On attitudes to women in Jesus’ day

Judith Lieu explains how hard it is to generalise when it comes to history.



Judith Lieu explains how hard it is to generalise when it comes to history.


I think one of the questions that we have to ask ourselves when you’re asking about the attitude of Jesus or of other early Christians towards women is whether or not we are comparing like with like. People sometimes say, “oh, a Jewish teacher wouldn’t talk to a woman, and Jesus talks to a woman” or “a Jewish teacher would say that women were unclean, and Jesus allows a woman to touch him”.

One of the troubles is that the sources which speak about not talking to a woman are sources which are much later than the Gospels. They are sources which are legal sources – they’re not narratives and stories – they are law. And they are materials that reflect the worldview of the people we call the rabbis, who were a sort of scholarly class who were concerned about how they practiced the law and about their lifestyle. And even within that literature you find on the one hand, perhaps, saying that one shouldn’t talk to a woman, and on the other hand, sometimes telling stories of going to the marketplace and doing some shopping – and who would be looking after the market stall but women.

So sometimes the account that people give of there being extreme hostility to women in Jesus’ context, and that Jesus sort of revolutionised the Jewish attitude to women, is actually because people are comparing apples and pears – Gospel narrative stories with material that’s not that sort at all. One could quite easily go and look at some early Christian law-type material of a similar date to the Jewish or the Rabbinic material and find it saying some very nasty things about women.