Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Truth About Jesus and Women
Was Jesus a feminist? Some might say it’s not fair to pose this provocative
question. One can easily object that feminism—understood by many as the equality
of women and men—is a late 20th-century western idea, and that it is unfair to impose
it on a first-century Jew like Jesus.
The society in which Jesus lived and taught was patriarchal and hierarchical,
that is, the husband was the head of the household, and women, children and slaves were
subordinate to him. Roles and tasks were clearly divided between men and women.
Jesus and his first followers were people of their particular time and place.
To be otherwise would have marked Jesus as a social deviant. Nevertheless, in comparison
with other Jewish religious leaders of his day, Jesus was remarkably open to the participation
of women in his movement. While descriptions of Jesus as a feminist or as promoting a discipleship
of equals exaggerate his openness, they do remind us of his boldness in giving place and
prominence to women in his life and work.
The mother of Jesus
In the Gospels, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is most prominent at the beginning
and end of Jesus’ life. In Matthew’s Gospel we learn that Mary was engaged
to Joseph when “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In the
historical context of first-century Palestine, it is likely that Mary was young (13 or
14), that her marriage to Joseph had been arranged by older family members and that she
was in the midst of a yearlong engagement period.
Luke presents Mary as one of the characters (along with Zechariah and Elizabeth,
John the Baptist, the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna) who represent the best in Israel’s
tradition. She willingly accepts her mission to become the mother of the Messiah.
After giving birth to Jesus, Mary observes the various rituals surrounding
childbirth in the Jewish law and is warned in anticipation of Jesus’ passion and
death: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:35). Years later she accompanies
the 12-year-old Jesus on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover.
The perfect disciple
In these various episodes, Mary is described as one who accepts the word
of God, believes that it was being fulfilled in her and reflects on what was said about
her son. When the adult Jesus defines his true family as “those who hear the word
of God and do it”
(Lk 8:21), it is the mother of Jesus who emerges as the perfect example of discipleship.
Mary is the one person who remains with Jesus from birth to death. John’s
Gospel reveals that it was Mary’s words to Jesus that occasioned his first miracle
in turning water into wine. In John’s Passion narrative, Mary appears at the foot
of the cross along with the “beloved disciple.” With the dying Jesus they form
a community of compassion and provide a model for all Christian communities. According
to the Acts of the Apostles, Mary was present with the 12 disciples as they gathered in
Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.
Other women in Jesus ministry
The women followers of Jesus are especially prominent in the Gospel accounts
of his death and resurrection. They see Jesus die, they see where he was buried and they
find his tomb empty on Easter Sunday.
In describing the women who witness Jesus’ death and burial, Mark mentions
in passing—almost as an afterthought—that several women had accompanied Jesus
and his male disciples during his public ministry: They “used to follow him and provided
for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him
to Jerusalem” (15:41).
Luke, however, offers this surprising information much earlier in his account
(8:1-3). He names three women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza and Susanna—and
adds that there were many other women who provided for Jesus and his male disciples. The
question is sometimes asked: Who cooked at the Last Supper? The most obvious answer is
that these women did!
In the context of first-century Judaism, it would have been very surprising,
if not scandalous, that a Jewish teacher and his male disciples would have been accompanied
by women who were not their wives. Since this is not the kind of thing that early Christians
would have invented, the presence of women in the Jesus movement seems well-founded on
the historical level. But whether the male disciples regarded women as their equals is
unlikely, given the patriarchal character of Jewish society at the time.
In Jesus’ public ministry, women were frequently the recipients of
his healing power. For example, he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of
Jairus, the woman with the flow of blood and the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman.
From his dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, he seems to have learned that
his mission was not to be limited to his fellow Jews. With his absolute prohibition of
divorce, Jesus gave protection to women in a society in which a husband could divorce his
wife merely by giving her a legal document and sending her out of his household (see Dt
The Gospels agree that when Jesus was arrested, his male disciples fled but
his women followers remained faithful, witnessed his death and burial, and discovered his
tomb empty. These facts were embarrassing to early Christians because they reflected badly
on their male heroes. Moreover, since the testimony of women was not acceptable in Jewish
courts of the time, the appeal to women as witnesses was not the kind of thing that Christians
would have invented.
The most prominent woman in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and
resurrection is Mary of Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
She is generally named first in the lists of women witnesses and, according to Matthew
and John, is the first to see the risen Jesus on Easter Sunday.
