Welcome, respect, affirmation: How Jesus interacted with womenWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
There’s a popular narrative floating about in the cultural currents that depicts Christianity as unwelcoming or even hostile toward women. What’s more, the claim is that it has always been so. The church was born, the story goes, out of a social matrix shaped by patriarchy and oppression, and these attitudes have persisted to the present day.
But a look at early church history yields the opposite picture. Compared to the misogyny prevalent in the ancient Greco-Roman world, Christianity was countercultural in its affirmation of women. And women, in turn, flocked to the church in droves. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that two-thirds of the church in the first couple of centuries was female. In fact, early pagan critics like Celsus and Lucian derided Christianity for being a religion of women.
How to account for this? In a word, Jesus. As creator and lord of the church – and of everything else, for that matter – Jesus is the authoritative model for how we live and treat one another, in his church and in his world. And in his interactions with women, he welcomed, respected and affirmed them as valued sisters made in the image of God.
The Samaritan woman at the well
Jesus had a knack for subverting the prejudices of his culture, and it was on full display in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. For his Jewish disciples, the entire encounter was problematic on several levels, and their bewilderment – as well as that of the woman herself – is evident in the account.
The Samaritans were a despised people group of mixed Jewish and gentile heritage, and the Jews had no dealings with them. In addition, Jewish men didn’t address women in public, even their own wives, much less a stranger. Moreover, the fact that this woman came to the well during the heat of midday was a cue that she had a compromised reputation and wished to avoid uncomfortable social contact.
But Jesus cut through all of that. He accepted a drink from an unclean Samaritan woman in an unclean drinking vessel. He respected her intelligence and engaged her in a sustained discussion about the nature of God and worship and himself as the promised Messiah. And he drew out her sin issues in the most gracious and diplomatic manner imaginable.
Jesus’ respectful treatment of this woman, as much as his knowledge of the secrets of her heart, empowered her to return to town in the face of public scorn and begin spreading the news that Jesus was the Messiah. In so doing, she became the first non-Jewish evangelist recorded in Scripture.
The Syrophoenician woman
On at least one occasion during his ministry, Jesus ventured outside Judea and Galilee, northwest into the region of Tyre and Sidon in what is now Lebanon. During this trip, he encountered a woman variously described as Syrophoenician, Canaanite and Greek, all of them accurate descriptors for a gentile native to the region.
This woman’s story has parallels with that of the Samaritan, but there are also contrasts that are disturbing for modern readers. The woman approached Jesus in a public place and begged him to heal her daughter, who was oppressed by an evil spirit. But at first, Jesus appeared to ignore her and said nothing to her. His disciples, predictably, urged him to get rid of her because she was embarrassing them.
Jesus had something else in mind, however. As with the Samaritan, he engaged her in a religious discussion, albeit with some jarring metaphors about dogs and children and who should get first dibs at the dinner table. Undaunted, the woman answered him with faith and reason – exactly as Jesus intended. In response, he commended this gentile woman for her great faith and granted her request.
Throughout his time on Earth, Jesus treated women and men as individuals, with kindness and respect but never sentimentality, as each case required. Via this strange encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus not only healed her daughter but also drew out her faith, making her one of the earliest gentile converts in the New Testament.
The woman with the hemorrhage
Jesus drawing out people’s faith is a recurring theme in the Gospels, no less in his contacts with women. Back in Galilee, he encountered a woman who had suffered from a chronic discharge of blood for 12 years (the Greek term is the root of the English “hemorrhage”). Under Jewish law, she would have been viewed as perpetually menstruating, and thus perpetually unclean. She likely lived alone, but also had resources enough to pay physicians for 12 years in a vain search for a cure.
Desperate, she approached Jesus in a large crowd, hoping to be healed by touching the fringe of his garment and then slipping away unnoticed. Jesus, however, knew at once that power had gone out from him, just as the woman knew at once that she had been healed. His question, “Who touched me?” was not because he didn’t know, but in order to draw her out to publicly acknowledge what had happened to her.
