Woman-Power in the Canonical Gospels: A Paradigm for the Modern Patriarchal Societies

by T. Johnson Chakkuvarackal

T. Johnson Chakkuvarackal teaches New Testament subjects at Serampore College, Hooghly District, West Bengal, India.

The following article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, Volume 34, Number 2, December 2002, page. 58. Bangalore Theological Forum is published by The United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In India, as in other parts of the world, equality is not available to all. Its societies have built walls whose invisible bricks of discrimination grant privileges and power to some and poverty and injustice to others. In the canonical gospels, Jesus stood firm with the women to empower them.


One of the central themes of the Bible is equality. In biblical times, depending on the station in life a woman occupied, whether she was single or married, childless or widowed, her social significance varied considerably; and this is reflected in the use of the words dealt with. Gune, which can stand for mistress, maid, fiancée, wife or widow, is a general designation for every female in contrast to male. If a woman is called meter, mother, she has a certain social position of honor; the word is also often used metaphorically. In the canonical gospels, Jesus stood firm with the women to empower them. Therefore, the concept of "woman-power" is important in the Jesus tradition, which has equivalence in the Indian tradition, i.e., "Stree-Sakti".

In the real life of the people of India, the broken relationships between humankind on the basis of color, caste, religion and sex has been evident and it is in its zenith in the beginning of the twenty-first century. From time immemorial, women are portrayed as ‘powerless’ beings. In today’s society also they are terrorized as rape victims, toys or dolls in media, lambs to follow men, brides to be burnt alive for dowry and baby-producing machines, who work with wombs, breasts, and hands in rearing children. In India, as in other parts of the world, equality is not available to all. Its societies have built walls whose invisible bricks of discrimination grant privileges and power to some and poverty and injustice to others. The fact that most women in India today are not well organized and educated adds to their exploitation as well. Expressing the injustices of their lives as individuals or as small groups, they lack power to tender justice for themselves.

The Indian society is eagerly waiting for a message of ‘equality’, in which men and women are living together as the responsible citizens. In the present day situation, the concept of ‘sexual equality’ which is explained in the canonical gospels can make a special influence upon the people than all other scriptures. It is a paradigm message in which women are encouraged to outburst their ‘intrinsic power’ for the betterment of the common good.

A Bird’s Eyeview of Jewish Patriarchal Structure

The ancient societies of the Mediterranean were shaped not only by the basic differentiation into upper and lower strata (i.e., elite and the masses). Also of great significance was a person’s membership in the male or female sex. This ancient outlook thus an example of the cultural anthropological insight that gender is a social construct or is defined socially in the sense that the assignment of roles and division of competence between the sexes are "embedded" in the social and cultural framework of a society.1 These socio-culturally-conditioned judgments, which reflect the power structure of ancient societies, were also carried over to sexual relationships between men and women. Gender-specific behavior was generally embedded in the fundamental values of Mediterranean societies and was oriented toward the concepts of honor, shame and disgrace.2

Women appeared in public in various connections, even before court, and they also belonged to social organizations. Yet direct participation in what Plato calls "municipal administration" (politeia) was the domain of men. One central aspect of the distinction of gender-specific spheres consists in fact the women were generally excluded from holding public offices as senators, equestrians, decurions, or judges, as well as subordinate persons. They were not even allowed to belong to the most important political decision making body of the polis (ekklesia), in which women could neither vote nor speak.3

The Palestinian Jewish culture was one of the most patriarchal in the Mediterranean crescent. The homes and family were basically that the only spheres were women could play significant roles in early judaism.4 The dominant impression left by our early Jewish sources is of a very patriarchal society that limited women’s roles and functions to the home, and severely restricted: (1) their rights of inheritance, (2) their choice of relationships, (3) their ability to pursue a religious education or fully participate in the synagogue, and (4) their freedom of movement.5

The extant male literary sources of ancient Judaism, which reflect both a class and gender perspective, present a fairly consistent pattern of a negative view toward women. For example, Josephus, the first century CE Jewish historian, states that the law holds women to be inferior in all matters and that, therefore, women should be submissive. Philo, the first century CE Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and biblical commentator, refers throughout his writings to women and female traits as examples of weakness. He argues that women ought to stay at home, desiring a life of seclusion.6 Sirach, a proto-Pharisaic work from about 180 BCE, presents women either as good wives or as problems. It even states that "better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace".7

According to the rabbinic Tosefta, which may well in this case reflect first century CE tradition, a Jewish man prayed three benedictions each day, including one in which he thanked God that he was not made a woman. This negative picture within Judaism was greatly shaped and influenced by Greek and Greaco-Roman androcentricism and misogynism. However, there are in spite of the lack of literary evidences from women, substantial indications that positive roles did exist for women within Judaism, even if limited. Significant religious roles for women are also indicated by the portrayal of Job’s three daughters as those who speak the language of angels in the ‘Testament of Job’ and the traditions about Beruriah, a second century CE rabbi. Women as strong leaders are portrayed in the Hellenistic Jewish story of Judith and in the rule of Salome Alexandra as queen in Judea (approximately 76-67 BCE). There is also substantial non-literary evidence which shows that Jewish women often took initiative for their lives and activities in spite of the male orientation and domination prevalent in the culture.8 These positive roles and opportunities constitute Jewish evidence for the significance of women in ancient Judaism. Hints of the wider influence and power exercised by women in Israelite life may be seen in the Old Testament’s literary presentations of women, which depicts them as more complex and forceful than their legal status suggests and gives them leading roles in some of the critical biblical dramas (eg., Sarah and Hagar, Rahab, Deborah, Jezebel, Huldah, Esther).9

It is evident from the history of Judaism that the society was always patriarchal in nature in which women were treated as subordinate beings. But, at the same time, women used their multifarious power within the context of various restrictions upon them.

