Jesus and Women: Understanding What the Bible Says About Women

Have you ever wondered what Jesus thinks about women? Or what the Bible really says about women? Whether you’re a woman seeking to learn more about your identity in Christ or a man seeking a deeper understanding of the Biblical truth about women, you’re in the right place. To understand Jesus and women, we must first look at how women were treated and portrayed in the Old Testament, which makes way for Jesus’ radically different approach in the New Testament.

What Does the Bible Say About Women in the Old Testament?

The way women are portrayed in the Old Testament is directly correlated with the criminal and religious laws of the time, as well as social customs and norms. The socio-political and religious spheres were male-dominated, and women had to depend on their fathers or husbands for everything. A woman’s primary role was managing the household and raising many children. In fact, during that time, a woman’s worth and a family’s power and prestige rested on how many children a woman had. Unfortunately, during Biblical times, women were powerless and vulnerable, owned by the men in their lives.

However, what the cultural and even religious laws said about women in the Old Testament is vastly different than how God viewed women. The treatment of women in the Old Testament is undoubtedly considered unfair and unjust in Western culture. And many people wonder why God “allowed” men to treat women so poorly. However, it’s important to remember that we all have free will, and “God must work within the parameters of human freedom and bring out the best good possible in humanly limited circumstances” (Jesus and Women, p. 35). 

God cared deeply about women in the Old Testament. This is evident in many instances in which “God is in the background looking after women placed in dangerous and unjust situations within a system that was oppressive to women” (Jesus and Women, p. 31). We see this in Genesis through the stories of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16-17, 21) and Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29-31). We also see it in Israelite law which forbid men to rape women in war. If a soldier desired a woman in a war situation, he had to take her as a concubine and provide and care for her and her children (Deuteronomy 21). Although a far cry from being treated as an equal, God worked within the realities of the time to ensure women were cared for. 

What Does the Bible Say About Women in the New Testament?

It is the portrayal of women in the Old Testament that provides a foundation for Jesus’ revolutionary treatment of women in the New Testament. In a cultural and religious society where women were excluded from public life, education, and religious teaching, Jesus’ treatment of women was radical. Whereas social conventions led women to be condemned and diminished, Jesus had empathy and concern for women. Not only did Jesus treat women as equals in his relationships with them, but “across all four Gospels, in metaphor, imagery, sayings, parables, and teachings, the words of Jesus reflect a keen awareness of women’s work, joys and tribulations” (Jesus and Women, p. 63). 

Jesus’ unconditional love and empathy toward women often feel “hidden” within the Gospel text, mostly due to the cultural landscape Biblical writers were navigating at that time. For instance, we all have heard of Jesus’ 12 disciples–the 12 men who followed and served alongside Him throughout His ministry. But there were women there too (Luke 8) –some women who were held in as high of regard as Peter and John. One such woman is Mary Magdalene, and her relationship with Jesus gives us great insight into understanding what Jesus and the Bible say and believe about women.

What Does Jesus Say About Women?

It is evident through the Gospel texts that Mary Magdalene was the closest woman disciple to Jesus. Some theologians suggest that Mary was the “leader” of the women disciples in the same way Peter was 

the leader of the 12 men. However, the emotional depth of Jesus’ relationship with Mary is unlike any other we read about in scripture, highlighted in John 20 when Jesus appears to Mary post Resurrection. 

“The joyful tenderness of their post-Resurrection encounter implies that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were extraordinarily close; the fact that it was Mary to whom Jesus first appeared and not his mother, or Peter, or ‘the beloved disciple’ would seem to suggest that she had been more sensitive towards him during his ministry than anyone else… Theirs was certainly a bond of deep love but it was a platonic love” (Jesus and Women, p. 77).

Although it seems Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a relationship with great depth and intimacy, the Gospel text suggests that all the women disciples remained steadfast with Jesus through his ministry and trial. It was Jesus’ female disciples that “loyally stood by him while the male disciples abandoned him at the crucial time of his arrest and passion” (Jesus and Women, p. 79). 

In a world where women were treated as the inferior sex and highly sexualized by men, valued only by their ability to be subservient and bear children, Jesus changed the game. He always perceived the true value of the women he encountered, never judging them based on superficialities or upholding the culturally-accepted double standards of the time. 

Another example of this is found in the story of the woman at the well, where Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink (John 4). “By doing so, the unconventional Jesus, lover of all humanity, breaks through two major cultural taboos of the time, one grounded in racial bigotry, the other in the powerful and damaging form of sexism…” (Jesus and Women, p. 56). 

Jesus and Women: A Relationship of Empathy and Love

So, what does Jesus say about women? Well, they say actions speak louder than words, and Jesus’ life exemplifies this perfectly. The way Jesus loved, respected, and valued women in the New Testament was radical. So much so that male leaders of the time didn’t understand and actually used Jesus’ kindness and care toward women against Him. “The ease and freedom which Jesus showed in relationship with women was, then, especially extraordinary, given the time and place in which he lived, and would undoubtedly be remarkable in any time or culture” (Jesus and Women, p. 60).