Contrary to everyone’s expectation – apparently even the trembling woman’s – Jesus didn’t rebuke her for touching him as a ritually unclean female. Instead he welcomed and affirmed her faith and called her “daughter,” healing her chronic condition and restoring her to public life in her community.
The daughter of Jairus
The story of the hemorrhaging woman is linked with that of a different kind of daughter, a little 12-year-old girl who was the only child of a synagogue ruler named Jairus. The girl was ill to the point of death, and her father came to Jesus, pleading with him to save his daughter’s life. Jesus was in fact on his way to Jairus’ house when he was approached by the woman with the discharge of blood.
During the delay the young girl died, but Jesus told her father not to be afraid, but only to believe, and she would be well. In a tender display of compassion, he brought the parents and his closest disciples to the little girl’s bedside, took her by the hand and raised her back to life, one of just three resurrections he performed that are recorded in the Gospels. It’s evident Jesus cared for and valued women of every background and stature, even the youngest and least influential among them.
The woman caught in adultery
Jesus’ gracious attitude toward women would have been well-known to his enemies, which is why they tried to use it against him. During one of his visits to Jerusalem, a group of Pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus, citing the Mosaic Law that such women were to be stoned. To be precise, the Law called for both the man and woman caught in adultery to be stoned, but it would seem these men chose to give the man in question a pass while condemning only the woman.
In any event, these religious leaders had no regard for this woman as a person. They literally didn’t care whether she lived or died. She was merely an instrument to help them catch Jesus in a no-win scenario. If he showed her mercy, they would claim he was breaking the Mosaic Law. If he agreed with the stoning, they would report him to the Roman authorities for endorsing vigilante justice.
Jesus’ response was as mysterious as it was compelling. He wrote with his finger on the ground – we’re not told what – and let the accusers go on for a while before saying the one without sin should be first to throw a stone at her. They all shuffled out, the oldest ones first. Jesus had turned their legal trap – as well as their systemic misogyny – back on themselves.
Most important, he told the woman that he didn’t condemn her either, while admonishing her to stop sinning from that time forward. It was a radical but merciful call that challenged her to a liberating life with God, one she would not have thought possible when she was first dragged into Jesus’ presence.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna
It’s common to picture Jesus and the Twelve Apostles as a small, private band of men, travelling with their Master and learning at his feet. But there was also a group of prominent women disciples who were part of Jesus’ ministry team. They accompanied him on his travels from Galilee and supported his ministry out of their own means. Luke names three of them, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna, but notes there were many others as well.
As the best-known of the group, Mary Magdalene has been the subject of myths and legends both ancient and modern: she was a reformed prostitute; she was the secret wife of Jesus; she led an alternative branch of Christianity during the earliest years of the church.
There’s no evidence to support any of this, however. The only biographical information from the text is that at some point, Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, and that she had joined his retinue as a prominent disciple. Regarding the other two named women, nothing is known of Susanna except for her name. And Joanna was the wife of Chuza, a high-ranking official in Herod’s royal household.
Unlike the Twelve Apostles, these women and the others with them were apparently wealthy and socially connected. For a rabbi to rely on them as a major means of support would have been shocking to Jews and gentiles alike. Jesus, however, had no problem including them and giving them empowering, meaningful roles on his ministry team.
Martha and Mary of Bethany
Not all of Jesus’ closest friends were part of his travelling team. A pair of sisters, Martha and Mary, together with their brother Lazarus, lived in the village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem, and Jesus would stay with them when he visited the city. There aren’t many personal details about Lazarus or his interactions with Jesus, beyond the fact that Jesus raised him from the dead.
But the two sisters are a different story. During one of Jesus’ visits, Martha was occupied with serving her guests, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching. Martha, clearly the alpha in the family, wanted her sister to help with the serving, but Jesus gently informed her that Mary had chosen the better portion, which would not be taken from her.
This stance was more radical than modern readers may realize. In Jewish culture, women weren’t allowed to study theology, and the student’s place at a rabbi’s feet was reserved for men only. By welcoming Mary as a pupil, Jesus flipped that cultural script on its head.