Feminist Critique of the Bible

The Bible, the cornerstone of Jewish and Christian tradition, is born in a patriarchal and androcentric culture, according to the feminist interpreters of the Bible. As a result, he biblical text dealing with women have been misinterpreted, misunderstood and sometimes the experience of women have been overlooked or ignored by the male interpreters.10 As Phyllis A. Bird says, "women in the biblical texts are presented through male eyes, for purposes determined by male authors. It does mean that women are not heard directly in the biblical text, in their own voices."11

Certainly in the past thirty years there has been a dramatic increase in consideration of the proper status and role of women in the various cultures of the world in general ways, and for Christians a dramatic increase in discussion and debate about the status and role of women in the Church. The challenge for feminist Biblical interpretation is to find another way, another approach that finds new ground, neither accepting blindly traditional interpretation nor ignoring the Bible as a useless ancient document. A first basic strategy of feminist biblical interpretation involves lifting up for attention lesser flown, often overlooked stories of biblical women in key roles, not simply as helpers of adjuncts to men.12

A recent volume entitled "Women in Scripture: A Dictionary" has two hundred and five entries for named women in the Bible. This new dictionary then goes on to give entries for all the unnamed women mentioned in the Bible, all those who are ‘daughter of …’ or ‘wife of . . .’ or are described as ‘the woman at the well’ or ‘the woman with a flow of blood’ or ‘the women present at the feeding of the five thousand men’. 13 The present day attempts of feminists are to reveal the ‘hidden’ presence of women in the patriarchal Bible through a relevant and contextual interpretation.

A theology is a systematic reflection on a religious experience, an encounter between God and man (for the Christian, an encounter in Jesus Christ), the experience are that of a religious founder, of prophet, of religious men, or of communities. These experiences are communicated in a certain language, in the form of a revealed or transmitted context in symbolic expressions or in ethical orientations.14

The present day situation of women indeed calls for a new biblical hermeneutics to make the scripture relevant to the changing situations and to rediscover what the New Testament says on women’s role in Christian ministry.15

A theme of reconciliation runs through the Bible and is to be seen as not only a concept but a characteristic feature of every human being. Paul’s argument for complete equality between the sexes is based on Gal. 3:28, the cornerstone text for women’s liberation. Paul insists all men and women come before God on an equal footing, their race, state of bondage and sex having no effect whatsoever on their right to stand before God. Paul K. Jewett names Gal 3:28 as the ‘Magna Carta of Humanity’ and affirms that Paul was the first to declare that in Christ there is no male and female.16 Therefore, all the distinctions of religion, race, class, nationality and gender are insignificant.

Again in the non-gospel materials of the New Testament, Paul’s talks about the ‘New Creation’ in 2 Cor. 5:7 is important. The new age has dawned with the advent of Jesus. Jesus has created the community of reconciliation: the Church, the Body of Christ, Therefore, we are already part of a new humanity where there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, caste, language etc. All the possibilities of the new humanity are opened to women also since they also have all the potential and resources for the new humanity.17

Feminist theology is a critique of androcendricism and misogynism (hatred for women); a quest for alternative traditions which will include women as well as men. It is the transformation of symbols. Male traditions have created male symbols in the understanding of God, Christ, humanhood, sin, grace and redemption. It also is holistic, searches for equal partnership and egalitarian scholarships, searching for an inclusive imagery for God, it is contextual and liberation theology and it searches for a new anthropology.18 Judith Plaskow summarizes women’s experience as: "it means simply. this: the experience of women in the course of history never free from cultural roles of definitions."19

As written by males from a male dominated society, the Bible abounds in male languages and imagery. Male interpreters have explored and exploited male language to articulate theology, the Church, Synagogue and academy and to instruct human beings who they are, what roles they should play and how they should behave.20 A critique of traditional biblical hermeneutics was brought forward by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She speaks of a feminist critical hermeneutics deriving its truth "not only from biblical writings but also from contemporary struggle of women against racism, sexism and poverty as oppressive systems of patriarchy".21

Women in the Jesus Movement

Earliest Christianity began as a renewal movement within Judaism brought into being through Jesus.22 The examples of Jesus, his radical and revolutionary action against the Jewish social and religious norms, indeed became a challenge to women and for women in their ministry.23 His attitude to women is one that is radical particularly when viewed in the light of his historical context. Jesus firmly faces the situation even at the cost of being criticized. His attack on traditional attitudes against women and his action for women is a remarkable paradigm for Christians who are his followers.24

Biblically literate women looked to scripture to justify their changing situation, especially in the churches.25 Gabriele Dietrich emphasizes three points which are important in our context from the Jesus Movement26: firstly, the Jesus Movement was critical of the existing patriarchal family structure and created new forms of community; secondly, it was egalitarian in terms of class with a bias in favor of the poor; and, thirdly, it provided for a participation of women which was far reaching and unusual under the conditions of the time.27

She also sees the spiritual expressions of the Jesus Movement under five points. They are:

The Jesus Movement, together with many other groupings within Judaism of the time, was fervently waiting for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is made accessible to all who are outcaste: the poor, the sick, tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes.

Underlying this expectation of the Kingdom of God was an understanding of God as gracious and all accepting as opposed to the judging and excluding God.28

The visible expression of this all-accepting graciousness was the table community not only with of Jewish society but also with "pagans". There are indications that the Galilean Jesus Movement admitted non-Jews to the table community at a very early stage.29

Not only was Mary Magdalene the most prominent among the disciples of the Galilean Jesus Movement, the discipleship of the women also has a very special character and occasionally expresses the quality of "true discipleship" over against the failure of Peter who denies Jesus and Judas who betrays him.

