Jesus' interactions with women

Jesus' interactions with women
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Part of a series on
and Gender

Female disciples of Jesus
Gender roles in Christianity
Jesus' interactions with women
List of women in the Bible
Paul of Tarsus and women
Women as theological figures
Women in the Bible

4 major positions

Christian Egalitarianism
Christian feminism
Biblical patriarchy

Church and society

Christianity and homosexuality
Ordination of women
Women in Church history


Christians for Biblical Equality
Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus

Theologians and authors
Letha Dawson Scanzoni · Anne Eggebroten · Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
William J. Webb · Kenneth E. Hagin · Gordon Fee · Frank Stagg · Paul Jewett · Stanley Grenz · Roger Nicole
Don Carson · John Frame · Wayne Grudem · Douglas Moo · Paige Patterson · Vern Poythress
Doug Phillips · R. C. Sproul, Jr. · Douglas Wilson
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Jesus' interactions with women is an important element in the theological debate about Christianity and women. Women are prominent in the story of Jesus—he was born of a woman, had numerous interactions with women, and was seen first by women after his resurrection.

The most striking thing about the role of women in the life and teaching of Jesus is the simple fact that they are there. Although the gospel texts contain no special sayings repudiating the view of the day about women, their uniform testimony to the presence of women among the followers of Jesus and to his serious teaching of them constitutes a break with tradition which has been described as being ‘without precedent in [then] contemporary Judaism.'[1]
Jesus gave no explicit teaching on the role of women in the church. In fact, he left no teaching at all concerning women as a class of people…. He treated every woman he met as a person in her own right.[2]

The Gospels describe two miracles of Jesus raising persons from the dead.[3] In both incidents the dead are restored to women—to the unnamed widow from Nain her only son[Lk. 7:11–17] and to Mary and Martha their brother Lazarus.[Jn. 11:1–44]


High number of references to women

According to New Testament scholar Dr. Frank Stagg and classicist Evelyn Stagg,[3] the synoptic Gospels of the canonical New Testament[4] contain a relatively high number of references to women. Evangelical Bible scholar Gilbert Bilezikian agrees, especially by comparison with literary works of the same epoch.[5]:p.82 Neither the Staggs nor Bilezikian find any recorded instance where Jesus disgraces, belittles, reproaches, or stereotypes a woman. These writers claim that examples of the manner of Jesus are instructive for inferring his attitudes toward women and show repeatedly how he liberated and affirmed women.[3] Starr writes that of all founders of religions and religious sects, Jesus stands alone as the one who did not discriminate in some way against women. By word or deed he never encouraged the disparagement of a woman.[6] Karen King concludes, based on the account of Jesus' interaction with a Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28, that "an unnamed Gentile woman taught Jesus that the ministry of God is not limited to particular groups and persons, but belongs to all who have faith."[7]

Female disciples

The gospels of the New Testament, written toward the last quarter of the first century CE, often mention Jesus speaking to women publicly and openly against the social norms of the time.[8] From the beginning, Jewish women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means.[Lk. 8:1-3] [9] Kenneth E. Bailey[10] spent 40 years as a Presbyterian professor of New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He writes about Christianity from a Middle Eastern cultural view. He finds evidence that Jesus had women disciples in several New Testament passages. He first cites the reported occasion when Jesus’ family appeared and asked to speak with him. Jesus replied:

"Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

Matthew 12:46-50, emphasis added by Bailey

Bailey argues that according to Middle Eastern customs, Jesus could not properly have gestured to a crowd of men and said, "Here are my brother, and sister, and mother." He could only have said that to a crowd of both men and women. Therefore, the disciples standing before him were composed of men and women.[10]

Unnoticeable women

The Gospels record several instances where Jesus reaches out to "unnoticeable" women, inconspicuous silent sufferers who blend into the background and are seen by others as "negligible entities destined to exist on the fringes of life."[5] Jesus notices them, recognizes their need and, "in one gloriously wrenching moment, He thrusts them on center stage in the drama of redemption with the spotlights of eternity beaming down upon them, and He immortalizes them in sacred history."[5]:p.82

Peter's mother-in-law

The three synoptic gospels all record the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law. When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He healed the woman of fever by touching her hand. She rose and began to wait on him.[Mt. 8:14–15] [Mk. 1:30–31] [Lk. 4:38–39] With this particular healing, something unique occurs. Quite often, after being healed, people left Jesus to go about their renewed lives. Peter's mother-in-law, however, immediately rose and began to "serve" him.

