by Guest Author
Was Jesus a feminist? Some might say it’s not fair to pose this provocative question. One can easily object that feminism—understood by many as the equality of women and men—is a late 20th-century western idea, and that it is unfair to impose it on a first-century Jew like Jesus.
The society in which Jesus lived and taught was patriarchal and hierarchical, that is, the husband was the head of the household, and women, children and slaves were subordinate to him. Roles and tasks were clearly divided between men and women.
Jesus and his first followers were people of their particular time and place. To be otherwise would have marked Jesus as a social deviant. Nevertheless, in comparison with other Jewish religious leaders of his day, Jesus was remarkably open to the participation of women in his movement. While descriptions of Jesus as a feminist or as promoting a discipleship of equals exaggerate his openness, they do remind us of his boldness in giving place and prominence to women in his life and work.
The Mother of Jesus
In the Gospels, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is most prominent at the beginning and end of Jesus’ life. In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that Mary was engaged to Joseph when “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In the historical context of first-century Palestine, it is likely that Mary was young (13 or 14), that her marriage to Joseph had been arranged by older family members and that she was in the midst of a yearlong engagement period.
Luke presents Mary as one of the characters (along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna) who represent the best in Israel’s tradition. She willingly accepts her mission to become the mother of the Messiah.
After giving birth to Jesus, Mary observes the various rituals surrounding childbirth in the Jewish law and is warned in anticipation of Jesus’ passion and death: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:35). Years later she accompanies the 12-year-old Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover.
The Perfect Disciple
In these various episodes, Mary is described as one who accepts the word of God, believes that it was being fulfilled in her and reflects on what was said about her son. When the adult Jesus defines his true family as “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), it is the mother of Jesus who emerges as the perfect example of discipleship.
Mary is the one person who remains with Jesus from birth to death. John’s Gospel reveals that it was Mary’s words to Jesus that occasioned his first miracle in turning water into wine. In John’s Passion narrative, Mary appears at the foot of the cross along with the “beloved disciple.” With the dying Jesus they form a community of compassion and provide a model for all Christian communities. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Mary was present with the 12 disciples as they gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.
Other Women in Jesus’ Ministry
The women followers of Jesus are especially prominent in the Gospel accounts of his death and resurrection. They see Jesus die, they see where he was buried and they find his tomb empty on Easter Sunday.
In describing the women who witness Jesus’ death and burial, Mark mentions in passing—almost as an afterthought—that several women had accompanied Jesus and his male disciples during his public ministry: They “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (15:41).
Luke, however, offers this surprising information much earlier in his account (8:1-3). He names three women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza and Susanna—and adds that there were many other women who provided for Jesus and his male disciples. The question is sometimes asked: Who cooked at the Last Supper? The most obvious answer is that these women did!
In the context of first-century Judaism, it would have been very surprising, if not scandalous, that a Jewish teacher and his male disciples would have been accompanied by women who were not their wives. Since this is not the kind of thing that early Christians would have invented, the presence of women in the Jesus movement seems well-founded on the historical level. But whether the male disciples regarded women as their equals is unlikely, given the patriarchal character of Jewish society at the time.
In Jesus’ public ministry, women were frequently the recipients of his healing power. For example, he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of Jairus, the woman with the flow of blood and the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. From his dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, he seems to have learned that his mission was not to be limited to his fellow Jews. With his absolute prohibition of divorce, Jesus gave protection to women in a society in which a husband could divorce his wife merely by giving her a legal document and sending her out of his household (see Dt 24:1-4).
The Gospels agree that when Jesus was arrested, his male disciples fled but his women followers remained faithful, witnessed his death and burial, and discovered his tomb empty. These facts were embarrassing to early Christians because they reflected badly on their male heroes. Moreover, since the testimony of women was not acceptable in Jewish courts of the time, the appeal to women as witnesses was not the kind of thing that Christians would have invented.
The most prominent woman in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection is Mary of Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is generally named first in the lists of women witnesses and, according to Matthew and John, is the first to see the risen Jesus on Easter Sunday.