The acceptance of the Kingdom of God for all and of the graciousness of God also implied the crumbling of actually existing patriarchal stnictures.30

Thus, the Jesus Movement was a ‘Counter-culture Movement’ to transform the societal order from the structures of ‘old’ to the ‘New Humanity’.

Individual Gospel Perspectives

Empowerment of the weaker sections of the society, especially women is an important theme in the life and teachings of Jesus. All four canonical Gospels contain information with regard to Jesus’ relationship to women and the involvement of women in Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus accepted and affirmed as persons of worth various women who were neglected or rejected within his society.


The Gospel of Mark probably has the least amount of data about Jesus and women, yet Mark, with the rest of the Gospels, presents women as among the disciples of Jesus.3’ It is true that neither in Mark nor in the Gospels in general is a woman explicitly called "a disciple" (mathetria) of Jesus, yet the word "follow" (akolouthein) is used tersely, especially in the Gospel of Mark to designate the following of Jesus as a disciple.32 The next presupposes that many women were accompanying Jesus already in Galilee and also followed him to Jerusalem. Among them three women are mentioned by name as followers, perhaps in analogy to the male trio of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.33

In the passion account of Mark’s Gospel three disciples figure prominently: on the one hand, two of the twelve - Judas who betrays Jesus and Peter who denies him - and on the other, the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus. But while the stories of Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the story of the woman is virtually forgotten. . . . The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman.34

In the context of crucifixion (cf. Mk. 15:40-41) women are expressly mentioned for the first time in Mark as followers of Jesus; on the other hand, however, their relationship to Jesus is circumscribed with the key word diekonoun ("served"; NRSV: "provided for"). There are also women looking on from a distance; among them was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome. These 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 (Mk.15: 40-41)35


Basically, the Gospel of Matthew presupposes women on its own community, for the two feeding stories expressly mention that women (and children) also participated in the table fellowship (Mt. 14:21; 15:38). Matthew is probably portraying the Messianic community here as an assembly of families.36

Four Gentile women are included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew (Mt. 1:3,5,6). One reason given for Matthew’s including such women is that since they were all sinful, he wanted his readers to see Jesus as one born to save sinful people. However, the Jewish Christians to whom Matthew was writing no longer thought of those women as sinners but as heroines. There is evidence that in Judaism, they had come to be regarded as distinguished women because each had done something beneficial to the Jewish people.37

According to Brown, "it is the combination of the scandalous or irregular union and of divine intervention through the women that explains best Matthew’s choice in the genealogy."38 Yet the child was actually begotten through God’s Holy Spirit, so that God had intervened to bring to fulfillment the Messianic heritage.39 Matthew’s insertion of the four women, along with Mary, in the genealogy, the quotation from Is. 7:14, and the naming of Mary’s son by Joseph, are the chief tactics in Matthew’s defense against the Jewish charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary.40

The sexual integrity of women is upheld in the discussions of lust (Mt. 5:27-30) and divorce (Mt. 19:3-9), and the inclusion of sexually immoral women in the Kingdom is noted for the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus (Mt. 21:31-32).41’ The mention of four women from Old Testament as ancestors of Jesus; the healing of the Cannanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28); the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13); the anointing at Bethany (26:6-13); and the women at resurrection of Jesus (28:1-10) all obviously shows Matthaean interest on women and the concept of ‘Universalism’.42


The Gospel of Luke shows the greatest interest in women in the life and ministry of Jesus, including numerous accounts and stories about women unique to its presentation. Luke also gives the specific names of more women in Jesus’ life than do the other Gospels. Thus interest is continued in Acts (for Jesus’ female disciples see Acts.1:14).43

Most significant discussion of the Martha-Mary story found within Luke’s central section (10:38-42) has been confined in recent years to studies which articulate Luke’s view of the social character of the Gospel: by placing Mary ‘at the Lord’s feet’ (10:39), Luke is affirming liberated social identity for women disciples (cf. 8:l-3).44

Apparently, various first century churches struggled with the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and others about the new roles women could assume in the Christian community. This stress is especially apparent in Luke-Acts where we find as part of Luke’s redactional agenda a tendency to pair parables and stories about men and women to show their equal place in God’s new activities through Jesus. Thus, for instance, we may point to such parables as Lk. 13:18-21, or 18:1-14, or the pairing of the story of Aeneas and Tabitha in Acts. 9:32-42.45 H. Flender rightly concludes, "Luke expresses by his arrangements that man and woman stand together and side by side before God. They are equal in honor and grace; they are endowed with the same gifts and have the same responsibilities. . . ."46

Luke has carefully chosen five vignettes to show the different roles women were assuming in the early Christian communities (as prophetess, Acts. 21:9; a religious teacher of a notable male Christian leader, Acts. 18:1-3, 24-26; a hostess for house churches, Acts. 12:12-17; the first convert in a new region, Acts. 16:12-40; and as assuming the roles of deaconesses were later to have, Acts. 9:32-42). In fact, these five stories show how the Gospel progressed through the female population across the empire from Jerusalem. In this way, Luke not only merely chronicles the effect of the Gospel on women in the early churches, but also provides a written precedent for women to continue in such roles.47


The gospel of John portrays in particular the discipleship of the mother of Jesus (Jn. 2:1-12; 19:25-27), the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:7-42), Mary and Martha (Jn. 11:1-45; 12:1-8) and Mary Magdalene (Jn. 19:25; 20:1-18). Both the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene are proclaimers of Jesus in John, and both receive extended attention in the Johannine narratives.48

When John presents most of the male disciples as passive observers of Jesus’ deeds, the women are portrayed as active respondents to Jesus’ words and deeds.49 They did virtuous deeds such as hosting dinner, serving at the table, overseeing the feast, and anointing Jesus’ feet -- all challenging works that no other persons took initiative to do. The Johannine women acted with the prophetic spirit and clear vision. Since Christ had liberated them from male-dominated culture and set them as model leaders, the women became challenging figures more than men. They were empowered by Jesus himself, who as the Sophia incarnate, is the female expression of God. The unique roles played by the women in John shows that they were not "uneducated domestic recluses"50

Empowerment of Women in the Canonical Gospels

The issue of women is an important theme in the Canonical Gospels. Jesus encourages women to exercise their intrinsic power for the betterment of women themselves and for the common good. In the following pages we will see that in a nutshell.

