Christ did not directly break with social male dominance
The arguments produced by Rome do not prove Christ broke with the social customs of his time.
‘Jesus Christ did not call any woman to become part of the twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it.
- For example, to the great astonishment of his own disciples Jesus converses publicly with the Samaritan Woman (cf Jn 4, 27);
- he takes no notice of the state of legal impurity of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages (cf Mt 9, 20-22);
- he allows a sinful woman to approach him in the house of Simon the Pharisee (cf Lk 7, 37ff);
- and by pardoning the woman taken in adultery, he means to show that one must not be more severe towards the fault of a woman than towards that of a man (cf Jn 8, 11).
- He does not hesitate to depart from the Mosaic Law in order to affirm the equality of the rights and duties of men and women with regard to the marriage bond (cf Mk 10, 2-11; Mt 19, 3-9).
- In his itinerant ministry Jesus was accompanied not only by the twelve but also by a group of women: ‘Mary, surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chusa, Susanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources’ (Lk 8, 2-3).
- Contrary to Jewish mentality, which did not accord great value to the testimony of women as Jewish law attests, it was nevertheless women who were the first to have the privilege of seeing the risen Lord, and it was they who were charged by Jesus to take the first paschal message to the apostles themselves (cf Mt 28, 7-10; Lk 24, 9-10; Jn 20, 11-18) in order to prepare the latter to become the official witnesses to the resurrection…
It must be recognised that we have here a number of convergent indications that make all the more remarkable the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women.’
Quotation from Inter Insigniores
The document maintains that Jesus ‘deliberately and courageously broke’ with the attitude towards women of his milieu. But the examples adduced do not convince. In every single case Jesus’ departure from Jewish custom involved a judgement about sanctity and sin, not a judgement about the status of women.
In the four cases mentioned in which Jesus showed kindness towards women: the Samaritan woman, the woman suffering from haemorrhages, the woman who washed his feet, and the woman taken in adultery, the novelty of Jesus’ action lies in his compassionate behaviour towards persons supposed to be impure on account of sin. That they were women adds to the degree of his compassion but it does not change its nature. Jesus’ compassion for sinful men, such as the paralytic let down through the roof, Zacchaeus, the leper at Capernaum, the good thief, etc, does not differ substantially.
Women were the first to see the empty tomb. As the document admits, it would not seem correct to speak of them as ‘witnesses’. In the official list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection of 1 Cor 15, 3-8, no woman is mentioned. The account of the empty tomb originated in all likelihood from a liturgical practice near Jerusalem (J. DELORME, ‘Résurrection et Tombeau de Jésus,’ in La Résurrection du Christ et l’Exégèse Moderne, ed. P. DE SURGY et al., Paris 1969, pgs 105-51). Only in later times did the text assume an apologetic purpose. In harmony with Jewish thinking the apostles are then called in to function as official witnesses (Mt 28, 1-10; Jn 20, 1-10). No departure from established Jewish custom can be seen in this.
The text about divorce is interesting. The Pharisees ask, ‘Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?’. While the rabbinical schools were divided on the gravity of the reason for which a man could divorce his wife, Jesus states that an ideal marriage should exclude the possibility of divorce. Notice how in the Jewish question itself male predominance is implied. According to Jewish law divorce was the unilateral right of the man. A husband could divorce his wife, not a wife her husband. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus disapproves of divorce but implicitly accepts divorce as the privilege of the husband. ‘I say this to you: the man who divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, and marries another, is guilty of adultery’ (Mt 19, 9). This is probably the historical way in which Jesus answered and which would, incidentally, illustrate how Jesus conformed to the Jewish way of seeing the husband as the centre of marriage (see also Mt 5, 31-32, where again the husband is central). The formulation in Mk 10, 11-12, which also speaks of a wife divorcing her husband, is surely an explicitation, according to Jesus’ mind, in the context of Mark’s Roman audience (H. C. KEE and F. W. YOUNG, The Living World of the New Testament, London 1960, pgs 111-12). According to Roman law, divorce could be initiated both by the husband and by the wife. In other words, we have here an example of Jesus’ being sensitive to the rights of women; not an example of Jesus’ breaking with the social myth as such.
Jesus did, of course, have a new kind of relationship with women about which I will speak elsewhere. The question here is whether in these relationships with women he ‘deliberately and courageously broke’ with the social customs of his time. The answer is clearly: No. It is true, in one or two cases Jesus went beyond the limits which a Jewish rabbi would impose on his dealings with women. As we have seen before, this can be explained as compassion, an aspect of Jesus’ overall neglect of rabbinical tradition when mercy demanded it of him (Mt 9, 12-13).
There is, however, no question of a direct attack against discrimination. Jesus did not fight for the emancipation of women in the same way that he made a stand for the poor. He has frequent clashes with the pharisees about the sabbath and other traditional observances. Not once is he recorded as having a dispute to remedy the oppression woman was under. The question of emancipation simply never arose. It could not arise. The social climate was not ripe for it.
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