Questions about the life and times of our Lord, one of the most written-about people of all time, continue to intrigue us two millennia after his death. Between the vagueness of the canonical Gospels and the sensational claims made in modern films and books, what is a Christian to believe about the only Son of God?
Was Jesus a feminist? Some might say it’s not fair to pose this provocative question. One can easily object that feminism—understood by many as the equality of women and men—is a late 20th-century western idea, and that it is unfair to impose it on a first-century Jew like our Savior.
The society in which he lived and taught was patriarchal and hierarchical, that is, the husband was the head of the household, and women, children and slaves were subordinate to him. Roles and tasks were clearly divided between men and women.
Jesus and his first followers were people of their particular time and place. To be otherwise would have marked him as a social deviant. Nevertheless, in comparison with other Jewish religious leaders of his day, he was remarkably open to the participation of women in his movement. While descriptions of our Savior as a feminist or as promoting a discipleship of equals exaggerate his openness, they do remind us of his boldness in giving place and prominence to women in his life and work.
The Mother of God
In the Bible, Mary, the mother of God, is most prominent at the beginning and end of his life. In Matthew’s Gospel, we learn that Mary was engaged to Joseph when “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In the historical context of first-century Palestine, it is likely that Mary was young (13 or 14), that her marriage to Joseph had been arranged by older family members and that she was in the midst of a yearlong engagement period.
Luke presents Mary as one of the characters (along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the shepherds, and Simeon and Anna) who represent the best in Israel’s tradition.
She willingly accepts her mission to become the mother of the Messiah.
After giving birth, Mary observes the various rituals surrounding childbirth in the Jewish law and is warned in anticipation of his passion and death: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:35). Years later she accompanies her 12-year-old son on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover.
The Perfect Disciple
In these various episodes, Mary is described as one who accepts the word of God, believes that it was being fulfilled in her and reflects on what was said about her son. When the adult Jesus defines his true family as “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21), it is his mother who emerges as the perfect example of discipleship.
Mary is the one person who remains with her son from birth to death. John’s Gospel reveals that it was Mary’s words to her son that occasioned his first miracle in turning water into wine. In John’s Passion narrative, Mary appears at the foot of the cross along with the “beloved disciple.” With her dying son, they form a community of compassion and provide a model for all Christian communities.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Mary was present with the 12 disciples as they gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus and before the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.
Other Women in the Lord’s Ministry
The women followers are especially prominent in Bible accounts of his death and resurrection. They see him die, they see where he was buried and they find his tomb empty on Easter Sunday.
In describing the women who witness his death and burial, Mark mentions in passing—almost as an afterthought—that several women had accompanied Christ's and his male disciples during his public ministry: They “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (15:41).
Luke, however, offers this surprising information much earlier in his account (8:1-3). He names three women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Chuza and Susanna—and adds that there were many other women who provided for Christ and his male disciples. The question is sometimes asked: Who cooked at the Last Supper? The most obvious answer is that these women did!
In the context of first-century Judaism, it would have been very surprising, if not scandalous, that a Jewish teacher and his male disciples would have been accompanied by women who were not their wives. Since this is not the kind of thing that early Christians would have invented, the presence of women in the movement seems well-founded on the historical level. But whether the male disciples regarded women as their equals is unlikely, given the patriarchal character of Jewish society at the time.
In his public ministry, women were frequently the recipients of his healing power. For example, he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of Jairus, the woman with the flow of blood and the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. From his dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, he seems to have learned that his mission was not to be limited to his fellow Jews. With his absolute prohibition of divorce, Our Lord gave protection to women in a society in which a husband could divorce his wife merely by giving her a legal document and sending her out of his household (see Dt 24:1-4).
The Gospels agree that when Christ was arrested, his male disciples fled but his women followers remained faithful, witnessed his death and burial, and discovered his tomb empty. These facts were embarrassing to early Christians because they reflected badly on their male heroes. Moreover, since the testimony of women was not acceptable in Jewish courts of the time, the appeal to women as witnesses was not the kind of thing that Christians would have invented.
The most prominent woman in the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s death and resurrection is Mary of Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is generally named first in the lists of women witnesses and, according to Matthew and John, is the first to see the risen Lord on Easter Sunday.