Teachings and Practices of Jesus

Jesus often used women as positive examples in stories and events for those who have responded to God with appropriate faith.51 The parables of Jesus often deal with the life and conduct of women (Mt. 13:33 par. Lk. 13:20f., the women and the leaven; Lk 15:8ff., the lost coin; Mt. 24:40f. par. Lk. 17:35, the women grinding at a mill).52 If Jesus’ parables and actions lifted women to a status equal to that of men, and if in the Gospel narratives certain women stand out, the sayings of Jesus makes it clear that it is not of their sex that women or men are important. It is their relationship to Jesus that matters.53

Jesus’ respect for and inclusion of women as disciples and proclaimers provided the foundation for the positive place of women in the earliest churches and their ministry. In fact the baptismal formula reflected in Gal. 3:28 and its statement that in Christ ‘there is neither . . . male nor female’ is probably rooted in the traditions of Jesus. This indicates the formative role of Jesus in Paul’s theological vision for the Church’s inclusive character.54

Jesus gave proof of his compassion and power in his healing of women no less than of men: Peter’s wife’s mother (Mt. 8: 14f. par. Mk. 1:29ff. Lk. 4:35f.); Jairus’s daughter and the woman with the issue of blood; and the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. Jesus’ gift and call to divine Sonship were extended for the poor and lost and in a special way for women upon whom he conferred a new dignity.55 In Lk. 8:1-3, we see women who were the travelling companions of Jesus and his male disciples. They were not the wives of disciples but they were women who had once been sick and cured by Jesus, the outcaste of society that Jesus accepted and made whole.56

Jesus and Jewish Rabbinical Attitudes

Jesus’ interactions with women has brought to light several fundamental principles which seem to have guided him in his dealing with the opposite sex. His outright rejection of Rabbinic ideas of sin and sickness leading to ritual impurity or defilement allowed him to relate women he might not have reached otherwise.57 Also his rejection of certain Rabbinic Sabbath restrictions allowed him to serve and to accept service at the hands of grateful women when normally such activities were forbidden (cf. Mk. 1:29-31). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ concern for women as persons, rather than as sources of potential temptation or defilement, is obvious. As Ben Witherington says, "It is significant that Jesus was willing to perform extraordinary miracles (raising the dead), and to violate the Rabbinical Sabbath regulations even in the presence of Rabbis and in the Synagogues in order to help women."58

In John 4:4-42. Mk. 7:24-30 and parallels, we see clear examples of Jesus’ willingness to relate openly to women who were not fully Jewish or, in the case of the Syrophoenician woman, perhaps not Jewish at all. This abrogated numerous Rabbinical warnings about foreign or Samaritan women, as well as the familiar prohibitions against talking with women, especially sinful women, in public, and opened the door for a more normal and natural basis for relationship.59

Jesus the Feminist

It has been a truism of scholarship that women were particularly attracted to Christianity, and those women numbered significantly among its earliest members -- although such claims are rarely accompanied by statistical elaboration. This claim is frequently presented, whether implicitly or explicitly, as a correlative to the idea that Christianity often as personified by Jesus or less frequently by Paul - was ‘goad’ for women, paid them particular attention, or at least offered them opportunities not otherwise available, to caricature, the ideal of ‘the Feminist Jesus’.60 In an admirable and scholarly article Leonard Swidler has marshaled historical evidences to show convincingly that Jesus was a Feminist.61 The politics of such a view is self-evident, for much study of the subject has developed within a context where women were struggling to establish a proper role for themselves within the contemporary church; to this end they have sought an egalitarian past to act as model for present polity.62

Jesus the Reformer

There is no evidence that prior to Jesus’ ministry Jewish women were ever allowed to be disciples of a great teacher, much less travel with such a teacher, or to instruct anyone other than children. In such a restrictive context, Jesus’ relationship for women must have seemed radical indeed. In fact, seen from the broader cultural context, Jesus can be described as a Reformer of patriarchal society.63 It is worthy to quote from Witherington that, "taking all the probably authentic material in the gospels together, it would appear that Jesus was a reformer of patriarchal society."64

Jesus’ teachings about marriage, divorce, and singleness would have been seen as radical not only by Jews but also by various people outside the Jewish context in the Roman empire.65 He annulled the prevailing custom, which permitted a man to discharge his wife on any silly pretext merely by giving her a bill of divorce, and, thereby, he restored the indissolubility of marriage as originally willed by the Creator (Mk. 10:2-9)66 When one investigates the letters of Paul, one finds concepts already in evidence in the Jesus tradition. It is striking how Paul, in his assessment of marriage, divorce, and singleness, seems to be drawing directly on the Jesus tradition in several ways.67

