Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
— Ephesians 5:25
He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh[.]” So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate…. Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wife, but from the beginning it was not so.
— Matthew 19:4b-6,8b
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control…. the wife should not separate from her husband… and the husband should not divorce his wife
— 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, 10,11
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
— Galatians 3:26-28
Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty [financial care for widows].
— Acts 6:5
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb…. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead…. And behold Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
— Matthew 28:1, 5-7a, 9-10
These are among the most counter-cultural words ever spoken: the call to men to give themselves up for their wives; the injunction against divorce, which had been in that day an instrument of male power over women; the absolute parity between men and women with respect to sexual relations; the erasure of distinctions in Christ Jesus; the privilege given women to discover the empty tomb and the risen Jesus; their commissioning to tell the rest of his followers.
Jesus the Liberator of Women David Marshall says, “the Gospel of Jesus has done more to help more women than any other teaching in the history of Planet Earth.” He’s right. (Check out his whole series on the topic.)
I know some readers will undoubtedly ask, what about other Bible passages that tell women to be in submission? That’s an important question of context, and I will get to it later as I continue this series. First, though, we must establish another crucial context: the social and cultural situation into which these words were spoken. For this is where we can discover what Jesus Christ did for women.
Women in Cultural Context
History must begin with context. Among the Jews, says Mary J. Evans,
As far as possible, women were expected to keep out of the public eye and preferably not to leave the house at all. Philo suggests that, ‘women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house,’ and the Talmud sees Psalm 45:14, ‘The king’s daughter is all glorious within’, as a description of the restricted life of women never leaving their apartments.[ref]Mary J. Evans, Woman in the Bible: An Overview of All the Crucial Passages on Women’s Roles (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1984), 34.[/ref]
As for the Greeks and Romans,
The hierarchical pattern of the family, in which the male was always superior to the female, as surely as parents to children and masters to slaves, was deeply entrenched in law and custom and its erosion constantly deplored by the rhetorical moralists and the satirists.[ref]Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 23.[/ref]
Aristotle wrote that “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male,” and “Now a boy is like a woman in form, and the woman is as it were an impotent male, for it is through a certain incapacity that the female is female.”[ref]Aristotle, “De Generatione Animalium“[/ref] Women, he wrote, were inferior by nature:
So is it naturally with the male and the female; the one is superior, the other inferior; the one governs, the other is governed; and the same rule must necessarily hold good with respect to all mankind.[ref]Aristotle, “A Treatise on Government.” Tellingly, Aristotle goes straight on from there to speak approvingly of chattel slavery: “Those men therefore who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul, are to be thus disposed of, as the proper use of them is their bodies, in which their excellence consists; and if what I have said be true, they are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous to them to be always under government. He then is by nature formed a slave who is qualified to become the chattel of another person.”[/ref]
Infanticide was widely accepted in Rome and Greece, and families had a special preference for doing away with baby girls. Note the chilling instruction tucked inside this otherwise rather homey letter, sent by Hilarion, a husband away on business, to his wife, Alis, in the year 1 BC:
Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it. You have sent me word, “Don’t forget me.” How can I forget you. I beg you not to worry.[ref]Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, 97-98.[/ref]
“If a girl, discard it.” He says it in such a simple, offhand sort of way. No need to make a big deal about it; to “discard” a girl was nothing out of the ordinary.
Adult women were treated hardly better. Abortion, though common, was not a matter of women’s rights. Normally it was not her choice at all, but the man’s, for husbands and fathers had near-total legal control over their wives and daughters. If the man so chose, the woman would be required either to ingest a near-fatal dose of poison, to try to poison the baby directly inside the womb, or else to undergo surgical procedures too gruesome to describe here. But what exactly was a “near-fatal” dose? How exact a science could that have been? Could it conceivably have been good for the mother? We do not know how many women died that way, but we do know that in Greco-Roman culture, “pro-choice” would have been mostly about men’s choice. The woman’s option was to submit to double violence: against herself, and against the child she was carrying.
Women in ancient Greece and Rome were generally treated as their fathers’ or husbands’ property. Their legal rights were little better than children’s. Divorce, a matter of the husband’s whim, usually left the woman without economic means. Widows in many jurisdictions were required by law to re-marry within two years, and then to give up to their new husband whatever property they might own.
Thinking It Through I could draw forth a set of conclusions but this is long enough for now. In lieu of that I suggest that you re-read those New Testament passages now, having a sense of the culture in which they were written, and consider for yourself how revolutionary they were.
There is much yet to come in this series. You need not worry that I will overlook the other side of the story. For now I encourage you to think through what the Gospel mean to women in its day. We’ll continue down the path from then until now—all in good time.
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