Although some countries and cultures have come a long way in their treatment of women, there is still much to be learned from Jesus about the value of women. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read Jesus and Women, in which I dive deep into theological truth and pull examples from Gospel text that highlight the significance of women in the Bible.

In this week’s edition of The Church of England Newspaper

Below is a screenshot of my latest article in The Church of England Newspaper. It’s based on my upcoming new book, Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism. The book’s main theme is that a combination of insights from evolutionary biology, feminism and the #MeToo movement highlights the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women in a new way that illuminates the way forward for women both in the Church and in society. Even more importantly, it has the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of his divinity. In this week’s edition of The Church of England Newspaper. Love the pic of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa!

My recent Church of England Newspaper Column on how the evolutionary account of human origins can be mapped on to the Genesis account.Who Were Adam and Eve?

One of the reasons why Darwin encountered so much opposition from Christianity when he published On the Origin of Species  in 1859 was evolution’s seeming negation of the creation of humanity via a first couple, Adam and Eve. Although much of Christianity now accepts that God created us through natural processes, the question of who the first humans were and how we are related to them remains open and has stimulated much theological speculation.

Up until the beginning of the 21st century, the multiregional evolutionary hypothesis predominated in palaeoanthropology. The scholarly consensus was that our species Homo sapiens evolved in parallel fashion in various regions of the world, which contradicted the biblical assertion that the whole of humanity is unified by descent from a common source. This consensus changed radically with fossil and archaeological discoveries in Africa, backed up by evidence from the human genome. We now know that Africa is the cradle of humanity, and that all hominin species evolved there. We also know that all non-African humans are descended from one small group of Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa about fifty thousand years ago, and populated the rest of the world. Interestingly, in comparison with the genomes of closely related primate species such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, the human genome is notably lacking in diversity. This is particularly striking given the widespread geographical distribution of humanity compared to the limited range and habitats of the other great ape species and that the genetic similarity between humans transcends race and ethnicity. Our limited genetic diversity has actually given rise to what is known as the “Garden of Eden Hypothesis”, which maintains that humanity originated as the result of an evolutionary bottleneck in a single favourable location, most likely in East Africa. So what are the implications of these findings for the Genesis story of Adam and Eve?

Molecular anthropologists argue that our lack of genetic diversity notwithstanding, a single couple could not have generated sufficient diversity to produce a whole species. Arguments that scientific understanding of how DNA functions has changed over the years, and that there are ways in which genetic diversity can increase faster than population models predict have been made by evolutionary creationists in order to allow for the possibility of a founding pair. Given the fact however that we are a social species whose predecessor hominin species evolved in groups, as well as the calculations based on our genetic diversity, evolutionary creationists also try to harmonise the scientific and biblical accounts by drawing upon both Genesis accounts of our origins. Taken together, the contrasting Genesis stories allow for an expanded theological understanding of who the first humans were.

In Genesis 1:26-27, the Hebrew word ‘adam’ literally means ‘humankind’; ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind (adam) in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”. So God created adam in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’. Genesis 1 therefore can be interpreted as describing the creation of a first population rather than a first pair. The theological and scientific accounts can be even more closely harmonised with the assertion that God brought a pre-existing hominin species into a new spiritual category of human – Homo divinus – by the direct infusion of souls, hence creating a new species. This theological claim is supported by the archaeological and fossil evidence, which indicate that our species attained the cognitional faculties, spiritual awareness and complex culture that distinguished it from other hominin species very suddenly, in a way that evolutionary mechanisms cannot account for. Evolution therefore does not rule out a special creation event which is a form of direct creation.

In contrast to Genesis 1 which gives an overview of the process of creation and places the creation of humanity at the end, Genesis 2 focuses more specifically on male and female human nature, and hence on a personal Adam and his wife Eve. So their creation is placed at the beginning of the creation account rather than the end. At first however ‘adam’ is not used as a personal name, but literally means ‘the human’. It becomes a personal name with the creation of his female companion whom he names Eve, “because she was the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). In Hebrew Eve resembles the word for ‘living’, and can also be understood as ‘giver of life’, a defining characteristic of the female sex. In the second creation account, Adam and Eve can therefore be understood archetypally as models for men and women and how they should relate to one another, to the environment and to God.

So how does all of this relate to the scientific account of origins? In an evolutionary context it is quite common now theologically to take the two accounts together and to treat the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2 as the first leader of the first human grouping and his wife. We are a ‘follow the leader’ kind of a species, so that the behaviour and decisions made by the first leader/chieftain and his wife would have greatly influenced the behaviour of the first human group, leading to a rapid coevolution of genes and culture. Interpreting the scientific evidence in terms of Genesis 1 and 2 permits both the scientific evidence for a first group, and also the traditional Judaeo-Christian emphasis on Adam and Eve as a pair who were of crucial importance to the shaping of the moral and spiritual nature of humanity. In conclusion, scientific monogenism is compatible with theological monogenism in that we are all descended from this original group. As we will see in next month’s column, our mode of evolutionary descent as a species is vital to the integration of the Darwinian account of human behaviour with the Christian one.