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Did Christ conform to social myth? From 'Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?' by John Wijngaards

4. Did Christ conform to social myth?

From Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests? by John Wijngaards (McCrimmons 1977, 1986).

Quotation from the Roman document on the Ministry of Women.

'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.'

The Roman document is quite right in attaching great value to the question of whether Jesus conformed to the attitude of his contemporaries regarding women or not. As I have stated before, this is the crucial issue in the whole debate. If in selecting only men for the apostolic team Jesus was guided by the general practice of his own times, we have no reason to presume his objection against the ministry of women in changed circumstances. If however Jesus broke with the social myth of male predominance and yet refused to admit women to the apostolic team, we have a clear indication that he was setting a permanent norm.

To proceed methodically in exposing my own view, I will first scrutinise the Roman arguments cited above and show that they do not prove Christ broke with the social customs of his time. I will then adduce positive evidence to prove that Christ did conform to the social myth of male predominance in four ways:

(a) He clung to the Jewish image of a 'father';
(b) He accepted the Jewish role of the 'husband';
(c) He spoke as if the Jewish understanding of sex was correct;
(d) He accommodated himself to the secondary role played by women in religion.

In other words, Jesus did not overthrow the social system by which men possessed predominance in Jewish society. He accepted this system as a social system for what it was worth and acted in harmony with it.

Scrutiny of the Roman arguments

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.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.52 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 at length later on (chapters 8-9). 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.

Jesus and the Jewish image of a 'father'

For the Jews, the man was the undisputed head of the family. All relationships centred round him. His wife and his children (especially his sons) were considered man's most precious possessions.

'Your wife: a fruitful vine
on the inner walls of your house.
Your sons: round your table,
like shoots round an olive tree.' (Ps 128, 3)

It was the father who had absolute authority over his children and could decide about their future (Gen 43, 1-15; 2 Sam 13, 23-27). Family property was inherited by men, not by women. Only if no male heir was left, could a daughter inherit (Num 27, 1-11; 36, 1-12). It was the father who, as sole owner of the family property, could distribute it to his sons (Dt 21, 15-17). The authority of a father and the different treatment of sons and daughters in a family are well illustrated by the following piece of advice:

'Have you cattle? Look after them.
If they are making you a profit, keep them.
Have you sons? Educate them,
make them bow the neck from childhood.
Have you daughters? Take care of their bodies,
but do not be over-indulgent.
Marry a daughter off, and you have finished a great work;
but give her to a man of sense.' (Sir 7. 22-25).

In New Testament times the juridical position of man as head of the family had not changed. Jesus himself clearly presupposes it and accepts it as a fact. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15, 11-32), it is the father who distributes the property among his sons. The willing son and the unwilling one are given their work by their father (Mt 21, 28-31). Jesus clearly presupposes the Jewish authority role of the father when he says to the pharisees; 'The devil is your father so that you do what he wants' (Jn 8, 44). Interesting in this context is also the question of Jesus' own connection to the house of David. How could Jesus be called 'Son of David' if Joseph was not his real father? Wasn't his mother Mary from the priestly tribe to which also Zechariah and Elizabeth belonged (Lk 1, 36)? The Gospels give the typically Jewish answer that, although Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, he was his legal father as Mary's legitimate husband (Mt 1, 13-25). This would indeed convince Jews that Jesus was a true son of David, but it clearly implies a concept of family descent no longer valid in our own days.

In all his parables Jesus conforms to the Jewish idea according to which the man was the centre of the family. The 'owner of the house' (Lk 22, 11) is always a man. It is the man who builds the house (Mt 7, 24-27). It is the man who defends his house against intruders (Mt 12, 29) and stays awake at night to catch a burglar (Mt 24, 43). It is the man who manages the property (Mk 25, 14-30), who has authority over the servants (Mt 24, 45-51) and who controls the family store (Mt 13, 52).

The roles of husband and wife in Jesus' examples

According to Jewish thinking the wife was almost owned by her husband. He had property rights over her. 'A good wife is the best of possessions' (Sir 26, 3). 'She is far beyond the price of pearls' (Prov 31, 10). In the Ten Commandments the wife is mentioned as one of people's possessions that should be respected. 'You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his slave, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his' (Ex 20, 17). No doubt a good husband will have loved his wife and relationships between them were much more human than such juridical relationships might express. The Canticle of Canticles witnesses to this more human side of the picture. However, the ownership rights of a husband over his wife remained the juridical foundation on which the marriage bond was made. The husband could practically dissolve the bond at will (Gen 16, 1-6; Dt 24, 1-4). In extreme cases he could give her away like the Levite who, under pressure, gave his wife to the townspeople of Gibeah for their pleasure. When the poor woman died on account of the treatment she received, the townspeople were condemned for their injustice; not the Levite for giving his concubine (Judges 19, 1-30).

