Women At The Time Of Jesus
at the Time of Jesus
In the ancient world the position
of women varied from culture to culture and within any particular civilisation
depending on social class, civil law and religious attitudes.
It is not easy to interpret the
different sources available, and caution must be observed against picking out a
view to fit one’s own preferences. Questions need to be asked
such as: What social group are we dealing with? Does this refer to rich or
poor, rulers or ruled? Is the writer stating his own preference or is he
speaking on behalf of others. How much does his thinking and attitude find
approval elsewhere in his own time and later? In making comparisons, is like
being compared with like? It is difficult to answer these questions, but it is
useful to be aware of the limitations in the available material.
Sources for Judaism are the Mishnah and the Talmud, the Apocrypha,
the New Testament, writers like Josephus and Philo (both first century AD), and
The Mishnah (“Oral Teaching”) is
a book of rules compiled in Palestine in the second century AD but using
material going back at least to the time of Jesus. It represents the combined
teaching of Jewish sages who sought to expound idealised rules for every aspect
of life. They aimed to serve God by preserving ritual purity, defining that
which was clean and unclean (food, objects, animals, people), and upholding the
separation of Jew from Gentile. It is a matter of debate how far these rules
were accepted or put into practice.
The Talmud (“Study”) comprises
the Mishnah with various commentaries upon it by later rabbis. There are two versions,
one produced in Palestine, the other in Babylon.
The Legal Position
In official Judaism,
women were legally possessions of their fathers and, after marriage, of their
continues within the control of the father until she enters into the control of
the husband at marriage.
Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds” 4:5)
means is the woman acquired and by two means she acquires her freedom. She is
acquired by money or by writ or by intercourse.... And she acquires her freedom
by a bill of divorce or by the death of her husband.... (Mishnah: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 1:1)
Thus a wife was acquired in virtually the same way as property:
Property for which there is security can be acquired by money or by writ or by
usucaption [habitual use].
Kiddushin “Betrothals” 1:1 & 1:5)
As was said centuries earlier,
acquires a wife gets his best possession. (Ecclesiasticus 36:24)
Women were expected to stay secluded within the house and to
attend to household duties.
... These are works
which the wife must perform for her husband: grinding flour and baking bread
and washing clothes and cooking food and giving suck to her child and making
ready his bed and working in wool....
she brought slave women as her dowry they could do these jobs instead, but,
Eliezer says: Even if she brought him in a hundred bondwomen he should compel
her to work in wool, for idleness leads to unchastity.... (Mishnah:
Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds” 5:5)
The wife was regarded as an inferior. She had to obey her husband
as a master, but on the positive side the husband was obliged to be faithful to
her and treat her kindly.
... commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take
a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but demand
her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her
away by the nearness of his kindred; for, saith the Scripture, “a woman is
inferior to her husband in all things.” Let her, therefore, be
obedient to him; not so that he should abuse her, but that she may acknowledge
her duty to her husband; for God hath given the authority to the husband. A
husband, therefore, is to lie only with his wife whom he hath married....
(30-100 AD), Against Apion 2:25)
Children had to respect their father before their mother. If there
was danger to life, the husband had to be saved first.
A man must
be saved alive sooner than a woman, and his lost property must be restored
sooner than hers.
Horayoth “Instructions” 3:7)
A husband had the right to claim
anything his wife found and he could force a vow upon his wife or annul any vow
she had made.
According to Josephus,
husbands had the right to divorce wives but not vice-versa.
when Salome [sister of Herod the Great] happened to quarrel with Costobarus,
she sent him a bill of divorce, and dissolved her marriage with him, though
this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a
husband to do so; but a wife, if she departs from her husband, cannot of
herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away. However,
Salome chose not to follow the law of her country, but the law of her
authority, and so renounced her wedlock.
(Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 15.259)
a woman who was mistreated could apply to the courts for a divorce. Financial
safeguards built into the law also protected the wife, so that casual divorce
was difficult for the husband. According to Mark 10, however, women did divorce
husbands, though perhaps Jesus intended his comments for a wider audience than
just a Jewish one.
said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery
against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits
adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)
Ironically, only widows and women who had been divorced were
legally independent from control by men.
In Solomon’s Temple the women had
access along with the men but in Herod’s Temple, according to Josephus, women
were excluded from the inner court.
was a partition built for the women ... as the proper place wherein they were
also on the other sides one southern and one northern gate, through which was a
passage into the court of the women; for as to the other gates, the women were
not allowed to pass through them; nor when they went through their own gate
could they go beyond their own wall. This place was allotted to the women of
our own country....
Wars of the Jews 5.199)
The Mishnah describes the separation of the women from the men in
[the Court of the Women] was free of buildings, and [afterward] they surrounded
it with a gallery, so that the women should behold from above and the men from
below and that they should not mingle together. (Mishnah: Middoth “Measurements” 2:5)
In former times women in the synagogues may have been called on to
read from the Torah but later they were forbidden to do so.
taught: All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a
woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of
respect for the congregation.