By rejoining also on the woman the obligation not to initiate proceedings of divorce against her husband, Jesus implicitly affirmed the fundamental equality of man and woman as persons (Mk. 10:11-12). The same equality finds expression in his saying: "whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother" (Mk. 3:35).68 All of Jesus’ teaching prepares us for an examination of Jesus’ actions, and his manner of relating to harlots, widows, small girls, foreign women, mothers and women made unclean through illness or incapacitated through injury.69 As Sebastian Kappen says, ". . . . the value of a person is judged solely by the standard of obedience to the will of God and not by that of the distinction of sexes."70

Jesus and Prostitutes

When we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, we are astonished at his open and positive attitude towards womanhood in general and women in their specificity. There is surprising element of iconoclasm towards the traditional subjugation and subordination of women in Jesus’ life. In the story where a woman is condemned for adultery (Jn. 8:1-11), Jesus questions radically the misinterpretation of the Jewish judicial system that easily victimize the woman taken in adultery but the man is permitted to go free?71

The encounter of Jesus with the woman taken in adultery illustrates the egalitarian stance of Jesus - what is wrong for a woman is wrong also for a man.72 Prostitutes felt free in the presence of Jesus, not because he was easy with them but because he did not look at them as sexual objects to be exploited.73 He allowed a woman of doubtful reputation to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair (Lk. 7:37-38).74 Jesus clearly regarded women as persons of dignity and worth by his many healing of women, by his acceptance, and forgiveness of undesirable and ritually unclean women, and by his implicit challenges to male sexual devaluation of women.75

New Humanity

The New Humanity is the definitive supersession of all barriers consisting of exclusive claims and privileges. The truth that the New Humanity is open to all irrespective of racial or cultural distinctions. 76 The birth of the total man will result in liberation from all social barriers, and from inequality, injustice and oppression. Jesus speaks of the new Humanity as a flock, which he gathers around him and for which he gives his life (Lk. 12:32; Jn. 10:14-15). He refers to it as the family of God (Mt. 23:8-9), as the banquet of salvation (Mt. 8:11), as God’s plantation (Mt. 13:24ff.), as a net that a fisherman casts into the sea to gather in fishes of all sorts (Mt. 13:47ff.), as the temple of God (Mk. 14:58), as the assembly of God (Mt. 16:18ff.), and as the people of the New Covenant (Mt. 26:28).77 In the New Humanity of God proclaimed by Jesus, women are equal in dignity and worth as that of men.

In the New Testament we draw the most important theological sources for empowerment of women in ministry in the life example and teaching of Jesus Christ himself. As a prophet (cf. Mk. 6: 4; Lk. 4:18; 13:32; 24:19), Jesus’ mission was to confront his contemporaries with the will of God as revealed in history, and to call upon them to respond to its demands through a personal decision.78 His mission was to heal and to humanize. As Kappen says, "the recognition of Jesus as a member of the human family must be the point of departure of all our reflections".79 Jesus restored women to their rightful place in the society, empowered and chose them to be his first resurrection messengers become the valid basis and important sources for women’s empowerment.80

The fact that Jesus is on the side of women should be our source of encouragement and empowerment as we continue to serve God and strive for a full and equal ministry.81 Nothing, perhaps, was more shocking for his contemporaries than the freedom with which he associated himself with women, considering the inferior position of women in Jewish society.82 According to R. L. Hnuni, "male dominated cultural and traditional values and injunctions may put boundaries and debar them from full ministry, but this should not discourage women’s conviction and commitment to full ministry."83 In recapitulation, Jesus was attempting for a new humanity, which comprises of both men and women against the exclusive nature of Jewish androcentric and patriarchal society.

Women’s Participation in the Non-Violent Struggle of Jesus

During the passion of Jesus the male disciples react in predictable ways. There is certain bravado at first. Peter draws the sword and cut off the ear of somebody (Jn.18:10). But after that they all run away. Peter even formally denies knowing him (Jn. 18:15-17, 25-27). Only John manages to follow him around probably from a distance, right unto Calvary (Jn. 18:15:19:5) without of course being identified with Jesus in any way.84 But, it is the women, led by Mary, who participate more actively, by their supportive and sympathetic presence, in the non-violent struggle of Jesus. This is probably the reason that Jesus appears to them first after the resurrection and sends them to give the Good News to the men (Mt. 28:9-10; Jn. 20:11-20).85

Pneumatology and Women

The word Spirit indicates that which is invisible, dynamic and life-giving. It is not mere coincidence that the term in its original Hebrew root (Ruah) is feminine. It is the feminine aspect of Godhead that stands as a symbol of life on earth. It represents the continuous, ever-living presence of God. If there is a son and a father, why is there no mother? It is motherly function that God does through the Holy Spirit - the comforting, sustaining, and life-giving function of God.86

Jesus, in his farewell speech to the disciples, promised to send the Holy Spirit. The paracletos is the continued presence of God, who is a helper, counselor, motivator, sustainer, and strengthener and so on.87

The power of woman lies in her weakness and the capacity to endure. Power -‘Sakti’ is a feminine term according to the Indian concept. ‘Stree-Sakti’ is the positive power that belongs to women. Weakness, humility and obedience are feminine virtues. But it is not mere weakness, cowardice or helplessness. The same virtues were attributed to Jesus, so also to Moses. Both of them were powerful leaders. But these are the virtues that enable a person to endure suffering, a unique experience of Christ on the cross.88

Some Important Women in the Canonical Gospels

The following women outbursted their ‘power’ for the common good and played important roles in the salvation history.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

In the gospels, Mary appears most prominently in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. She also appears in the stories of Jesus’ ceremonial purification (Lk. 2:22-38). flight to Egypt (Mt. 2:13-15), return to Nazareth at the age of twelve (Lk. 2:41-50), and the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Jn. 2:1-11). We also find her being concerned for Jesus’ safety (Mk. 3:21, 31f.), present at the cross (Jn. 19:25f.), and waiting in the upper room along with the brothers of Jesus and the disciples (Acts. 1:14).89 Leelamma Athyal observes, "it is difficult to regard Mary as a ‘Virgin for ever’, the ‘Sinless Madonna’, or the lofty ‘Queen of Heaven’ on the basis of normal Biblical interpretation."90 In any case, the Mary of the traditional Mariology is not of much significance for a theology of human kind.

