1. Women's Libeation and Religion
  2. The Christian Position
  3. The Views of Jesus
  4. Gospel References to Women
  5. Jesus on his Female Relatives and Followers
  6. Implications for Scriptural Revisionism

The Position of Jesus on Women

by Victor Gunasekara

1. Women’s Liberation and Religion

One of the most significant social developments in the second half of the twentieth century is the women’s liberation movement. This has succeeded in rectifying some of the disadvantages that women had been subjected to in the patriarchal systems that has characterised almost all societies from ancient times. While the process is still not complete a number of significant gains had been made in almost all countries.

This movement has touched almost all aspects of society and culture. One of these is religion. It has lead to a reassessment of the position of the main religions on the questions of women and feminism in general. In the West it is the attitude of Christianity that has come into question mainly because it is the dominant religion there. There has been a tendency to concentrate on some issues like the ordination of women, the gender of God or the reproduction rights of women. While some churches have made concessions on these issues, and others are gradually forced to make similar concessions the question has not been considered from the standpoint whether these accommodations are compatible with the basis of the religion itself and the teachings and attitudes of the founder of the religion on this matter. Some Christians have questioned the validity of the recent concessions on the question of feminism but they are in a minority and have been dubbed with the pejorative designation of being fundamentalists or conservatives.

Humanists have in general welcomed the female liberation movement because it conforms to a fundamental humanist position that it is only human beings that count regardless of gender. Of course many of the early Humanists may not have been completely free of the gender prejudices of their day, but there was nothing in their philosophy which required the affirmation of what may be called the patriarchal position on this question. With time Humanists came to realise the significance of the question and supported enthusiastically the female liberation movement. Some of the early writers who were inclined towards humanism like John Stuart Mill were early pioneers in the cause of the emancipation of women.

The religionist position has been quite contrary to the humanist one. Gender questions have played an important part, especially in theistic religion. Such religion, of course, concedes precedence to deity. With monotheistic religions the deity resolves into a single entity,[NOTE 1]and the question arises as to the gender of this single entity, or whether it has any gender at all. Most monotheistic religions tacitly assumed that God is a masculine figure. While females may figure in their sacred literature they are almost always defined by their relationship to the principal masculine deity. Thus the “Virgin” Mary, though highly revered in Catholicism, has a role only as the mother of the (masculine) “Son” of God. It is because of this that those who preside over the formal worship of this God have also been men. Women have rarely been admitted into the inner sanctum, and this exclusion has also been reflected in general social attitudes.

The Christian Position

Of course a good deal has been written on the position of women in Christianity. The views considered have emanated from Paul, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Aquinas and the other early fathers of the Church. [NOTE 2] That their position is one of extreme sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny is conceded by everyone except the most fanatic of apologists. There is therefore no need to establish this point. The position of the early fathers of the Church on the question of women is however a logical outcome of the views propagated by Jesus, and most of the views proclaimed by them can in fairness be attributed to Jesus himself. This proposition is not generally conceded by Christians, and even many non-Christians are not aware of this. It is this that we seek to establish.

Christianity from its very inception continued the denial of the spiritual equality of men and women which is characteristic of early Judaism and is a basic tenet of the Old Testament. In its turn the Christian Church helped to keep women in subjection. One of the early feminist philosophers Simone de Beauvoir has written: "Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman" (The Second Sex). But even Simone de Beauvoir attributes this more to the practices of the Church than to the fundamental teaching of Jesus. Apologists for Christianity still seek to exonerate the founder of Christianity and attribute the misogynist views that still rule in the various Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, to subsequent Christian leaders. However this cannot be sustained because the position of women in Christianity derive from the basic dogmas of the religion itself which are of course due to Jesus and the Jewish religion to which he belonged and which he never repudiated.

To appreciate the anti-feminist basis of Christianity we need only look at the basic dogmas which from the very inception have defined Christianity. In spite of the diversity of interpretations of the teaching of Jesus, there is substantial agreement on the core of the religion which could be discerned from the various creedal statements which emerged quite early in its history. One of the best known of these is the Nicene Creed which has the advantage of being affirmed by all Christian denominations (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox). The following extracts from this Creed should suffice:

"I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds ..., begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; ... and was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, ... and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end."

The masculine tone of this fundamental creed is basic to Christianity. In the New Testament (hereafter abbreviated to NT) Jesus speaks repeatedly in the same vein about his "Father" the supposed creator of the world who sits in heaven. There is generally no mention of the mother, let alone any other female in a spiritual or divine context.[NOTE 3] The chosen apostles are 12 men and no women. Women are completely excluded from the higher levels of spiritual attainment. Moreover nothing can be done about gender because sex differences were made by God "from the beginning of the creation" (Mk 6.10).