(Babylonian Talmud, Megilla “The
Scroll of Esther” 23a)
man could be called on to read from the Law but it was considered a disgrace
for a woman to do so, just as it was thought a “disgrace” were a man in rags to
Women and Education
comments about women being eligible to read indicate a basic literacy, and it
is reckoned that the ability to read and write was higher among the Jews than
among other peoples. In Old Testament times, women were certainly to be taught
commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time of the year of
release, at the feast of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place which he will choose, you shall read this
law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and
little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn
to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and
that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God... (Deuteronomy 31:10-13)
After the Exile in Babylon Ezra taught the Law to all who would
the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who
could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he
read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until
midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could
understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the
Ezra was helped in teaching the people.
Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita,
Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand
the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the
book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people
understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:7-8)
Since women attended the synagogue on the Sabbath, they would
continue to receive instruction and exhortation. The words spoken by Mary the mother
of Jesus, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and Anna the prophetess
indicate that they, at least, had a good grounding in the Old Testament
The Mishnah mentions the teaching
of Scripture to sons and daughters, though some texts omit the words “and to
may teach Scripture to his sons and to his daughters.”
Nedarim “Vows” 4:3)
... commands us to bring [our] children up in learning and to exercise them in
the laws, and make them acquainted with the acts of their predecessors, in
order to their imitation of them, and that they may be nourished up in the laws
from their infancy, and might neither transgress them, nor yet have any
pretence for their ignorance of them.
Against Apion 2, 26)
Timothy’s father was a Greek (Acts 16:1) and presumably not a believer, Timothy
was taught the Scriptures by his mother and grandmother who were obviously well
reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother
Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you. (2
But as for
you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from
whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the
sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in
Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir
(2nd century AD) was said to have studied “three hundred laws from three
hundred teachers in a single day” (Babylonian Talmud: Bavli Pesahim 62B). She
was able to discuss the meaning of Scripture competently with her husband
Yet there was disagreement about
the extent to which women should be taught, as indicated by the omission of
“and to his daughters” from some texts of Nedarim 4:3, quoted above. Another
passage in the Mishnah illustrates divergent views.
merits may hold punishment in suspense for one year, others for two years, and
others for three years; hence Ben Azzai says: A man ought to give his daughter
a knowledge of the Law so that if she must drink [the bitter water] she may
know that the merit [that she had acquired] will hold her punishment in
suspense. R. Eliezer says: If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law
it is as though he taught her lechery. R. Joshua says: A woman has more
pleasure in one kab [measure of
something] with lechery than in nine kabs
(Mishnah: Sotah “The Suspected Adulteress” 3:4)
The context is the application of the “Bitter Water Rite” (Numbers
5) to a woman suspected of adultery. It was thought that studying the Law
enabled an individual to build up merit. A well educated woman therefore might
be inclined, it was thought, to indulge in immoral behaviour (e.g. adultery) in
the belief that her acquired merit would compensate for her sin. Why the same
danger did not apply to men is not clear, but several quotations present women
as basically licentious. Because men in general find women sexually attractive,
there is a tendency among some male writers to transfer their sexual desires on
to the woman and assume it is her nature rather than theirs which is
sound of a woman’s voice is lustful.
(Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin
look upon any one for beauty,
and do not sit in the midst of
garments comes the moth,
and from a woman comes woman’s
the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;
and it is a woman who brings shame
Women, like unmarried men, were
not allowed to teach schoolchildren for fear that being in the presence of the
opposite sex they would easily fall into immorality.
unmarried man may not be a teacher of children, nor may a woman be a teacher of
children. (Mishnah: Kiddushin
A further element contributed to
cut women off from education. Women were exempt from carrying out time-required
aspects of the Law, as this would interfere with their household duties.
observance of all the positive ordinances that depend on the time of year is
incumbent on men but not on women....
Kiddushin “Betrothals” 1:7)
were therefore not obliged to attend festivals though they often did so. But
exemption from time-required laws easily turned to exclusion, so that women
became excluded from active personal participation in study of the Law or
active involvement in religious activities in the synagogue even when
time-relatedness was irrelevant.
excused from such devotions as twice-daily recitation of Shema (Deut. 6:4-9, 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41), use of phylacteries
during prayer (mandated by Deut. 6:8), active participation in public worship
(especially in leadership roles), and most important of all, in participation
in communal study of sacred texts. (Judith Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women
in the Mishnah , OUP, 1988)
Women were additionally restricted because for part of each month
they were regarded as ritually unclean. Attendance at the Temple even in the
Court of the Gentiles was then disallowed.
Temple mount is still more holy, for no man or woman that has a flux, no
menstruant, and no woman after childbirth may enter therein.
