(Note: to read the whole argument, please start with Part I. If you would like to skip introductory "framing" type remarks, and my personal story, skip to Part III.) Follow links at end of each post to the next one. This post focuses on what Jesus and the gospels have to say about women. -- DM.)
The Teachings of Jesus
An effect demands a cause. The cartoon John Loftus posted suggests that the New Testament is the reason why women are oppressed. It shows a total of five slogans from the New Testament tacked onto the dungeon wall where a woman (who looks like a worm with long hair) is shackled:
"Submit to your husband."
"The woman shall be saved through child-bearing."
"I do not permit a woman to teach."
"Do not let your beauty be external."
" . . . as the weaker partner . . . "
We have seen, however, that Christianity has generally NOT had the effect such propaganda would predict. History shows that dedicated Christians have in fact LIBERATED not hundreds, but billions of women, often in ways as almost as dramatic as literally freeing them from dungeons. (In fact, they often did free men and women from dungeons -- though yes, some were put in them, too.)
The Gospel of Matthew
Chapter 1 Joseph was a righteous man, and even when his fiance turned out to be pregnant (not by him!) he decided not to disgrace her publicly. Lesson: A just man is merciful even to a woman whom he believes has betrayed him. (Taliban: Put down those rocks!)
Chapter 4 Jesus chooses all male disciples. Lesson: There is legitimate sexual differentiation in religion. (Again, difference of roles between the sexes agrees with what we find in biology and anthropology.)
Chapter 5 Not only do not commit adultery, do not lust! And don't divorce unless your partner has committed adultery. Lesson: Christianity affirms strong and exclusive marital ties. This also seems to imply monogamy, since why would one acquire new wives if one wasn't playing the field?
Chapter 8 Jesus cures Peter's mother-in-law. She then gets up and takes care of her guests. (Repeated in two other gospels.)
Chapter 9 Jesus cures a woman who has been bleeding for many years. He then raises a little girl from the dead. (Both stories are repeated in two other gospels.)
Chapter 10 Jesus warns he has come, not to bring peace, but a sword. Families will divide because of him, but commitment to him should have first priority. Implication: family and gender roles, while vital, are not ultimate or absolute.
Chapter 12 The Queen of the South will rise up to judge this generation. She came from the ends of the Earth to hear the teachings of Solomon: now something greater than those teachings are here, yet people ignore it. Implications: Women can travel, seek education, and be role models for men.
Chapter 14 The story of Herodias is told in this chapter. Her daughter dances well for King Herod and his guests, and is offered a reward. Consulting with her mother, the sweet girl asks for the head of John the Baptist, who has been rebuking Herod and Herodias for their affair. Lesson: Women can be as evil and scheming as men. (In case anyone was wondering.)
Chapter 15 Jesus rebukes religious leaders who seek "spiritual" excuses for neglecting the care of their parents. He cites the "command of God:" "Honor your father and your mother."
Later in the chapter, a woman loudly appeals to Jesus to save her daugher, who is afflicted with a disorder interpreted as demonic. Bystanders tell her to shut up. Jesus seems to put her off at first, by appearing to compare Gentiles like her to dogs. But even the dogs get crumbs, she replies. "Oh woman, your faith is great!" he responds, and the girl is healed. Lessons: What counts is attitude, not gender or (ultimately) cultural tradition. And one should be persistent in prayer.
Chapter 19 The Pharisees ask Jesus if divorce is OK. The Creator made humanity male and female, he responds. Man and woman come together as one flesh. Therefore, "What God has joined, let no man pull assunder." Men were allowed to divorce their wives because of their hard-heartedness, but this was not God's plan. Lesson: Marriage is for keeps. Exceptions may be allowed, but they should not be taken for the norm. Implications: The math seems to imply monogamy: from the beginning, God intends one man and one woman in unity. The passage also undermines the worldview of the Nigerian chief who told a missionary, "We are the people. The women are just animals." Women were also created by God as part of social organisms called family and society.
Chapter 22 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding banquet. There is, however, no sex in heaven. (Repeated in other gospels.) Lesson: marriage is good, and is a symbol of higher goods, but is not itself the ultimate good.
Chapter 23 Scribes and Pharisees are hypocrits because they pray loudly and cheat widows out of their goods. Lesson: Watch out for religious hucksters like Jimmy and Tammy Baker and their more recent ilk. Assumption: Contrary to common practice in many cultures, women should receive and control goods.
Chapter 25 Heaven is again like a wedding: some bridesmaids get ready in time, while others miss it.
