The New Testament says a lot about women. Jesus’ ministry was largely devoted to instilling value in women. The growth of the early church was to a great extent shouldered by women. Most of us “Bible believing” Christians have probably not realized the depth of how radical Christianity’s positive view of women would have been in the first century context. Because when Jesus stepped into the Mediterranean world and reconfirmed the dignity and value of women, he was going against the grain of the common view of women in his own culture.
Here’s a sample of what Jesus was up against.
A popular Roman philosopher named Arius Didymus says that “the deliberative (reasoning) faculty in a woman is inferior [inferior], in children it does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent” (Concerning Household Management, 148.14-18). In other words, only men have brains. Women have ½ a brain. Children will have a brain but it doesn’t exist yet. Slaves don’t have a brain at all. Aristotle used to call women “deformed males” (On the Generation of Animals). They may be human, but not completely. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, says: “The woman…is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be obedient” to her husband (Josephus, Ap. 2.24 § 199). The New Testament does talk about wives being submissive to husbands (Eph 5:22), but it never bases the command on some inferiority among women. Rather, like the Trinity, there’s role distinction within the relationship.
Another ancient writer said “The two best days in a woman’s life are when someone marries her and when he carries her dead body to the grave” (quoted in Snodgrass, Ephesians, 302). The book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) says: “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (42:14). In most places, if a girl was not aborted at birth, she would be minimally educated, could not be a witness in a court, and was considered in all respects inferior to men. Women were considered less intelligent, less moral, and sometimes confined to the other side of the house.
There were some exceptions. The Jewish philosopher Philo used to praise the wife of the emperor, calling her “intellectually male.” Hmmm…not quite a compliment. Some Christian leaders weren’t much better. The famous early church preacher named Chrysostom taught that “the female sex is weak and vain.” Really? I’d love to see Chrysostom try to give birth to a child.
This degrading view of women in the ancient world is best portrayed in a letter that we found written by a man named Hilarian to his pregnant wife, Alis (about 1 B.C.). Hilarian is away on business in Alexandria and he’s writing to Alis back in Rome. In it, he says to his beloved bride: “…I am still in Alexandria…If you deliver the child [before I come home], if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.”
So this is the world that Jesus stepped into. And the New Testament, when read against this backdrop, radically upholds the value and worth of women in a way that was unmatched in the ancient world. For instance, when the angel appeared to Zechariah and Elizabeth, it was Elizabeth who believed the word of God and Zechariah who doubted and was therefore unable to speak (Luke 1:5-23). Again, in contrast to Zechariah, Mary the mother of Jesus believes the word of God and sings out in confident praise about the miraculous birth that would come upon her (Luke 1:26-56). In Luke 2:36-38, a prophetess named Anna is described as being a dedicated follower of God and she blesses Jesus when he is presented in the temple. The entire story of Jesus’ birth, according to Luke, elevates the godliness and faith of women, and therefore critiques its surrounding culture that dehumanized women. In Luke 4:26, Jesus compares his ministry to that of Elijah, who in the days of a famine deliberately sought out a widow. In Luke 4:38-39, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law, showing that he valued not just men enough to heal them, but also women. (I wonder if Peter was actually excited about that one.) In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus raises from the dead the son of a widow. In Luke 7:36-50, one of the most dramatic scenes in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is anointed by a women who was probably a prostitute. She’s forgiven; the male Pharisee in room is rebuked. She gets it. He doesn’t. Later on in Luke 10:38-42, we learn about two important women named Mary and Martha, and Mary is seen sitting at Jesus’ feet, which is the posture of a disciple of a rabbi—quite untypical of women.
Now, keep in mind. All of this is just a partial survey of the role of women in the first ½ of one book in the New Testament. We could go on and on, showing you how the entire New Testament exalts the role of women in the growth of the kingdom. We could look at Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, where 5 women are named when it wasn’t customary to name women in a genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. If we had the time, we could look at the Samaritan woman, who was redeemed by Jesus and then became the first missionary to the Samaritan people (John 4). The zeal of women in the book of Acts alone could fill quite a number of blogs. Lydia, for instance, was the very first convert of Europe and became a significant figure in the church at Philippi. Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, was a major catalyst in the growth of the church in several cities in the Mediterranean world. Philip’s daughters (Acts 21) were called prophetesses and mediated God’s word to God’s people. And then there’s Phoebe, the deacon from the seaport town of Cenchrea, who delivered Paul’s letter to the Roman church (i.e. book of Romans). And since the person carrying the letter would usually read it aloud to its recipient(s), it is very likely that the first person to read the book of Romans in church was not Paul, Peter, Augustine, Calvin, or Luther. It was a woman named Phoebe.
This is just a small sampling of women who by the power of the Spirit fueled the growth of the early Church. And this shows that Christianity boldly proclaimed that women were of equal value and worth as men. So 2000 years before women rose up in the 60’s demanding their rights, Jesus, the Lord of all, declared women their rights and infused them with value and dignity—in fact, he died for it! So you don’t need to burn your bras and fight your way up the corporate ladder of success to affirm your equality with men. You just need to embrace Jesus! Because Jesus fought for the value of women all the way to the cross.
It is a shame—it is unfortunate and unbiblical—that at least in some parts of the church today, women have been sidelined as only marginal influences in mediating God’s reign on earth. God seeks to rule the earth through men; God seeks to rule the earth through women (Gen 1:26-28).