In the time of Jesus’s ministry, women were usually regarded as subordinate and inferior in virtually every area of life. They were to remain at home, to be good wives and mothers, and to take no part in public discourse or education. Josephus, a Jewish historian, said: “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive.” It was also said: “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (Sirach).
Jesus, however, by his teaching and actions, affirmed the worth and value of women as persons to be included along with men within God’s love and service. Jesus challenged “sexual put-downs” of women. In Jesus’s setting, the prerogative of divorce belonged almost exclusively with men, and virtually any reason could be used to justify divorce. Jesus tolerated no such “male chauvinism.” He recalled the “one flesh” concept (Genesis 2:24) of mutual partnership and God’s intention for marriage (Matthew 19:3–9). Although women were held responsible, in Jesus’s time, for all sexual sin, Jesus rejected this “sexism” with his dramatic indictment of men: “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
Jesus reached out to women who were rejected. In spite of the laws regarding uncleanness, Jesus allowed a woman with a twelve-year menstrual problem to touch him, and he commended her faith (Mark 5:25–34). Jesus permitted a sinful woman to anoint and kiss his feet (Luke 7:36–50). Jesus challenged religious leaders by saying: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He also offered salvation directly to women who were known as adulteresses (John 4:4–42 and John 8:1–11).
In Jesus’s day responsible teachers were not to teach women. Nevertheless, Jesus taught women and included them in his group of committed disciples. He taught Mary of Bethany and commended her learning to her sister who was carrying out the traditional tasks (Luke 10:38–42). It was to the Samaritan woman that Jesus made his most explicit affirmation that he was the Messiah, and he shared with her his basic mission (John 4:4–42). According to Luke 8:1–3, many women were in Jesus’s band of traveling disciples. These same women were present at the crucifixion and burial and on resurrection morning (Luke 23:49, 55–56; 24:1).
Jesus affirmed the value of committed discipleship and obedience to God, even over the natural and valued role of mother: “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21), and “Blessed [rather than his own mother] are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).
The women Jesus included became the proclaimers of Jesus as Savior and risen Lord. The Samaritan woman was responsible for evangelizing her town (John 4:39–42). All of the Gospels show that it was Jesus’s women disciples who were the first persons to declare the message of Jesus’s resurrection, central to the gospel in the early church.
Among Jesus’s disciples we know of seventeen men by name: the Twelve, Joseph Justus, and Matthias (Acts 1:23), Lazarus, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea. What is not so often noted is that we also know women by name from among his circle of devoted disciples: Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, the “other” Mary, Mary of Bethany, Joanna, Susanna, and Salome.
Jesus’s inclusion of and ministry to and through women within his own life and teaching were a powerful witness to the early church of the partnership of women and men within its membership and ministry.