-documented that at this time in history a women’s testimony was not permissible in a court of law. Yet according to all four Gospels, the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women (see Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18).

Entrusting women with the first eyewitness testimony to the resurrection is significant since the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus is one of the foundational elements of the Christian gospel.

Note that when Paul lists the matters which are “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3), he states, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor 15:3-5).

It is intriguing to see that in 1 Corinthians 15, in stark contrast to the four Gospels, Paul omits the presence of women at the tomb and as eyewitnesses to the resurrection. The fact that a women’s testimony was not widely regarded as trustworthy provides a sufficient explanation for Paul’s omission. Yet, it remains in stark contrast to the Gospels’ presentation of the event.

Any discussion of women in the gospels and the NT must reckon with the fact that it is not just the prominence of women in the narratives—though this alone is quite counter-cultural—but that women are portrayed as performing significant tasks that indicate their equality with men.

Women in the rest of the NT

The prominence of women continues throughout the NT.

  • We learn that Philip’s four daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:9).[2]
  • Priscilla was a prominent teacher and leader in the early church (Acts 18:2-3, 18-20, 24-26; Rom 16:3-5; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19).[3]
  • Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1-2).[4]
  • The first letter to the Corinthians indicates that women were praying and prophesying in church (1 Cor 11:2-16).
  • In the greetings at the close of the book of Romans we meet Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom 16:6, 12).
  • When Paul visited Philippi, since there was no synagogue in the city, he had no qualms about finding a group of Jewish women near the river with whom he preached the Gospel (Acts 16:12-15).
  • In the book of Romans, we learn of Junia, who may have been an apostle herself. Though this is disputed, she was at least “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 16:7).[5]

Accounting for the prominence of women in the NT

Why are women so prominent in the NT? Did Jesus have an agenda when He so regularly included them? Why does Luke in the book of Acts consistently make mention of women fulfilling roles of teaching and prophesying in the church?

It is my contention that women are elevated to a position of prominence alongside men in the NT because it serves as evidence that the restoration of creation has come.

In other words, as I noted in my last post, this is what the kingdom of God looks like. One of its chief characteristics is that in the kingdom of God those who are oppressed are set free (cf Luke 4:18). There is little doubt that in the first-century women were in the class of those oppressed.

Luke, the author of the book of Acts, clearly recognizes that one of the key pieces of evidence that the New Creation has begun is that men and women equally receive the Spirit. Luke records Peter’s citation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-18:

“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

When we read of women, such as Priscilla, Phoebe, and possibly Junia, taking on such prominent roles, we must recognize that this was radically counter-cultural. The church was blazing a trail that had not been trodden.

Granting such liberties was bound to create problems both within the greater Greco-Roman culture[6] and among some of the men in the local churches.

It is the radically counter-cultural nature of the NT’s elevation of women that is key to understanding the controversial passages regarding women in the NT.

We will turn to some of these “problem” passages in the next several posts.

 

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[1] There is no denying that women also played a more significant role in the OT than is often unrecognized.

[2] One must remember that a prophet in the NT is more than one who receives oracles from the Lord. But they are often associated with teaching and exhorting. Cp Paul’s contrast between those who speak in tongues versus those who prophesy in 1 Cor 14.

[3] Note Priscilla’s name always occurs with her husband Aquila. Yet, in four of the six occurrences (Acts 18:18, 26, Rom 16:3-5, and 2 Tim 4:19) Priscilla’s name precedes that of her husband. This suggests strongly that she has a more prominent role than her husband.

[4] Rom 16:1 appears to call Phoebe a deaconess, though most translations use the word “servant” here. The naming of Phoebe itself suggests someone of note. Grammatical considerations also lend credence to her being a deacon.

[5] This is certainly debated. The manuscript evidence is disputed as to whether or not the name is Junia (feminine NIV, NLT, NET) or Junias (masculine; NAS, RSV, MSG), though the evidence favors the feminine Junia in light of the fact that no early copyist of the NT would ever have changed a masculine name to a feminine. One can easily imagine, however, why the name Junia would have been changed to Junias (see Metzger, ). Even among those who accept the feminine Junia, some contend that Andronicus and Junia are not listed as apostles, but were simply known by the apostles to be outstanding: (e.g., the RSV states: “they are men of note among the apostles”; and, the Message translation says, “Both of them are outstanding leaders”).

[6] A great read on what life was like for women in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century is A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Women, Holly Beers.


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