The woman who touched Jesus' garment

Illustration by Paolo Veronese of Jesus healing the woman with a flow of blood.
Mark 5:25-34

Jesus practiced the ministry of touch, sometimes touching the "untouchables" and letting them touch him. Among the things considered defiling (disqualifying one for the rituals of religion) was an issue of blood, especially menstruation or hemorrhage. One such woman had been plagued with a flow of blood for 12 years, no one having been able to heal her. She found the faith in a crowd to force her way up to Jesus, approaching him from behind so as to remain inconspicuous, and simply touching his garment.[Mk. 5:27] When she did, two things happened: the flows of blood stopped and she was discovered.[5]:p.83

Jesus turned and asked who touched him. The disciples tried to brush aside the question, protesting that in such a crowd no individual could be singled out. Jesus pressed his inquiry and the woman identified herself and declared to the crowd the blessing that had come to her. Jesus treated her as having worth, not rebuking her for what the cultic code of holiness would have considered as having defiled him. Rather, he relieved her of any sense of guilt for her seemingly rash act, lifted her up and called her "Daughter." He told her that her faith saved her, gave her his love, and sent her away whole.[Mk. 5:34]

Fontaine writes, "The 'chutzpah' shown by the woman who bled for 12 years as she wrests her salvation from the healer's cloak is as much a measure of her desperation as it is a testimony to her faith."[11]:p.291 Fontaine comments that "the Bible views women as a group of people who are fulfilled, legitimated, given full membership into their community, and cared for in old age by their children," and that barren women risked ostracism from their communities. She notes that when disabled people are healed, the act "emphasizes primarily the remarkable compassion of the one doing the good deed, not the deserving nature or dignity of the recipient."[11]:p.290

Daughter of Jairus

Mark 5:35-43

Jairus was one of the rulers of the Jewish synagogue, and had a daughter who had been very ill and was now at the point of death. She was an only daughter, and was twelve years of age. So hearing that Jesus was near, Jairus came to Jesus, and, falling down before him, implored Jesus to come and see his sick daughter. She had been comatose, and in Matthew 9:18 her father says she is already dead. Jesus went to her, even though the others mocked him and said it was too late. When he saw her body, he took her by the hand. She "arose." Jesus noticed she was hungry, so he told them to hurry up and give her some lunch. Then he left.[5]:p.84

Widow of Nain

Luke 7:11-17

There was a widow in a remote small town on a hillside in Galilee. Only she and her son were left of her family. However, he died and they were taking him to the same place where her husband was buried. Jesus noticed the grieving woman in the funeral procession. Jesus gave the command "Arise!" and gave the bewildered son back to his mother. "They all knew that God had a special love for the little widow with one son in Nain of Galilee."[5]:p.84

The woman bent double

According to Luke,[13:10-17] Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus saw a woman who had been "crippled by a spirit for eighteen years." She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. He called to the woman, said "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity, then laid his hands on her body, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.[13:13]

The synagogue ruler, the defender of the Sabbath, was indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. Rather than confront Jesus, he rebuked the woman publicly by saying to the whole congregation, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." In response, Jesus said, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"[Lk. 13:15-16] The Staggs[3] emphasize that this is the only reference in New Testament to "a daughter of Abraham." They conclude that Jesus spoke of this woman as though she belonged to the family of Abraham just as much as did the sons of Abraham.

Women as faith models

Jesus presented women as models of faith to his listeners. In the culture of the day, women were neither to be seen nor heard since they were considered "corrupting influences to be shunned and disdained."[5]

The widow of Zarephath

Luke 4:24-26

The Queen of the South

Luke 11:31

Parable of the Ten Virgins

Matthew 25:1-13

The persistent widow

Luke 18:1-8

A poor widow's offering

Luke 21:1-4

The story of a poor widow's casting of "two copper coins" into the Temple treasury appears in Mark 12:41–44 and in Luke 21:1–4. What a poor widow gave to God was the totality of her belongings. Women had only limited access to the Temple in Jerusalem. There Jesus found the most praiseworthy piety and sacrificial giving—not in the rich contributors—but in a poor woman.[3]

Women as models of Jesus' work

In the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Leaven, Jesus presents his own work and the growth of the Kingdom of God in terms of a woman and her domestic work.[12] These parables follow the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Mustard Seed respectively, and share the same messages as their more male-oriented counterparts.