The traditional Mariology has elevated Mary to the heavenly sphere. It has deified her and has given her the status of a super-human being.91 The basic affirmation of Mariology is that Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ. To be the mother of Jesus is the greatest privilege and honor a woman could ever have. Because of this the angel Gabriel addresses her as the "favored one" of God (Lk. 1:28). It is important to realize that when the Council of Ephesus called Mary "Theotokos",92 it was not their intention to picture her as the "Mother of God". Leelamma Athyal says, ". . . Mary could be called the ‘God-bearing Mary’ or ‘Mary who gave birth to God’ in time."93

The Credal phrase, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, rightly emphasizes that Mary’s importance in the New Testament is due to her relationship to her son who is the focus of the Gospels.94 Jesus’ mother was called to participate in his work of redemption (Lk. 1:26f. Jesus listened and accepted the suggestions from his mother at the wedding feast (In. 2:1-l1)95Mary’s faith in Jesus as the one who is able to fulfil the needs of the people by means of a sign and her faithfulness to follow him till the cross, sharing the bitter anguish and pain, make her an ideal disciple of Jesus. She followed Jesus loyally till the cross bearing its pain.96

Mary Daly pictures Mary, the mother of Jesus: the Divided self: Christ - Mary. The psychological acrobatics of Christians surrounding the symbolization of Christ and Mary have little to do with the historical Jesus. They have even less to do with the historical person Mary, the mother of Jesus, and are devastating to the fifty percent of the human race whose lot she shared.97

Melanie A. May sees ‘Mary - Power’ in the following occasions: firstly. Mary, woman of power, gave birth to Jesus, accomplished the work God had asked her to do; secondly, As a woman of power, she breast-fed God. Undertaking nurturance as power, she called for care of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden; thirdly, Mary, woman of power, sang-at once crying and celebrating. Her expression of emotion evidences the power of emotional energy. Tears of compassion, righteous anger, shared joy - all are sources of power; fourthly, Mary, woman of power, pondered God’s actions in her life, taking account of her son, her kinfolk, and her community. She can teach us about the power of deep reflection on the human relationships that are part of our world; lastly, she spoke God’s justice when she saw the depths of human misery and need. She can teach us about the power of reciprocal talk.98 From the above mentioned points it is clear that, Mary’s model of partnership and mutual empowerment embodies both an ethic of caring and an ethic of justice. In this model, reason and emotion are balanced; wholeness and connectedness are central values. These, along with the elements of empowerment, enable the shift from power exercised from a dominant-subordinate posture to power exercised in partnership.

Martha - Mary

Though a bachelor, Jesus had close friends among women, as is clear from the story of Martha and Mary (Lk. 10:38-42)99 Both Martha and Mary are the paradigms for ideal discipleship and hence for effective leadership in the Church, because they exhibited the qualities of devotion, sacrifice, submission, service, faith, boldness and of apostolic witness. They were closely bound with Christ and to his mission of accomplishing God’s redemptive plan.100

Samaritan Woman

Jesus’ ministry among the Samaritans, those who were outside the fold of Judaism, began with the leadership role played, by a woman, the women of Samaria (Jn. 4:3-42).101 Contrary to the accepted social norms Jesus freely engaged in conversation with her casually by a well-side, something that amazed even his disciples (Jn. 4:27).102 The woman, who had been confined to her own house, realized a sense of freedom after her encounter with Christ to face her own people and introduce Jesus to them. The initiative taken by the Samaritan woman was the fulfillment of Jesus’ own missionary agenda of accomplishing the work of the father (Jn. 4:34). Definitely the fourth Evangelist exalts a despised Samaritan woman to the rank of a theologian, apostle and missionary, while he pictures the male disciples mostly as inactive, timid and slow in understanding.103 She is the one to whom Jesus reveals first that he is the expected ‘Messiah’.104

Mary Magdalene

Jesus healed Mary Magdalene who was possessed by evil spirits. She became his faithful disciple and ministered to him out of her own sources (Lk. 3: l-3).105 She played supportive roles during Jesus’ hour (hora), the crucial moment of Jesus’ ministry that made God’s love and salvation a reality to the world.106

Significantly, on the third day, the first Easter Sunday, the women, especially Mary Magdalene, discover the empty tomb. Both in the Synoptics and in John the women continue their place in the resurrection story. Whereas the men are the commanded, the women are the mourners, observers and messengers at the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb where he addressed her as "woman" (gunai),107 a term of endearment or respect when used in address (Jn. 20: l6).108

John singles out Mary Magdalene as the only woman who first discovered the empty tomb (Jn.20: 1-2) and who received the first Easter Christophany as well as the apostolic commission to announce the goodnews of Jesus’ resurrection (Jn. 20:11-18). Barrette comments that, in John 20:1-18, John has skillfully combined two traditions of Jesus’ resurrection, resurrection appearance, and the discovery of empty tomb, is correct, then Mary Magdalene is the unifying figure of the two traditions.109 She saw the risen Christ first and bore witness to him (cf. Mk. 16:9-10). Mary’s proclamation to the male disciples saying. "I have seen the Lord" (Jn. 20:18), has apostolic significance.110

Other Women

Among the Gospel women, Anna and Elizabeth played vital roles in Jesus’ birth narratives. Anna, the prophetess mentioned only in Lk. 2:36-38. She spoke in the Temple of the infant Jesus to all that were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Elizabeth, mentioned only in Lk. 1, who was filled with the Holy Spirit and greeted Mary as the mother of her Lord. Some other women are mentioned in the Gospels like Joanna (Lk. 8:3 and 24:10), Mary the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25), ‘the other Mary’ (Mt. 27:61 and 28:1), Susanna (Lk. 8:3) etc.111 played important roles in the Jesus Movement. Thus women were empowered by Jesus during his earthly life and ministry and in return women contributed galore for the growth of Christianity at its incipient stages.

