Sue Bohlin is a speaker/writer and webservant for Probe Ministries, a Christian organization that helps people to think biblically. She loves teaching women and laughing, and if those two can be combined, all the better
1. Feminists & Their Critiques.
Bohlin begins here piece by noting how feminists have often criticized the Bible for being anti-women: “Some feminists charge that Christianity, the Bible, and the Church are anti-female and horribly oppressive to women.” She then poses some serious questions that need answering: “Does God really hate women? Did the apostle Paul disrespect them in his New Testament writings?”
2. Women in 1st Century Culture.
Yet, quite to the contrary of what feminists claim Bohlin quotes Alvin Schmidt (PhD), a former Professor of sociology, in his analysis of the radical counter cultural view that earliest Christianity had on women: “Paul told the Christians in Ephesus, ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ And he added, ‘He who loves his wife loves himself” (1). On the same note Professor Ben Witherington writes that as a result of the elevated view on women in the early Christian “we should not be surprised to find even in Paul’s letters examples of women teachers, evangelist, prophetesses, deacons, and apostles” (7). In other words, women were deeply involved & valued in their service to earliest Christianity. However, Bohlin goes further & factors into the equation the unique person of Jesus: “Jesus loved women and treated them with great respect and dignity. The New Testament’s teaching on women developed His perspective even more. The value of women that permeates the New Testament isn’t found in the Greco-Roman culture or the cultures of other societies.”
This would seem to be an accurate portrayal of a Jesus who, while embedded in a Jewish culture that was patriarchal, had compassion to women that society had shunned (Mat. 9:18; Luke 7:50; Mark 12:41- 44; John 4:5- 42). Jesus showed an unusual sensitivity to women and their needs for a man living in 1st century Palestine and this, as a result, set a precedent for those involved within the spread of Christendom. According to David Marshall, founder of the Kuai Mu Institute for Christianity and World Cultures, research suggests that “the status of women tends to be consistently higher in societies deeply influenced by Christianity than in other societies” (2).
Yet, according to Bohlin “In ancient Greece, a respectable woman was not allowed to leave the house unless she was accompanied by a trustworthy male escort. A wife was not permitted to eat or interact with male guests in her husband’s home; she had to retire to her woman’s quarters. Men kept their wives under lock and key, and women had the social status of a slave. Girls were not allowed to go to school, and when they grew up they were not allowed to speak in public. Women were considered inferior to men. The Greek poets equated women with evil.” But this extended into Jewish culture as well “Jewish women, as well, were barred from public speaking. The oral law prohibited women from reading the Torah out loud. Synagogue worship was segregated, with women never allowed to be heard.”
Bohlin’s summation coincides well with what the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius tells us about the value of women at the time. He arguably remains our best source for understanding 1st century Judaism, the culture in which Jesus born – thus scholars hold Flavius in high regard & as an authoritative source. Nonetheless, Flavius informs us that: “A woman, it [the law] says, is inferior to a man in all respects. So, let her obey, not that she may be abused, but that she may be ruled; for God has given power to the man.” Later Flavius would write: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (3). So not only were women seen as inferior to men but their testimony in a court of law was almost worthless. So, what we have with Jesus, who would have well known all of this, in his interactions with many different women was something quite radical and countercultural.
3. Jesus & Women.
Perhaps one occasion where Jesus’ interaction with a woman stood out most was at a well. The woman that Jesus spoke with was a Samaritan; this is also an important detail since Samaritan’s were very much hated by the Jews & Jesus happened to be a Jew – so clearly Jesus engaging with a Samaritan, let alone a woman, was very unusual & would have certainly been frowned upon. Yet, Jesus did not engage her in a private place where no eyes could see, instead it was in public – Bohlin: “He started a conversation with her—a Samaritan, a woman—in public. The rabbinic oral law was quite explicit: “He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself.” Another rabbinic teaching prominent in Jesus’ day taught, “One is not so much as to greet a woman.” (6) So we can understand why his disciples were amazed to find him talking to a woman in public. Can we even imagine how it must have stunned this woman for the Messiah to reach out to her and offer her living water for her thirsty soul?”