3. The Views of Jesus

There is very little of any significance on the question of the status of women in the sayings of Jesus as given in the NT. [NOTE 4] The total amount of discourse attributed to Jesus in very meagre which is not surprising considered the extremely short duration of his ministry. Even when not relating stories Jesus is said to have spoken in "parables", which in effect means that his statements were ambiguous and capable of diverse interpretation. Jesus does not generally elucidate the meaning of these ambiguous statements, leaving much room for theological speculation. It is therefore not surprising that Jesus does not provide any definitive statements on women, but his views on this question, such as they be, are ambiguous.

Two main sources have been used to find Jesus' views on women. The first consists of the few direct references to women in Jesus' sayings. The second is his own conduct towards the women whom he encountered and who are mentioned in the NT. We too will have to explore these sources.

The direct references to women in the sayings of Jesus occur in specific contexts. Women are seen mainly in the family context (mainly as mothers and wives) and less frequently in a professional context (usually as prostitutes, which profession seems to have fascinated the authors of the NT). Much has been made of Jesus extolling the role of parents (Mk 7.10-12, Mk 10.19) and family.[NOTE 5] This is however a simple affirmation of Jewish practice of the period (which in this respect was no different from other ethnic groups). Jesus' views on marriage and divorce (Mk 10.6-12, Mt 19.3-10) differ somewhat from Jewish practice because he seems to have dispensed with Moses' concession of divorce. Some people have considered this an improvement because Moses gave the right of divorce only to men. But to be progressive this right should be extended to women, but Jesus simply proscribes divorce altogether which could keep some women in permanent servitude. [NOTE 6] However this injunction of Jesus has not been observed by Christians who usually divorce and re-marry even though Jesus repeatedly states that re-marriage is adultery (Mk 10.11-12, Mt 5.32, Lk 16.18). There are also a couple of references to widows, one condemning scribes for exploiting a rich widow (Mk 12.40) and the other praising a poor widow who gives "two mites" to the Temple (Mk 12.41-44, Lk 21.1-4). In the latter incident, which Jesus holds as an example to his disciples, the sex of the person seems to be irrelevant. While great play has been made of these incidents, many would find it difficult to understand why the poor widow should be made to contribute to the maintenance of the well-endowed Temple while the wealthy widow is defended from financial exploitation!

Jesus also warned his (male) disciples not to be a prey to sexual lust, and even states that looking lustfully at a woman is equivalent to adultery (Mt 5.28). Jesus had no understanding of the physiological and psychological factors involved in the generation of “lust”, and in particular the role of the mind in the process, and thought that the trouble was with the physical organ involved in the transgression! He thus states: "If your right eye [or right hand] causes you to sin pluck it out and cast it out from you" (Mt 5.28-9).

Thus the primary source from which Jesus' views on women could be reconstructed is extremely meagre. This is in itself may indicate that Jesus did not find anything radically deficient in the prevalent androcentric Jewish views on the subject, which indeed is the case. There is however more evidence on the subject from the second source we had mentioned, viz. Jesus actual relations with the women he encountered. It is these that many writers have used to show that Jesus dissented from the prevailing views about women, and was in fact favourably disposed towards them. According to apologists Jesus' relationships with women are positive. However this cannot be sustained if these relationships are subjected to a careful scrutiny. The women mentioned in the NT fall into two classes. Firstly there are more-or-less casual meetings of Jesus with women, and then there are the women who had a longer relationship to Jesus either as his relatives or as his followers.

4. Gospel References to Women

We shall commence by examining the first of these categories of women. Here the principal incidents recorded in the NT are the following:

(1) The Adulterous Woman (Jn 8.3-11). Here a woman is brought before Jesus on a charge of adultery. Jesus saves the woman from the Mosaic punishment (stoning), but concedes that she has "sinned" even though no evidence is heard. There is no comparable incident of Jesus intervening to save a man accused of a violation of a Mosaic law. It cannot be the case that Jesus objects to adultery being treated as a crime because he himself affirms it very vehemently. There may be an implication that punishments should be left to God rather than the State or Society; if so there is no specific gender implication in this incident as the same principle could apply even to a male who has transgressed the law. In spite of the great emphasis attached to this incident it is does not illuminate Jesus' views on women.

