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Women in the Gospels: An Overview of the Material

July 2, 2012

Normally when one covers the topic of women in the New Testament one addresses a number of specific verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-13, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and Ephesians 5:22-33 which deal directly with the position of women in the church and in the home with respect to men.  However, while such debates claim to be able to settle the issue conclusively (in part because these verses supposedly address the issue explicitly) such conclusiveness cannot ever be found.  There are a number of reasons for this, some of them unpleasant, but one of the ones which we can address is that no argument about something that happened two millennia ago can ever be entirely certain.  When faced with inconclusiveness at one point (e.g., did Paul mean that women could not hold authority over men or that women could not rule men harshly when he used the verb authenteo?) one of our basic tools is to ask how likely each alternative is given what we know of the larger picture.  If we’re pretty sure that the New Testament holds up male leadership as God’s mandated norm; then we hear any explanation of why some specific proof-text does not mean this as special pleading.  Meanwhile, if we feel that the New Testament is radically egalitarian for its time, then we tend to find arguments that specific verses must mean that women are not to be leaders to be similarly suspect.

What this boils down to is simple: we must ask about what else is going on in the New Testament.  Is the general pattern of the entire New Testament (and perhaps the Old as well) one in which women have positions of authority or not?  For this reason I am beginning our foray into the New Testament by examining the women who are not normally the subject of great dispute.  Moreover, in a Pauline-focused debate I am opting to begin with the beginning, with the Gospels and the actions of Jesus, who, after all, is the one from whom all other New Testament figures derive their authority.

The first thing to note is that not every woman who appears in the gospels tells us much about how Jesus treats women.  So, for instance, Luke 21:1-4 famously describes a widow who places the last two small coins she owns in the Temple offering box.  However, this story tells us almost nothing other than that Jesus is willing to comment on things women do.  Big surprise.  In fact, it’s probably most important for the story that this person is a woman because as a widowed woman her options are fewer than a poor man’s options and because being a widow places her socially far below the people to whom Jesus compares her.

The stories that involve women in significant ways are the birth narratives (Matthew 1-2  and Luke 1-2 [Luke’s birth narrative includes Elizabeth and Anna the prophetess in additional to Mary]), the dead girl and the sick woman whom Jesus respectively raises and heals (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56), the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus asking for her daughter to be healed (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her hair (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-10, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-11), the women who supported Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3, perhaps also Matthew 27:55 and Mark 15:41), Mary and Martha hosting Jesus’ and his disciples (Luke 10:38-42), Mary and Martha at the death and resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:17-44), the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course the women as witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Matthew 27-28, Mark 15-16, Luke 23-24, and John 19-20).  More minor stories involve Jesus raising a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17), Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17), and the comments in Matthew 21:31-32 about how even the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before the Pharisees.  A final story, the death of John the Baptizer (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:17-29), is one I judge not to be important but which looks enough like it might be important that I will explain why it is not.

Without spending too much time commenting on the trends here, it is worth noting that John has an almost entirely different set of stories than the synoptics and that Luke misses only one of the stories in Matthew and Mark (the Canaanite woman) while adding several that are unique to his gospel.

Let’s start with the stories that appear important but (I believe) are not actually relevant to our task.  The reason to start with these stories is because asking the question, “Does this story tell us anything we can apply generally to the question of how women are viewed within the New Testament?” starts us off towards thinking seriously about what kind of data would answer that question.

Our first story is the death of John the Baptizer, told in both Mark and Matthew.  In both versions of this story Herodias is a villain but Matthew and Mark differ over whether Herod himself wants to kill John or not.  Herodias’ unnamed daughter also plays a fairly crucial role although it is unclear whether she is a villain or a victim of her mother’s manipulation (I tend to take the latter view).  The reason I think this story can be safely ignored when dealing with the larger question of women in the New Testament despite the presence of two women driving the action in the story is that this is also a political story.  Herod and Herodias’ marriage appears to have been a major issue at that time, receiving unpleasant mentions from Josephus as well, who says that Herod seduced Herodias away from his brother while partaking of his brother’s hospitality in Rome1.  Both Herod and Herodias might then be legitimate targets for political jabs and there’s a lot of reason to imagine that the evangelists writing about the Christ, the true King of Israel, the Son of David, would want to underscore that the current King of Israel wasn’t worth much.  This is exactly what both versions of the story accomplish.  Herod himself is either evil or incompetent as he either wishes to execute John or is tricked into doing so and Herod’s family is in an equally bad state.  This point about Herod’s family is not a small aside.  In the ancient world a man was head of his household and within the Roman Empire this sort of rhetoric was frequently employed to talk about government as well with Caesar as father of Rome.  Herod’s family is a microcosm of Herod’s ability to govern both because he has the legal and social right to rule his family and because his family represents the set of subjects he should care most about.  What we see in this story is that Herod’s family plots against him and, disturbingly, that Herod has Herodias’ daughter dance in public at a banquet.  Given the kind of entertainment dancing women generally provided at Roman banquets this sort of action has decidedly sexual overtones (whether or not the dance was actually provocative).  So in this part of the story we have Herod failing in his duty to guard the honor of his family by allowing his daughter or step-daughter to dance before men in public and then Herod himself is pleased by this dancing which is, frankly, rather creepy.  Herod tops it all off by making a rash vow.