Joel B. Green writes of the Parable of the Leaven that Jesus "asks people — male or female, privileged or peasant, it does not matter — to enter the domain of a first-century woman and household cook in order to gain perspective on the domain of God."[13]

Condemnation of one-sided legislation

Jesus redefines adultery

Matthew 5:27-30

Divorce revoked

Matthew 5:31-32

Redemption for prostitutes

Luke 7:36-50

Monogamous marriage vindicated

Matthew 19:3-12

Mary, mother of Jesus

Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem

Lk. 2:41–52

The canonical Gospels offer only one story about Jesus as a boy—Luke's story about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. According to Luke, his parents, Joseph and Mary, took the 12-year-old Jesus to Jerusalem on their annual pilgrimage to the Passover. Mary and Joseph started their journey home without Jesus, thinking he was somewhere in the caravan with kinsmen or acquaintances. When his parents found him three days later, Mary said, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." The boy Jesus respectfully but firmly reminded her of a higher claim he must answer: "Didn't you know I had to be about my Father's business?"[3]:pp.103-104, 224 It is noteworthy that in obedience to his parents Jesus left and was subject to them.

The wedding at Cana of Galilee

Jn. 2:1–11

Mary told Jesus the wine was in short supply. Today his reply may seem curt: "Woman, what have I to do with you? My hour is not yet come."[Jn. 2:4]

Neither here nor elsewhere does Jesus renounce the mother-son relationship as such, but here, as in Luke 2:49, he declares his vocational (ministerial) independence of his mother. He has an "hour" to meet, and Mary, though his mother, can neither hasten nor hinder its coming.[3]:pp.103-104, 236

Most scholars believe that in Jesus' reply to his mother there was no disrespect. According to Matthew Henry's Commentary, he used the same word when speaking to Mary with affection from the cross.[14] Scholar Lyn M. Bechtel disagrees with this reading. She writes that the use of the word "woman" in reference to Jesus' mother is "startling. Although it would not be improper or disrespectful to address an ordinary woman in this way (as he often does: see John 4:21, 8:10, 20:13-15), it is inappropriate to call his mother 'woman'" (Bechtel 1997, p. 249). Bechtel further argues that this is a device Jesus uses to distance himself from Judaism.

However, Bishop William Temple says there is no English phrase that represents the original "Woman, leave me to myself." "In the Greek it is perfectly respectful and can even be tender—as in John 19:27…. We have no corresponding term; 'lady' is precious, and 'madam' is formal. So we must translate simply and let the context give the tone."[15]

Mary of Magdala

Mary Magdalene (also called Miriam of Magdala) is among the women depicted in the New Testament who accompanied Jesus and his twelve apostles, and who also helped to support the men financially.[Lk. 8:2–3] According to Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56, John 19:25, and Luke 23:49, she was one of the women who remained at Jesus' crucifixion. The New Testament says she saw Jesus laid in a tomb. Mark 16:9 reports that after his resurrection, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. The New Testament also says that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her.

For centuries, Mary Magdalene had been incorrectly identified in Western Christianity as an adulteress and repentant prostitute, although nowhere does the New Testament identify her as such. Discoveries of new texts and critical insight have now proven that portrait of Mary is entirely inaccurate. According to Harvard theologian Dr. Karen King, Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership.[7]

King cites references in the Gospel of John that the risen Jesus gives Mary special teaching and commissions her as an "apostle to the apostles." She is the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her (though, in Eastern Christianity she is referred to as "Equal to the Apostles"). Later tradition, however, names her as "the apostle to the apostles." King writes that the strength of this literary tradition makes it possible to suggest that historically Mary was a prophetic visionary and leader within one sector of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.[7] Asbury Theological Seminary Bible scholar Ben Witherington III confirms the New Testament account of Mary Magdalene as historical: "Mary was an important early disciple and witness for Jesus."[16] He continues, "There is absolutely no early historical evidence that Miriam's relationship with Jesus was anything other than that of a disciple to her Master teacher."

Jeffrey Kripal, Chair of Rice University's Department of Religious Studies, writes that Christian Gnostic texts put Mary Magdalene in a central position of authority, but these texts were excluded from orthodox Biblical canons. Kripal describes Mary Magdalene as a tragic figure who maintained an important role later diminished by the male church leadership (Kripal 2007, p. 51). Kripal explains that gnostic texts suggest an intimate, possibly sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but that Jesus' sexuality is absolutely ambiguous based on the available evidence: "The historical sources are simply too contradictory and simultaneously too silent on the matter" (Kripal 2007, p. 50).