Concluding Remarks

In recapitulation, Jesus of the canonical Gospels uses the ‘intrinsic power’ of women for molding up an egalitarian society in which men and women are responsible citizens. Jesus’ attack on the traditional Jewish attitudes against women and his action for them is a remarkable paradigm for all who are trying for equal status of both men and women. Jesus’ movement was a ‘counter culture’ movement, attempting for a ‘New Humanity’. In all the Canonical Gospels, Jesus endeavors for the empowerment of women through an attitude of non-violent struggle for justice.

Through our discussion on the teachings and activities of Jesus from the Canonical Gospels, we have seen what a vital role it can play for the peaceful co-existence of both men and women. The message of ‘sexual equality’ and ‘woman power’ is absolutely a message for the universe and has more relevance in the patriarchal and androcentric context of India to make a paradigm society. The acceptance of such a message by the people can lead our nation to an abode of wholeness and perfection, and which in turn helps our country to enjoy prosperity, peace and tolerance.


End Notes

1. Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century, tran. O.C. Dean (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 361.

2. Ibid.. 362.

3. Ibid., 365.

4. Ben Witherington. "Women (NT)", The ABD, Vol. 6, 957.

5. Ibid.. 958.

6. D.M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight. et al. (Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1992), 880.

7. Sir. 42:14, NRSV.

8. D.M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 881. Also see, Phyllis A. Bird. "Women (OT)", The ARD, ed. David Noel Freedman, Vol.6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 95 1.

9. Phyllis A. Bird, "Women (OT)", The ABD, Vol. 6, 956.

10. cf. Joseph Abraham, An Examination of the Issues Raised by Contemporary Feminist Interpretations of Gen.2 and 3, Unpublished M. Th Thesis. Senate of Serampore College. 1989. 19.

11. Phyllis A. Bird, "Women (OT)". The ABD, Vol. 6, 95 1f.

12. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, "Feminist Reading of the Bible: Problems and Promises". BTF, Bangalore, UTC (Dec., 2000), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, 18.

13. Ibid., 18f.

14. Sebastian Kappen. Jesus and Freedom (New York: Orbis Book. 1977), 4.

15. Jey J. Kanagaraj, "The Profiles of Women in John: House-Bound or Christ Bound", BTF, Bangalore, UTC (Dec., 2001), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, 60.

16. David Augustine, "Reconciliation: An Exposition of Gal. 3:28", Reconciliation: Gurukul Jyothi-2002 (Chennai: GLTC, 2000). 19-21.

17. Leela Manesseh, "Emancipation of Women and Nation Building: A Christian Perspective", TBT Journal, eds. Ken Gnanakan, Paul Mohan Raj, et al., Bangalore, TBT (Nov., 2001), Vol. 3, 75.

18. R. L. Hnuni, ed.. Transforming Theology for Empowering Women. Theological and Hermeneutical Reflection in the Context of North-East India, Tribal Study Series No.4 (Jorhat: Women’s Studies, ETC. 1999), 6f.

19. J. Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace (Washington: University Press, 1980), 11.

20. R.L. Hnuni, ed., Transforming Theology. . . , 30.

21. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone, The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon. 1984), 14.

22. Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity (London: SCM Press. 1978), 1.

23. R.L Hnuni, ed., Transforming Theology. . . , 139.

24. Ibid., 136.

25. Barbara Brown Zikmund, "Biblical Arguments and Women’s Place in the Church", The Bible and Social Reform, ed. Ernest R. Sandeen (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 85.

26. The first Hellenistic Christianity developed predominantly outside Palestine, whereas the Jesus Movement was a Palestinian phenomenon which spilled over into the neighboring regions of Syria. Jesus Movement is the renewal Movement within Judaism brought into being through Jesus and existing in the area of Syria and Palestine between about 30 CE and 70 CE. See, Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus, 1ff.

27. Gabriele Dietrich, A New Thing On Earth (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001), 39f. Also see, Aruna Gnanadason, ed., Towards a Theology of Humanhood: Women’s Perspective (Delhi: ISPCK, 1986), 39.

28. Ibid., 43.

29. Ibid., 44.

30. Ibid., 44f.

31. D. M. Scholer, "Women". Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 886.

32. Stegemann, The Jesus Movement, 379.

33. Ibid.. 397.

34. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (London: SCM Press. 1983), xv.

35. Stegemann, The Jesus Movement. 397.

36. Ibid., 387f.

37. Edwin D. Freed, ‘The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy", JSNT, ed. Ernst Bammel, Birger Gerhardsson, et. al., (Feb., 1987), Issue 29. 3-19.

38. Ibid., 4.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 17.

41. D. M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 886.

42. Leela Manasseh, "Emancipation of Women and Nation Building", TBT Journal, 75.

43. D. M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus. . . , 886.

44. Robert W. Wall, "Martha and Mary (Lk. 10:38-42) in the Context of a Christian Deuteronomy", JSNT, ed. Ernst Bammel, Birger Gerhardsson, et al., (Feb., 1989), Issue 35, 19-35.

