Women At The Time Of Jesus

(3) Women

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.[1] 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 occasional inscriptions.

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 husbands.

She continues within the control of the father until she enters into the control of the husband at marriage.

                                                (Mishnah: Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds” 4:5)

By three 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].    

                                    (Mishnah: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 1:1 & 1:5)

As was said centuries earlier,

He who 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....

If she brought slave women as her dowry they could do these jobs instead, but,

Rabbi 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.

The law ... 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.”[2] 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....       

                                    (Josephus (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.    

                                                (Mishnah: 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)

Nevertheless, 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.

And he 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.


Religious Life

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.

... there was a partition built for the women ... as the proper place wherein they were to worship....

There was 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....

                                                (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 5.199)

The Mishnah describes the separation of the women from the men in the Temple:

Beforetime [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.

Our Rabbis 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)

Any 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 do so.

Women and Education

The 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 the Law.

And Moses 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 listen.

And Ezra 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 law.                         (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

Ezra was helped in teaching the people.

Also 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 Scriptures.

The Mishnah mentions the teaching of Scripture to sons and daughters, though some texts omit the words “and to his daughters”:

“... he may teach Scripture to his sons and to his daughters.”

                                                            (Mishnah: Nedarim “Vows” 4:3)

[The law] ... 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.

                                                            (Josephus Against Apion 2, 26)

Since 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 educated.

I am 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 Timothy 1:5)

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 Christ Jesus.    

                                                                        (2 Timothy 3:13-14)

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 (Berakoth 10a).

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.

Certain 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 with modesty.                 

(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 responsible.

Even the sound of a woman’s voice is lustful.

            (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 69a)

Do not look upon any one for beauty,

            and do not sit in the midst of women;

for from garments comes the moth,

            and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness.

Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good;

            and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.

                                                (Ecclesiasticus 42:12-14)

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.

An unmarried man may not be a teacher of children, nor may a woman be a teacher of children.             (Mishnah: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 4:13)

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.

The observance of all the positive ordinances that depend on the time of year is incumbent on men but not on women....

                                                (Mishnah: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 1:7)

Women 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.

Women are 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)[3]

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.

The 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.

                                                (Mishnah: 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).

I should 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:

There are 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)

This 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.

                        (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 5:14 C-D)

“And the Lord blessed Abraham in all things” (Genesis 24:1):

What is the meaning of “in all things”?

Rabbi Meir says, “He had no daughter”.

Rabbi Judah says, “He did have a daughter, and her name was ‘with all’.                (Babylonian Talmud: Kiddushin “Betrothals” 5:17A-C)

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 “Betrothals” 4:3A)

Women were not allowed to bear witness in court.

... the witnesses must be men, not women or minors.

            (Jerusalem Talmud: Yoma “The Day of Atonement” 43b)

According to Josephus this was because of the “levity and boldness of their sex”.

... let 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.


Domestic Life

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:

Wherewith 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 “Benedictions” 17a)

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 people.

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:

“I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes.”                                                              (Matthew 11:25)

In Jesus they had access to God in a manner denied by the traditional interpretations.

“Come to 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 11:28-30)

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.

[1] Katharina von Kellenbach, for example, in Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings, (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1994) objects to the way she considers Judaism has been blackened in order to show Christianity by contrast to be better in its treatment of women. We have tried to avoid this pitfall.

[2] 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.”

The manner in which a woman’s vow could be overruled would illustrate the point nevertheless (Numbers 30:1-16).

[3] Judith Wegner, brought up in an orthodox Jewish community in London, was herself originally excluded from Talmudic study. Thirty years later, after becoming a wife and mother, and Assistant Attorney General for the State of Rhode Island, she earned a doctorate in Judaic studies. She was the first woman to read from the Torah in a prominent American conservative synagogue.


previous page table of contents next page