According to Kripal, the gnostic texts "consistently [present] Mary as an inspired visionary, as a potent spiritual guide, as Jesus' intimate companion, even as the interpreter of his teaching" (Kripal 2007, p. 52). Kripal writes that theologies of the European Middle Ages likely invented the notion of a sexual relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus: "The medieval Catharists and Albigensians, for example, held that Mary was Jesus' concubine. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther also assumed a sexual relationship between the two, perhaps to give some historical precedent for his own dramatic rejection of Catholic celibacy".(Kripal 2007, p. 52)

The woman taken in adultery

"The adulterous woman" by Lorenzo Lotto.
John 7:53–8:11

This story, beloved for its revelation of God's mercy toward sinners, is found only in John's Gospel.[17] Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some scribes and Pharisees interrupted his teaching as they brought in a woman who had been taken in the very act of adultery. Their treatment of the woman is callous and demeaning. They stood her before him, declared the charge, reminded him of Moses' command that such women be stoned. More precisely, the law speaks of the death of both the man and the woman involved.[Lev. 20:10] [Deut. 22:22-24] We are left wondering why the man was not brought in along with the woman.

"What do you say?" they asked. If he is lax toward the law, then he is condemned. But if he holds a strict line, then he has allowed them to prevail in their ungodly treatment of this woman and will be held responsible by the Romans if the stoning proceeds. After a time of silence, Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground. It was unlawful to write even two letters on the sabbath but writing with dust was permissible (m. shabbat 7:2; 12:5). The text includes no hint of what he wrote. The woman's accusers were trying to entrap Jesus, not just the woman. To them she was a worthless object to be used to "catch" Jesus on a theological legal issue.

Finally, Jesus stood up and said to the accusers, "Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone." He stooped down once more and again wrote on the ground. In his answer Jesus did not condone adultery. He compelled her accusers to judge themselves and find themselves guilty—of this sin and/or others. No one could pass the test, and they slipped out one by one, beginning with the eldest.

When Jesus and the woman were finally alone, he asked her a simple question, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She simply replied, "No one, Lord." She becomes a memorable example of the fact that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.[Jn. 3:17] Jesus says to her, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on no longer sin."[Jn. 8:11]

Here is mercy and righteousness. He condemned the sin and not the sinner (Augustine In John 33.6). But more than that, he called her to a new life. While acknowledging that she had sinned, he turned her in a new direction with real encouragement. Jesus rejected the double standard for women and men and turned the judgment upon the male accusers. His manner with the sinful woman was such that she found herself challenged to a new self-understanding and a new life.[3][18]

The woman at the well in Samaria

Orthodox icon of Photina, the Samaritan woman, meeting Jesus by the well.

The long account about Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well is found in John 4:1–42 and is highly significant for understanding Jesus in several relationships: Samaritans, women, and sinners. By talking openly with this woman Jesus crossed a number of barriers which normally would have separated a Jewish teacher from such a person as this woman of Samaria. Jesus did three things that were highly unconventional and astonishing for his cultural-religious situation:

  1. He as a man discussed theology openly with a woman.
  2. He as a Jew asked to drink from the ritually unclean bucket of a Samaritan.
  3. He did not avoid her, even though he knew her marital record of having had five former husbands and now living with a man who was not her husband.

The disciples showed their astonishment upon their return to the well: "They were marveling that he was talking with a woman.[Jn. 4:27] A man in the Jewish world did not normally talk with a woman in public, not even with his own wife. For a rabbi to discuss theology with a woman was even more unconventional. Jesus did not defer to a woman simply because she was a woman. He did not hesitate to ask of the woman that she let him drink from her vessel, but he also did not hesitate to offer her a drink of another kind from a Jewish "bucket" as he said to her, "Salvation is of the Jews."[Jn. 4:22] Salvation was coming to the Samaritan woman from the Jews, and culturally there was great enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans (considered a half-breed race by the Jews).[19] Although she was a Samaritan, she needed to be able to drink from a Jewish "vessel" (of salvation) and Jesus no more sanctioned Samaritan prejudice against Jew than Jewish prejudice against Samaritan.

This is an event without precedent: that a woman, and what is more a “sinful woman,” becomes a “disciple” of Christ. Indeed, once taught, she proclaims Christ to the inhabitants of Samaria, so that they too receive him with faith. This is an unprecedented event, if one remembers the usual way women were treated by those who were teachers in Israel; whereas in Jesus of Nazareth’s way of acting such an event becomes normal.

