So The Last Will Be First, And The First Will Be Last: Women in the Gospels

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last” – Matthew 20:16.

According to first-century Jewish historian Josephus, women in ancient Jewish societies were considered inferior in all matters (c.f., Green, McKnight & Marshall, 1992). They lacked rights, lacked an education, and played a small role in society aside from child-bearing. Josephus considered them less trustworthy than men (Antiquities, 4:219) and a sage called Joshua Ben Sira believed that women spread evil (Sirach, 42:12-13). In the book Sirach, which was written in 180 A.D., it says, “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace” (42:14). Philo, the first-century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, argued that women ought to stay at home and desire a life of seclusion (De Specialibus Legibus, 3:169-177; A Treatise against Flaccus, 89).

Despite such inferior status, some positive roles for women did exist within Judaism. The Hellenistic-Jewish story of a strong leader called Judith presents one example. Judith ruled Salome Alexandria as the Queen of Judea (76-67 B.C.). Strong females in the Old Testament further demonstrate positive roles for women. Ruth, Esther, and Job’s three daughters offer good examples, though anomalies. Evidence from a variety of historic sources suggests a highly patriarchal Jewish society during Jesus’ time.

Into this societal context emerged Jesus, whose kindness, reverence and appreciation towards women differed from that of many of the men of His time. The intention of this blog is to offer a glimpse into the way Jesus treated women when He walked the earth.

Women in Jesus’ Infancy

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew offer the infancy narratives of Jesus, which include three notable women. Matthew’s infancy narrative focuses on Joseph’s point of view, mentioning Joseph by name six times and Mary only three times, while Luke’s infancy narrative focuses on Mary’s point of view, mentioning Joseph by name three times and Mary twelve times (McDowell & McDowell, 2017).

Luke 1:28 recounts the way the angel Gabriel visited Mary to let her know that she would conceive Jesus. He said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” which called attention to her high status. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” Gabriel continued. The Catholic Church has since revered Mary and this statement from Gabriel forms the first words in the Catholic Rosary.

The angel Gabriel also visited Mary’s cousin Elizabeth to let her know that despite her advanced years, she would bear a son, John the Baptist. Luke 1:5 referred to Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah as “righteous in the sight of God, observing all of the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” Like Mary, Elizabeth (and her husband) were considered blessed and righteous.

When Jesus was first presented in the Temple, a prophet named Anna was present. Luke 2:36 says “She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the Temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.” She approached Mary and Joseph in the Temple and “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Women Jesus Healed

Jesus healed many women (c.f., Green, McKnight & Marshall, 1992), including Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15; Mark 1:29-31; Luke 4:38-39), the woman with the twelve-year blood flow, and the daughter of Jairus (Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-23; Luke 8:40-56). Jesus referred to an eighteen-year old crippled woman as a “daughter of Abraham,” (Luke 13:16), which would have been considered a compliment. He was often touched by the faith and inner strength of women, which is particularly notable in the case of the woman with the blood flow, as she would have been considered unclean by the directives in Leviticus 18 and would have been shunned by the men of her times.

Jesus Forgave Women

Jesus forgave female sinners and at times, even exalted them above higher status males. As one example, Jesus said the following to a female sinner who was guilty of sexual sins: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50). He also forgave a women caught in adultery (John 7:53 – 8:11) and forgave a Samaritan woman living in adultery (John 4:2). He shocked religious leaders when He said, “Tax collectors and sexually immoral women will enter before you [religious leaders] into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 21:31), which was likely to have contributed to their animosity towards Him.

In addition to His exaltation of those of lower status, Jesus re-interpreted the laws of the Old Testament. He placed Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in a secondary position to Genesis 2:24 (Matthew 19:5-6) when He affirmed the concept of a single flesh between a married male and female, equalizing the two.

Jesus’ Female Disciples

All four Gospels attest to the fact that Jesus had female disciples in addition to His male disciples. They were faithful, active, and present during His ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and in the early years of the church. Some of the disciples are named, including Mary Magdalene, Salome, Joanna, Martha, Susanna, Mary the mother of James, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mother Mary, Mary the mother of John Mark, Tabitha, and Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha).

Incidentally, the simple fact that so many of Jesus’ disciples were named Mary offers more validation of Gospels’ authenticity. If the Gospels were merely crafted, surely the authors would have been more original with names. Imagine writing a book and naming almost all of the female characters the same name!

Women as Servant Leaders

Foot washing was a common task during Jesus’ time. Because feet were considered unclean, providing servants to wash guests’ feet was considered good hospitality when entertaining.

One night, while Jesus was having dinner at a Pharisee’s house (Luke 7: 36-50), a woman approached Him and wiped His feet with her tears, which she cleaned with her hair. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus to the dinner thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who is touching Him and what kind of woman she is – she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me teacher,” he said.

“Two people owed money to a certain money lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. How which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

This action reminds us that Jesus worked in the pits more than the pedestals. He came to help the biggest sinners, realizing that they had the biggest potential for gratitude. The woman who humbly washed His feet and was forgiven of her sins had a much greater potential for thankfulness than Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee.

Jesus as a Servant Leader

 At the Last Supper, Jesus demonstrated servant leadership to His disciples by washing their feet. John 13: 6-17 states the following:

“After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For He knew who was going to betray Him, and that was why He said not every one was clean.

When He had finished washing their feet, He put on his clothes and returned to His place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” He asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Women as Witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection

Had the Gospels been contrived, males would have been the first to the empty tomb, because their stories during those ancient times were considered much more credible and women were considered to be of inferior status. Yet all four Gospels attest to the fact that women were the first to discover Jesus’ empty tomb and were the first eyewitnesses to His resurrection.

Mary Magdalene, who was once regarded as an unclean sinner, was the first to witness the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus commissioned her to inform the disciples of His resurrection. Mary Magdalene was considered a prominent disciple and she was always first to be mentioned when the female disciples were named (e.g., Matthew 27:56; John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18; Mark 15:40, 47; Luke 8:2; 24:10). Her status was further attested in early apocryphal and Gnostic Christian literature, such as the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Philip.

Conclusion

Jesus’ actions, words, and ministry call attention to the way He loved women and treated them equitably, despite the patriarchal characteristics of His ancient society. His final call to His disciples was a call to both men and women. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Thank you for your time.  

References

Green, J.B., McKnight, S. & Marshall, I.H. (1992).  Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

McDowell, J. & McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence that demands a verdict: Life-changing truth for a skeptical world. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

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