Questions and observations for discussion:
1. What was the social standing of women in the first century A.D. among Jews? What legal rights did they have if any?
First of all, from the perspective of human nature in general the woman as mother will usually have the love and respect of her family. She births the children, feeds and nurtures them, cares for her husband, etc., and for the most part is loved and honored in return. However, whenever a society is under military and/or economic pressure, the weaker members usually suffer the most. Also, in certain societies due to long established views and customs women often fare worse than in others.
We find that in Judaism at the turn of the millennium from B.C. to A.D. both theology and practice did not favor women. Jesus the son of Sirach, a wisdom writer around 200 B.C. wrote the following advice in Sirach 42, a book of the Apocrypha:
12 Do not look upon any one for beauty, and do not sit in the midst of women; 13 for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman”s wickedness. 14 Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; and it is a woman who brings shame and disgrace.
Generally Jewish women could not receive an education, she could be divorced but could not divorce. She was under her husband’s authority until he died and then under her eldest son’s authority if she had one. It is most likely that Jesus’ prohibition against divorce was primarily motivated to protect women from the liberal branch of Hillel’s theology which allowed a man to divorce his wife for any cause (see Mat 19:3).
2. What evidence do we have of how the gospel related to social customs and taboos in Jesus’ ministry to and relations with women?
As with all people who were religiously and socially marginalized by misfortune, ethnic background, or tabooed behavior, Jesus’ relations with women were compassionate. The Samaritan woman at the well is a salient example (John 4). The account of his forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery was subsequently so offensive that most ancient manuscripts left it out (See John 7:53 to John 8:1-11). His treatment of a woman of ill-repute in Luke 7:36-49 went beyond granting her forgiveness. He scandalized his host in allowing her to touch him by anointing and kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair. In John 11:1 the Mary there is identified as the one who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. John records that Jesus had special love for her, Martha and their brother Lazarus. Furthermore, as a Jewish teacher (Rabbi) Jesus would have been regarded as completely unconventional and out of place in having women followers (Mat 27:55, Luke 23:49, Luke 23:55).
3. What evidence does the New Testament give about women in worship?
While women in general are prohibited from speaking publically in worship contexts in 1 Cor 14:34-36 and 1 Tim 2:9-15, it is hard to imagine that this was practiced in Philippi where the church was made up exclusively of women at a place of prayer by the river (Acts 16:13, 16). The arguments given in 1 Tim 2:9-15 for women being silent in church raise more problems themselves, both in terms of reason as well as a plain reading of the temptation account in Genesis 3. Furthermore, we find in 1 Cor 11:2-16 that a woman should cover her head when she prays or prophecies. Was this at public or private worship? The text does not say.
Why the general exclusion of women’s public participation in worship? Were the cultural norms too strong for Christianity to change them yet? Is this general exclusion of women from participating actively in worship motivated by a desire to avert misunderstanding by outsiders? In pagan contexts men were the active participants in worship. Apart from priestesses and temple prostitutes, women either stayed at home or silently accompanied their husbands. In synagogue worship women sat at the back, often unseen behind a curtain.
5. What is the evidence in the New Testament about women in ministry?
In Acts 9:36 a woman, Tabitha by name, was referred to as a ‘disciple,’ a term that apart from this instance is exclusively restricted to men. What may this have implied? From Paul we learn that he had women as fellow workers “in the work of the gospel” (Phil 4:2-3).
Finally in Romans 16:7 provides astonishing evidence that a woman was numbered among the earliest apostles. Paul sends greetings to “Andronicus and Junia.” Firstly, it is not likely that ‘Junian’ is a man’s name since it is found nowhere as a man’s name, i.e. ‘Junias,’ while there are 250 examples of it as a woman’s name, i.e. ‘Junia.’ Secondly, the word “men” in the phrase “they are men of note among the apostles,” is not in the Greek but is added by the RSV and other translations which take ‘Junia’ as a man’s name. It should read instead “they are prominent among the apostles” (NRSV). Thirdly, the fact that they were in Christ before Paul and prominent among the apostles suggests they were among the special group mentioned in 1 Cor 15:7. Fourthly, it is likely a reference to husband and wife. One may firmly conclude that Junia was both a woman and a wife among the apostles. (See James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 . Vol. 38b (Word Biblical Commentary) Dallas, TX: Word Books, Pub., 1988, pp.894-895.
4. How can one tell whether social behaviors mandated and/or regulated in the Bible have a practical, local motivation rather than a principled motivation? On what basis or principle does one decide?
It is remarkable that many who reject a social-contextual interpretation of Scripture actually practice it themselves. Ellen White in her time and women in our time obviously do not follow Paul’s prohibition about women speaking in church. Also, women covering their heads at worship is no longer practiced in most Protestant churches. Finally, no Christian worthy of that name would send a runaway slave back to his owner in our modern context (see Philemon). Are we simply doing this in conformity with ‘our’ culture, or is there some principle that provides a basis for our departures from these practices in the N.T.?