John Paul II[20]

The key to Jesus' stance is found in his perceiving persons as persons. He saw the stranger at the well as someone who first and foremost was a person—not primarily a Samaritan, a woman, or a sinner. This evangelized woman became an evangelist. She introduced her community to "a man" whom they came to acclaim as "the Savior of the world."[Jn. 4:42] Jesus liberated this woman and awakened her to a new life in which not only did she receive but also gave. The Bible says she brought "many Samaritans" to faith in Christ.[v.39] If the men in John 1 were the first "soul winners," this woman was the first "evangelist" in John's gospel.[3]

Syrophoenician woman

The story in Mk. 7:24–30 and its parallel in Mt. 15:21–28 is unlike any other in the canonical Gospels. Jesus seems harsh toward the woman as he first denies her request for help for her daughter. He also appears to be condescending and denigrating of her as he says, "First let the children be fed, for it is not fitting to take the bread of the children and throw it to the dogs."[Mk. 7:27] In the context, "the children" seem to be Jews and "the dogs" Gentiles.

She is identified as "a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race."[Mk. 7:25] The point is not that she is a woman but that she is Gentile and not Jewish. "Dogs" was epithet of the day for Gentiles, and Jesus appears to be on the side of Jewish contempt for Gentiles. In both Mark and Matthew, non-Jews are likened to "dogs," and a woman deeply concerned for her daughter's condition is brushed off until she herself prevails in her discourse with Jesus. Why Jesus appeared harsh to a disadvantaged person and also lost the brief debate with her is still debated among authorities. Three interpretations seem possible:

  1. Jesus could have been instructing his disciples, first assuming a familiar Jewish prejudice toward non-Jews and then abandoning it as its unfairness was exposed. The story may have served as an object lesson about prejudice to his disciples as a barrier is broken down between Jews and Gentiles.
  2. Jesus may have been testing the woman's faith. Jesus' parting word to her is one of affirmation and acclaim. She passed his test.
  3. A third possibility suggests a deep struggle within Jesus as he dealt with the claims of both Jew and Gentile. Jesus demonstrated a universal perspective of that day. He had openness to Jews who were outside of accepted circles (publicans, sinners, prostitutes). He also went out of his way to affirm Samaritans (for example, the woman at the well) who as an ethnic group had mutual animosity with the Jews. It is clear that he had to give himself unreservedly to Israel and yet also to the rest of the world. Jesus may have been having a deep honest struggle within himself over the claims of two worlds upon him.

As to the manner of Jesus with women, he did not substitute uncritical deference for prejudice against women. He related to women as persons with words and dignity. In this story as elsewhere, Jesus is seen as capable of manifesting a critical stance toward woman and at the same time being respectful of her self-affirmation as she boldly countered his own remarks.[3]

Mary and Martha

Luke and John show that Jesus had a close relationship with the sisters Mary and Martha.[3] They are featured in three major stories:

  1. A tension between the two sisters over roles[Lk. 10:38–42)]
  2. Grief at the death of their brother Lazarus, followed by his being raised,[Jn. 11:1–44] and
  3. The anointing of Jesus by Mary (explicitly in John 12:1–8); presumably in Mark 14:3–9; Matthew 26:6–13).

Kitchen and study

Only Luke relates the story of tension between Martha and Mary on the occasion of the visit of Jesus to their home.[Lk. 10:38–42] While Martha prepared the meal, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and "she was hearing his word."[Lk. 10:39] Martha became distracted and frustrated over having to serve the meal without any help from her sister. Finally she openly shared her feelings, stood over Jesus who was either seated or reclining, and complained: "She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" Jesus gently rebuked Martha for being so distracted and troubled over many things, when only one thing was necessary. "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."[Lk. 10:41-42]

Mary's choice was not a conventional one for Jewish women. She sat at the feet of Jesus and was listening to his teaching and religious instruction. Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah. Not only did Mary choose the "good part," but Jesus related to her in a teacher-discipleship relationship. He admitted her into "the study" and commended her for her choice. In the tradition of that day, women were excluded from the altar-oriented priestly ministry, and the exclusion encroached upon the Word-oriented ministry for women. Jesus reopened the Word-ministry for woman. Mary was at least one of his students in theology.

Jesus vindicated Mary's rights to be her own person—to be Mary and not Martha. He showed his approval of a woman's right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. Jesus established his own priorities in declaring, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding out through the mouth of God.[Mt. 4:4] Martha needed to be reminded of the priority of Word over bread. Luke's account of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha puts Jesus solidly on the side of the recognition of the full personhood of woman, with the right to options for her own life. By socializing with both sisters and in defending Mary's right to a role then commonly denied to Jewish women, Jesus was following his far-reaching principle of human liberation.[3]

The grieving sisters

John 11:1–44 is about the raising of Lazarus from four days in the tomb. This famous story of Lazarus' resurrection is one of Jesus' best-known miracles. But it is also a striking reminder that while God works all things for the best, He doesn't always do it according to the schedules we expect.[21]