Luke’s Gospel depicts Mary Magdalene as one of the Galilean women who
accompanied Jesus throughout his public ministry. The description of her as one “from
whom seven demons had gone out” (8:2) indicates that she had undergone an exorcism,
presumably performed by Jesus.
Setting the record straight
Mary’s reputation as a prostitute rests unfairly on the unwarranted
identification of her with the sinful woman who enters a Pharisee’s house and washes
Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with expensive
ointment (7:36-50). Mary Magdalene is introduced in Luke’s Gospel shortly after this
story; thus the confusion by many of Mary Magdalene with this unnamed sinful woman.
As she is portrayed in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is best understood
as a witness to the risen Jesus. She saw Jesus die, knew where he was buried, found his
tomb empty and encountered him as alive once more. The risen Jesus gives Mary the mission
of telling the male disciples that he is truly alive again and is ascending to his Father.
Thus it is customary to refer to Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles.”
In later writings such as the Gospel of Mary, a second- or third-century
text, Mary Magdalene becomes the revealer of secret wisdom in the post-resurrection age.
That Mary Magdalene was the lover or wife of Jesus has no foundation in ancient texts.
While this idea gives Jesus a “love interest” in modern novels and films, it
is the product of the imaginations of much later writers.
A celibate Jew?
Despite the prominence of women in the ancient sources about Jesus, there
is no evidence that Jesus had a wife. While this may have surprised his relatives and contemporaries,
it appears that Jesus refrained from marriage primarily out of dedication to his mission
of proclaiming God’s Kingdom.
The practice of celibacy (abstaining from sexual relations and marriage)
was not common in ancient Judaism. Indeed, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi
Eliezer said: “Any Jew who does not have a wife is not a man.” However, it
appears that in Jesus’ time, members of some Jewish religious groups who lived a
communal life similar to that of later Christian monks were celibate.
‘For the sake of the kingdom’
There is no indication in any ancient Jewish or Christian source that either
John the Baptist or Jesus was married or had children. The only explicit teaching about
celibacy that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels appears in Matthew 19:12: “For
there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus
prefaces this teaching with a caution that this kind of celibacy is a gift from God and
follows the teaching with a reminder that it is voluntary on the disciple’s part.
Celibacy undertaken “for the sake of the kingdom” fits well with
what we know to have been the focus of Jesus’
life and preaching. In this context, Jesus’ teaching about voluntary celibacy would
be a sign of total dedication to God’s Kingdom similar to the parables about total
commitment (treasure in a field, pearl of great value) in Matthew 13:44-46. There is no
hint of contempt for the body or contempt for marriage and sexual activity.
Marriage among the followers of Jesus
Peter was certainly married, since we know that he had a mother-in-law (Mk
1:29-31). And Paul claims in his first letter to the Corinthians that Cephas, usually interpreted
as another name for Peter, was accompanied by his wife on his apostolic journeys. We know
nothing about the marital status of the rest of the apostles or other early followers of
Jesus, although an itinerant lifestyle would hardly promote stable family life.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul promotes virginity, abstinence
and celibacy as Christian ideals. Yet he does not appeal to the teaching or example of
Jesus. For Paul, celibacy was a help toward more fervent consecration to God and God’s
Kingdom. Paul concludes that one “who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38).
He was careful, however, to insist that celibacy is a gift from God and not granted to
When Paul wrote his letters, he was not married and affirms that he was celibate.
However, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:8 (“To the unmarried and the widows I say
that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am”), some interpreters argue that
Paul had once been married and was then widowed.
The role of women in Jesus’ life and ministry
Was Jesus a feminist? Not in the modern sense of the term. Jesus was a man
of his own time and place. However, he was also ahead of his time culturally. He defined
his true family as “those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk 11:28).
Luke thought this was best expressed in Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Women played necessary and important roles in Jesus’ public ministry,
and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection. The first appearance of the risen Jesus
was to Mary Magdalene, who then served as the “apostle to the apostles.” The
voluntary celibacy embraced by Jesus and Paul is best understood not negatively, as a criticism
of women, marriage or the human body, but rather positively, as flowing from their total
commitment to God’s Kingdom.
Next: Rendering to Caesar—and to God
What stories of Jesus and women in the Gospels do you find
most memorable? What message of challenge, comfort or hope do you hear in these
How well do you judge that our Church has followed Jesus’ lead
in regard to inclusion of and respect for the gifts of women? How is your own parish
doing in this regard?
What woman in your life has been most influential in helping
you along your faith journey? Find a way to express your appreciation to her.
I want to order print copies of this Jesus: A Historical Portrait. Bulk discounts available!