The Scandal of Equality in Jesus’ Ethical Teaching -- By: David Instone-Brewer

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 20:2 (Spring 2006)
Article: The Scandal of Equality in Jesus’ Ethical Teaching
Author: David Instone-Brewer

The Scandal of Equality in Jesus’ Ethical Teaching

David Instone-Brewer

DAVID INSTONE-BREWER has been a Baptist pastor in Wales, U.K., and is currently the Senior Research Fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge, U.K. He has written extensively in the areas of divorce and Jewish background to the New Testament, and is also interested in the use of computers for biblical studies. He is married and has two daughters.

A question that people sometimes ask is: “Was the New Testament egalitarian or complementarian?” This question is as nonsensical and anachronistic as the question: “Was the New Testament charismatic or liturgical?” The battle lines between these two ideologies had not yet been drawn up, and New Testament authors had many more fundamental things to be concerned about.

Jesus certainly encouraged women more than any of his contemporaries did.1 We see this especially in the way that he allowed a woman to join his disciples’ teaching session (Luke 10:39) and allowed women to accompany them on their missions (Mark 15:40 ff., Matt. 27:55 ff., Luke 23:49).

Three ethical issues in the Gospels might be said to relate to complementarian or egalitarian ideologies, and they are conveniently grouped together by Matthew in chapter 19. Here Jesus is asked about only one issue (divorce), but he chose to offer instruction on two other issues (polygamy and singleness). He disagreed with many Jews on the issue of divorce and disagreed with most or all Jews on the issues of polygamy and singleness.


The first issue Jesus confronted was polygamy.2 This practice was accepted as normal, lawful, and useful by most Jews in the first century, and the rabbis did not officially forbid it until the eleventh century, though it fell into disuse long before this. In the first century, polygamy would only be allowed in Palestine, where Roman law (which enforced monogamy elsewhere) allowed local customs some leeway. We do not know how common it was because very few family documents have survived from that time, though two pieces of evidence make us think that it was relatively normal in Palestine.

First, the family documents of Babatha have survived from a.d. 93-132, preserved in a cave in the Judean desert at Nahal Hever.3 Babatha was widowed when young and married Judah Khthusion, who w...

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