Jesus' followers had given up hope after Lazarus' death, but Jesus had a plan to glorify God and heal Lazarus in a more spectacular way than anyone expected. The central figure, however, is Jesus, identified as "the resurrection and the life." When the brother of Mary and Martha became ill, they sent for Jesus. For some undisclosed reason, Jesus did not arrive until four days after Lazarus died. The grieving sisters, Martha first and then Mary, met Jesus. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and then proclaimed himself as "the resurrection and the life." Martha gently reproached Jesus, "Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died." She hastened to express full confidence that God would grant whatever Jesus asked him to grant. Martha reflected a spiritual understanding beyond that required for preparing and serving a meal.[Jn. 11:21–27]

Apparently, Martha and not just Mary had benefited from the study. Mary stayed in the house until Jesus called for her. When Martha went to get her, Mary came quickly fell at Jesus' feet (Mary is at the feet of Jesus in every appearance recorded in John's gospel). She repeated the words Martha already had used: "Lord, had you been here my brother would not have died." Jesus was deeply moved upon seeing Mary and her friends weeping. They invited Jesus to come and see the tomb where Lazarus had been laid. Jesus burst into tears. The Jews standing by understood this as reflecting Jesus is love for Lazarus, "see how he loved him" (v. 36). The foursome of Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, and Martha had a close relationship as persons, with neither denial of gender differences nor preoccupation with it. Here were persons of both genders whose mutual respect, friendship and love carried them through experiences of tension, grief, enjoy. Apparently Jesus was secure enough to develop such a relationship with two sisters and their brother without fear for his reputation. When necessary, he could oppose them without fear of chauvinism. Jesus had much to do with the liberation and growth of Martha and Mary.[3]

In the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus meets with the sisters in turn: Martha followed by Mary. Martha goes immediately to meet Jesus as he arrives, while Mary waits until she is called. As one commentator notes, "Martha, the more aggressive sister, went to meet Jesus, while quiet and contemplative Mary stayed home. This portrayal of the sisters agrees with that found in Luke 10:38-42."[22] When Mary meets Jesus, she falls at his feet. In speaking with Jesus, both sisters lament that he did not arrive in time to prevent their brother's death: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."[Jn. 11:21,32] But where Jesus' response to Martha is one of teaching calling her to hope and faith, his response to Mary is more emotional: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.[Jn. 11:33] As the 17th century British commentator Matthew Henry notes, "Mary added no more, as Martha did; but it appears, by what follows, that what she fell short in words she made up in tears; she said less than Martha, but wept more."[23]

Two anointings of Jesus

The Gospels present two stories of Jesus being anointed by a woman: (1) three accounts of his being anointed in Bethany, only John’s account identifying Mary with the anointing; and (2) one account of Jesus being anointed by a sinful woman who definitely was neither Mary (of Mary and Martha) nor Mary Magdalene.[24]

The Eastern Orthodox Church views Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the "sinful woman" as three different individuals, and also maintains that Jesus was anointed on two different occasions: once by Mary of Bethany and once by the "sinful woman."

The anointing in Bethany

Jesus is quoted in Matthew as assuring that the story of a woman's sacrificial love and devotion to him will have a place in the gospel wherever preached. Mary probably anticipated Jesus' death, but that is not certain. At least her beautiful deed gave Jesus needed support as he approached his awaited hour. Each of the two sisters Mary and Martha had their own way of ministering to Jesus: Martha, perhaps being more practical, served him a meal; Mary lavishly anointed him.

A narrative in which Mary of Bethany plays a central role (in at least one of the accounts) is the event reported by the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John in which a woman pours the entire contents of an alabastron of very expensive perfume over the head of Jesus. Only in the John account[Jn. 12:1-8] is the woman identified as Mary, with the earlier reference in Jn. 11:1-2 establishing her as the sister of Martha and Lazarus. The woman's name in not given in the Gospels of Matthew[26:6-13] and Mark.[14:3-9] According to Mark's account, the perfume was the purest of spikenard. Some of the onlookers are angered because this expensive perfume could have been sold for a year's wages, which Mark enumerates as 300 denarii, and the money given to the poor.