Luke’s Gospel depicts Mary Magdalene as one of the Galilean women who accompanied Jesus throughout his public ministry. The description of her as one “from whom seven demons had gone out” (8:2) indicates that she had undergone an exorcism, presumably performed by Jesus.
Setting the Record Straight
Mary’s reputation as a prostitute rests unfairly on the unwarranted identification of her with the sinful woman who enters a Pharisee’s house and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with expensive ointment (7:36-50). Mary Magdalene is introduced in Luke’s Gospel shortly after this story; thus the confusion by many of Mary Magdalene with this unnamed sinful woman.
As she is portrayed in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is best understood as a witness to the risen Jesus. She saw Jesus die, knew where he was buried, found his tomb empty and encountered him as alive once more. The risen Jesus gives Mary the mission of telling the male disciples that he is truly alive again and is ascending to his Father. Thus it is customary to refer to Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles.”
In later writings such as the Gospel of Mary, a second- or third-century text, Mary Magdalene becomes the revealer of secret wisdom in the post-resurrection age. That Mary Magdalene was the lover or wife of Jesus has no foundation in ancient texts. While this idea gives Jesus a “love interest” in modern novels and films, it is the product of the imaginations of much later writers.
A Celibate Jew?
Despite the prominence of women in the ancient sources about Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus had a wife. While this may have surprised his relatives and contemporaries, it appears that Jesus refrained from marriage primarily out of dedication to his mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom.
The practice of celibacy (abstaining from sexual relations and marriage) was not common in ancient Judaism. Indeed, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer said: “Any Jew who does not have a wife is not a man.” However, it appears that in Jesus’ time, members of some Jewish religious groups who lived a communal life similar to that of later Christian monks were celibate.
‘For the Sake of the Kingdom’
There is no indication in any ancient Jewish or Christian source that either John the Baptist or Jesus was married or had children. The only explicit teaching about celibacy that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels appears in Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus prefaces this teaching with a caution that this kind of celibacy is a gift from God and follows the teaching with a reminder that it is voluntary on the disciple’s part.
Celibacy undertaken “for the sake of the kingdom” fits well with what we know to have been the focus of Jesus’ life and preaching. In this context, Jesus’ teaching about voluntary celibacy would be a sign of total dedication to God’s Kingdom similar to the parables about total commitment (treasure in a field, pearl of great value) in Matthew 13:44-46. There is no hint of contempt for the body or contempt for marriage and sexual activity.
Marriage among the Followers of Jesus
Peter was certainly married, since we know that he had a mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31). And Paul claims in his first letter to the Corinthians that Cephas, usually interpreted as another name for Peter, was accompanied by his wife on his apostolic journeys. We know nothing about the marital status of the rest of the apostles or other early followers of Jesus, although an itinerant lifestyle would hardly promote stable family life.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul promotes virginity, abstinence and celibacy as Christian ideals. Yet he does not appeal to the teaching or example of Jesus. For Paul, celibacy was a help toward more fervent consecration to God and God’s Kingdom. Paul concludes that one “who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38). He was careful, however, to insist that celibacy is a gift from God and not granted to everybody.
When Paul wrote his letters, he was not married and affirms that he was celibate. However, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:8 (“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am”), some interpreters argue that Paul had once been married and was then widowed.
The Role of Women in Jesus’ Life and Ministry
Was Jesus a feminist? Not in the modern sense of the term. Jesus was a man of his own time and place. However, he was also ahead of his time culturally. He defined his true family as “those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk 11:28). Luke thought this was best expressed in Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Women played necessary and important roles in Jesus’ public ministry, and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection. The first appearance of the risen Jesus was to Mary Magdalene, who then served as the “apostle to the apostles.” The voluntary celibacy embraced by Jesus and Paul is best understood not negatively, as a criticism of women, marriage or the human body, but rather positively, as flowing from their total commitment to God’s Kingdom.
Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, (1940 – 2014) was a professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusett