Jesus was a Radical Feminist

11 May 2017

Let me repeat that. Jesus was a radical feminist. Remember that. It’s important.

I’ve been putting this post off for a while–close to 10 months now. Does the mormon universe really need another justification that feminism has a role in our religion. I’d like to think not, but judging by the existence of people in Mormonism that actually believe the 19^{th} Amendement ought to be repealed–well, clearly I’m wrong.

Jesus’s feminist nature really stood out to me during my New Testament semester of Institute last Fall. There were four events in the New Testament that screamed feminism to me. Let’s review them all here.

Marriage and Divorce

In Matthew 19:3 - 9, the Pharisees approach Jesus with one of their “tricky” questions. It seems likely to me that they had some idea of Jesus’s disdain for the casual attitude toward divorce in the Law of Moses. They phrase their question specifically to draw out his opposition to divorce as permitted under Moses’s guidelines.

Jesus tells them, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” The Pharisees think they’ve got him now, and they quote the Law of Moses, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” It’s important to remember the modern romanticism around marriage is not a common attitude in Jesus’s time. Marriage to a woman (or typically, a girl) are negotiated with the woman’s father and/or brothers. Dowries are being paid. In many cases, these could be considered business transactions that were used to join and protect both assets and reputation. What’s more, women had virtually no protection from divorce. If the man had no need of her any more–if she became a social or business liability because of poor behavior on her family’s part–the man was free to write her a bill of divorce and move on^1.

Jesus was not friendly to this attitude, and told the Pharisees

because of the hardness of your hearts, [Moses] suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

To Jesus, marriage was a sacred bond that shouldn’t be treated lightly. Women had more value than business commodities.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

The Gospel of John shares the story of a woman brought to Jesus having committed adultery John 8:3-10. In fact, the record states “this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.” The intent of the challenge was to get Jesus to publicly renounce the penalty of adultery as given in the Law of Moses–that she should be stoned. Jesus tried to ignore them, but they pressed for an answer. So he gave them one.

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

The response may seem tame, but it is much more pointed than given in the text. Remember, the woman was taken “in the act.” Which means that there was a man involved in the sin. Why hadn’t he been brought before Jesus as well. The implication is that the man she was having sex with one of the men bringing her before Jesus, or one of their friends. Why wasn’t he dragged out, too? Likely because adultery wasn’t uncommon among her accusers. Jesus’s response amounts to, “We’ll stone her as long as we’re stoning all of you, too.”

In other words, women deserve equal treatment under the law. We fall short of Christian principles when we hold them to a higher standard than we do men.

The Issue of Blood

The woman with an issue of blood approached Jesus from within a crowd. As the story goes, she believed “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”

“Issue of blood” is a covert way of saying that she was menstruating. Seemingly constantly. At least she was bleeding without anything more than a seven day break. And under the Mosaic Law, a woman had to be free from mensruation for seven days before she could be ceremonially clean.

If we were to practice this in modern religion, we would have prohibited this woman from taking the Sacrament until her bleeding had stopped for seven days. Furthermore, she wouldn’t be allowed to shake hands with anyone performing the ordinance, lest they become unclean as well. This was socially and religiously isolating. I dare say it was primitive and barbaric.

The response of Jesus to this woman, however, may be one of the most compassionate acts he performed. This woman, desperate to be healed and to be allowed to worship again, approached Jesus secretively. She likely felt that if she approached him and explained her condition, she would be dismissed due to her condition. Which is why it is so important that he responded.

Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole.

This is not only a declaration of the healing power of faith. This is also a direct rebuke to the cruel practice of excluding women from worship just for being women. It was not freedom from menstruation that made her whole.

The Seven Brothers

The Saducees attempted to trip of Jesus on matters of law by posing the following scenario: “Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.” Matt. 22:23-31 They push this hypothetical out to seven brothers, each taking the wife of the first. The poor woman would have been a widow seven times, never bearing children. In a stunning display of inhumanity, they ask, “whose wife will she be in the resurrection.”

But their question completely ignores the premise of the law. Under the Mosaic Law, a widow who had no children was given as a wife to her husband’s brother in the interest of producing offspring. In particular, it was to produce male offspring. And the reason a male was needed was so that the first husband’s property had an inheritor.

This begs the obvious question of, why not just give the property to the woman? But apparently that question wasn’t so obvious at the time, which I think was Jesus’s point. Perhaps it was time for them to ask more intelligent questions.

So, to wrap it up, Jesus rejected a lot of the social norms of the time. Women were not business resources, they were people. They deserved equal treatment under the law, and in religious exercise. And they were capable of holding property on their own, without the presence of a man.

Perhaps it’s time we weed out from the fringes of our religion the notion that feminism runs contrary to Christian principles. In fact, the core principles of feminism are Christian principles. And while we may be able to find contemporary feminist policy goals that may not be Christian in nature (and many of those can be debatable), the basic premises of equality are solidly consistent with our religion.

References

  1. Falk, Ze’ev W, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, Brigham Young University Press, 2001, Chapter 8