The Status of Women in the Gospels

Women in Palestine

Women's status and freedoms were severely limited by Jewish law and custom in Palestine. Generally speaking:

they were restricted to roles of little or no authority,
they were largely confined to their father's or husband's home,
they were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority of men

From the Second Temple period, women were not allowed to testify in court trials. They could not go out in public, or talk to strangers. When outside of their homes, they were to be doubly veiled. "They had become second-class Jews, excluded from the worship and teaching of God, with status scarcely above that of slaves." (1) Their position in society was defined in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the interpretation of those scriptures. Their status could be compared with that of contemporary women in Afghanistan during the Taliban dictatorship.

Jesus' Treatment of Women

Christ overthrew many centuries of Jewish law and custom. He consistently treated women and men as equals. He violated numerous Old Testament regulations, which specified gender inequality. He refused to follow the behavioral rules established by the three Jewish religious groups of the day: the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees. "The actions of Jesus of Nazareth towards women were therefore revolutionary." (1) Some examples are:

He taught women: Luke 10-38:42 describes his visit to the home of Mary and Martha; where Martha chose to be taught by Jesus rather than help her sister make a meal. Jesus praised her for the decision.
He ignored ritual impurity laws: Mark 5:25-34 describes Jesus' cure of a woman who suffered from menstrual bleeding for 12 years. In Judean society of the day, it was a terrible transgression for a man to talk to a woman other than his wife.
He talked to foreign women: John 4:7 to 5:30 describes Jesus' conversation with a woman of Samaria. She was doubly ritually unclean since she was both a foreigner and a woman. Men were not allowed to talk to women, with the exception of their wives. Jesus also helped a Canaanite woman, another foreigner, in Matthew 15:21. He is recorded as curing her daughter of demon-possession.
He taught women students: Jewish tradition at the time was to not allow women to be taught. Rabbi Eliezer wrote in the 1st century CE: "Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity." (5) Jesus overthrew centuries of tradition. In Luke 10:38-42, he taught Mary.
He used terminology which treated women as equal to men:
Luke 13:16 describes how he cured a woman from an indwelling Satanic spirit. He called her a daughter of Abraham, thus implying that she had equal status with sons of Abraham. "The expression 'son of Abraham' was commonly used to respectfully refer to a Jew, but 'daughter of Abraham', was an unknown parallel phrase...It occurs nowhere else in the Bible." (4) It seems to be a designation created by Jesus.
Luke 7:35 to 8:50 describes how Jesus' forgave a woman's sins. He refers to women and men (i.e. "all" people) as children of wisdom.
He accepted women in his inner circle: Luke 8:1-3 describes the inner circle of Jesus' followers: 12 male disciples and an unspecified number female supporters (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and "many others.") It would appear that about half of his closest followers were women.
He appeared first to a woman after his resurrection: Matthew 28:9-10 describes how Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" were the first followers of Jesus to meet him after his resurrection. (However, this account is contradicted by passages in the other 3 gospels and in 1 Corinthians, which state that the first person to see Jesus was Cleopas, Peter or all of the disciples.)
Women were present at Jesus' death: Matthew 27:55-56 and Mark 15:40-41 describe many women who followed Jesus from Galilee and were present at his crucifixion. The men had fled from the scene. (John 19:25-27 contradicts this; the author describes John as being present with the women.)
He told parallel stories: The author of the Gospel of Luke and of Acts shows many parallel episodes: one relating to a woman, the other to a man. For example:
Simeon and Hannah in Luke 2:25-38
Widow of Sarepta and Naaman in Luke 4:25-38
Healing of a man possessed by a demon and the healing of the mother of Peter's wife, starting in Luke 4:31
The woman who had lived a sinful life and Simon, starting in Luke 7:36
A man and woman sleeping together in Luke 17:34
Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11
Dionysius and Damaris in Acts 17:34
Lydia and the jailer's conversion in Acts 16:14-34
The book "Women in the Earliest Churches" lists 9 additional parallels. (3) Author Ben Withernington III quotes H. Flender:

"Luke expresses by this arrangement that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honor and grace; they are endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities."

He expressed concern for widows: Jesus repeated the importance of supporting widows throughout his ministry. The Gospel of Luke alone contains 6 references to widows: (Luke 2:36, 4:26, 7:11, 18:1, 20:47 and 21:1)

There are two passages where Jesus deviates from his usual practice of treating women equally:

His disciples: We have been able to find only one instance in which Jesus did not treat women equally. The 12 disciples that he selected were described in the Gospels as being all male. He later selected a total of 70 disciples; the gender makeup of the latter group was not recorded.
Levirate Marriage: In Mark 12:18-27 Jesus answered a question posed by some Sadducees. They described a woman who was widowed and required to marry her brother-in-law. This was called a "Levirate" marriage. Their first-born son will be considered to be the son of the deceased husband. In this case, they imagined that seven brothers-in-law married her in succession without having a son. Jesus could have used the opportunity to preach on the unfairness of this requirement of Jewish law (from Deuteronomy 25:5-10). After all, the woman was not allowed to refuse to marry any of the brothers, even if she despised some of them. But Jesus is not recorded as having condemned the practice.
Divorce: In Jesus' time, a man could divorce his wife, but the wife had no such right. This practice is supported by seven  references in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in which a husband gives his wife a bill of divorce. There were no references to a woman giving her husband such a bill. In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus overthrows this tradition and states that either spouse can divorce the other; a wife can divorce her husband. 

Treatment of Mary Magdalene by an Angel:

In Matthew 28:1-7, after Jesus' resurrection, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" receive the first apostolic commission of any human - to tell the good news of the  resurrection to the disciples. This is reinforced by Jesus' appearance before the two women. The two Marys were the first apostles.


  1. B.M. Metzger & M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible", Oxford University Press, New York, NY, (1993), P. 806 to 818
  2. Christians for Biblical Equality are an Evangelical Christian group, which opposes the vast majority of conservative Christian denominations by promoting gender equality. Their essay: "Statement On Men, Women and Biblical Equality" is at:
  3. Ben Witherington III, "Women in the Earliest Churches", Cambridge University Press, (1988), Page 129
  4. Frank Daniels, "The Role of Woman in the Church." part of the Religious Heresy Page at:,
  5. Rabbi Eliezer, "Mishnah, Sotah"
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