Previous | Next

Fall 1990    Vol. 19 No. 2    pp. 52–64 

Jesus and Women in the Gospel of John

Karen Heidebrecht Thiessen

Recently, the issue of “women in ministry” has had a high profile in many churches. There is agreement that women, like men, are called to minister within the church and to the world. The debate focuses on the nature of ministry and the forms of expression appropriate for women.

John portrays women as active, innovative ministers of the Kingdom.

The usual procedure is to anchor arguments concerning women in ministry in the Pauline epistles. Some hold Paul’s restrictions to be normative for today; others feel their relevance is limited because of their cultural and situational specificity. Those who believe the Bible restricts the public ministry of women appeal to texts such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12,14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34; those who favor the unrestricted ministry of women counter with Galatians 3:28, Romans 16:1-3,6,12, Philippians 4:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 11:5. Since there is so little consensus on the Pauline writings, perhaps we may turn to the Gospels for guidance.

This article focuses on the Gospel of John to discover Jesus’ understanding of the ministry of women. Is it valid to expect a response on the subject of women in ministry from a document not primarily concerned with this question? {53} Nowhere in John does Jesus explicitly teach about the roles and nature of women. Rather, we are left with an implicit commentary by John, who portrays women as active, innovative ministers of the Kingdom. We are given only indirectly Jesus’ attitude toward women, as revealed by his words and actions: the Johannine Jesus affirms them in roles that were unusual and often unacceptable within that culture. Jesus’ approach to women was in such contrast to that of his culture that we can assume a deliberate modelling of a new way of relating to women (Schneiders, 36). Surely such modelling is as valid as explicit teaching.

John’s story reveals a certain sensitivity and a deep respect for women which is evident in his selection and portrayal of incidents in Jesus’ life. The Johannine Jesus is not presented as seeking to modify the feminine role prevalent within Judaism; rather, Jesus seems to ignore it altogether as he calls women to public ministry and affirms them in the face of male opposition.

JESUS’ THREE GREAT CONVERSATIONS WITH WOMEN

It is in observing how Jesus acted in contrast to his culture rather than in conformity to it that we come in touch with his revolutionary new attitude towards women. Often we read the stories of Jesus’ encounter with women without realizing the radical nature of his actions. However, the accounts would have had a very different impact on the original readers familiar with the culture Jesus was challenging. For today’s readers to hear the message the author intended, it is necessary to be familiar with the attitudes toward women that characterized the cultural milieu in which Jesus ministered.

Women in first-century Israel were defined by their role as bearer of their husband’s offspring and their function as a sexual release for their husband. As Rabbe Hiyya said, “It is enough for us . . . that (women) rear up our children and deliver us from sin (by being sexual partners)” (Hurley, 69). While one can be assured that not all men and marriages were characterized by these assumptions, the abundance of statements such as these show that the worth of women was generally defined by their biological function.

Jewish literature tended to characterize women as unclean, sexual temptresses. The Talmud describes a woman as “a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood, yet all run {54} after her” (Swidler, 3). Since male lust was considered unavoidable due to the seductive nature of women, contact between the sexes was to be avoided. Because women were held responsible for male temptation, they were barred from public life lest they cause a man to sin.

Intellectual initiative on the part of women was not encouraged in Rabbinic Judaism. While study of the Torah was one of man’s highest priorities, it was considered a sin for a woman to do the same. Rabbi Eliezer said, “If any man teaches his daughter Torah it is as though he taught her lechery” (Swidler, 93) and, “It is better that the words of the Law be burned, than that they should be given to a woman” (Hurley, 72). Due to woman’s lack of intellectual ability, she was also barred from the role of witness. Josephus states in his Antiquities that “the testimony of women is not accepted as valid because of the lightheadedness and brashness of the female sex” (Swidler, 115).

Although Jesus did not systematically spell out his teaching on women, his manner of treating women demonstrated his personal attitude toward them. The implications of his encounters with women point to the role he expected them to assume as equal partners with men. Some of the greatest conversations ever reported between Jesus and women are found in John’s Gospel: 1) Jesus has a theological discussion with the Samaritan woman in which he reveals his identity as the long awaited Messiah. 2) Jesus has a searching talk with Martha concerning the resurrection. 3) Jesus chooses to send the message of his resurrection to his disciples through Mary Magdalene. These three great conversations with women will now be examined.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

In the story of the Samaritan woman, Jesus crosses both social and religious barriers (John 4:4-42). While much attention has been given to this aspect of the story, few have pondered the significance of Jesus conversing with not only a Samaritan, but a Samaritan who was a woman.