Chapter 26 A woman with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume breaks in at a party at which Jesus is an invited guest. She breaks the expensive jar and pours it on Jesus. People protest that the money should have been spent on the poor instead. Jesus responds, "Why do you embarrass this woman? She has done something beautiful for me." (Repeated in other gospels.) Lesson: Don't be a kill-joy. There's room for spontaneous and extravagent emotions. Implication: Women should be allowed to control their own property.
Chapter 27 Many women from Galilee who supported Jesus' ministry watch the crucifixion from a distance. A few are named. Implications: Don't burn widows, ISIS. Don't make them stay in the house, Taliban or Confucian literati. Let them travel, do good deeds, and help people.
Chapter 28 Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" go to Jesus' tomb to annoint his body. An angel speaks to them, "He is risen! Go and tell his disciples!" They are filled with renewed joy, and go to do as told. (This story is repeated in other gospels, sometimes with different details.) Lesson: Women can be worth listening to! God may speak to them, including at the very most important moments. This also implies that Jesus was as close, in a diferent way, to his female as to his male disciples.
At the end of the same chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples, and tells them:
"Go, and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you!"
Implications: Missions. This is to be a worldwide reform movement, as promised by the prophets. Jesus' life and teachings are not to be limitted to a few local followers, but are to be the model for reform in every nation.
The Gospel of Mark
Many of the same stories are repeated, with a couple interesting additions:
Chapter 12 Jesus and his disciples watch a widow giving a small amount of money to the temple. "She has given more than the rest," Jesus says, because she gave out of her poverty.
Chapter 13 The Gospel will go to all nations. Alas for the pregnant and nursing in the day of tribulation! Implications: As at his own death, Jesus is kindly thinking of the troubles and also heroism of women.
Gospel of Luke
Luke is very concerned with women, perhaps because one or more of his sources (Mary?) were female.
Chapter 1 Luke tells the story in these first two chapters mainly from the point of view of two cousins: Elizabeth, who is upright, fairly well along in years, and barren, and Mary. Martha rejoices in the obvious blessing of childbirth: "The Lord has favored me." Mary takes longer to recognize her pregnancy as a blessing, but then sees it as not only a personal blessing, but as consumation of Israel's story. "My spirit is glad God took notice . . . all generations shall call me blessed." Which, of course, they have. Implications: motherhood is a three-part blessing: to the child, to the mother, and to posterity. By it, women can participate in the greater divine plans -- as in other ways.
Chapter 2 -3 The birth of Jesus and his early adventure in Jerusalem are also told from the perspective of Mary, whom one suspects may have been one of Luke's sources, directly or indirectly.
Chapter 4 Jesus quotes Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . He has annointed me to preach the good news to the poor, announce release to the captives . . . set free the downtrodden, announce the Year of the Lord's favor." Implications: Why not to prostitutes in Thailand? Or to that woman in her dungeon cell in John Loftus' cartoon?
Chapter 7 Feeling compassion for a widow whose only son had died, Jesus raises him to life.
A female "sinner" then crashes a banquet at which Jesus is the star guest. Crying loudly, she begins to clean Jesus' feet with her tears and hair. The host gets upset: who invited this crazy dame? And doesn't Jesus know what kind of woman she is? Jesus directs his first remarks to his host.
"I came into your house, and you didn't even provide for your guest's feet to be cleaned. But here she is, wiping my feet with her hair! Yes, she was a big-time sinner. But look at her love! Those sins are forgiven."
Then Jesus speaks to the woman:
"Go in peace. Your faith has saved you."
Lessons: No need to spell these ones out.
Chapter 8 Jesus' chief followers are describe as the Twelve, as elsewhere, plus "certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and diseases," including Mary Magdalene, Johanna, and Suzanna. One gets the impression some of them were prominent women.
The stories of Jesus healing the woman with long-term bleeding, and raising the 12 year old girl, are repeated for the third time here. "Little girl, arise!"
Chapter 10 Luke describes another eye-opening domestic scene. Martha and Mary are hosting Jesus and his disciples. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging with the menfolk, talking theology. "Jesus, can't you make Mary get in here and help?" Jesus responds, as unsual, in an unexpected way:
"Martha, Martha. You're worried about so many things! But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen that, and it won't be taken away from her."
Lesson: Women should get an education, and not just do housework. In fact, they should set the housework aside when something more important comes along!
Chapter 11 A woman calls out in the crowd, "Blessed is the womb that gave birth to you, and the breasts on which you suckled!" Jesus responds, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear and keep the Word of God." Lesson: Women are meant to be more than just barefoot and pregnant, like Mormon wives.
Chapter 13 Jesus chooses the Sabbath to heal a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. The ruler of the synagogue in which this takes place complains about the obvious affront to the sanctity of the day. Jesus responds,
"This woman, too, is a daughter of Abraham. Shouldn't she have been freed of her bond on the Sabbath?"