(2) The Anointing of Jesus (Lk 7.36-50). Here Jesus is invited to a banquet by Simon the Pharisee at which an unnamed prostitute washes his feet, kisses and wipes them with her hair, and anoints him. The important thing here is the respective treatment of the woman and Simon. Jesus' actions clearly imply that the deeds of the woman amount to more than Simon's. She is thus forgiven of all her sins. The deeds of this prostitute are those of a servile woman while Simon is a generous person who goes to great lengths to prepare the feast, and who shows proper respect to Jesus by calling him "teacher". Clearly Jesus prefers a woman acting in a servile and humiliating way to a man acting with correct propriety. Far from showing that Jesus was some kind of feminist this incident actually shows that he preferred women to act in the way misogynists have always expected them to act. Jesus' preference for the servile acts of the woman may well reveal a sexist attitude: this is the role for women in which he seems to relish. On the other hand an intelligent man like Simon may pose a great challenge by asking him awkward questions. This incident therefore cannot be taken as Jesus favouring a woman over a man, but of him favouring an ignorant and servile woman willing to do menial things over a generous person who is prepared to treat Jesus on equal terms, but giving due respect.

(3) The Samaritan Woman at the Well (Jn 4.4-42). Some Biblical scholars consider this story to be an invention of John. The woman, again unnamed, is not specifically declared a sinner, but can be inferred to be one because Jesus divines that she has had five husbands, and is now living with a man to whom she is not legally married. The object of the story appears to be to Jesus to repeat his claim that he is the Messiah which the woman believes leading to her conversion and that of her community. The story gives no additional information of Jesus' attitude to women, but it does suggest that Jesus' took women to be more credulous and likely to believe his preposterous claims. From the NT it is possible to infer that men generally were cautious about accepting Jesus' claims while women (who in that day were kept uneducated and backward) proved to be more fertile ground. Jesus bias towards women is similar to his bias towards children, in both cases for the wrong reason.[NOTE 7]

(4) The Woman with the sick Daughter (Mk 7.24-30, Mt 15.21-8) and similar stories. Here an unnamed woman (described either as a Syro-Phoenician or as a Canaanite) who was a non-Jew (a Gentile) wants Jesus to exorcise demons from her daughter. After some hesitation and against the urging of his disciples, Jesus goes to her home, casts out the devil, and "heals" the sick child. Again the gender of the mother and the daughter is not germane to the story. Some critics have claimed that this story illustrates Jesus' rejection of Rabbinic teaching regarding discourse with women and the uncleanness of Gentiles. Even if this is so there are some negative aspects in this incident. Women are seen as suitable material on which to impress the theory that illness is caused by demon-possession and that the demons can be "cast away". Such views are now considered pure superstition and unworthy of the status claimed by Jesus for himself. There are many other instances of Jesus "healing" women, e.g. Simon's mother-in-law in (Mk.1.30), the woman with the 18-year old disease (Lk 13.10-7), the woman with the 12-year flow of blood (Mk 5.29). [NOTE 8]

(5) The "raising" of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5.35-43). The gospel writers not content with having Jesus "cure" the sick soon have him "raising the dead". The 12-year old daughter of Jairus a "ruler of the synagogue" became seriously ill and Jairus implored Jesus to cure her. By the time Jesus came to the house the child was already dead. We are told that Jesus got hold of her hand and said "Talitha, cumi" and "immediately the girl rose and walked". The sex of the girl is not relevant here for Jesus is said to have performed this feat with males as well (e.g. the young man of Nain in Lk 7.14 and the better known case of Lazarus in Jn 11.11). We may well ponder what Jairus would do when his "raised" daughter dies the next time, or when he himself dies. To whom can he then turn? Jesus would have done better if the had explained to Jairus the meaning of unsatisfactoriness and impermanence.

5. Jesus on his Female Relatives and Followers

The second category of women in the NT are those with whom Jesus had a longer connection. Whereas the women of the first category are not named (unlike similar men), which may imply that these women were not recognised as individuals in their own right, we do have the names of the women belonging to the second category.

The most important is these is Jesus' mother Mary. She does not have an independent role in the Jesus story. On the portrayal of Jesus' mother in the NT Simone de Beauvoir has written:

"For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin - it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat" (The Second Sex, p. 171).

Several incidents demonstrate Jesus' rudeness and contempt for his mother. The two references to Mary in John may be taken as examples. In the wedding scene at Cana when the mother tells Jesus that the wine had run out Jesus retorts: "Woman what right do you have to tell me" (Jn 2.4) as if a mother does not have a right to speak to her son! Jesus however proceeds to perform one of his "miracles". His rudeness to his mother did not even cease even when he was on the cross and his mother had come to witness his execution. He is reported as saying to her: "Woman there is your son" (Jn 19.25) as if this fact could have possibly escaped her notice given that she came there for the express purpose of witnessing the execution of her son, and as if she was in some way responsible for what happened to Jesus. [NOTE 9] Theologians have tried to provide ingenious explanations for Jesus' rudeness to his mother[NOTE 10], but the simplest explanation may be Jesus' chauvinistic attitude to women including his own mother, not to mention the view that he propagates that his own real father is none other than God himself. This was probably known to the women of the time, as evidenced by the woman who cries out to Jesus in Lk 11.27: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which suckled you". Jesus does not agree with this woman but instead talks about the greater glory of those "who hear and keep the word of God". As always his mythical "Father" comes before his real mother!