Kelim “Vessels” 1:8)
Thus, in the thinking of many who
produced the Mishnah, women were generally denied the opportunities open to men
to develop spiritual understanding and stimulus, to appreciate for themselves
the meaning of God’s will and revelation, and to teach and encourage others
apart from their own children.
The value seen in studying the Law, but apparently often denied in
practice to women, is described by Rabbi Nehorai (2nd century AD).
lay aside every trade in the world and teach my son only Torah. For every trade
in the world stands by a man only in his youth, but in his old age, lo, he is
left in famine. But the Torah is not that way. It stands by a man in his youth
and gives him a future and a hope in his old age. (Babylonian
Talmud: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 82B)
Demeaning Statements about Women
Rabbi Juda ben Elai (150 AD, but
echoing statements made earlier) said:
three Benedictions which one must say every day: “Blessed be He who did not
make me a Gentile”; “Blessed be He who did not make me a woman”; “Blessed be He
who did not make me an uneducated man.”
(Tosephta “Additions”: Tractate Berakoth
“Benedictions” vii, 18)
statement should not necessarily be taken as intentionally demeaning to women,
but reflects the exclusion of women from religious study, the learning or
teaching of the Law, and active participation in congregational worship. For a
meeting to take place in a synagogue, ten men needed to be present. Women, were
classed along with slaves and minors, and could not be included to make up the
ten (Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth, vii, 2). This exclusion of women, and the
legal restrictions laid upon them, reinforced the view that women were inferior
beings. Some comments are particularly derogatory.
It is not
possible to have a world without either a spice dealer or a tanner. But happy
is the one who makes his living as a spice dealer, and woe is the one who makes
his living as a tanner. It is not possible to have a world without either males
or females, but happy is the one whose children are males, and woe for him
whose children are females.
Kiddushin “Betrothals” 5:14 C-D)
Lord blessed Abraham in all things” (Genesis 24:1):
the meaning of “in all things”?
says, “He had no daughter”.
Judah says, “He did have a daughter, and her name was ‘with all’. (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin
Rab and R.
Judah were walking down the road, and a woman was walking in front of them.
Said Rab to R. Judah, “Lift up your feet before Gehenna.” (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin
Women were not allowed to bear witness in court.
witnesses must be men, not women or minors.
(Jerusalem Talmud: Yoma “The Day of
According to Josephus this was because of the “levity and boldness
of their sex”.
not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least, and those
such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the
testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their
sex; nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the
ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth,
either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4.219)
Women, it is presumed, do not lead “good lives”. On the basis of
Sarah’s denial in Genesis 18:15 it was argued that women are liars.
On occasions the evidence leads
in other directions. Rabbi Hisda is reported to have said, “Daughters are dearer
to me than sons” (Baba Bathra 141a). The anonymous Palestinian Jew described as
Pseudo-Philo (first century AD) presents a favourable view of women; this is
thought so unusual that the suggestion has been made that this anonymous writer
is in fact a woman.
In home life we can see a more
positive picture. In addition to the usual time-consuming but essential
household duties (food, clothes, looking after children), the wife had the huge
responsibility of ensuring that the purity laws were kept. These involved
thought, knowledge and ability, and any mistake affected her husband and his
religious service. It was considered great merit to a wife to encourage and
enable her husband and sons to do the study of the Law from which her fully
occupied home-life precluded her:
do women acquire merit? By sending their children to learn Torah in the
Synagogue and their husbands to study in the Schools of the Rabbis. (Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth
Naturally she was expected to adhere to the Law in her everyday
morality, as was her husband.
It appears that women at the time
of Jesus were restricted by the legal framework and were discouraged from
religious involvement outside the home. In domestic life they had considerable
influence and responsibility, though they were nevertheless regarded as
inferior to men. The demeaning comments are not typical of Judaism alone but of
the ancient world in general. Even in modern times such attitudes are
regrettably common. Nevertheless, these comments devalued women and suggest
that those who spoke in such a way regarded women as “things” rather than
Jesus’ message particularly
appealed to these who were devalued by the religious system – those not able to
keep to the Law with its requirements as defined by the scribes and Pharisees.
“... this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed,” said the Pharisees of
those who believed in him (John 7:49).
Jesus’ counter-claim was revealed
in his prayer:
thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from
the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes.” (Matthew
In Jesus they had access to God in a manner denied by the
me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke
upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will
find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew
It is no wonder that this new approach was seen as liberating by
those who had previously felt unable to approach God acceptably.
It is instructive to see the
positive attitude Jesus adopted towards women. They were regarded by Jesus and
the early ecclesias as valued, individual human beings in the sight of God, not
as possessions of men and not as “things”. From the beginning they played a
prominent and active part.
Footnote in The Works
of Flavius Josephus (1886)
by the translator William Whiston: “This text is nowhere in our present copies
of the Old Testament.”