For many people, Jesus of Nazareth is a somewhat mysterious figure, nebulous with his parables and conducting miracles in secret. Realistically, though, the Gospels depict him as a subversive thought leader for his post-conventional wisdom — that love, not redemptive violence, is the way forward. In this article, I talk about the man ahead of his time, executed for his vision of love and equality, as well as the ancient stories and texts about him that strengthen my beliefs as a feminist. -Meghan E. Farnsworth
"During his time on earth, Jesus subverted the social norms dictating how a rabbi spoke to women, to the rich, the powerful, the housewife, the mother-in-law, the despised, the prostitute, the adulteress, the mentally ill and demon possessed, the poor. He spoke to women directly, instead of through their male-headship standards and contrary to the order of the day (and even of some religious sects today)."
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word “feminism” as a “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”
A “feminist,” Merriam-Webster continues to explain, is a person who supports and engages in this belief and advocacy.
Many Christians like to focus on Jesus’s words, but for me, his actions are compelling enough to say he was a feminist. Long before Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, Jesus of Nazareth (called “Christ” or the anointed one) championed women as thought leaders and equals within his society and the Jewish faith tradition, even allowing them into his ministry or work as a rabbi (a Jewish teacher).
I know what you’re thinking — that white Jesus with the long, flowing blonde locks? Now, I won’t go into further detail about the implications of this artistic interpretation. (Jesus was Middle Eastern.) Hear me out on this next point.
If we go into ancient stories of the Bible depicting Jesus’s life (known as the Gospels or good news), we see a person who is willing to call people out and put a light on the truth even if they aren’t ready for it.
For example, the story about Jesus defending a woman accused of adultery.
During his time, Jewish law had strict requirements around marriage and fidelity, and if someone was found responsible for cheating, the offense was punishable.
A woman was particularly susceptible to this charge because the law considered her the property of her husband. To determine if she was guilty, the husband could request a special meeting with the religious leaders of the day to put his wife through a trial of sorts.
If guilty, death by stoning was the most common punishment for adultery, and both the man and the woman were subject to this.
Now, friend, before you click away and dismiss me altogether, I want you to remember this: we’re talking about a time in history outside of our own with inherently patriarchal customs.
While we might not allow these admonishments in our current culture, we must look at these ancient stories from the lens of the people who wrote and received them. To otherwise dismiss these narratives as tone-deaf nonsense is also similar to visiting a country without honoring its customs and language.
I encourage you to take a moment to set this foundation for what I’m about to share.
There was a woman accused of adultery. A group of men — religious men, mind you — surrounded her, stones in hand with the intent of killing her.
They said to Jesus in the Temple, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
Sand covered the Temple floor, and Jesus bent downward to write. (To me, this action feels physically protective for the accused woman.)
Once he wrote in the sand, Jesus said, “He without sin cast the first stone.” Because sin was implicit in the human condition at that time, each man slowly dropped his stone and walked away.
For me, this was the first story to open my eyes to Jesus as a feminist. How dangerous and revolutionary it was to not only speak the truth (for example, who were these men to judge a woman when they were as guilty as everyone else?) but to defend a woman in a very public place like a Jewish Temple, where men would have mostly been present.
It’s as though Jesus wasn’t interested in the gender dynamic at play and was willing to have haters for it because he knew it was the right thing to do.
Then there’s the story of Mary of Bethany, another impactful feminist instance from Jesus that bears mentioning.
On the night before the authorities arrested him (an event we call The Last Supper), Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (whom Jesus resurrected), sat at Jesus’s feet in the posture of a rabbinical student.
As I mentioned earlier, men and women rarely sat together, especially in religious spaces. This was revolutionary — a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi with male students.
Jesus defended Mary’s posture and placement among her male peers. When she demanded that Mary help her with the house chores, Jesus told Martha, Mary’s sister, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but only one thing is necessary; for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In such a short amount of words, Jesus vindicated Mary’s curiosity and actions without apology — he made her feel welcome and safe in a space traditionally reserved for men.
That same night, he even supported the same Mary when she anointed him with a bottle of nard, an incredibly expensive oil perfume at the time. Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would later turn Jesus over to the authorities, criticized her actions, recommending that she should have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.
Jesus responded, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
In none of these stories does Jesus punish, condemn, or support the oppression of these women. Through his actions, he makes his point abundantly clear — women are equal to men.
I believe that Jesus wanted to see a new way for these women in his patriarchal world, and because of this, women became important players in the early Christian movement, sharing the good news of love and acceptance for all.
Women were important to Jesus so much so a woman was the first to witness the resurrected Jesus.
That was Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s principal female patrons.
While history later besmirched Mary Magdalene as a prostitute (because of a Catholic Pope), she was more likely a wealthy Jewish woman that Jesus cured of demon possession. The Bible mentions her more times than the twelve male disciples.
She wasn’t Jesus’s wife either (I see you, Da Vinci Code enthusiasts).
According to most scholars, she was just a wealthy Jewish woman who sincerely believed in what Jesus was teaching and doing at the time. She, along with Jesus’s mother and her sister, Salome the mother of James and John, and Mary the wife of Clopas, stood near Jesus as he died of crucifixion.
None of the twelve male disciples were present.
There were, of course, other prominent Jewish women who funded and supported Jesus as he worked to spread a vision of love and acceptance for all. These women were:
After Jesus’s death and during the formation of the Early Christian Church, some scholars, according to Frontline PBS, have suggested that women were among the majority of Christians in the first century A.D. These women identified as either Jewish and what we call Gentile (or non-Jewish).
