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Jesus Christ and Male Dominance

Jesus Christ and the fact of social Male Dominance

The reason why Jesus did not choose women to be part of the twelve apostles was his need to adapt, in this matter, to the social perceptions of the time. For Jesus' contemporaries were under the influence of the social and cultural spell of male predominance.

What is at stake?

The fact that Jesus did not choose a woman among the twelve apostles is a non argument. By itself it proves nothing. Yet, the Roman documents rightly raise the question of whether Jesus conformed to the attitude of his contemporaries regarding women or not? For this is made a crucial issue in Rome's argument. Through it they try to turn something Jesus did not do, into a definite and permanent decision.

What however, about the facts?

If Jesus broke with the social customs of male predominance and yet refused to admit women to the apostolic team, we might have an indication that he was setting a permanent norm. If, however, in selecting only men for the apostolic team Jesus was guided by the general practice of his own times, we have no reason at all to presume his objection against the ministry of women in changed circumstances. And the latter, clearly, was the case.

The term: “myth” of predominance

Sociologists and anthropologists speak of “myths” that underlie social structures. Male dominance too rested on such a myth.

A “social myth” is a complex of values, beliefs, practices and popular perceptions that guide society. We use the word “myth” here in a technical sense. “Myths display the structured, predominantly culture specific, and shared semantic systems which enable the members of a culture area to understand each other and cope with the unknown...Myths express the strong components of semantic systems”.

P.MARANDA, Mythology, Select Readings. Penguin Harmondsworth 1972, pg. 12.

To understand the issues we will be discussing, it may be useful to study these findings on the “social myth” of male predominance:


I will adduce positive evidence to prove that Christ did conform to social 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 had to contend with 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.

(a) 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).

(b) 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 25,1-13). 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.

(c) 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.

(d) 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.

Jesus, of course, was different in his own ideas. He showed in his own ministry a great personal openness to women. Women and men entered the Kingdom as equals through one baptism. Jesus’ atttitude to women contained the germs of their future ministry, as Luke implies in his Gospel. But Jesus had to deal with the people of his time. He could not bring about an immediate social revolution.

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.

What about the examples adduced by Rome to illustrate Jesus' “courageous break with established custom”? Read my reply here.

Jesus did introduce a new religious principle that put women on an equal footing with men in his Kingdom. Women too share in his priesthood through baptism. This has laid the basis for their full admission to the ministerial priesthood.

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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