Given this, I don’t know that this story says anything about women in general.  I can see how one might argue that this story shows women in a bad light as manipulative as using their feminine charms against men.  Indeed, this does appear in this story.  However, it is not at all clear that the New Testament writes mean this to influence how we think about women overall.  Instead, I suspect that if we are supposed to see the women in this story as scheming and malignly sexual we should see this as product of Herod and contrast the women of his household with the women of the household of God.  I believe that the major point of this story is really about Herod.  Herod fails to control his family, he fails to guard his family, and he is clearly concerned with using his family to further his own interests at their expense.  Take all of these critiques from the story and substitute “Israel” for “his family” and you have a critique of Israel’s present leadership that sets up the need for the True King.

Now, obviously, this hinges in part on how important you think “True King of Israel” is to Jesus’ identity.  There’s a tendency (I think a mistaken one) to downplay Jesus as Jewish Messiah and focus on Jesus as Son of God to the point where stories told to contrast the kingship of Jesus with that of Herod might be lost on many modern readers.  However, I believe that there is good reason to ignore this story as we move forward discussing the role of women.  In the next article we will treat another story that may not be as important as it is often made out to be for this issue.

[1] Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2012 7:33 am

    “Now, obviously, this hinges in part on how important you think “True King of Israel” is to Jesus’ identity. There’s a tendency (I think a mistaken one) to downplay Jesus as Jewish Messiah and focus on Jesus as Son of God to the point where stories told to contrast the kingship of Jesus with that of Herod might be lost on many modern readers.”

    I agree with you. Even though we use “Christ” on a regular basis, it’s amazing how few people connect that title with Jesus as a Jewish messiah. But then, I guess that’s what happens when you divorce your understanding of the Gospel from the four gospels.

  2. July 2, 2012 9:11 am

    Frankly, a lot of people I know think that Christ is a divine title. Actually, even the title “Son of God” is not inherently a divine title (it’s a royal title). It’s easy to skip over the part where Christ becomes a divine title because the Christ turned out to be divine and just assume it was always a divine title.

    • July 2, 2012 1:13 pm

      That’s how it’s treated with the people I know, too. But the Old Testament does use “sons of God” to describe supernatural beings, so would that provide some pretext for using it as a divine title for Jesus? I’m not dismissing the royal aspect of the title; that’s critically important. But is there also room for this other understanding?

  3. July 2, 2012 2:55 pm

    As you point out “sons of God” does sometimes refer to angels, although being an angel isn’t the same as being God. I think the critical thing is that there’s a difference between being a son of God and the son of God, and within an Old Testament context saying “the Son of God” seems to mean “the king”. Of course, the real issue is that if any usage allows for a non-divine son of God then the term does not imply divinity even if it allows it.

  4. July 3, 2012 7:34 pm

    Obviously you’re going for women in the NT here but to step back to your previous OT stuff, what about Miriam? I’ve always thought she was pretty interesting. Clearly Moses & Aaron are in charge, so she’s not breaking the normative “leader” model a la Deborah, but she’s nonetheless an important prophet and leader alongside the earliest establishment of Israel as a nation. She’s also not in there as a “queen” by marriage, she’s a sister, which goes along with the familial model but definitely not the patriarchy.

  5. July 3, 2012 10:22 pm

    Yes, I probably should have dealt with Miriam more. I can always write an article about her. However, my short thoughts are these: Miriam fits the model I have begun to think of as typical in Israelite society. She’s related to Moses and older than Moses so she has significant “soft power”. She’s a woman so she has no official title (that we know of). The end result is that she is in practice quite a bit more powerful than many men and serves as the leader of the women. If I were to be excessively pedantic about this (and why not?) I’d say that I think that Miriam is a problem for a model in which male and female hierarchies are entirely separate (with, perhaps, the female hierarchy below the male one) and is best understood in one where being female is a minus but one that is mostly overridden by the pluses she has.

    However, I’m happy to put Miriam on my list of topics if you would like to see my thoughts in fuller form (or think it’s just of general interest).

  6. July 4, 2012 9:05 am

    Yeah, definitely agreed. Of course explore/discourse at your leisure, I’ve just been continuing my “digging” into Exodus so of course she came to mind off the bat.

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