The world Jesus entered largely discriminated against women. He rejected the false criteria upon which the double standard was built. He measured men and women by the same standards, the inner qualities of character and not by such accidents of birth as ethnic or sexual differences. He affirmed women by His manner, example, and teaching.

The Manner of Jesus

Jesus included women where Jewish piety largely excluded them. Women were excluded from participation in synagogue worship, restricted to a spectator role, and forbidden to enter the Temple beyond the Court of the Women. A woman was not to touch the Scriptures, lest she defile them. A man was not to talk much with a woman, even his wife. Talk with a woman in public was yet more restrictive.

Jesus brushed aside all such discrimination. He astonished His disciples by talking openly with “a woman” at Jacob’s well (John 4:27). His dearest friends included Mary, Martha and Mary Magdalene. There were many women who ministered to (or with) Him, following Him from Galilee to Golgotha (Mark 15:41).

Having already affirmed Martha by accepting her invitation to dinner, He affirmed Mary’s choice of sitting at His feet to hear Him teach (Luke 10:39). He did not question her right or competence to hear His word, He commended her for choosing “the good part,” declaring that “it will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). Many have sought to take from women like Mary precisely what Jesus affirmed as rightfully theirs.

The story of the anointing of Jesus by “a sinful woman” is amazing (Luke 7:36–50). She showered her love and gratitude upon Jesus, and He affirmed her and her act. Without a hint of impropriety, Jesus let this woman thus touch Him and express her feelings toward Him. The pious Pharisees were scandalized that Jesus let her do this, and would have forbidden it even if the woman had been “good” and not “a sinner.”

Equally amazing is the story of the woman with an issue of blood who touched Jesus (Mark 5:25–34). According to the code in Leviticus, a woman with an issue of blood was “unclean,” defiling everyone and everything she touched (15:19–33). Had Jesus followed this code, He would have denounced the woman for touching Him and demanded her punishment. Instead, Jesus had her stand up and openly identify herself; and then He publicly affirmed her: “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be healed from your scourge” (v. 34). Jesus thus rejected the cruel stigma imposed upon women. He rejected the fallacy that “an issue of blood” is defiling.

The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus also rejected the double standard for marriage, divorce and adultery. He put marriage and divorce in new perspective in answering the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2). It would never have occurred to His questioners to ask, “Is it lawful for a wife to divorce her husband?” Under Jewish law, a wife could not divorce her husband.

Jesus traced divorce to the hardness of human hearts, not to the intention of God. But Jesus did more! He recognized husband and wife as equally free and responsible in marriage and divorce. Significantly, Jesus built upon the story in the first chapter of Genesis (Genesis 1:27, supplemented by 2:24), not the “rib story” as such: “Male and female He made them; for this cause a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Marriage thus is a partnership, with no double standard in marriage or divorce.

Jesus corrected current understanding of adultery at two points: 1) adultery begins as lust in one’s heart, not just when overt; and 2) adultery can be committed against a woman (Matthew 5:27–30). Jewish law saw adultery as a sin against a husband, not against a wife. For a husband to visit a prostitute or an unmarried woman was not seen as adultery. Rape of a single girl was a crime, but not adultery. It was considered adultery only if the rights of a husband were violated.

Jesus declared two things in saying, “The one looking upon a woman with a view to lust has already committed adultery against her in his heart.” Although the main point may be that lust itself is adultery, the charge “against her” is innovative. Jesus rejected the fallacy that adultery is a sin against a husband only; adultery can be committed against a woman.

The Risen Christ and Women

According to the Gospels, women were last at the cross and first at the empty tomb, and the first to see the risen Christ. Peter and the other male disciples first heard of the resurrection of Jesus from women. The risen Christ, at the most important juncture for the Christian movement, trusted and commissioned women to proclaim to men the basic tenet of the Christian faith—He is not dead but alive!

The church for the most part has sought to deny to women an equal role in the ministry of proclamation. Jesus had no such reservation before His death or after His resurrection.

The Staggs are the authors of Women in the World of Jesus (Westminster Press, 1979). Dr. Frank Stagg is professor emeritus of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.