During a later visit, mere days before Jesus’ crucifixion, the intuitive Mary brought out a jar of expensive ointment – it appears the Bethany sisters were rather well off – and anointed Jesus with it, a gesture of honour preparing him for burial. When some of his disciples criticized her, Jesus rose to her defence, assuring them her beautiful act would be remembered wherever the Gospel was proclaimed.
And at the death of Lazarus, Jesus addressed each sister’s grief in a way that fit their personalities. With Martha, he engaged in a discussion about the resurrection. With Mary, he simply wept. Both of these women were his close friends, but he treated them as individuals, with sensitivity, affection and respect.
Mary Magdalene and her friends, again
Mary Magdalene is mentioned over a dozen times in the four Gospels, more often than most of the Apostles. Except for the earlier passage about the women who travelled with Jesus and supported his ministry, every other reference to Mary and her friends is linked with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. And in all but one of those references, Mary is mentioned first, suggesting she was pre-eminent within this circle of women, much like Peter was among the Apostles.
But unlike Peter and the Apostles, who fled when Jesus was arrested and didn’t resurface until after he rose, these women remained engaged at every step. They stayed and watched Jesus die on the cross; they followed and observed his burial; they returned to the tomb to anoint his body; they entered the empty tomb and encountered angels who told them he had risen; and they relayed that news to his Apostles – who thought they were talking nonsense and didn’t believe them.
It’s worth noting – because the text does – that this was the same group of prominent, well-to-do women who had accompanied Jesus and financially supported his ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem.
In a culture that dismissed women’s testimony as worthless, Jesus gave this circle of female friends the privilege and responsibility of being the first witnesses to his resurrection. In fact, Mary Magdalene became the first person ever to see and speak with the risen Lord, and to tell of it to his Apostles. Because of this, several later church traditions described her as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
These are just a few of the better-known women with whom Jesus interacted in the Gospels. There were countless others, and Jesus treated all of them with kindness and respect, affirming their value and dignity as those made in the image of God. He welcomed them, defended them, freed and empowered them to find their identity as daughters of God and sisters of himself, the Christ.
And it went beyond that. Jesus used stories of women in his parables to illustrate spiritual truths (the persistent widow; the woman with the lost coin; the wise and foolish virgins). He raised the bar on laws concerning marriage, divorce and lust in order to protect women. He cited historical and contemporary examples of women, both powerful and obscure, as models of faith and virtue (the Queen of the South, who came to hear Solomon’s wisdom and asked him deep questions; the poor widow who threw her last two copper coins into the temple treasury). And of course, he included women in his ministry team and welcomed them as disciples, to follow and learn from him – actions unheard of for a Jewish rabbi.
Everything Jesus said and did with respect to women was radically countercultural within Jewish as well as Greco-Roman society. Jewish men had a morning prayer thanking God they weren’t slaves, gentiles or women. Greek thinkers had a similar prayer, thanking God they weren’t beasts, barbarians or women.
Jesus’ attitude could not have been more different. As his great Apostle, Paul, later reiterated, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
For followers of Jesus, it’s vital to recognize and repent of sin, individual or corporate, past or present. Far too often, the church has followed culture or distorted Scripture to embrace misogynistic attitudes that have harmed women.
But there’s no place for that in the body of Christ, composed of brothers and sisters in faith, women and men created in the image of God. Jesus calls his followers to do better. He not only provides the example, but also forgiveness, healing and power to change.
Now more than ever, in this particular cultural moment, it’s essential that we do so. The world is watching, and so is our Lord.
Sources and further reading
James A. Borland, “How Jesus viewed and valued women,” Crossway, March 08, 2017.
Michael J. Kruger, “Was early Christianity hostile to women?” Canon Fodder, August 1, 2019.
Barbara Leonhard, “Jesus’ extraordinary treatment of women,” Franciscan Media, accessed March 23, 2020.
Rebecca McLaughlin, “How the Gospels show that Jesus values women,” ERLC, August 13, 2019.
Trillia Newbell, “The Samaritan woman and our barrier-smashing Saviour,” The Gospel Coalition, October 25, 2019.
Rodney Stark, “Reconstructing the rise of Christianity: The role of women,” Sociology of Religion, Volume 56, Issue 3, Autumn 1995, Pages 229–244.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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