First off, it's important to recognize that when talk about the cultures of the New Testament, we're not just talking about one monolithic thing. In our class we actually distinguished four different sets of cultural expectations that could have provided the setting for the New Testament writings about women: Jewish, Roman, Classical Greek/Athenian, and Macedonian/Hellenistic (I was intrigued to discover that Hellenistic - i.e. post-Alexander Macedonian -attitudes towards women were somewhat different than the older, Classical Greek ideals.) We also distinguished between upper and lower class gender norms, as well as cultural ideals versus actual practice.
I can't get into all of these here, but for this post at least, I did want to focus specifically on Jewish attitudes towards women in setting of the gospels. While of course we can't just disregard the Roman, Greek and Hellenistic contexts either since 1) many of the gospels were shaped within those settings, and 2) Roman and especially Hellenistic norms were certainly an influencing factor on Jewish culture in first century Palestine, when we look at the context of Jesus' teachings the Jewish cultural setting is primary and provides the baseline for everything else. The most intriguing thing I discovered in my class discussion was that there was apparently a pretty sharp divide between theory and practice among the Jews of Jesus day. Textual evidence (mainly from the rabbis) rarely talks about women except in regards to cleanliness laws, and, unlike other ancient Mediterranean cultures, there were no special festivals or days dedicated to women, or any specifically female civic or religious societies in first-century Judaism. When women are mentioned by the rabbis, it is basically just to recommend that they be kept separate from the men both in the synagogue and at home, and that they not be seen in public any more than necessary.
Archaeological evidence (e.g. tablets, inscriptions, architecture, etc.), however, shows that most of these rabbinical restrictions were rarely (if ever) enforced in actuality. For example, while the early rabbis wanted to have a separate "women's section" of the synagogue, archaeologists have yet to uncover any first century synagogues with such a partition. Likewise, while the rabbinical writings generally restrict theological training to men, ancient inscriptions indicate that in actuality many women did receive instruction in the Torah. Or consider the gospel narratives themselves. While written norms wanted to keep Jewish women indoors and away from the public sphere, in the gospels we see Jesus frequently encountering women out and about in society. The inevitable conclusion, as my professor pointed out, is that the picture of first century Jewish women as cloistered and segregated is not much more than an unrealized "ideal" created by a small handful of influential (male) rabbis. It may have been what the religious leaders thought "ought" to be the case, but the actual lives of real people were far different.
We also pointed out that a lot of this discrepancy probably had to do with socio-economic realities. Whether we're talking about Roman, Greek, or Jewish culture, the rules that apply to upper-class women are often simply impossible for the working class poor to abide by. When you're barely making it (as most people in this time period were) everyone, male or female, does whatever is necessary to survive. The rabbi can talk all he wants about how women shouldn't be out in public, but when your family's very survival depends on a wife or daughter going and selling your wares in the marketplace, religious ideals are usually going to take second place to economic realities.
Looking at it in this light, I can't help but draw a comparison with the situation in a lot of conservative churches these days. I can recall sitting in very culturally and theologically conservative churches and listening to the pastor tell his rural, working-class congregation that God's ideal for the family is for women to be stay-at-home-moms and for the men to be out working in the world as the breadwinners. And I recall looking around at the wives and mothers actually present as he said this and realizing that the vast majority of them didn't have any choice but to work outside the home. Given the hard realities of a depressed rural economy, most families simply can't survive on a single income anymore. What this pastor was preaching had no relevance to the actual lives of his people, and did little more than create guilt complexes for those women who were being told that they were disobeying God by doing what was necessary to provide for their families.
In these sorts of contexts then Jesus' teachings and example in the gospels is truly liberating. Rather than laying heavy burdens on his listeners by agreeing with the unrealistic ideals of the Pharisaical rabbis, Jesus stepped into the reality of women's lives and affirmed them where they were at. Never do we see Jesus telling a woman to retreat from engagement in society or to simply stay in their place as women. In fact, when Martha rebuked Mary for leaving her feminine role and daring to go receive rabbinical training along with the men, it is Martha, not Mary, that Jesus chastises. Likewise, we see Jesus out in public engaging in theological dialogue with women (e.g. the Woman at the Well, the Canaanite woman, and Martha herself after the death of her brother Lazarus), welcoming their presence as followers and disciples, and enlisting them as the very first witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus countered the dominant ideology of his day by dignifying the roles women were already playing in society and expanding their roles as participants in his mission. Rather than seeing themselves as victims of economic circumstance falling short of God's ideal, women could see their active, productive roles in public society as valuable assets for the kingdom of God. As my own experience in the aforementioned church bears out, this is a message that still needed for many women today.
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