By Danielle Mooney
Danielle has lived in Boston since graduating from Wellesley College. She loves her husband, her dog, and soft serve ice cream cones.
Within the Gospels, we find stories about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that the authors compiled and composed for their particular early Christian communities. The Gospels function as communal faith-statements and each scene and saying they recount are part of the author’s broader theological message about who Jesus was and how we follow him.
As has been true throughout world history, during Christ’s life and the development of Christianity after his death, attitudes about and the treatment of women were overwhelmingly negative. This negativity is absent from the Gospels and that absence underscores the religious importance Jesus attached to equality for women and all other subjugated persons—to the constitutive role of justice in the Gospel.
To understand how truly radical, empowering, and inclusive Jesus’ ministry was, we need to have some understanding of the extent to which women were legally disenfranchised and positioned as socially and religiously inferior to men.
Rabbinic tradition of the time, and for many many years later, dictated that women were not allowed to study the Torah. This was so much looked down on that first century rabbi Eliezer is recorded as saying “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.” Women were discouraged from offering prayers, even in private. The daily prayers of Jewish men included the thanksgiving “praised be God that he has not created me a woman.” Women could not be counted toward the number of people required to form a congregation for communal worship (and unfortunately, this is true in our own church today). Men were advised to “speak not much with a woman,” including their wives, and speaking to a woman in public was undignified, even disreputable, for a rabbi. Women could not bear witness in a court of law. Men could choose to divorce a wife simply by giving her a writ, but women could not divorce their husbands. Common rabbinic sayings included “At the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad,” and “When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes.” Clearly, the condition of women was bleak.
And then came Jesus.