A study of history shows that one of Christianity’s major gifts was an elevation in the status of women. In the ancient world most societies gave women a low status.
In Greek culture, a female had a low value. Female infanticides far outnumbered male infanticides. A boy who was not a slave would be schooled, but not a girl. So when girls became adults they generally could not read or write. They were expected to be quiet in the presence of men and not join in the conversation (so said Homer and Sophocles and Aristotle). An Athenian woman could not even eat with her husband, if he had a male guest at the meal.
Likewise, Roman women did not enjoy a great deal of freedom or respect. For example, a Roman wife could not divorce her husband, but he could divorce her at any time. The Roman woman had hardly any property rights, and a legal limit was placed on the amount she could inherit or pass on to her own children. A Roman husband had the legal right to “chastise” his wife if he did not like her behavior, yet she could not bring a legal complaint if he were abusive.
And, in Greek and Roman temples, women were used as prostitutes.
Although women were not used as prostitutes in Jewish worship, there were still problems. Within Judaism, particularly in the rabbinic era (from about 400 BC to 300 AD), women were not allowed to testify in court. Women were prevented from reading Scripture or speaking in worship settings. Historian Raphael Patai says that women were not even permitted to sing in synagogues until the late 1700s, and then only in Reformed synagogues.
All this in the era in which Jesus lived and brought new dignity to women. His remarkable deeds opposed the spirit of his age.
No self-respecting man would talk to a strange woman in public, yet Jesus sat and talked with a Samaritan woman by a public well. Jews and Samaritans hated or resented each other, yet Jesus broke two customs in order to talk with this woman about her spiritual needs.
Jesus said he came to bring eternal life to all people, to Samaritans as well as Jews, to women as well as men. “I come that you may have life, have life to the fullest measure” (John 10:10).
One rabbi said, “Let the words of the Law (Torah) be burned rather than committed to a woman ...” (Sotah 3.4). Yet Jesus violated this rabbinic teaching. He was willing to teach Mary, along with his disciples, when she wanted to learn from him. Martha objected not only because more work fell on her, but because Mary was violating a strong custom. But Jesus accepted Mary as his student that day and said that she would receive a blessing.
He also taught Martha in a verbal exchange at her brother’s tomb. There he elicited her faith that he would bring resurrection life (John 11:25-26). In these instances, he showed that a woman was worthy of his attention and spiritual guidance. He showed that the spiritual life of women matters to God as much as the spiritual life of men.
When the gospel stories were read in churches or Christian homes in the ensuing years of the Roman Empire, the significance of these stories were immediately understood by women everywhere. They were drawn to this Jesus who loved them righteously and dignified them.
Also of great importance was the historical fact that after his death and burial, the first appearances of the risen Jesus were to women. He chose women to be the first messengers of the joyous resurrection news.
In accordance with the light given through the words and deeds of Jesus, women were made welcome in the early Church. This is not to say that all subsequent generations have lived up to the teaching and practice of Jesus, but throughout the Mediterranean world, in the Roman Empire, people took notice. Women were treated with greater dignity by Christian families and communities than had been seen previously. People everywhere took note.
This was a major advance for women. In fact, it was revolutionary. Women became so committed to the Christian faith that they witnessed in their own family circles, even when they were beaten as a consequence. During the various years of Roman persecution, many of those willing to die for their faith in Christ were women. The list of martyrs includes scores of women.
Their allegiance to Jesus and his “way” was seen as a threat to the power structure and “tranquility” of both Empire and home life. But having encountered the good news of Jesus, they would not turn back.
I mention the hostility they encountered to point something out: many of the stories of Jesus in the gospel books could not have been made up at the time of Jesus. This is particularly the case with the stories of his interaction with women. There was no cultural incentive anywhere to elevate the status and dignity of women the way he did. This was uninventable. And women in the Roman world knew it.
The world had never seen anyone like Jesus.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. You may e-mail him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.