Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Women, historically

Last week, I attempted to be very clear about who Jesus the man was.  He was a real, live human male.  He lived in first century Palestine.  And he was a practicing, orthodox Jew.  As a final preface for examining Jesus’s interactions with women, as recorded in the gospels, I find it necessary to try to understand the culture in which these women existed.  Particularly as it pertains to them as women.  Because we cannot come to these passages with our Western, one-quarter world ideas and think that we can fully grasp what’s going on.  It would border on negligence to take our understanding of the world, as it is today, in our frame of reference, and apply this knowledge to Jesus’ interactions with these women. 

Yes, scripture is God-breathed.  Yes, it is alive and applicable today.  Yes, we can and should mold our lives to mirror its tenets.  Yet, we cannot mimic a culture from which we are 2,000 years removed.  So must do our best to take off our twenty-first century goggles, and peer back through eons to the time when Jesus walked among humans.

Lynn Cohick, in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life, asserts that “for most women in the ancient world, and in the majority of cultures today, the home is the primary workplace; [as] tending to children, preparing meals, making clothing, soap, and so many other necessities of life bound women’s lives tightly to the home.”* We cannot read scripture and assume that these women had the opportunity to choose between being a professional or staying home, or even a finely balance mixture of both.  Nor can we assume that they, after weighing all the options, made the best [and therefore generalizable] choice.  They had no choice, home was the only place for them; as soon as a woman married, her father transferred her proprietarily into the household of her husband.  Unless she was unwed and abandoned by her family of origin; in which case she may have been sold into slavery as young as the age of six.  Modern women may not be able to relate to these circumstances, however we must note that neither today nor in the first century did any of this preclude women from participating in religious ceremonies or festivals, nor from daily public life in the marketplace.   

These women were not American citizens with rights afforded us today.  The historian Josephus establishes a Jewish perspective on women in the first century, saying, “the woman, says [Mosaic] law, is in all things inferior to the man.  Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed, for the authority has been given by God to the man."**  Ms. Cohick later notes that scholars are unclear about the exact law to which Josephus refers; postulating instead that this mindset was established much earlier by Plato and Aristotle, and was so ingrained into Greco-Roman society that it assimilated into Jewish culture to the extent that Josephus mistakenly attributes its conception to Moses.  Yet, to this view of women, a lack of formal educated could be attributed.  But, in reality, the primary reason for this discrepancy, Ms. Cohick points out, is the majority’s economic class within this timeframe.  Most people were simply too busy with the daily business of survival.  The few women who had any wealth were legally allowed to manage it independently; though even in the first century both Jewish and Roman documents encourage wealthy women to transfer monetary control to their husbands.***

Thus we can conclude that the women with whom Jesus interacted, the ones whom we’ll look at over the next four weeks, were likely not well-educated.  Some may have been financially secure, though most were probably impoverished outside of daily survival.  Each one was considered inferior to the males of her time.  Yet, Jesus interacts with these women with a great deal of intimacy, respect, and a focus towards inclusion, so that the culturally-held ideas and norms might give way to unity within the coming Kingdom of God.       

Enjoying this study?  Here's a link to other articles in this series: The Women Who Knew Jesus

*Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life  (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 160.
**Cohick, Women in the World, 83.
***Cohick, Women in the World, 83.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really excited for the weeks to come! Thank you for writing; I thoroughly enjoy your work! Can't wait to see what's next :)