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Jesus and Women

So, often people ask if Jesus had an exceptional relationship with women and perhaps maybe one of the reasons why Jesus was such an attractive and important figure is that he broke away from other ways in which people were treating women at the time. And, I think that that’s an attractive argument in the sense that Christians really want to have a champion of…the sense that women are equal and valued to men and I think that wish and that desire for Jesus is a positive reflection on those Christians who hold that.

But, I think as scholars like Ross Kraemer and Amy-Jill Levine and Elizabeth Castelli and others have pointed out, there’s a lot of complexity around what Jesus was actually doing and how Jesus is portrayed by the Gospel writers with women; and we also have to be really careful not to come up with stereotypes that we can use to contrast Jesus against others and to suggest that Jesus somehow stood apart and was wholly unique in the way he was interacting with women.

On the other side, one thing that’s clear from the Gospels is that women were actively involved in the Jesus movement. I mean that is obvious from the texts. All of the texts place the women at the cross, all the texts place women as part of the post-resurrection appearances and so it seems to me there’s no doubt that women were important members of the Jesus movement.

At the same time memories like Jesus appoints twelve male apostles—not women—also reflect perhaps Jesus’ own attitude but certainly the attitudes of people of the time. We need twelve male disciples because we had twelve tribes of Israel with twelve male patriarchs, right?

So we know that during Jesus’ time both men and women were active participants in spreading this message that Jesus is the Messiah, the awaited Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man who is the first fruits of the resurrection. I mean, it seems that we have women and men being both very active in spreading that message. That’s clear, for example, in all of the references to women in the letters of Paul, which are the earliest documents we have in the New Testament. It’s clear from the Gospel narratives that place women at the tomb, that place the women at the cross, that mention the importance of certain named women, Mary Magdalene being a prominent example, Mary the mother of Jesus being another; and we have titles given to women by Paul like “Junia the Apostle” (Rom 16:7), one sent to send the message that in Paul “apostle” means someone who’s sent, someone who’s sent to share the message of Jesus.

So it would appear that women were active participants in the Jesus movement but women were active participants in general in the ancient world. Sometimes people don’t think that women were involved in priesthoods for example, there were many priestesses in Greek cities and in Roman cities there were, there are female leaders in the synagogue as Bernadette Brooten has pointed out. So, it’s not clear that Jesus was different from other ancient people in this regard.

  • Jennifer Knust

    Jennifer Knust is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. She specializes in the literature and history of ancient Christianity and is author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton University Press, 2019), as well as several other books and articles.