Next in importance to his mother come the two sisters Martha and Mary, both of whom became early followers. Of the two Mary become the more devoted neglecting her own work and leaving all the housework to Martha (Lk 10.38-42). Jesus clearly preferred Mary to Martha. Some writers, keen to present Jesus as a feminist, have claimed that Jesus' preference for Mary over Martha shows that Jesus did not favour women doing the traditional house-work. [NOTE 11] This is however a far-fetched interpretation. Mary and Martha emerge at a time when Jesus had few followers, and he would have welcomed any especially those like Mary who were willing to accept all his claims. Also Mary (like the woman at the banquet of Simon the Parisee) is reported to have anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume (Jn 12.3), a procedure which Jesus seems to have relished. Martha on the other hand was a bit of a sceptic on Jesus' ability to revive the rotting corpse of Lazarus because as Martha put it "there is an odour as it is four days since his death" (Lk 11.39). On the whole the gospel writers seem to be enthralled about Mary and Martha, but Jesus seems to have treated them as blind followers or servants - the position he normally accords to women.

Several other women are also mentioned in the Jesus narrative, travelling with Jesus witnessing his execution, and even discovering the empty tomb. Of these Mary Magdalene is usually given prominence. Jesus does not seem to have given his female followers a discourse on women, which would have put his position on women beyond question. Not much information is given about these female followers either, even Mary Magdalene, a reticence which has given rise to a considerable degree of speculation about Jesus' real relationship with them. [NOTE 12]

Many of the pro-Jesus writers claim that Jesus' treatment of women is more enlightening than that of traditional Judaism. This is however questionable. The areas where he disagrees from the prevailing values (like divorce) do not necessarily represent any progress. It is true that he is presented as having more contact with women than other rabbis generally, but this contact was to promote women as servile lackeys pandering to his petty vanities like anointing and perfume, or as credulous and unquestioning followers. Moreover he was looking for followers and this is where he seems to have found them. This does not represent a real "liberation" of women.

But the most damning indictment is that no status is given to women as spiritual leaders. There is no exhortation for women to become apostles, or to teach. In the case of Jesus he laid the foundations for the male dominated Christian religion which has continued to this day. The conventional view that lays the androgenic character of Christianity throughout the centuries at the door of its early "patristic fathers" is not correct; it must be laid at the door of Jesus himself.

Implications for Scriptural Revisionism

In the ongoing attempts to exonerate Jesus from the charge of anti-feminism a central role has been assigned to a reinterpretation of the few female characters who figure in the Gospel story. Of these the revival of interest in Mary Magdalene is important as the other female figures (with the exception of the “Virgin” Mary, who however only basks in the reflected glory of her son), do not count for much and can hardly be cast in a light to present Christianity as being favourable to feminism. This interest is reflected not only in a whole lot of books that have been written on the subject, but also even in films (e.g. Martin Scorsese’s 1988 file The Last Temptation of Christ.

The nineteenth century French theologian Ernest Renan, who is credited with the start of the modern re-invention of the role of Jesus, had claimed that “After Jesus, it is Mary [Magdalene] who has done the most in the founding of Christianity” (E. Renan, The Apostles [New York], p.49). All this on the basis that it was Mary (either alone or with other women) who provided the evidence for the resurrection. Like all the other women in the NT Mary does not make any contribution to Christianity other than as a blind follower. Still others have attempted to elevate Mary into a female disciple comparable to the twelve (male) apostles. An example of this is the recent writer Susan Haskins, who has written:

“Mark tells that Mary Magadalen who when Christ was in Galilee ‘followed him and ministered unto him’ (my italics). ‘To minister’ is translated from the Greek verb diakonein, to serve or to minister. It is also the root of the word ‘deacon’ which establishes the important function given to women within the group of both female and male disciples.”. Mary Magdalen (Harper Collins, 1993) p.12.

Haskins also writes: "“Christ’s disinterest in the conventions of his day, and his desire to radically alter certain social mores, are made manifest in his treatment of women” (p.13)".

