Women in the Ministry of Jesus -- By: Ben Witherington, III

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 17:0 (NA 1984)
Article: Women in the Ministry of Jesus
Author: Ben Witherington, III


Women in the Ministry of Jesus

Ben Witherington, III

Jesus, we have been told in recent times, was a “radical feminist.” He was one who deliberately undermined the traditional patriarchal framework so obviously a part of Old Testament culture and religion. His own teaching and way of life were such that, according to the contention of many, only an egalitarian view of husband-wife relationships and an equalitarian view of male-female roles as disciples comport with his world view. This particular kind of analysis of Jesus’ views on women has become increasingly accepted as the “correct” interpretation of the relevant material in the four Gospels, both in scholarly and in lay circles. Perhaps, however, it might be worthwhile to ask whether or not this is yet another attempt to recreate Jesus and His views in the image of our own modern concerns about the place of women in the Christian community.

So often we come to the Biblical text with an agenda, and it is not surprising that we often find what we are looking for! We use the evidence in a way that partially clarifies and partially obscures the truth. Then too, so often our presuppositions about the text, our ways of handling it, dictate what sort of results we harvest. Methodology, as Robert Funk once said, is not an indifferent net. It catches what it is intended to catch.

In relation to the question of women in the ministry of Jesus, the only way around the problems of reading an agenda into the text, is by careful, comprehensive, historical study of the relevant material. We should not presume to know what the text means for us, before we first examine what it meant to its author and audience in its original historical setting. Quite clearly, the text cannot mean something now that is contrary to what the author intended for it to mean then. With these thoughts in mind, let us consider some of the relevant material, bearing in mind that I can only summarize some of the material found in my monograph, Women in the Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom, an event which had implications for women, but he did not directly address the question, what is the proper place of women in that Kingdom, His community of believers. Nevertheless, the implications are fascinating. Take for instance the material found in Mt 19:10–12 where Jesus proclaims a place for the single person in His Kingdom. This might not at first glance seem to be a very radical concept until we see it in its historical context. The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day believed

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