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Women Of The Bible: Lesson #19 The Rabbinic View Of Women In the NT

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The “Rabbinic” View of Women in the New Testament Era, and the Contrast with Jesus’ Interactions with them

The rabbis of Jesus’ day had little use for women. Their attitude, reflected in the sayings and rulings of the sages recorded during the two centuries after Christ, seem especially strange today. Take for example the dictum of Yose b. Yohanan of Jerusalem, “Talk not much with womankind” (mAbot 1.5). Rabbinic writings contain many comments on this pronouncement. The Mishna (IV, 493) notes, “They said this of a man’s own wife; how much more of his fellow’s wife,” while the Talmud says, “It was taught: Do not speak excessively with a woman lest this ultimately lead you to adultery” (bNed.201).

While the dictum was originally intended for rabbis, the Abot de Rabbi Nathan extends the advice to include all males, noting “a man should not speak with a woman in the market, even if she is his wife, much less another woman, because the public may misinterpret it” (ARNA 2, p.9). Indeed, R. Eliezer b. R. Shimeon determined that “we have not found that the Almighty spoke to a woman except Sarah” (ySot.7.1,21b).  Notice that this reference flies in the face of the MANY interactions that God had directly with women recorded in the Old Testament.

In view of the attitude toward women reflected in many rulings governing the lives and relationships of first- century Jews, the Gospels are truly stunning documents. The Gospel writers portray women in a vastly different light. When Jesus interacts with women He often directly violates rules laid down and scrupulously kept by the Pharisees, who were the strongest proponents of what has come to be known as rabbinic Judaism.

The women we meet in the Gospels lived in a strongly patriarchal society. It was also a society structured by a religious faith that shaped every aspect of people’s lives.

A heterogeneous population. Some Jewish people in Palestine lived in urban settings; others lived in rural areas. Some were wealthy; most were poor. Some were members of the religious elite; others were despised for supposed religious failings. The Jewish people also were divided into religious and political factions, with Pharisee and Sadducee, Zealot, and Essene, all convinced that their view of the Law’s teachings was correct. These divisions had an impact on the role of women as well as on other aspects of life.

Geographical differences. For instance, the people of Jerusalem and Judea were stricter in their observance of the Law as the rabbis interpreted it than were the people of Galilee. Understandably, most sages and rabbis chose to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, and their influence was strongest there.

Wealth and religious party. The Sadducees, who controlled the temple and the high priesthood, were among the wealthiest in Jerusalem. They were also the most open to Greek culture and ideals and the most supportive of the Roman government. In contrast, ordinary priests lived rural lives, sharing the poverty of the majority. The lives of Sadducean women were undoubtedly different from the lives of most women in the Holy Land, and it is not possible to identify any of the women we meet in the Gospels with this social and religious class.

Scholarship and religious party. In most societies status is ascribed on the basis of wealth and power, but in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time a transition was already taking place. The piety of the Pharisees made a great impression on the general population, and the rabbis and sages associated with the Pharisee party were viewed as “the” religious authorities. The Sadducees, much to their dismay, were even forced to adopt the rulings of the Pharisees concerning temple functions. Increasingly in Judaism status was a matter of scholarship in the Law, rather than a matter of wealth.

While the Pharisees’ rulings concerning women’s matters were extremely strict, it would be wrong to assume that they describe the lifestyle of every Jewish family. For instance, the rabbis held that women should have their own rooms and, as much as possible, stay in them. For the average Jewish family of six living in poverty, this was simply impossible. So there is no doubt that the wives of the sages and Pharisees, to whom the strictest of rabbinical rulings were actually applied, had different lives than most women.

The “typical” first-century Jew. The great majority of the population of Judea and Galilee, whether they lived in urban or rural settings, were relatively poor. The men were farmers who often worked as day laborers to supplement their incomes. Or they were fishermen, artisans, or shopkeepers. By necessity many wives worked alongside their husbands and sold produce in the market or sold their husband’s products in a shop. We meet these ordinary women most frequently in the Gospels. Luke provides clear clues to the social position of most of the persons mentioned in his Gospel and in Acts. We can identify the class of the women mentioned in his Gospel, most of whom are also referred to in the other Gospels.

When we identify women by social class, we note first of all that most of Jesus’ interactions were with women who were distressed. Even the relatively prominent, like Joanna and Susanna who provided Jesus with financial support, were demon-possessed when Jesus first met them. Mary and Martha, although of a relatively well off landowning class, were single women living in their brother’s home. This role was minimized in a society that emphasized the importance of marriage and family.

