Before the birth of Jesus, three prophetesses were inspired by God to speak and to instruct men. The first is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:42-45). Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also inspired to praise God in response to learning that God had selected her to bear the Messiah (Luke 1:46-55).
Anna the prophetess also prophesied about Jesus, and did so in the temple courts, the most public place of worship in all Israel (Luke 2:36-37). Moreover, she testified about Jesus in the temple courts “to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna was not only prophesying, she was teaching. Her words were the teaching of men in public. The words of all three prophetesses are preserved in scriptures as inspired speech.
Now, some would argue that prophetic utterance is an exception because the words come from God. But that argument only works if you start with the assumption that women was flawed, gullible creatures. If your argument in ontological — that women simply have a different place in the created order — then why would God choose women for this purpose? Why not have the speeches made by the women’s husbands?
In fact, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, and Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, never speak prophetically. Surely if God wanted to teach us the ontological role of women as hearers, not teachers, he’d have had the men do the teaching.
Jesus’ treatment of women
Jesus said much that relates to the theme of this book, and His words will be referred to as we work through the key passages. We should note, first, that Jesus never talked down to or subordinated women. He uniformly honored women.
His attitude toward women would be considered “liberated” today and it was revolutionary in the First Century. Women were a part of His inner circle. As is discussed in more detail later, the Jews in the First Century believed that it was wrong to teach women about God’s law (except for the penalty for adultery!), and yet He taught women (such as Mary and Martha) even when men weren’t present. He dealt with the Samaritan woman as a sinner but a significant person worthy of His time and effort. His dealing with the woman taken in adultery repudiated the hypocritical sexism of the day. After all, the man she was with was not taken out to be stoned!
Everett Ferguson disagrees, pointing out that “Jesus described the end of distinctive functions based on sex as abolished in the resurrection, not in the present (Luke 20:34-36).” Luke writes,
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
Jesus is plainly not discussing “the end of distinctive functions based on sex,” but rather, the end of marriage. Thus, contrary to Ferguson, Jesus does not declare that the sexes will have distinct functions until the resurrection, only that marriage will end in the resurrection.
Less frequently observed are the compliments Jesus paid to women. The sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears “loved much” (Luke 7:47). The Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter had “great faith” (Matt. 15:27). The widow who gave two very small copper coins “put more into the treasury than all the others” (Mark 12:43).
On the other hand, Jesus accused the apostles themselves of being of “little faith” (Matt. 8:26). It was Peter who had to declare his love for Jesus three times after denying Jesus three times. It was a rich young ruler who refused to surrender his wealth for Jesus.
Jesus seems to have reserved his superlatives for women! That tells us something of how he viewed them.
Consider the story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha at Luke 10:38ff.
The fact that Jesus wanted Martha to study at his feet rather than doing housework was by no means to demean housework. After all, she was offering hospitality, which was highly valued by Jesus, as shown in many other stories.
Rather, the point of the story is that the opportunity to learn from Jesus was an extraordinary, once-in-history opportunity that Martha should profit from, rather than worrying about Jesus’ supper. We know from other passages that Jesus considered teaching women so urgent he skipped meals to teach them (the woman at the well, for example).
But the subtle point is that he considered it urgent for women to learn in an age when the Jews refused to teach women the Torah. They were to be taught to care for their husbands and children and nothing more. Indeed, some said that women should learn only enough of the Law to know the penalty for adultery! And yet Jesus told Martha to leave her housekeeping to study, sacrificing his own comfort and needs so a woman could learn. Jesus pointedly drew Martha from a traditionally female role to a traditionally male role.
As N. T. Wright writes, Mary was violating the social conventions of the day regarding gender roles, and Jesus praises her –
That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women.
Moreover, Mary had presumed to act as the rabbi’s disciple, a role exclusively reserved for men.
As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the NT (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself.
This story follows the Parable of the Good Samaritan and appears to be taken out of chronological order to be juxtaposed with this lesson (Jesus would not have arrived at Bethany until later on his journey). Why? Because they teach the same lesson: the gospel doesn’t allow discrimination. Judge the heart, not the exterior.
John included this story for reason — to demonstrate how Jesus cut across social conventions and expectations, obliterating old prejudices and showing us the path back to Eden.
The women at the tomb
The first witnesses to the resurrection were women. They were the first to testify about Jesus. Now, given that the Jews considered women so gullible that they weren’t even allowed to testify in court, it’s astonishing that the gospel writers build their case for the resurrection — the centerpiece of Christianity — on the testimony of women.
As Wright comments,
Among the many things that need to be said about the gospels is that we gain nothing by ignoring the fact that Jesus chose twelve male apostles. There were no doubt all kinds of reasons for this within both the symbolic world in which he was operating and the practical and cultural world within which they would have to live and work. But every time this point is made – and in my experience it is made quite frequently – we have to comment on how interesting it is that there comes a time in the story when the disciples all forsake Jesus and run away; and at that point, long before the rehabilitation of Peter and the others, it is the women who come first to the tomb, who are the first to see the risen Jesus, and are the first to be entrusted with the news that he has been raised from the dead. This is of incalculable significance. Mary Magdalene and the others are the apostles to the apostles.
Few have noted the signficance of women being among the martyrs, but Wright, relying on Ken Bailey, an expert in the Middle Eastern culture, says,
It’s interesting that at the crucifixion the women were able to come and go and see what was happening without fear from the authorities. They were not regarded as a threat, and did not expect to be so regarded. … But it’s then fascinating, by contrast, that when we turn to Acts, and the persecution that arose against the church not least at the time of Stephen, we find that women are being targetted equally alongside the men. Saul of Tarsus was going to Damascus to catch women and men alike and haul them off into prison. Bailey points out on the basis of his cultural parallels that this only makes sense if the women, too, are seen as leaders, influential figures within the community.
[A word of thanks to Nick Gill for pointing out this essay by Wright.]
In Acts 21:9, Luke records that the deacon Philip had four unmarried daughters who were prophetesses. The significance of this is seen when we recall that the scriptures mention Miriam, Hudah, and Anna as prophetesses as well. Miriam was, of course, a leader of Israel and composer of the Song of Miriam. Huldah prophesied to Josiah, king of the Southern Kingdom. Anna testified in the temple courts to all who would listen about the coming Messiah. “Prophetess,” thus, was a term that meant much, much more than “fortune teller” or “soothsayer.” Rather, these women were entrusted with the counsel of God.
Surely, one reason Luke mentions them is that they were evidence that Joel’s prophesy had come true, that the Spirit had been poured out on both men and women. Women had been given the Spirit before Pentecost, of course, but it had mainly been men. The sign of the Messiah is not merely that women would receive the Spirit — that had happened before — but that the Spirit would be received equally by women.
(Joel 2:28-29) ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.’