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Women in the Gospels: Concluding Remarks

October 8, 2012

When I began this series I spoke of a need to have a background for the Pauline quotes normally cited when the roles of women are discussed.  What background do the gospels provide?  If you had only the gospels, would you expect that women could preach and teach?

I suspect that without the Pauline material there would be almost no argument about whether women could teach.  Jesus’ attitude towards women is radically more inclusive than those of his society.  He frequently interacts with women where his contemporaries would not.  Furthermore, his interactions are almost entirely positive.  Who are the women villains in the New Testament?  Only Herod’s wife Herodias.  Every other woman who appears in the gospels is at the very least a recipient of Jesus’ aid.  The closest we have to a break with Jesus personally is Jesus’ comments about family in Mark 3 where he rebuffs his family’s attempt to reign him in.  However, the woman who is at the other and of this rebuff is Mary and attempting to paint Mary as a villain would be extremely strange to say the least.

There are other interesting details in the gospels.  Who does Jesus raise from the dead?  A girl, the brother of two sisters with whom he is friends, and the only son of a widow (Luke 7:11-17)1.  A great act of healing or resurrection is inevitably a good deed for the entire family but it is interesting how prominent women are in these resurrection stories.  As I’ve already pointed out, the confessions of Jesus as the Christ in John are virtually absent but one of the few is Martha’s.  I’ve also covered at some length the fact that women are the only recorded witnesses to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  The men in the story see only some pieces of this.

Jesus also includes women in learning.  When Mary sits at his feet to learn instead of doing “womanly work”, Jesus supports her decision.  However, even without that story we would have Jesus involved in teaching discussions with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman, and Martha at Lazarus’ resurrection.  Jesus also has the Samaritan woman extend his teaching to others by her going to her town and inviting others back to hear him.  In Luke’s gospel (13:10-17) there is a short incident in which Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath largely to demonstrate that the way the Sabbath is being treated is incorrect.  However, what Jesus actually argues is that this woman is a daughter of Abraham (the claim to descend from Abraham functions as an argument that one is within the covenant in the New Testament) and that it is therefore fitting that she should be free from the bonds of Satan (by which he means her physical infirmity2) on the Sabbath.  That argument alone appears to be one that argues for full inclusion of women within covenantal society.

Finally, there are what we might term “whole gospel” arguments.  Each gospel has something to say as a complete document as well as something to say within each story.  Matthew and Mark certainly cover women less than Luke but Matthew includes a brief mention of Mary (although he focuses on Joseph) and both gospels have the dead girl and the sick woman, the Canaanite woman who successfully convinces Jesus to heal her daughter, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in preparation for his burial, and, of course, the women at the cross, the tomb, and the empty tomb.  Both Mark and Matthew have the evil Herodias featured in the story about John the Baptizer’s death as well.  If you only had Matthew and Mark you’d still have stories of Jesus doing great miracles for three women, one of whom has to engage him in an argument about her role in the Jewish story as a Gentile outsider, a women who is somehow involved in preparing for Jesus’ upcoming burial (an event that the disciples are not understanding), and women as witnesses to the pivotal events of the gospel.  Indeed, in Mark’s gospel women are the only witnesses to the resurrection if you reject the contested ending in which Jesus also appears to others.

Luke has significantly more women.  All of the stories about women in Matthew and Mark are present in Luke except for the Canaanite woman and Herodias.  Luke’s birth narrative also says a lot more about women than Matthew’s and includes a female prophet and Elizabeth.  Luke mentions the women who support Jesus’ ministry more clearly and earlier than Matthew and Mark and he is the one who tells us about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn.  Luke also includes Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath and Jesus raising the only son of a widow.  Luke’s emphasis is normally assumed to be at least partly on Jesus’ inclusiveness towards the Gentiles.  However, it would seem that Luke is also interested in noting that Jesus includes women when he broadens the inner circle of God’s covenant life beyond ethnically-Jewish men.

John is an entirely different ballgame than the Synoptics.  He overlaps with them when it comes to the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (but, unlike them, identifies her as Mary, Martha’s sister) and the witnesses to the cross and resurrection.  John also goes into some detail about Jesus’ very first resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene.  John also includes the wedding at Cana (featuring Jesus’ mother), the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman caught in adultery.  If you had only John’s gospel it seems to me that the most natural idea that one would have about women in Jesus’ ministry is that Jesus was not concerned with gender roles and treated men and women much the same.

Of course, the Bible isn’t a single gospel or even four of them together.  From here we’ll move on to the Epistles and the hotly contested verses about women’s roles in the church and home.  However, the background of the gospels should be born in mind.  It would be surprising, to say the least, if the Epistles insisted that there were strict gender roles and placed a great deal of weight on following them.

[1] For completeness’s sake I feel as if I should have covered this story in more detail.  However, this is really all I have to say about it – Jesus sees that a widow is in great distress (her son would have been her means of support) and performs a great miracle on her behalf.

[2] In most of evangelical culture freeing someone from the bonds of Satan would mean converting them.  Jesus’ use of this language for a very physical thing that hinders this woman is fairly interesting in light of that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2012 8:33 am

    That footnote is interesting. I wonder if the evangelical culture (at least the less charismatic sorts) would use “the bonds of Satan” like that because to use it for a physical problem would seem superstitious, especially since Jesus challenges the idea that physical infirmity is typically the result of sin. But then again, perhaps that’s because it’s figurative language used for a different reason.

    (I suppose noticing something like that on a footnote seems like missing the point of the article.)

    • Eric permalink
      October 8, 2012 8:49 pm

      Given how much work footnotes are on WordPress I’m glad someone reads them.

      My suspicion is that Jesus uses words “the bonds of Satan” because he has a more expansive idea of what God is about (and, therefore, what Satan is against) than much of modern evangelical culture.

      • October 9, 2012 8:30 am

        I’d agree–it implies there’s not necessarily a clear division between the physical and the spiritual, with God only concerned with the latter.

        It’s also difficult to process if read as a generalization about physical ailments rather than the nature of God (e.g., if physical ailments are always spiritualized as good/evil then what do you do with those left with a “thorn in the flesh?”)

  2. Eric permalink
    October 9, 2012 2:18 pm

    I don’t think it’s really a generalization about physical ailments. I’m not entirely sure that I think “physical ailments” is a useful category in theology.

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