Beyond this interaction at the well it is also important to note that some of Jesus’ closest friends were also women, for example, in Mary & Martha. On one occasion Martha assumed the traditional female role of cooking a meal for Jesus who was her guest whereas Mary, Martha’s sister, did what only men would do; which was to learn from Jesus’ teachings. Schmidt informs us that “Mary was the cultural deviant, but so was Jesus, because he violated the rabbinic law of his day [about speaking to women]” (8). He continues:
“All three of the Synoptic Gospels note that women followed Jesus, a highly unusual phenomenon in first-century Palestine. . . . This behavior may not seem unusual today, but in Jesus’ day it was highly unusual. Scholars note that in the prevailing culture only prostitutes and women of very low repute would follow a man without a male escort” (9).
Women were also allowed to be part of Jesus’ ministry as “Joanna the wife of Cuza (Herod’s household manager), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources” (Luke 8:3). Jesus would even chose to appear first to his women followers after his resurrection from the dead. In fact, scholars deem that this was so unlikely to have been invented by the gospel authors that this little fact (that Jesus’ empty tomb was first discovered by women & that women were the first people claiming to see him in his resurrected body), according to around 75% of historians, counts strongly in favour of the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb (I outline eight persuasive reasons for accepting the empty tomb). So, Bohlin is clearly on the money when she tells us that “In a culture where a woman’s testimony was worthless because she was worthless, Jesus elevated the value of women beyond anything the world had seen.”
4. Paul, Peter, and Women
Bohlin then highlights the importance of Jesus’ example for his earliest & closest followers: “Jesus gave women status and respect equal to men. Not only did he break with the anti-female culture of his era, but he set a standard for Christ-followers. Peter and Paul both rose to the challenge in what they wrote in the New Testament.”
Jesus’ example was clearly emulated by Peter who encouraged women to see themselves as valuable because God saw them as valuable (1 Peter 3:3-4) as well as husbands to treat their wives with respect and understanding: “You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
Bohlin then correctly informs us of what is a common critique today, namely that: “The apostle Paul is often accused of being a misogynist, one who hates and fears women.” Yet, it’s not that simple as “Paul’s teachings on women reflect the creation order and high value God places on women as creatures made in his image. Paul’s commands for husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 provided a completely new way to look at marriage: as an earthbound illustration of the spiritual mystery of the union of Christ and His bride, the church. He calls wives to not only submit to their husbands as to the Lord, but he calls husbands to submit to Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). He calls men to love their wives in the self-sacrificing way Christ loves the church. In a culture where a wife was property, and a disrespected piece of property at that, Paul elevates women to a position of honor previously unknown in the world.”
So, not only did Paul elevates women to a position of honor previously unknown in the world but he also provided a highly countercultural direction for the early church as “In the Jewish synagogue, women had no place and no voice in worship. In the pagan temples, the place of women was to serve as prostitutes. The church, on the other hand, was a place for women to pray and prophecy out loud (1 Cor. 11:5). The spiritual gifts—supernatural enablings to build God’s church—are given to women as well as men. Older women are commanded to teach younger ones. The invitation to women to participate in worship of Jesus was unthinkable—but true.”
So far we have seen several ways that earliest Christianity elevated the status of women, as outlined by Bohlin.
Firstly, Paul puts emphasis on the roles that women played in the church. To put any value on a woman in the 1st century Greco-Roman world was radically countercultural, especially if we consider what the 1st century historian Josephus Flavius tells us about a woman’s value. Secondly, that Paul & Peter instruct husbands to elevate women and treat them with dignity is a further countercultural feature of 1st century Christianity. Then, thirdly, Jesus leaves a powerful example for his earliest followers to emulate. That Jesus would, in public, have a conversation with a Samaritan woman was radical & would have been frowned upon – however, Jesus clearly values & loves people regardless of their gender, and evidently that was far more valuable to him than what other 1st century Jews would have thought. That Jesus would include women in his circle of friends, as well as to choose to first appear to them in his resurrected body, would strongly support this conclusion.
To be continued…
1. Schmidt, A. 2004. How Christianity Changed the World. p. 97-98.
2. Marshall, D. 2011. How Jesus Has Liberated Women. Available.
3. Josephus, F. 95 AD. Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15.
4. Schmidt A. Ibid. p. 102-03.
5. Bible.org. 2009. Hatred Between Jews and Samaritans. Available.
6. Schmidt, A. Ibid. p. 102-03.
7. Witherington, B. 2009. Why Arguments against Women in Ministry Aren’t Biblical. Available.
8. Schmidt, A. Ibid. Ibid.
9. Schmidt, A. Ibid. Ibid. p. 103-104.