As we have shown Jesus’ treatment of women did not differ radically from current attitudes, and in some respects put women in a more demeaning position that was the practice of his day. Haskin’s argument is extremely tenuous. We have shown that the role of the women were merely those of servants of Jesus and that “ministering” in their case meant only serving. Their role cannot be compared to the male apostles, and they cannot be regarded as some kind of female “deacons” as the above interpretation makes them to be.

The modern attempts at revising the role of women that is discernible in the original Gospel writings are no different to other scriptural interpretation that try to gloss over the retrograde aspects of the Christian teaching. On the question of women this teaching was largely responsible for the position of women in Christian countries for nearly two millennia, and from which women are only now emerging. However a complete liberation of women is not possible without an explicit repudiation of the Jesunine teaching.


[1.]Christianity compromises on strict monotheism by recognising a “Trinity”, a doctrine which has led to considerable conflict between Christian Sects. The first two elements of the Trinity (the Father and the Son) are masculine but there could be some argument on the gender of the third element the Holy Ghost.

[2.] Of these it is Paul who set the tone. A crucial passage reads: ("Let your women keep silent in the churches..., they are to be submissive as the law also states. And if they want to learn something let them ask their husbands at home...(" (I Cor 14 34-5). But as will be shown these are merely the application of Jesus teachings.

[3.] Jesus treatment of his mother will be dealt with later. The Cult of Mary Mother of Jesus which arose in later Catholicism has no foundation in the sayings of Jesus.

[4.] Even a pro-Jesus feminist admits: "There is no recorded speech of Jesus concerning women `as such" (Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex [1975], p. 79). Of the books in the NT it is only the first three Gospels ("the Synoptics(") which are regarded by scholars as being closest to the sayings of Jesus. The fourth (John) is a later addition and the sayings of Jesus in the rest of the N.T. is even less reliable.

[5.] Later Christianity elevated the family as an institution favoured by Jesus. In fact Jesus encouraged people to abandon their homes, families and children and follow him because they will then ("inherit eternal life(" (Mt 19.29, Mk 10.29-30).

[6.] The banning of divorce strictly refers to those ("whom God has joined(". Since the Christian God is invisible nobody will ever know whether a marriage is ("made in heaven") so the statement in Mk 10.9 is completely ineffective.

[7.] In a well-known statement Jesus asks people to be like children. It is well known that children because of their as yet not-fully-developed mind are more gullible and could easily be brain-washed into accepting preposterous claims. Jesus apparently felt that women were also in this position. This attitude of Jesus far from being complimentary to women actually demeans them.

[8.] Most of the recorded miracles on men are given in John. It has been noted that this gospel tries to pair a miracle on a female with a corresponding miracle on a male. These male miracles may well be fabrications of John. If so women appear as subjects on which Jesus felt most at home in performing his "miracles" . Most people now regard these "miracles" as being nothing more than magical illusions, and women were regarded by Jesus as good material on whom to perform these deceptions.

[9.] A comment may be made here on the execution of Jesus (incorrectly called an " assassination" by Fr Pieris). Jesus was condemned (1) by the Jews for calling himself the Son of their God Yahweh; and (2) by the Romans for calling himself the " King of the Jews" . According to the rules of the day both were capital offenses. Even many centuries later Christians and Muslims would have executed anyone who claimed to be fathered by God or Allah. A colonial power like Rome could not tolerate a rival ruler over their domains. In his trials Jesus was given ample opportunity to deny these charges, but he did not, i.e. in effect pleaded guilty. Thus his execution was lawful according to the rules in force. It cannot be represented as Christians do as some act of vicarious atonement for the "sins" of others; it was his own "sins" that were paid for.

[10.] See e.g. John McHugh. The mother of Jesus in the New Testament (N.Y., 1965) pp. 361-403, for a discussion of this problem.

[11.] See e.g L. Schweidler, " Is sexism a sign of decadence in religion" in Plaskow and Romero (eds) Women and Religion, p. 168.

[12.] Barbara Thiering in Jesus the Man (Doubleday, 1992) claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene soon after he appeared in Palestine as a preacher. This is based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocryphal Gospels (suppressed by the early Church). According to Thiering Jesus was cut from the Cross before he had died and handed over to the Jews to complete the execution according to Jewish custom (burial alive). However the Jews did not do this. Perhaps they felt that Jesus" claim to divinity had been amply refuted, and indeed while on the Cross Jesus said things which amounted to a repudiation of his alleged Father. So they let Jesus go and he lived for a long time in obscurity, moving to Rome, and fathering a family. Meanwhile the myth of his " resurrection" was actively propagated by the Church. Jesus thus can be considered as having connived in this deception. The Thiering thesis is however not essential to our argument.