45. Ben Witherington, "Women (NT)", The ABD, Vol. 6, 959.

46. H. Flender, St. Luke-Theologian of Redemptive History (London: 1967), 10.

47. Ben Witherington. "Women (NT)". The ARD, Vol. 6, 959f.

48. D.M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus. . . , 886.

49. Jey J. Kanagaraj, "The Profiles of Women in John: House-Bound or Christ-Bound", Bangalore Theological Forum (Dec., 2001), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, 75.

50. Ibid.

51. D.M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus. . . , 882.

52. H. Volander. "Women", The New International Dictionary of NT Theology, ed. Collin Brown (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1971), Vol. 3, 1058.

53. Ibid. 1059f.

54. D. M. Scholer, Dictionary of Jesus . . . , 886f.

55. H. Volander, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 1059.

56. "Conceiving a New Creation: Grassroots Women’s Leadership Formation, 13-19 October 1990, Penang, YMCA, Malaysia" (Urban Rural Mission. Christian Conference of Asia), 36.

57. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Attitudes to Women and their Roles as Reflected in His Earthly Life, Society for NT Studies: Monograph Series, 51 (Cambridge: University Press, 1984), 77.

58. Ibid., 78f.

59. Ibid., 78.

60. Judith M. Lieu, "The ‘Attraction of Women’ in /to Early Judaism and Christianity: Gender and the Politics of Conversion", JSNT, ed. Stephen D. Moore, Issue 72, Dec.. 1998, 5.

61. Leonard Swidler, "Jesus was a Feminist", The Catholic World (January 1971), 177-83.

62. Cf. Judith M. Lieu, "The ‘Attraction of Women’. . ." , 5.

63. Ben Witherington, "Women (NT)", The ABD, Vol. 6, 957.

64. Ibid., 958f.

65. Ibid.

66. Sebastian Kappen, Jesus and Freedom (New York: Orbis Books, 1977), 104.

67. Ben Witherington, The ABD, Vol. 6. 958f.

68. Kappen. Jesus and Freedom, 104.

69. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 52.

70. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom, 104.

71. Somen Das, Christian Ethics and Indian Ethos (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001), 166f.

72. Prameela Rani, "Empowerment of Women: Challenging Mission", Sandhya-2002, 51.

73. Somen Das, Christian Ethics and Indian Ethos. 166f.

74. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom, 103f.

75. D. M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 881.

76. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom,27.

77. Ibid.

78. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom, 55.

79. Ibid., 25.

80. R.L. Hnuni, ed. Transforming Theology for Empowering Women, 139.

81. Ibid.

82. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom, 103f.

83. R. L. Hnuni, ed. Transforming Theology, 139.

84. M. Amaladoss, "Listen to the Spirit: Women and Peace", VJTR, ed. S. Arokiasamy, Delhi, Vidyajyoti (May 2000), Vol. 66, No.5, 385.

85. Ibid.

86. Rachel Mathew, "Pneumatology and Women", Towards a Theology of Humanhood: Women’s Perspectives, ed. Aruna Gnanadason (Delhi: ISPCK, 1986), 62f.

87. Ibid. 66.

88. Ibid.

89. Leelamma Athyal, "Mariology: A Feminist Perspective", Towards a Theology of Humanhood: Women’s Perspective, ed. Aruna Gnanadason (Delhi: ISPCK, 1986), 50.

90. Ibid., 49.

91. Ibid.

92. The patristic controversies surrounding the use of the terms "Theotokos" and "Christotokos" for Mary are literally mean "God-bearing" and "Christ-bearing" respectively. The Council of Ephesus in 431CE discussed the question as to which of these titles would be the more suitable for Mary, and they decided in favor of "Theotokos". How ever, later in the history of the Church we find a change taking place in the use of this designation to Mary. This happened in the Latin tradition. The Latin equivalent of "Theotokos" is actually "Dei Genitrix" (She who gives birth to God). But this was often replaced by "Mater Dei" (the Mother of God).

93. Leelamma Athyal, "Mariology: A Feminist Perspective", Towards a Theology of Humanhood, 55.

94. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, 80.

95. Prameela Rani. "Empowerment of Women", Sandhya- 2002, 51.

96. Kanagaraj. "The Profiles of Women in John: House-Bound or Christ-Bound", BTF, 61f.

97. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 81.

98. Melanie A. May, Women and Church: The Challenge of Ecumenical Solidarity in an Age of Alienation (Grand Rapids: WB. Erdmans. 1991), 9Sf.

99. Kappen, Jesus and Freedom, 103f.

100. Kanagaraj, "The Profiles of Women in John", BTF 70.

101. Ibid., 63.

102. Kappen, Jesus and freedom, 103f.

103. Kanagaraj, "The Profiles of Women in John", BTF, 63f

104. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, "Feminist Reading of the Bible: Problems and Promises", Bangalore Theological Forum, Bangalore, UTC (Dec., 2000), Vol. XXXII, No.2, 19.

105. Prameela Rani, "Empowerment of Women: Challenging Mission", Sandhya-2002, 51.

106. Kanagaraj, BTF, 37.

107. In other earlier and significant events Jesus addresses his mother as " woman" at Cana (Jn. 2:4), and at the cross (Jn.19:26); the Samaritan Woman as "woman" (Jn. 4:21), and later at Jerusalem the adulteress also as "woman" (Jn. 8:10).

108. Walter Reinsdorf. "The Gospel Resurrection Accounts", Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly, (Dec., 2001), Vol. XXVII, No.4, 251.

109. C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 2 edn., 1978), 560.

110. Kanagaraj, BTF, 37.

111. D.M. Scholer, "Women", Dictionary of Jesus, 884f.