The Gospel of Matthew states that the "disciples were indignant" and John's gospel states that it was Judas who was most offended (which is explained by the narrator as being because Judas was a thief and desired the money for himself). In the accounts, Jesus justifies Mary's action by stating that they would always have the poor among them and would be able to help them whenever they desired, but that he would not always be with them. He says that her anointing was done to prepare him for his burial. "Mary seems to have been the only one who was sensitive to the impending death of Jesus and who was willing to give a material expression of her esteem for him. Jesus' reply shows his appreciation of her act of devotion."[22]

Easton (1897) noted that it would appear from the circumstances that the family of Lazarus possessed a family vault[Jn. 11:38] and that a large number of Jews from Jerusalem came to console them on the death of Lazarus,[11:19] that this family at Bethany belonged to the wealthier class of the people. This may help explain how Mary of Bethany could afford to possess quantities of expensive perfume.[25]

The anointing by a repentant sinner

In the Gospel of Luke,[7:36-50] Jesus is an invited guest in the home of Simon the Pharisee. All at the table were men. During the meal a woman known as "a sinner" entered the room and anointed Jesus' feet with her tears and with some ointment. Her tears fell upon his feet and she wiped them with her hair.

The Bible does not say whether she had encountered Jesus in person prior to this. The nature of her sin is not disclosed. Women of the time had few options, and it is likely (but not certain) that her sin was the familiar one of prostitution. Had she been an adulteress, she would have been stoned. When Jesus permitted her to express her love and appreciation as she did, the host rejected it contemptuously. At a minimum this story shows the manner of Jesus with one sinful woman, which may have been so well known that this woman had the courage to take such a great risk to publicly express her love for him who saw her not as a sex object to be exploited, but as a person of worth.

Women who ministered with Jesus

Luke 8:1–3

Luke's gospel is unique in documenting that there were many women who not only benefited personally from Jesus' ministry but who ministered to him and with him even to the point of accompanying him and the Twelve on evangelistic journeys. Most prominent among these is Mary Magdalene.[3]

Luke 8:1–3 in the Greek text is one long sentence. Its three main focal points are Jesus, the Twelve, and certain women. Jesus is traveling through cities and towns, preaching the Kingdom of God, evangelizing, and accompanied by the Twelve. Other than mentioning that the Twelve were with him, nothing more is said of them here. The chief motive of the paragraph seems to be to bring certain women, of whom there were "many," in the focus. This passage represents them as recipients of healing at different levels of need and as actively participating with Jesus and the Twelve in their travels, with special reference to their financial support. Luke says there were many of them and that these included women prominent in the public life of the state as well as in the church.

Luke's account specifies two categories of healing: evil spirits and infirmities. Jesus liberated and humanized people who otherwise were being enslaved or destroyed by forces within themselves and in society. Jesus healed many women of "evil spirits and infirmities." Only of Mary Magdalene does Luke provide any detail of her healing, stating that "seven demons" had been cast out. Presumably these "many" women had been healed of various illnesses, physical, emotional, and mental. No specific data is provided on Mary Magdalene's "seven demons." It is significant that women whose conditions subjected them to scorn and penalty found in Jesus a Liberator who not only enabled them to find health, but whom he dignified as full persons by accepting their own ministries to himself and to the Twelve.[3]

It is significant that women had an open and prominent part in the ministry of Jesus. Luke's word for their "ministering" is widely used in the New Testament. Its noun cognate, diakonos, is variously translated "minister," "servant," and "deacon" (the latter in Romans 16:1 for Phoebe and in the pastoral letters). In summary, Jesus attracted to his movement a large number of women, ranging from some in desperate need to some in official circles of government.[3]

Jesus on family relationships

Jesus ate with a Pharisee leader one evening where he invited the gathered guests to follow him.[Mt. 12:46] The guests gave reasons why they could not follow him, including marriage and recent financial acquisitions.[Lk. 14:18–20] Jesus responded, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple."[Lk. 14:26]

Various expositors suggest that "hate" is an example of comparative hyperbolic biblical language, prominent in some Eastern cultures even today, to imply "love less than you give me," "compared to Christ,"[26] the Semitic idea of "lower preference," a call to count the cost of following Jesus.[27]

When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers waited for him outside and wanted to speak to him, Jesus created a novel definition of family. He said to the people who were gathered to hear him speak, "Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, 'Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.'"[Mt. 12:48–50]

Twelve and no women

There were no women among the Twelve, neither were there any Gentiles. Each of the four listings in the New Testament indicates that all of the Twelve were Jewish males:

The names vary in the four lists, but their male identity is clear. Why were the Twelve all men? The fact that they were is often cited as biblical evidence that pastors should all be male. The New Testament gives no clear answer why the example of Jesus in choosing his apostles is not a complete overcoming of male bias.[3]

Several considerations may be placed alongside this one. Jesus advanced various principles that went beyond their immediate implementation. For example, he clearly repudiated the Jew-Samaritan antipathy, affirming not only his own Jewish kin but also the Samaritan. Yet, there are no Samaritans among the Twelve. Jesus affirmed both women and Samaritans as persons with fullest right to identity, freedom, and responsibility, but for some undisclosed reason he included neither in the circle of the Twelve.[3]