Jewish society frowned upon conversation between male and female. This was particularly true of Samaritan women, who were deemed perpetually unclean. The laws of purity declared that “the daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants {55} from their cradle (Daube, 137). The Samaritan woman’s surprised reaction to being addressed by Jesus is evident (4:9). The latter part of the verse is often translated “for Jews have no dealing with Samaritans” (RSV). The verb sugchrontai alludes to the cultic code that forbade a Jew to eat or drink from the vessel of an unclean person such as a Samaritan, and especially a Samaritan woman whom they considered a perpetual menstruant. The Samaritan woman’s shock is understandable as Jesus requests a drink from her vessel.

When the disciples return, they are shocked to see Jesus and the Samaritan woman in conversation. The Greek does not attribute the disciples’ shock to the fact that Jesus was talking to “the woman” but rather “a woman.” Schnackenburg points out that “the disciples are not taken aback . . . to see him disregarding the barriers of race. They are thinking of the reserve imposed on all Jews, and a rabbi in particular, with regard to the female sex” (1:443). The attitude of Aboth Rabbe Nathan is typical of rabbinic thought when he says, “One does not speak with a woman on the street, not even his own wife, and certainly not with another woman, on account of gossip” (Haenchen, 1:224).

The Samaritan woman immediately believes in Jesus as Messiah. She leaves her water jar and heads toward the village to give witness to this great revelation. Significance can be attached to the woman leaving her water jar when one considers the call of other disciples which involved leaving fishing boats and tax booths. We have here “a feminine version of the standard Gospel formula for responding to the call to apostleship, namely to ‘leave behind all things’ ” (Schneiders, 40).

The concluding verses tell of the Samaritan woman’s witness to her village (4:39-42). The importance of her work is reinforced when Jesus says to the disciples, “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (v. 38). Jesus uses the apostolic language of sending (apesteila), as he invites the disciples to join the Samaritan woman in the missionary process she has already initiated. Thus, the Samaritan woman is portrayed as a model for apostolic activity.

The Samaritans believe “because of her word” (dia ton logon) (v. 39). This expression is significant because it recurs in Jesus’ “priestly” prayer for his disciples where he says, “It is not for these alone that I pray, but also for those who believe in {56} me “through their word” (dia tou logou) (John 17:20). John describes the Samaritan woman’s work in that village in precisely the same language he uses to describe the disciples’ ministry.

The Cultural and Literary Context

Traditional exegesis has made much of the Samaritan woman’s sinful marital situation, but has largely neglected her role as the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus clearly revealed himself as Messiah and who acted on that recognition. The fact that Jesus revealed himself to the Samaritan woman is remarkable when one considers that she led a highly irregular life, that she was from a rejected minority group, and that she was in fact a woman. Jesus revealed the truth about himself to a person considered unworthy of hearing such truths and incapable of understanding them. He was not limited by the customs of his day but addressed her as an equal with men and a potential sharer in the kingdom. He gave the Samaritan woman important theological teaching, treated her seriously and responded to her comments. The Johannine Jesus did not require her to cease being a woman or a Samaritan but viewed her primarily as a person in need of the revelatory truth of Jesus as Messiah.

Culpepper believes that the Evangelist uses the Samaritan woman as a model of female discipleship, serving to modify the thesis that only male disciples were important figures in the founding of the church (137). She is given an apostolic role; she calls others as Jesus called the disciples, “Come and see” (4:29, 1:39), and others believe “because of her word” (4:39,42; 17:20). While John has the townspeople refer to the Samaritan woman’s words in verse 42 as lalia or “common talk” (Arndt and Gingrich, 464), the narrator himself refers to her testimony in verse 39 as logos or the “Word.” This narrative reflects a perspective “free of any cultural or theological hangup that is uncomfortable with having a woman become a foremost ‘minister of the word’ ” (Stagg, 237). John implies that the hour has come when even women may be messengers of the Kingdom.

John further heightens the effect of the Samaritan woman narrative by placing it in sharp juxtaposition to the Nicodemus narrative of the previous chapter. “He is a male teacher of Israel, she a {57} woman of Samaria. He has a noble heritage, she a shameful past. He has seen signs and knows that Jesus is ‘from God’, she meets Jesus as a complete stranger” (Culpepper, 136). Unlike Nicodemus, she makes no effort to keep her relationship with Jesus secret but announces it to all (4:29). John has chosen to illustrate the full revelatory process with a simple Samaritan woman rather than a male teacher of orthodox Judaism.

