Jesus was a revolutionary. His actions elicited surprising reactions from his contemporaries in all facets of life. He was not afraid to challenge the status quo and reestablish Scriptural precedents. But without a knowledge of the rabbinic attitudes that prevailed in Jesus' day, the uniqueness of our Lord's behavior escapes us.
Take, for example, Jesus' dealings with women. By publicly including women in his ministry, Jesus shattered the prejudicial customs of his day. Why was it unusual for Jesus to speak with women? Nothing in the Mosaic Law prevented men and women from conversing with one another! Yet the society of Jesus' day, with custom dictated by rabbinic Judaism, differed strikingly from the Old Testament social order.
Women were held in high regard in Old Testament times
The social condition of women in the first century had been radically altered from that of their Old Testament sisters. In earlier times women participated in every aspect of community life except the Temple priesthood. Women freely engaged in commerce and real estate (Prov. 31), as well as in manual labor (Ex. 35:25; Ruth 2:7; 1 Sam. 8:13). They were not excluded from Temple worship. Women played music in the sanctuary (Ps. 68:25), prayed there (1 Sam 1:12), sang and danced with men in religious processions (2 Sam 6:19, 22) and participated in music and festivities at weddings (Song of Songs 2:7, 3:11).
Women were included when God instituted the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 29:11), and were present when Joshua read the Torah to Israel. Their presence was not just an option; they were required to be present for the public reading of the Scriptures on the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 31:12).
Nor were women limited to private roles back then. Several exercised leadership roles over Israel. Miriam led the women of Israel in worship (Ex. 15:20-21); Deborah was a judge and a prophetess (Judges 4:4); and Huldah also was a prophetess, whom King Josiah consulted instead of Jeremiah, her contemporary (2 Kings 22:14-20).
Women were held in high regard in Old Testament times. In Gen. 21:12 we read that God told Abraham to listen to his wife. Proverbs 18:22 tells us that he who finds a wife finds a good thing and Proverbs 19:14 says that an intelligent wife is a gift from God. Wise women also found their way into the pages of the Bible: Abigail's wisdom and valor so touched King David that she became his wife (1 Sam. 25:23-42); and the wise woman of Tekoa was sent to persuade David to lift the ban on his son Absalom (2 Sam. 14).
By New Testament times, women's rights had declined
By the time of Christ, however, the role of women had drastically changed for the worse. In theory, women were held in high regard by first-century Jewish society, but in practice, this was not always true. The concept of tzenuah, or the private role of the woman, was based on Psalm 45:13: "The king's daughter is all glorious within.…" While a man's primary responsibility was seen as public, a woman's life was confined almost entirely within the private family sphere.
Women were not allowed to testify in court. In effect, this categorized them with Gentiles, minors, deaf-mutes and "undesirables" such as gamblers, the insane, usurers, and pigeon-racers, who were also denied that privilege. (On the other hand, a king could not bear witness in court, nor could the Messiah, which somewhat lessens the stigma of that restriction.)
Customarily, even a woman of stature could not engage in commerce and would rarely be seen outside her home. Only a woman in dire economic straits, who was forced to become the family breadwinner, could engage in her own small trade. If a woman was ever in the streets, she was to be heavily veiled and was prohibited from conversing with men. "It is the way of a woman to stay at home and it is the way of a man to go out into the marketplace" (Bereshit Rabbah 18:1; cf. Taanit 23b).
In Talmudic times, respectable women were expected to stay within the confines of the home. The terminology for a prostitute was "one who goes abroad." The woman of the first century did not even do her own shopping, except possibly to go out, accompanied by a slave, to buy material which she would use to construct her own clothing at home!
The women with whom Jesus spoke were very likely illiterate, since the rabbis did not consider it incumbent upon women to learn to read in order to study the Scriptures. Based on the passage in Deut. 4:9, "teach them to thy sons," the rabbis declared women to be exempt from the commandment to learn the Law of Moses. Indeed, the Talmud says, "It is foolishness to teach Torah to your daughter" (Sotah 20a).
Women were separated from men in private, public and religious life. They could go to the Temple, but could not venture beyond the confines of the Women's Court (there was no such court found in the Biblical descriptions of Solomon's Temple). Women were not allowed to participate in public prayer at the Temple, although they were encouraged to have private prayer lives at home.
The few rights of a woman included her right to go to the House of Study to hear a sermon or pray (Vayikra Rabbah, Sotah 22a). Also, it was her basic right to attend a wedding feast or a house of mourning, or to visit her relatives (Mishnah Ketubot 7:5).
One Talmudic passage perhaps best sums up the situation of women at the time of Christ: "(They are) swathed like a mourner (referring to the face and hair coverings) isolated from people and shut up in prison" (Eruvin 100b).
What brought about this drastic change from the esteem women had in Biblical times to their near exclusion from society by the first century? Very likely this degraded view of a woman's role was imported from Greek thought. The similarities between the Hellenistic and Talmudic views of women are remarkable! Through the influence of their heathen neighbors the rabbis slowly relegated women to their first-century seclusion.
Jesus was a revolutionary in his regard for women
Jesus shattered this darkness by offering his teachings freely to anyone who would listen—whether they were women or men! We see him directly talking with women on numerous occasions. The woman at the well is perhaps the best known of these. We sense the astounded reactions of the disciples that their teacher should be seen talking with a woman. They "marvelled that he talked with the woman. Yet no man said, 'What seekest thou?' or, 'Why talkest thou with her?'" (John 4:27)
In Luke, we see Jesus publicly associating with women. Some were women of high standing in society, some were women of ill repute; and some even had been possessed by demons. One of these—Mary Magdalene, who in great thankfulness was with him until the moment he died—was the first person to whom he appeared after his resurrection.
In Matthew 15:22-28, Jesus spoke with a Canaanite woman. The disciples urged him to send her away, for it was improper for a teacher to speak with a woman, and a foreign one at that! At first, Jesus did not answer her plea for help. But, as she prevailed upon him with her great need and even greater faith, he had mercy on her and granted her request.
Time after time in the Gospels, we see Jesus offering his teachings, healing and forgiveness to women as well as men. Often it was the women who were the most appreciative of his ministry. Indeed, the first proclaimer of Jesus to the Jewish people was a woman—Anna in the Temple (Lk. 2:36-38). A woman washed the Savior's feet (Lk. 7:37-38) and anointed him for his burial (Mk. 14:3). It was women who were with him at the cross until the end (Mk. 15:47), and women who were the first to come to the tomb (Jn. 20:1) and proclaim his resurrection (Mt. 28:8).
Jesus' New Testament followers continued to follow in his footsteps, including women in their gatherings (Acts 1:14) and counting them as co-laborers for Christ (Rom. 16:3). This was only fitting, for Jesus the Messiah, in his love, shattered the restricted status of women in the rabbinic times in which he lived. Because of him, all individuals, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, can be one in Christ and enjoy unequaled freedom as children of God!