Chapter 23 Many women follow Jesus on the way to the cross, beating their breasts. Jesus tells them, "Weep for yourselves and your children! If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it's dry?" This is, no doubt, a sad prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem.
Again women are given first notice of the resurrection, while Jesus' male disciples refuse to believe.
Gospel of John
Chapter 2 Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding in the town of Cana. Evidently the couple is poor, because they run out of wine, even at their wedding. (Maybe Jesus' party was not scheduled to attend the banquet!) Reluctantly following his mother's lead, Jesus turns water into wine, which is pronounced the best wine at the wedding.
Lesson: Jesus again confirms the goodness of marriage, of wine, and of following one's mother's advise. (Though he also seems to suggest that mothers can be manipulative, and this may not always be the right thing to do.)
Chapter 4 Jesus meets and dialogues with a Samaritan woman beside a well in the town of Sychar. Jesus gently lets her know that he's aware of her promiscuous history (the Elizabeth Taylor of Samaria) and present live-in Number Six. The woman recognizes Jesus as a prophet. He talks about "living water," and she asks, "Give me this water!" Lesson: Shouldn't Jesus be stoning this woman to death? (Jewish Law) Shouldn't he leave her alone to follow her own lifestyle? (modern liberals) Jesus offers an engaged, patient middle path, that would serve as a model for Christians who reach out to sex addicts and those exploited by the sex industry in love.
Chapter 8 This chapter tells the remarkable story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. "Should we stone her?" "Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone." "Woman, where are your accusers?" "Go, and sin no more."
Lesson: Again, Jesus walks a middle path between harsh judgement and indifference or exploitation -- the path of love. "Don't be so quick to judge. Look at yourself, first. And, by the way, where did her boyfriend run off to?" This is a rebuke to every Muslim mob that to this day stones or imprisons an adulteress in Nigeria or Pakistan -- and also to the modern West, which treats sex as a morally insignificant "choice."
Chapter 11 Lazarus falls ill. His sisters call Jesus, hoping he will come and cure him. "Now Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus." John is skilled at personal vignettes like this. Finally, after testing the faith of the sisters -- which he treats as important -- he raises their brother to life. (Apparently their parents are deceased, which makes this a practical matter, as well as an affair of the heart.)
Chapter 12 Another story about Mary and Martha, revealing Mary as emotional, washing Jesus' feet with her hair, Martha as more rational, disgusted by the sight. Jesus again credits Mary in her hour of need.
Chapter 19 Several women witness the crucifixion. Jesus tells his mother, referring to John, "Woman, here is your son." And to John: "Here is your mother." Lesson: Christianity may at times result in the breaking of family ties, but faith in Jesus will also create new families. Jesus has before seemed to rebuke his mother, but this verse shows that he still takes his responsibility to her seriously.
Chapter 20 As in other gospels, women are the first to the tomb, and to meet Jesus.
Reading through the gospels, or through the brief summary I have given, no sensible person, especially anyone who knows something about the status of women in the ancient world, should be left with any doubt that Jesus' teachings and actions were utterly revolutionary. Jesus' actions and teachings challenge the worst practices in Jewish, Roman, and other civilizations -- beginning with our practice of running off on spouses, which arguably hurts thousands of times as many women (and men, and children) than, say, witch-burning ever did. The gospels assume women will control some finances, travel, be involved in ministry, even teach. They are not naive or sentimental about human nature, including female nature. But Jesus sets a normative pattern of healing, feeding, teaching, respecting, rebuking, and loving women, and allowing them to love and express love, even with reckless emotion, as well. Such horrors as footbinding and widow burning are challenged at the core, as are doctrines such as that women need to be born as men to enter into nirvana. Jesus rescues one woman who is about to be stoned (alone) for adultery, and implicitly challenges the double standard and polygamy elsewhere.
Clearly, we have found an overwhelming basis for relating the liberating effects (described in the previous three posts) to their true cause in the life, teachings, and example of Jesus Christ.
Postscript: But not everyone admits that. More than 500 posts, largely challenges to my argument, have been posted here, on Amazon.com, or on John Loftus' site. Some of those challenges are worth serious consideration and response, which I plan to attempt soon. In the meanwhile, let's deal with the ten Lamest Rebuttals.
Postscript II: We then continue our biblical analysis with the Book of Acts, which follows the gospels, and demonstrates the status of women within the early Christian community, as it grew across the Mediterranean world. Acts is, of course, less crucial than the gospels, because Jesus' actions and teachings are by definition the standard for Christians. But Acts helps us witness the trajectory of the early Christian movement, shooting up from the blazing rocket of moral revolution that we find in the gospels.