Jesus and Martha of Bethany

The second great conversation Jesus has with a woman is with Martha of Bethany (John 11). While the climactic miracle in this story is the raising of Lazarus, John gives great prominence to Mary and Martha throughout the narrative. Rather than attempt a detailed examination of the entire passage, this study will focus on the way the author portrays Martha.

John introduces the three characters involved in the narrative in verse 1. It is of note that he portrays Lazarus in terms of his relationship to Mary and Martha. It seems likely that in the eyes of the Evangelist, both Martha and Mary were more prominent than Lazarus. The author obviously expects the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus to be familiar to his readers since he refers to it in 11:2 but has not yet narrated the event itself (cf. 12:1-8). Jesus names Martha, Mary and Lazarus as objects of Jesus’ love (v. 5). The only other individual in John of whom this is said is the Beloved Disciple. Witherington feels that this implies that Mary and Martha as well as Lazarus were disciples of Jesus (108).

Already in verse 3 the narrator encourages us to see Mary and Martha as persons of faith. The message they send to Jesus telling him of Lazarus’ illness hints that they believe only Jesus can deal with their drastic situation (Witherington, 109). This impression is strengthened when Martha tells Jesus that if he had been there her brother would not have died. Martha’s response to Jesus’ assurance that her brother will rise again (verse 23) gives evidence of her theological awareness, expressing the belief of Pharisaic Judaism in the resurrection of the dead at the last judgement (Ellis, 186). It is at this point that Jesus attempts to move Martha from her affirmation of traditional eschatological expectations to a realization that he is the one who fulfills Jewish expectations.

Jesus addresses one of his “I am” sayings to a woman, and Martha responds with a climactic confession of Jesus as “the {58} Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (verse 27). Her confession is similar to Simon Peter’s great confession in Matthew 16:15-19, which has often been viewed as related to his position of leadership. In fact, this is the closest parallel to Peter’s confession found anywhere in the Gospels.

The Literary and Cultural Context

The story of John 11 is the longest narrative found in the Fourth Gospel apart from the Passion account. It is also the climactic sign of Jesus’ ministry as it immediately precedes the account of his own death and resurrection. It is significant that John chooses to highlight a story which makes a woman the recipient of one of Jesus’ most profound statements about Himself and in which a woman makes an accurate and appropriate response to his declaration. The dialogue between Jesus and Martha is “one of the most magnificent revelations of Himself which the Son of God ever made. Hers is one of the most unreserved confessions” (Ketter, 287).

John presents Martha as the ideal of discerning faith. Martha’s confession is notably fuller and perhaps even more satisfactory than the Petrine confession in John 6:68-69. It is Martha rather than Peter who serves as the Johannine model of discerning and steadfast faith. Within a culture which placed little value on the word and witness of women, John portrays Martha as an exemplary model of what it means to confess the truth about Jesus. Jesus transcends the typecasting of his day and views Martha as a person capable of a perceptive and discerning faith. Witherington states:

The account illustrates the Fourth Evangelist’s conviction that women have a right to be taught even the mysteries of the faith, and that they are capable of responding in faith with an accurate confession. In short, they are capable of being full-fledged disciples of Jesus (109).

Jesus and Mary Magdalene

The goal and apex of John’s Gospel is reached in chapter 20:1-18. Here we find the ultimate revelation of Jesus’ identity as the resurrected Christ, the Son of God.

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb of Jesus in the early morning hours. Having discovered the empty tomb, she runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. After viewing the empty {59} tomb, the Beloved Disciple “believed” (v.8). This is difficult to reconcile with verse nine: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Paul Minear solves this dilemma by arguing that the belief of the Beloved Disciple was not in the resurrection of Jesus; but rather, that having seen the evidence himself, he finally believed Mary Magdalene’s report (127). Since the witness of a woman was not considered credible within that particular cultural context, it is possible that John wanted to highlight the Beloved Disciple’s belief in the report of a woman!

Upon encountering the resurrected Jesus, Mary is commissioned to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of his resurrection. Mary eagerly proclaims the message of the risen Jesus to the disciples, and the disciples believe Mary’s testimony. This is consistent with John’s portrayal of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in verse 20 where he does not record surprise or shock on their part.

The Cultural and Literary Context

In traditional scholarship priority has been given to the male-oriented tradition of Jesus’ resurrection appearances preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7. While Paul has nothing to say regarding the witness of women to the empty tomb and the resurrection, the Gospels make their witness prominent. Frank and Evelyn Stagg state:

The most significant affirmation of women in the New Testament may well be found in the tradition made prominent in all four Gospels that women were the one to find the tomb of Jesus empty (144).