When speaking about marriage, Jesus takes the man-centred concept of the Jews for granted. He speaks of a king arranging a marriage for his son, without ever mentioning the queen (Mt 22, 1-14). At the wedding itself, it is not the bride but the bridegroom who is celebrated. The wedding guests are called 'the friends of the bridegroom' (Mt 9, 15). The ten virgins are not waiting for the bride but for the bridegroom. It is he who excludes the foolish ones from the feast (Mt 25, 113). It was quite natural for Jesus to say 'The bride exists only for the bridegroom' (Jn 3, 29). In passing Jesus makes mention of a man's wife and children being sold as slaves to pay off his debt (Mt 18, 25) and enumerates the wife and children among other possessions which he invites his close followers to leave for the kingdom of heaven (Lk 18, 29). Isn't it abundantly clear from all this that Jesus simply accepted the social relationships between man and woman as he found them in his own times?

The instructions of the apostles render further confirmation of this. If Jesus had rejected the social myth of man's predominance, why did they continue to strengthen it? The apostles, too, presume that the man, as father, husband and householder, wields the ultimate authority within the family. Husbands should have consideration and respect for their wives (1 Pet 3, 7). A husband should love his wife, feed her and look well after her (Eph 5, 21-33). But the wife is 'the weaker partner'. She should be obedient to her husband, faithful and conscientious ( I Pet 3, 1-7). A wife should give way to her husband (Col 3, 18), be subject to him (Eph 5, 22). Although the position of woman as an equal child of God is recognised in some texts (Gal 3, 28), the social implications of this doctrine had not yet been realised.

Jesus and Jewish biological notions

The Jewish concept of male predominance was supported by a mistaken idea of sexual functions. We know that the fetus in the womb is the product of a conjunction of a male sperm and a female ovum. The Jews did not know this. They identified the fetus with the sperm. For them 'seed' and 'off-spring' are synonymous (cf Gal 3, 16). While the mother fulfilled a useful function in providing the womb, it remained the father who generated life as the carrier of 'offspring'.

Obviously, Jesus never had the intention of lecturing on the biology of sex. But when he refers to the sexual roles of man and woman in marriage, his statements conform to the Jewish notion. Neither does he correct this notion if expressed by others.

For Jesus, too, it was the man's role to produce offspring by giving his seed. The Jews argue they are offspring of Abraham because they are his direct seed, not born out of fornication (Jn 8, 39-41). Jesus accepts the custom of a man marrying his brother's widow to raise offspring for him, but denies that this type of practice will continue in heaven (Lk 20, 27-36). Jesus describes celibacy for men as 'making oneself a eunuch', a rather strong way of saying that a celibate voluntarily contains his generative power (Mt 19, 10- 12). In the description of Jesus' own birth, the evangelists take the same line. Jesus is truly the Son of God because Mary did not conceive human seed, but a divine substitute for it. 'She conceived of the Holy Spirit' (Mt 1, 20). The power of the Most High overshadowed her (Lk 1, 35). In this way Jesus' own birth is the perfect example of divine sonship which John defines as being born 'not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of the will of God' (Jn 1, 13).

Women's role is well expressed by the exclamation 'Blessed the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked' (Lk 11, 27). Jesus accepts this view and employs it himself when describing the future tragedy of Jerusalem when it will be said: 'Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, the breasts that never gave suck' (Lk 23, 29). A woman who does not bear children is called barren: her womb is like infertile soil that cannot receive the seed. Elizabeth was called barren in this sense (Lk 1, 7. 25. 36). When discussing spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus asks: 'Does this mean that a man has to go back into his mother's womb?'. Jesus replies that, in the kingdom of heaven, man is born of 'water and the spirit'. To put it crudely, in the matrimony of baptism the Holy Spirit acts as the father engendering the seed, while the water is like the mother's womb (Jn 3, 4-8). Jesus also pre-supposes the Jewish concept of generation when describing his passion. His death is like a grain of wheat falling into the earth, dying in its womb, but being reborn with much fruit (Jn 12, 24). The anguish and labour of childbirth will be forgotten once the new child has been born (Jn 16, 21). Although such texts are by no means pronouncements, let alone inspired teaching, on the functioning of sex, they prove beyond any doubt that Jesus conformed to the views of his contemporaries in all such matters.