Jesus’ contact with the women in Luke’s Gospel invariably lifted them. Jesus saw in these women a significance that they were denied in their society!

The Gospels introduce their liberating note at this point. Without contesting the patriarchal structure of first-century society, Jesus interacted with women in ways that challenged contemporary views of women. Jesus’ coming initiated a transformation of attitudes toward women which, we will see, continued on into the church age. Jesus’ actions, when contrasted with the dictums of the rabbis, makes it clear that Christ’s coming introduces a redemptive process designed to lift and restore women to the position they enjoyed in original creation.

Each of the Gospels relates the words and actions of a Man who lived as a first-century Jew in Palestine. Each of the Gospels requires us to know something of Jewish thought and life if we see the full significance of what Jesus Christ did and said. This is particularly true of Jesus’ reported interactions with women.

Jesus and the woman with the issue of blood (Matt. 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:41–49).  Bible Search Tool

The relative value of women. In rabbinic thought men were primary; women were secondary. The religious leaders, being men, looked on women as “other.” Indeed their formulations of religious law treat women more as objects that men experience than as persons in their own right. While women were portrayed as weak-minded and fragile, men in contrast were viewed as courageous, strong, and wise. This attitude is expressed in Genesis Rabba 17:8, which describes male-female differences. One of those differences is that “the man makes demands on the woman whereas the woman does not make demands on the man.”

How startling then to see Jesus, making his way through the crowds at the request of an important man, stop to respond to the silent cry of a woman! To Jesus the woman was at least as important as the man was, for both their needs were urgent.

The danger of “contamination” by women. There is little doubt that her contemporaries would consider the woman in the story niddah. This term was applied to women suffering a menstrual flow. During this period women were ritually unclean, and a husband could not have sex with his wife. Of course, any menstrual bloodstains on objects women came in contact with was held to pollute the objects, so Jewish women had to be especially careful in the kitchen and around the house.

The rabbis went beyond the Old Testament teaching on menstrual uncleanness. They urged that a man separate from his wife several days before and after her period to avoid contamination. The Scripture, “You shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness” (Lev. 15:31), was used as a proof text for this ruling. Rabbi Yoshayah even warned men that they might die if they failed to keep away from their wives when they approached their periods.

Against this background, it is striking to see Jesus’ untroubled reaction to the woman’s touch. Even more striking, rather than contaminating Jesus, this woman’s touch released a flow of spiritual power from Him that cleansed her!

Christ showed concern for women’s unique needs. The New Testament never directly attacked the patriarchal structure of first-century society. Nor does it ever imply that the differences between men and women are irrelevant. But the New Testament does call for a transformation of men’s attitudes toward women, and thus seeks to reform rather than replace patriarchy. Certainly Jesus did not pause to talk with the woman simply because He felt power flow from Him. He paused because He knew that the woman, fearful and trembling at her boldness in violating strictures imposed by the men who ruled her world, needed to hear Christ address her as “daughter,” tell her to “be of good cheer,” and then to receive His commendation for her faith.

Some people reading this story in the Gospels have viewed it as an “anti-Pharisee polemic.” The attitude Jesus displayed in this encounter departs strikingly from the attitude toward women expressed in rabbinic writings. Christ’s concern for the woman as a person clearly condemns the dismissive and slighting ways women were viewed in that day.

Jesus at Mary and Martha’s home (Luke 10:38–42).   Bible Search Tool   Luke is the only Gospel writer to relate a striking story about Jesus’ visit to the home where Mary and Martha lived.

Unmarried women. We do not know a lot about Mary and Martha, although we meet them again in John’s Gospel. We do know, however, that they were relatively well off and frequently hosted Jesus and His disciples when they came to Jerusalem. We also know that they were unmarried. We know this because, even though Luke depicts Martha welcoming Jesus “into her house,” John tells us the two women lived with their brother, Lazarus. This means that the house had been their father’s, and first-century Jewish inheritance laws required the home to pass to the son, not the daughters. If Mary or Martha had been married, they would have lived in the homes of their husbands, not with their brother.

In a society that emphasized marriage for both men and women, and where thirteen years and one day was the marriageable age for women, Mary and Martha’s unmarried state was a disgrace. Although relatively well off, we would have to consider Mary and Martha disadvantaged persons in that society. Like so many other women we read of in the Gospels, these two women were oppressed by the expectations of others—expectations neither had been able to meet.