The resurrection is foundational to New Testament faith (1 Cor. 15:12-19, 1 Thess. 4:14 and Rom. 10:9). Thus it is significant that Jesus entrusts a woman with the most crucial message of his earthly mission—the message of his triumph over death. While Peter and the Beloved Disciple are at the tomb in John 20, Jesus does not appear to them. Rather, Jesus chooses to appoint a woman as his witness despite the fact that the testimony of a woman was of no account to those within Jewish culture.

It is possible to ascribe to Mary Magdalene a quasi-apostolic role. In fact, the Western Church tradition considered her to be “the apostle to the apostles” (Brown, 1975:693). Essential {60} to the apostolate was seeing the risen Jesus and being sent to proclaim him (1 Cor. 9:1-2, 15:8-11 and Gal. 1:11-16). The narrative in John 20 clearly qualifies Mary on both accounts. She goes forth to proclaim the message of Jesus to the apostles with the standard apostolic announcement of the resurrection, “I have seen the Lord” (Brown, 1979:189). Whereas within Jewish culture women were not qualified or authorized to teach, the Gospel of John pictures the risen Christ commissioning a woman to teach his male disciples the most basic tenet of the Christian faith.

Brown believes Mary Magdalene is portrayed as holding a place within the tradition about women disciples analogous to that of Peter among the male disciples. “Both of them received the first appearance of the glorified Jesus and the foundational apostolic commission” (1979:43). The Fourth Gospel portrays Mary Magdalene as having a claim to apostleship not unlike Peter’s and Paul’s. She, like them, saw the risen Lord and received from him the commission to go and preach the news of his resurrection.

REFLECTIONS ON WOMEN IN JOHN

It is through John’s portrayal of Jesus relating to women that we gain insight into both Jesus’ and the Evangelist’s attitude toward women. Rather than assuming that women have similar characteristics and tendencies, and formulating rules designed for women only, Jesus treats them as unique and valuable individuals. Nowhere does he condescend to flatter women, but rather he demands as much from them as from men. Jesus’ approach to women is revolutionary considering the cultural norms of his day.

None of the women in John except Mary the Mother of Jesus and Mary the wife of Cleopas are described in relationship to men. In fact, John does just the opposite as he defines Lazarus by his relationship to Martha and Mary! Rather than viewing women in terms of their roles of wife, mother and housekeeper as was common within Jewish culture, the Johannine Jesus views them as individuals capable of making important decisions and commitments. Instead of seeing women primarily in terms of their sex or marital status, Jesus views them in terms of their relationship to God.

Unlike men in his culture who avoided the presence of {61} women for fear of being seduced, Jesus associates freely with women. He has close friendships with women not related to him, like Mary and Martha, and even holds an extended private conversation with a Samaritan woman of ill repute. Instead of blaming women for male lust, Jesus implies that it is men’s responsibility to discipline their thoughts rather than denying women access to public life.

One of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ behavior towards women is his willingness to teach them. While rabbinical thought considered it inappropriate to involve women in intellectual instruction, Jesus teaches women personally. He assumes that women are capable of learning and understanding the theological truths that he presents to them, and able to engage in theological debate. Jesus is willing to risk public scandal in order to instruct women. John further affirms women in their intellectual capacity as he presents them as valid witnesses of the truth about Jesus. It is through the witness of the Samaritan woman that the people of Sychar are introduced to Jesus. More importantly, it is Mary Magdalene who is entrusted with the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and commanded by the risen Jesus to be a witness of that truth to the disciples.

In summary, we observe that women in the Fourth Gospel are presented positively and in intimate relation with Jesus. Kopas points out that there “are enough examples of lack of comprehension of a person’s relationship to God among the men who follow to make his encounters with women all the more amazing” (202). Women are portrayed as comprehending the teaching of Jesus and responding enthusiastically and appropriately. They are women who are not afraid to take initiative in their relationship with Jesus, and the Evangelist presents Jesus as affirming these women in their unconventional roles. In fact, Schneiders states that “If leadership is a function of creative initiation and decisive action, the Johannine women qualify well for the role” (39). Jesus pays no heed to the views of women common in his time. Rather, he enters into theological discussion with women, affirms them in their public proclamation of his revelation, values them as close friends and chooses them to be witnesses to the truth of his resurrection. {62}

JESUS AND TODAY’S WOMAN

Having examined the way Jesus related to women in John, it is appropriate to ask what relevance that study has to our current attitudes toward women in the church. While the Johannine Jesus does not give us explicit teaching on the subject, his words and actions imply several principles that governed his relations to women: 1) He treated women as people. He did not view women in terms of sexual temptation or sexual gratification. He neither avoided nor catered to them. He did not create new categories or rules for them as women but approached them as responsible and capable individuals. 2)Jesus allowed women to transcend their culturally defined roles. He did not assess their value according to their role of wife or mother but viewed them in relationship with himself. 3) Jesus encouraged women to serve him to the best of their ability. He did not specify areas of ministry for women and other areas of ministry for men. Rather, he affirmed women as they took initiative in the exercise of their particular ministry gifts. 4) Jesus’ approach to women appealed to the kingdom norm of equality in Christ. He was willing to challenge cultural norms in order to remain true to the higher kingdom vision.