Women and worship

The social myth that put man on a pedestal had enormous consequences for the way in which the Old Testament Jew understood and practised his religion. Men and women were certainly not considered equal partners in religion or in the covenant with God. A few hard facts may help us to realise the implications of this stand.

Inequality began at birth. Whenever a child was born, the mother was considered ritually unclean for some time. If the child happened to be a boy, she was unclean for forty days; if a girl, for eighty days (Lev 12, 1-8). Every first-born male 'who opened his mother's womb' had to be redeemed with a special sacrifice. A girl did not count (Ex 13, 11-16). All male children had to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. This was an essential condition for belonging to the Covenant, more or less parallel to our baptism for belonging to the Church. However, there was no equivalent rite of initiation for women (Gen 17, 9-14). All this was tantamount to meaning that God had concluded his covenant with the men, the 'sons of Israel'. The women participated in the Covenant only indirectly, through their fathers and husbands.

A woman could not act as a full person, independently, in her own right within religion. A religious vow made by a woman was only valid if it was ratified by her father or husband (Num 40, 2-17). Women could not present sacrifices. Their going up to the temple for worship was voluntary, not obligatory, 'Three times a year all your menfolk must present themselves before the Lord' (Ex 23, 17). The arrangements in the temple of Jerusalem even limited the access of women to the central sanctuary. Whereas men were allowed to proceed to the 'court of Israel' which faced the sacred precincts containing the altar of holocausts, women had to stay behind in the 'court of women'.

As in government, warfare, family life and business management, religion too was a domain where men met men. Yahweh himself was portrayed as a man. The titles under which he was invoked, King, Ruler, Warrior, Judge, Father, presented a thoroughly masculine image. The prophets could speak of him as a husband enduring the unfaithfulness of his rebellious wife, Israel (Hos 3, 1-5). Idolatry and worship of other gods was compared to fornication and adultery (Ez 16, 15-43). And although women could pray to God and at times even be his spokesmen (compare a prophetess like Deborah, Judges 4, 1-9), religion and revelation were essentially a meeting-ground between God, the Man, and his first-born son, the male Israelite. The spirit of this is well expressed in the words of God to Job:

'Gird up your loins like a man.
I will question you and you will answer me' (Job 38, 3; 40, 7).

In this religious context, it becomes clear that a woman could never be thought of as a priest. Mosaic Law restricts the priestly ministry to Aaron and his sons (Lev 8, 1-36). The necessity of priests being men was so obvious to the Jew that in the whole Old Testament in no single text are women excluded explicitly. Whenever priests are spoken of, they are presented as men. The enormous abyss between priests and women is most clearly expressed in indirect legislation whereby a priest's 'sacredness' is safeguarded from contamination through the proximity of women. A priest should marry a virgin. He was not allowed to marry 'a woman profaned by prostitution or divorce' (Lev 21, 7-9). A priest's wife and daughters could eat from his food, including meat offered at sacrifices (Lev 22, 13). But certain of the sacrifices were sacred. Only men could eat them (Num 18, 8-10). When David and his companions were hungry and no other food was available than the 'holy bread' of the presentation sacrifice, the high-priest gave it to them reluctantly, and only after having been assured that they had not touched a woman for some days ( 1 Sam 21, 4-6). In this world of thought, the ministry of a woman at the altar was literally unthinkable.

Conclusion: Jesus had to conform

All these laws were in force in Jesus' time. All religious leaders - whether priests, scribes, pharisees or rabbis - were men. If this was the religious climate of the day, need we be surprised that Jesus called only men to be his apostles? To put it differently: entrusting the ministry to women would have required a profound social revolution, even more than a religious reform. Even if Jesus had wanted to overthrow the social structures of his society, it would be doubtful if he could have achieved this in so short a time. A centuries-old social myth that is ingrained in the texture of people's life and thought cannot be uprooted even by a God-man through three years of preaching. But Jesus did not want to effect an immediate social liberation. Although his teaching and redemptive action enshrined the principles that make true social equality possible, Jesus himself refrained from any direct social rebellion. He refused to be drawn into a political struggle for independence. He accepted discrimination against women as a reality of the society in which he lived. In selecting only men for leadership functions in his Church, Christ simply followed the social limitations forced on him by contemporary society.

Go to Chapter 5?

© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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