Perhaps custom here was so entrenched that Jesus simply stopped short of fully implementing a principle that he made explicit and emphatic: "whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."[Mk. 3:35]

By selecting 12 Jewish males, Jesus may have been offering a parallel to the 12 patriarchs or 12 tribes of Israel, each headed by a son of Jacob.[3]

Another possible explanation surrounds the purpose stated for his choosing the Twelve: " that they might be with him."[Mk. 3:14] They were his constant companions day and night—except when he sent them out to preach. It was the custom for Jewish rabbis to have such an entourage of disciples. "Such close and sustained association with a member of the opposite sex would have given rise to defamatory rumor."[6]:p.174

However the restriction of the Twelve to Jewish men is to be accounted for, Jesus did introduce far-reaching principles which bore fruit even in a former rabbi, the Apostle Paul, who at least in vision could say, "There is not any Jew nor Greek, not any slave nor free, not in male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."[Gal. 3:28] Further, the inclusion of "many" women in the traveling company of Jesus represents a decisive move in the formation of a new community. The Twelve are all men and also are all Jews, but even at this point women "minister" to them. Unless one would argue that "apostolic succession" (however adapted) is for Jews only, it cannot be argued that it is for men only.[3]

A likely explanation is that Jesus began where he was, within the structures of Judaism as he knew it in his upbringing. His closest companions initially may have been Jews, men, and men of about his own age. He began there, but he did not stop there. Even in the early stages of his mission, women were becoming deeply involved at the power center of Jesus' movement.[3]


  1. ^ James Hurley, pp. 82-83, citing W. Forster, Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times. London, 1964, p.124.
  2. ^ Grenz, Stanley. Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry. InterVarsity, 1995, p.71
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Woman in the World of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Pr, 1978. ISBN 978-0-664-24195-7
  4. ^ Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles. Baker, 1989. ISBN 0-8010-0885-9
  6. ^ a b Starr, Lee Anna. The Bible Status of Woman. Zarephath, N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1955.
  7. ^ a b c King, Karen I. "Women in Ancient Christianity: the New Discoveries." Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Frontline: From Jesus to Christ—The First Christians. Online: Accessed 01–11–2008.
  8. ^ Blevins, Carolyn DeArmond, Women in Christian History: A Bibliography. Macon, Georgia: Mercer Univ Press, 1995. ISBN 0-86554-493-X
  9. ^ King, Karen L. "Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries."
  10. ^ a b Bailey, Kenneth E. "Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View," Theology Matters, Jan/Feb 2000
  11. ^ a b Fontaine, Carole R. (1996), "Disabilities and Illness in the Bible: A Feminist Perspective", written at Sheffield, U.K., in Athalya Brenner, A Feminist Companion to The Hebrew Bible in the New Testament (1st ed.), Sheffield Academic Press
  12. ^ Ben Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A study of Jesus' attitudes to women and their roles as reflected in his earthly life, Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 0521347815, p. 39–41.
  13. ^ Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0802823157, p. 527.
  14. ^ Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary
  15. ^ William Temple, Readings in St John's Gospel. London: MacMillan, 1961. p. 35,36
  16. ^ Witherington, Ben III. "Mary, Mary, Extraordinary,"
  17. ^ The earliest Greek manuscripts, the earliest translations and the earliest church fathers all lack reference to this story. Most of Christendom, however, has received this story as authoritative, and modern scholarship, although concluding firmly that it was not a part of John's Gospel originally, has generally recognized that this story describes an event from the life of Christ. Furthermore, it is as well written and as theologically profound as anything else in the Gospels.
  18. ^ "Jesus Forgives a Woman Taken in Adultery." InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentaries. Oct. 2, 2009: <>
  19. ^ Deffinbaugh, Bob. "The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)." <>
  20. ^ John Paul II. The Dignity and Genius of Women. Love & Responsibility Foundation, Cold Spring, NY October 2003. Web: 17 Jan 2010 John Paul II
  21. ^ "Lazarus." Oct. 2, 2009. <>
  22. ^ a b Tenney, Merrill C.. Kenneth L. Barker & John Kohlenberger III. ed. Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 
  23. ^ Henry, Matthew (1706). Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible. 
  24. ^ Discussed in Van Til, Kent A. Three Anointings and One offering: The Sinful Woman in Luke 7.36-50, Journal of Pentecostal Theology, Volume 15, Number 1, 2006, pp. 73-82(10). However, the author of this article does not himself hold to this view.
  25. ^ "Mary", Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.
  26. ^ John Wesley
  27. ^ John Darby

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