The question remains: How do we live out the principles Jesus models for us in the Gospel of John? We live in a society which is much different from that of Jesus. Or is it really that different? 1) Do we allow women in the church to be individuals as well as women? Do we avoid hiring women as part of pastoral teams because of the sexual temptation they may represent to the male members of the staff? Should we not rather call men to be responsible for their own sexual desires? 2) Do we in the church assess the value of women only in terms of their ability to function within the role of wife and mother? Why is it that most of the teaching in women’s groups addresses women as to their roles as wives and mothers, while men are much less frequently taught on their roles as husbands and fathers? 3) Do we in the church allow women to serve to the best of their ability? Do we tend to assume that all women have a domestic bent, an artistic eye and a “way with kids?” What do we do with a woman who exhibits special theological insight or has the gift of preaching? Do we equally affirm all women as they take initiative in exercising their {63} unique gifts? 4) Do we appeal to the kingdom norm of equality in Christ or are we constrained by the limits of our own church subculture? This fourth question requires further explanation before we can begin to answer it.

Jesus was not afraid to defy cultural prohibitions when it came to relating to women. However, neither did Jesus fully implement his kingdom vision. While the Gospel writers present evidence of Jesus having followers who were women, the fact remains that Jesus did not choose to have women as part of his special group of twelve disciples. Does this then imply that women are forever barred from leadership roles within the church? I think not. Rather, I believe Geddert is correct when he states:

Jesus also lived in the real world, and though he prepared the soil for the full implementation of his kingdom vision, he did not himself institute all the radical changes that the implementation of that vision would entail (Geddert, 12).

Paul summarizes the kingdom vision of Jesus in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus’ death brought with it equality for Jew and Gentile, but it was only with time and with extreme struggle and sacrifice on the church’s part that this part of the vision became a reality. It was also only centuries after Jesus’ life on earth that the practice of slavery was finally abolished, and yet we believe that the granting of equality to both Gentiles and slaves lies within the kingdom vision of Jesus.

The question we face today is that of the implementation of the final phrase in Paul’s summary of the kingdom vision—“in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Has the time come to allow that final phrase to become a reality within our present context? We cannot beg to refrain due to cultural considerations, for women in leadership has become acceptable in almost every sphere of our society except the church. Can it be that we have created our own church subculture that renders us incapable of implementing this part of the kingdom vision? Has not the time come to free ourselves from our self-imposed bondage and to allow the vision of Jesus to break through to our reality in all its fullness? {64}

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Arndt, William E., and E. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
  • ———. “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel.” Theological Studies 36 (1975): 688-699.
  • Culpepper, Alan R. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
  • Daube, David. “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman.” Journal of Biblical Literature 69 (1950): 137-147.
  • Ellis, Peter E. The Genius of John: A Composition-Critical Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1984.
  • Geddert, Timothy J. “Jesus and Women: A New Vision for Humanity.” Unpublished paper, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, CA, 1989.
  • Haenchen, Ernst. John. Hermeneia. 2 vols. Trans. Robert W. Funk. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
  • Hurley, James B. Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
  • Ketter, Peter. Christ and Womankind. Trans. Isabel McHugh. Westminster: Newman Press, 1952.
  • Kopas, Jane. “Jesus and Women: John’s Gospel.” Theology Today 41 (1984): 201-215.
  • Minear, Paul S. “We don’t know where . . .” Interpretation 30 (April 1976): 125-139.
  • Schnackenburg, Rudolf. The Gospel According to St. John. 3 vols. Trans. Kevin Smyth. New York: Herder and Herder, 1968.
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. “Women in the Fourth Gospel and the Role of Women in the Contemporary Church.” Biblical Theological Bulletin 12 (1982): 35-45.
  • Stagg, Evelyn and Frank. Women in the World of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.
  • Swidler, Leonard. Women in Judaism: The Status of Women in Formative Judaism. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1976.
  • Witherington, Ben, III. Women in the Ministry of Jesus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Karen Heidebrecht Thiessen is a 1990 graduate of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. She resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Previous | Next