Messianic Jewish Feminism: Jesus the Feminist

If there ever was a feminist in the New Testament, it was Jesus. In the first century women were treated as inferior to men in Hellenistic-Roman and Jewish culture. It was generally frowned upon for women to study the Torah, they were not viewed as proper legal witnesses, and they were often compared to children — undeveloped and simple-minded. Yet, Jesus surrounded himself by women, was supported by them, hosted by them, and they not only enabled his message, but bore witness to his life in all that it entailed: birth, ministry, death and resurrection. In fact, he was not known as Jesus son of Joseph, but Jesus son of Mary (Mark 6:3).

As a movement, one of Messianic Judaism’s strengths has been to bring the New Testament and Jesus back into a Jewish context. Does it not logically follow that we should emulate one of Jesus’ chief concerns, honoring and including women through living out a counter-cultural feminism? Instead of adopting the attitude toward women that was common in his time (and among some of Jesus’ New Testament followers), he embraced women as co-laborers in bringing his message to those around him.

As Messianic Jews, we should be quick to elevate the role of women not just as care takers and mothers, but also as providers, leaders, faithful followers and devotees of our Messiah. How much are we missing by choosing to relegate women to secondary roles, separate from leadership and lacking in authority? How can we deny those with equal gifts to equally contribute in worship, teaching, preaching and pastoring? “To paraphrase Rebecca West: Feminism is the radical notion that women are disciples too.” [1]

In Luke 10 we read that Jesus had 72 disciples. We know that women traveled with Jesus and provided for his ministry (Luke 8), and perhaps there were women among these 72 (in Matthew 12 he refers to the disciples with him as hismother and brothers, implying women were among them). We don’t have a proper demographic breakdown of his followers, but the fact that he had female disciples who sat at his feet like the Marys of Bethany and Magdala (Luke 10 and John 20), and that a handful of women are named in the New Testament, including Joanna, Susanna, Martha, his mother and the two previously mentioned Marys, indicates they could not have been the only ones, but a small sample of a larger phenomenon.

Jesus’ example was not meant to be one that we endlessly mimic as if we still live in a world 2000 years behind the present. Instead, we should take the radical and subversive message of Jesus and apply it to our world here and now. It’s not always easy, and it’s hardly ever comfortable. We’ve been invited to read these texts written by males largely for males interpreted by more males for hundreds of years. I invite you to consider feminist readings of these male texts, for many feminists like myself are greatly influenced by the same Jesus you also follow. [2]

While these ideas might sound offensive and aren’t part of the majority, they are, as I am, part of the Messianic Jewish movement, which is comprised of diverse opinions. There may be more to consider that you and I have missed, but we can’t get there if half of us are stifled in our freedom of expression and expectation. To live out our gifts and contributions to their capacity, we need to be willing to follow in the challenging footsteps of Jesus son of Mary, Jesus the feminist.


[1] Katelyn Beaty, “I’m a Feminist Because I Love Jesus So Much,” Christianity Today, November 4, 2013. See also Rachel Held Evans, “We need feminism…,” July 21, 2014, discussing “Because feminism is the radical notion that women are human.”

[2] A few authors who address this from a Christian perspective are: Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist (she takes a very evangelical perspective in her work); Danielle Strickland, The Liberating Truth; How Jesus Empowers Women; Ronald W. Pierce & Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy; Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation and Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology and Feminist Biblical Studies in the Twentieth Century: Scholarship and Movement (her works approach the topic from a Christian and/or academic perspective); Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

A few authors who address feminism from a Jewish perspective are: Naomi Janowitz & Margaret Wenig, Siddur Nashim: A Sabbath Prayer Book for Women (a reconstructionist female rabbi wrote that praying with this Siddur “transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it means to be made in God’s image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman’s body, with womb, with breasts — this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.”); Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah; Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism; Alice Becker Lehrer, If We Could Hear Them Now: Encounters with Legendary Jewish Heroines; Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve; Frederick E. Greenspahn, Women and Judaism: New Insights and Scholarship.