Martha’s view of her role (Luke 10:40).  Bible Search Tool   Luke pictures Martha as a flustered homemaker. She rushed around the kitchen, frantic to prepare and serve food for her visitors. Jewish society made a clear distinction between “women’s work” and “men’s work,” and the kitchen was the woman’s responsibility. Martha did not question this view of herself and her role. She may not have been married, but she unquestioningly accepted society’s definition of what a woman was and what a woman was to do.

Martha not only accepted society’s view of her role; she became upset when her sister Mary did not. When Mary sat down to learn at Jesus’ feet, Martha became angry. In first-century Judaism, men, not women, were supposed to learn from rabbis. It may well be that Martha’s agitation is not so much a reflection of her need for kitchen help as it is anxiety at Mary’s “inappropriate” behavior!

Finally Martha went to Jesus and asked Him to “tell” Mary to help her. She desperately wanted Jesus to confirm her idea of what was right and wrong for women to do.

After hearing Martha’s complaint, Jesus did what no rabbi of His time would have considered. He affirmed Mary’s action, saying, “Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In making this statement Jesus was not denigrating the tasks women performed for their families. Rather, Jesus was opening the door to women to a privilege that had long been denied them. Women, like men, are called by God to explore the depths of His Word. Women, like men, are invited to listen to Jesus and to grow to spiritual maturity.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:6–42).  Bible Search Tool   A third report of Jesus’ contact with a woman further illustrates the transformation of attitudes toward women that Jesus initiated.

Jesus shocked a Samaritan woman by speaking with her (John 4:7–9). These verses underline how unusual Jesus’ action was.

The woman who came to the well was shocked that Jesus would speak to her. This was not simply because she was a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman.

First, it was unusual for a Jewish rabbi to speak to any woman directly. We saw at the beginning of this chapter several rabbinical quotes advising men to “talk not much to womankind.”

Second, the rabbis were just as concerned about looking at a woman. In the Testament of Judah (17:1), Judah laments that he succumbed to a Canaanite woman, and warns his sons against looking at any woman. And BBer.21a states, “Our rabbis taught: He who pays a woman by counting out coins from his hand to hers in order to gaze at her, even if the level of his Torah knowledge and good deeds has reached that of Moses our teacher, he will not escape the punishment of Gehenna.”

Surely Jesus’ conversation in private with the woman at the well would have been viewed as shocking if not depraved.

But there is another reason why Jesus’ moments alone with the Samaritan woman would have shocked the Pharisees. Earlier we saw that during their periods women were considered niddah, and were to be avoided by men lest they become contaminated. Rabbinic expositions on niddah classify Samaritan women as niddah from the day of their birth (mNidd.4:1; mNidd.5:1)! Thus, according to the Pharisees, men of Christ’s time should strictly avoid any kind of contact with Samaritan women!

Against this background we can understand the surprise of Jesus’ disciples, recorded in John 4:27: “At this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, ‘What do You seek?’ or ‘Why are You talking with her?’ ”

The woman’s response to Jesus (John 4:28–30).  Bible Search Tool   John records both the lengthy conversation Jesus held with the woman and her response.

The woman then left her water pot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, ”Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” They then went out of the city and came to Him. (John 4:28–30)

The woman of Samaria responded to Jesus’ offer of eternal life with faith, and she showed her faith by hurrying into her village to tell others about Him.

The implicit comparison with Nicodemus (John 3). It is hardly by chance that John places the story of the Samaritan woman immediately after his account of Nicodemus’s interview with Jesus. Nicodemus was not only a Jewish man, he was a “man of the Pharisees, . . . a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). This description identifies Nicodemus as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. As a Pharisee, he was devoted to keeping every detail of God’s Law as interpreted by the rabbis. This description marked him as a person who had studied the Old Testament intensely, and who was supposedly qualified to interpret and to apply God’s Law to every situation.

In contrast, the Samaritan woman is a person whose understanding of Scripture is limited by her race and her sex, and whose classification as niddah made her an object of revulsion.

Yet it is the Pharisee who does not understand or respond to Jesus’ teaching, while the Samaritan woman not only responds, but immediately hurries away to tell others about Him! Ultimately Nicodemus became a disciple (see John 9:39), but the Samaritan woman’s ready response and her joyful witness to Christ is a far better example of discipleship. Strikingly it is the “ignorant” and “outcast” woman rather than the learned and respected man who illustrates a true faith-response to Jesus’ words.

Implications of Gospel stories about women. The stories we read in the Gospels are so familiar that we tend to miss their significance. Yet these incidents highlighted above and many others depicting Jesus’ interaction with women are truly revolutionary when seen in the context of the rabbinical interpretations of God’s Word held by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.