Luke’s Gospel depicts Mary Magdalene as one of the Galilean women who accompanied Jesus throughout his public ministry. The description of her as one “from whom seven demons had gone out” (8:2) indicates that she had undergone an exorcism, presumably performed by Christ.
Setting the Record Straight
Mary’s reputation as a prostitute rests unfairly on the unwarranted identification of her with the sinful woman who enters a Pharisee’s house and washes our Savior’s feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with expensive ointment (7:36-50). Mary Magdalene is introduced in Luke’s Gospel shortly after this story; thus the confusion by many of Mary Magdalene with this unnamed sinful woman.
As she is portrayed in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is best understood as a witness to the risen Lord. She saw him die, knew where he was buried, found his tomb empty and encountered him as alive once more. The risen Lord gives Mary the mission of telling the male disciples that he is truly alive again and is ascending to his Father. Thus it is customary to refer to Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles.”
In later writings such as the Gospel of Mary, a second- or third-century text, Mary Magdalene becomes the revealer of secret wisdom in the post-resurrection age. That Mary Magdalene was the lover or wife of the Lord has no foundation in ancient texts. While this idea gives the Lord a “love interest” in modern novels and films, it is the product of the imaginations of much later writers.
A Celibate Jew?
Despite the prominence of women in the ancient sources about the Lord, there is no evidence that he had a wife. While this may have surprised his relatives and contemporaries, it appears that he refrained from marriage primarily out of dedication to his mission of proclaiming God’s Kingdom.
The practice of celibacy (abstaining from sexual relations and marriage) was not common in ancient Judaism. Indeed, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer said: “Any Jew who does not have a wife is not a man.” However, it appears that in that time, members of some Jewish religious groups who lived a communal life similar to that of later Christian monks were celibate.
‘For the Sake of the Kingdom’
There is no indication in any ancient Jewish or Christian source that either John the Baptist or Christ was married or had children. The only explicit teaching about celibacy that is attributed to him in the Gospels appears in Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord prefaces this teaching with a caution that this kind of celibacy is a gift from God and follows the teaching with a reminder that it is voluntary on the disciple’s part.
Celibacy undertaken “for the sake of the kingdom” fits well with what we know to have been the focus of the Lord’s life and preaching. In this context, Christ’s teaching about voluntary celibacy would be a sign of total dedication to God’s Kingdom similar to the parables about total commitment (treasure in a field, pearl of great value) in Matthew 13:44-46. There is no hint of contempt for the body or contempt for marriage and sexual activity.
Marriage among the Followers
Peter was certainly married, since we know that he had a mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31). And Paul claims in his first letter to the Corinthians that Cephas, usually interpreted as another name for Peter, was accompanied by his wife on his apostolic journeys. We know nothing about the marital status of the rest of the apostles or other early followers of our Lord, although an itinerant lifestyle would hardly promote stable family life.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul promotes virginity, abstinence and celibacy as Christian ideals. Yet he does not appeal to the teaching or example of Christ. For Paul, celibacy was a help toward more fervent consecration to God and God’s Kingdom. Paul concludes that one “who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38). He was careful, however, to insist that celibacy is a gift from God and not granted to everybody.
When Paul wrote his letters, he was not married and affirms that he was celibate. However, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:8 (“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am”), some interpreters argue that Paul had once been married and was then widowed.
The Role of Women in Christ’s Life and Ministry
Was Christ a feminist? Not in the modern sense of the term. He was a man of his own time and place. However, he was also ahead of his time culturally. He defined his true family as “those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk 11:28). Luke thought this was best expressed in Mary, the mother of God.
Women played necessary and important roles in his public ministry, and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection.
The first appearance of the risen Lord was to Mary Magdalene, who then served as the “apostle to the apostles.” She lived up to the role beautifully.
The voluntary celibacy embraced by Christ is best understood not negatively, as a criticism of women, marriage or the human body, but rather positively, as flowing from their total commitment to God’s Kingdom.
Questions for Reflection
- What Bible stories of the Lord and women in the Gospels do you find most memorable? What message of challenge, comfort, or hope do you hear in these stories?
- How well do you judge that our Church has followed Christ’s lead in regard to inclusion of and respect for the gifts of women? How is your own parish doing in this regard?
- What woman in your life has been most influential in helping you along your faith journey? Find a way to express your appreciation to her.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., the author of this blog, contributed the text to AmericanCatholic.org.