As the news of Jesus’s life and death spread throughout the ancient Roman empire, Paul, one of the founders of the Early Christian Church, wrote letters to key leaders in the Christian movement.
In these letters from Paul, we learn about the issues of the Early Church, including the relevance of Jewish and non-Jewish traditions, how to conduct meetings, among other things. Paul also points out key female leaders from around the Roman empire, an empire that spread across modern Britain, most parts of Europe and the Middle East, as well as North Africa.
We have Prisca/Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Aquila, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Mary, Rufus’ mother, Julia, and Nereus’ sister. You can learn more about each of these women on Valerie A. Abrahamsen’s blog.
It’s important to remember that we’re referencing and discussing writings from an ancient worldview, so unfortunately, not all of its characters have names — for example, Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister. I can look into why this is the case if you’d like. Email me here.
Allow me to get vulnerable with you: for a period of my life, I identified as an Atheist. (I’m okay with that, too.) It was tough for me to accept this Jesus story, and you’ll see why below.
My reservations had to do with my upbringing in the Catholic Church. As a young person, I saw sins as coins you collected toward Hell and sacred spaces reserved for angelic beings, not humans. For God and Jesus to accept me, I had to do everything perfectly and accurately. (I even wanted to become a nun because I thought that would bring me closer to Heaven.)
Yet, I derived purpose and drive from strong women that God had given power, especially Joan of Arc, who helped restore France from its English oppressors.
Her story, a woman with authority and much to say in a patriarchal society, resonated with me. Joan was able to exist as herself — with her short hair, strong armor, and convictions — and an entire army of men stood behind her even though she was a woman.
We all know Joan’s story doesn’t end well. Her individuality and strength became accusations, and the Catholic Church burned her to death. It was her glory days that offered me a chance to see the greater picture.
As I grew up, I learned that life is much more complex than catechism and confession. I broke away from Catholicism and Christianity altogether to live and explore myself outside of what I saw as toxic restrictions.
This time away was exactly what I needed. I went to college, learned about feminism, had relationships, lived in big cities, and graduated from journalism school.
In journalism school, I interviewed Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) and profiled Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile and one of the original creators of the Riot Grrrl movement along with Kathleen Hanna). Both of these experiences brought me closer to my essence and identity, and I began to see my feminism as a strength and way forward for myself, owning it rather than shying away from it.
Then in 2016, I learned about Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He decided to run as a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. As you can read on the About page here, I appreciated how his political experience and work backed up everything he proposed and promised as a potential leader, unlike other political candidates to date.
This authenticity mattered to me. Sanders’ direct words and candor fueled the righteous anger within me: in the United States, I knew we needed healthcare for all, a redistribution of wealth, and comprehensive reform to student loans and access to education. This change was dire for us and the planet; economic vitality for all could impact each of us, even the wealthy, for the better.
Within our country, the ancient groan of creation was taking shape. Creation, like giving birth, is challenging and painful but necessary. Even Jesus, tortured, bruised, and humiliated, died in excruciating pain to restore humanity, a gift of beauty and new creation for us all.
I started to see parallels between the teachings of Christ and his actions and words, returning to these Biblical texts with fresh clarity and understanding. I began to notice how all of this — Jesus’s words and actions — percolated in my life and Bernie Sanders' work.
Though, before I could take one step further into this sphere of Christian faith, I had to understand why women weren’t at the helm of the Church (or, at least the helm of the Catholic Church).
I needed to know if this restriction was indeed Biblical or something Jesus would have supported. Otherwise, I was ready to give up on Christianity altogether because I find it unacceptable to not allow women equal representation.
As it turns out, Jesus made me proud (like I discussed earlier in this article), but it was the leaders of Conservative institutions, like the Catholic Church, the Republican Party (who use the Bible and Scripture to bolster strategy and constituents), and white evangelical Christians, who showed me why I felt restricted as a woman in a Christian space.
To me, these were not Christly spaces. I had to ask: what happened in history that diminished Jesus’s feminism? Why were women still shamefully outcasted when they were key movers and shakers in Christ’s ministry and teachings and the Early Christian Church?
Patriarchy is as Oxford Languages defines it, “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.”
When I talk to people about female pastors, they almost always mention the difficulty of other church members accepting a woman as a leader in this forum. Similar to the question of a woman in the role of U.S. President, these people cite emotions and feelings as a flaw in a woman’s ability to offer clear judgment and action. (Funny enough, these people become quite emotional themselves while talking about women in the role of pastor.)
I knew the answers I was seeking would exist outside of any church or institution. As is characteristic of me to do, I initiated a process of discovery and research that would allow me to honor my identity and intuition — the one I believed God and Jesus wanted me to have and own.
These resources and perspectives, all based on their experience of Biblical theology, pastoring, mentoring, and study of history, offered me a chance to ground my feminism into the sacred, where our efforts as social justice warriors and voters in our shared democracy would foster the New Creation that Jesus taught thousands of years ago.
Equality and love for all is Christly living — this right here is the message of Jesus and what modern Christianity should be sharing.
I began to see my feminism as holy, a key piece to my purpose in this human life. I didn’t have to abandon either Jesus’s teachings or feminism because something deep within me — what some call Spirit — encouraged me to hold space for both.
This is why Jesus’s feminism matters. Like a sturdy foundation the forces of wind or rain cannot shake, being a feminist is essential to my life as a follower of Christ.
In fact, getting to know Jesus and his story has brought me closer to feminism. -Meghan E. Farnsworth
Do you want to learn more about how other women bring feminism into their faith? Here is a fantastic discussion on MAKERS Women between a female rabbi, a female Lutheran pastor, and a Muslim woman. Watch here.
Resources used in this article: