Women in the Bible: What We Learn from the Book of Luke
Opponents of Christianity will often suggest that the Bible has a low view of women. It’s a patriarchal book with a patriarchal worldview. In many cases though, Scripture reveals that while that may have been true of ancient Judaism (like many other ancient cultures), God–and Jesus–honored women in profound and meaningful ways.
In his online course, A Theology of Luke and Acts, Darrell L. Bock examines the numerous passages portraying women in the Gospel of Luke. The following post is based on his course.
Women are an important part of the gospel narrative
Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna all play key roles at the start of the Gospel of Luke, where we read about the infancy of Christ.
Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth
Elizabeth expresses her joy at bearing a child by declaring that the reproach of barrenness has been lifted from her; she also rejoices when she meets Mary, “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:24–25, 41–45). Elizabeth expresses both relief and joy that God has removed this source of public shame (barrenness was commonly viewed this way).
Expressing thanks to the Lord for the provision of a child is a common Old Testament theme (Sarah in Genesis 21:6; Rachel in Genesis 30:23). Everything about Elizabeth’s reaction tells us she is pious, as does her introduction in Luke 1:6, where she is said to be “blameless” with respect to the law.
Mary, mother of Jesus
Mary is a person of faith when she accepts the announcement of the virgin birth with all it entails for her socially (Luke 1:38). Her trust, despite what would have been public shame, is not explicitly addressed but is clearly understood to come with her acceptance of her role. Her praise in the Magnificat underscores the picture of her as pious. Her self-description as humble in terms of social status sets the tone for God’s care for those without power in society (1:48, 52). God sees what society does not.
In her hymn, Mary describes herself as God’s “servant” (the repetition of doulē, connects Luke 1:48 to 1:38). This acknowledges her subordinate position before God. She does not expect or assume that she should be the object of such special attention from God, so she is grateful for the attention.
She also describes herself as of “humble state,” a term (tapeinōsin) that many see as a more natural reference to barrenness. Seeking support from Old Testament parallels in 1 Samuel 1:11; Genesis 16:11; and especially 29:31–32, they argue that the term is more suitable for Elizabeth. But the expression can also naturally refer to one’s low social position, as Luke 1:52 makes clear.
In fact, the social terminology throughout the hymn argues for a broader reference here and supports an original reference to Mary. As we noted earlier, tapeinōsin as social-status terminology has Old Testament parallels to describe both Israel and individuals (Genesis 29:32; Deuteronomy 26:7; 1 Samuel 9:16; 2 Samuel 16:12; 2 Kings 14:26; Psalms 9:13 [9:14 LXX]; 25:18 [24:18 LXX]; 31:7 [30:8 LXX]).
This use also has parallels in Judaism (Judith 6:19; 2 Esdras [4 Ezra] 9:45). Mary is able to praise God her Savior, because he looked upon her low social state and yet in love let her bear the Messiah. What God did for her is like what he does for others in the same state (Luke 1:52).
Mary recognizes that God has given her a special place by having her bear the Messiah. She explains that generations of all time will bless her. They, too, will perceive her fortune in receiving this special role. She is an example of one graced by God, an example of faith (see Gen 30:13). Elizabeth’s blessing in Luke 1:45 is the first blessing that Mary receives as an exemplary servant touched by grace (11:28–29 is another). Luke presents Mary as an example of faith in God, a humble servant who is willing to do what he asks.
Women had a secondary social status in ancient Israel
There are scenes where the role of women in Jewish society reflects a secondary status. For example, when Elizabeth names John, using a name without family precedent, the assumption is that she has acted independently and in a manner inappropriate for her culture (Luke 1:57–62). Only confirmation from Zechariah removes the doubt.
Later when Peter’s mother-in-law is healed, she immediately serves them after her healing (4:38–39). This represents her reentry into society by returning to her former expected role.
Anna is a pious prophetess who witnesses to Jesus as one who hopes for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38). The women surrounding Jesus are pious and are given place to testify to him.
Women play prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry
Luke notes several women the other gospels do not mention. Thirteen of them appear here and nowhere else. These women are often examples of deep piety and run the gamut from poor (the widow who gives the mite) to wealthy (Joanna) to those with a past now transformed (the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet).
Several key stories in Jesus’ ministry involve women, revealing his compassion for them, his countercultural views of them, and their ability to participate in God’s work.
The widow of Nain
After the death of her only son, the widow of Nain is socially isolated and at risk. When Jesus heals her son, it restores her family and gives her a means of support (Luke 7:10–17). The event leads the crowd to proclaim Jesus as a prophet.
The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet
Few women are as important to Luke’s story as the sinful woman who at a meal anoints Jesus’ feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). She speaks not a word in the scene, but her actions evoke reaction all around. The Pharisee is sure this shows Jesus is not a prophet.
Ironically, while the Pharisee makes this judgment, Jesus prepares to tell a parable that shows he knows about Simon’s doubts. Jesus takes her act to be a sign of gratitude in response to grace and forgiveness, as the parable stresses how love emerges from forgiveness.
She then is reassured as Jesus declares her sins forgiven. Jesus turns the sinful woman into a spiritual example of a proper response of gratitude to God’s grace. She has been forgiven much, and so she loves much. This reversal is significant, for normally the pious Pharisee would be such an example in society. God often sees things differently than society. Not status nor title, but action from the heart is what counts for God.
Women financially supported Jesus’ ministry
The three women who support Jesus are also important to Luke (Luke 8:1–3). Mary Magdalene will be a witness at the cross and at the empty tomb. Joanna has a high social status as the wife of Herod’s steward, and she is also a witness to the empty tomb (24:10).
We know nothing more about Susanna than her place in this list. The mix of a woman who was possessed and healed in an exorcism with one of some status shows the reach of Jesus across the entire social stratum. The issue is not social position but responsiveness. As financial supporters of Jesus, they help make his work possible and show the partnership Luke values as an important contribution. A poor widow in 21:1–4 will also show that women can handle what means God gives them to offer support for the worship of God.
The bleeding woman
Some women have a timid faith but are still beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry. The bleeding woman tries to gain healing without gaining notice (Luke 8:42b–48). When she touches Jesus, he stops and brings her story out. He does not rebuke her but says her faith has made her well. Jesus acts in a way that grows the woman’s faith.
Mary and Martha
Mary and Martha illustrate the contrast between a woman performing her normal social duties and a disciple seated at Jesus feet and learning from him (Luke 10:38–42). Martha assumes, in asking for Jesus’ help, that he will tell her sister to perform her social duty. The Greek here is important. Martha asks for Jesus’ help in v. 40 in a way that assumes he will intervene, using the particle οὐ (ou), which anticipates a positive reply to her question.
Instead, Jesus affirms the picture of Mary at his feet, saying she has chosen the right thing. Discipleship with Jesus is a priority, even over the normally commended category of service. This priority of discipleship applies even to women.
Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath
In Luke 13:10–17, Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath, and the synagogue leader rebukes him for it, telling him to heal on the other six days of the week. Jesus responds that no better day exists to heal a “daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound,” than the Sabbath. The value of the well-being of a woman is greater than the Sabbath.
Jesus contrasts the leader’s indignation at the woman’s healing with a Jew’s readiness to untie cattle, feed them at the manger, and lead them to water on the Sabbath. All are overt acts of labor and compassion.
Jesus asks a rhetorical question, pointing out that the Jews often labored for their cattle’s sake. They cannot dispute that this is common practice, which raises the issue of how and why an animal can fare better than a human on the Sabbath.
The leaders are condemned by their own practice. They show compassion to animals but not to humans. It is this issue of inconsistency and priority in creation that Jesus raises. It’s a reversal of the created order (Luke 12:6–7; see also 1 Corinthians 9:9).
Some interpreters miss Jesus’ point by arguing that his retort is not relevant, since he could indeed have waited a day to heal. Jesus’ point, however, is how can an animal be treated with more concern on the sacred day than a person?
Satan had bound the woman for eighteen years, and she should be loosed from this bondage, even more than the ox should be loosed on the Sabbath to eat.
In effect, Jesus argues that his act does not violate the Sabbath but fits the very spirit of the day. What better way to celebrate the Sabbath? The difference in the views of Jesus and the synagogue leader could not be greater, and everything in Jesus’ argument affirmed the woman’s value.
The persistent widow
The final scene involving a woman in the journey section of Luke is of the nagging widow who seeks justice from a judge (Luke 18:1–8). She represents a believer who must pray to God for justice and be assured that God hears. God will vindicate the righteous. Her persistence about justice in prayer is commended as an example for others to follow.
The poor widow
In Luke 21:1–4 Jesus points out a poor widow who gives two small coins (lepta) at the temple. She stands in stark contrast to those who trumpet their gifts and ministry.
Lepta were small copper coins, the smallest currency available, whose value was one-eighth of a penny. E. Earle Ellis computes the value as one one-hundredth of a denarius—thus, one one-hundredth of the average daily wage (a very small sum indeed).
Most people would say that the gifts of the rich were obviously more significant. They had a bigger impact, right?
Jesus explains why he says the widow gave the most even though she only contributed two lepta. All those who preceded her donated their gifts out of excess income; what they gave to God cost them little. In contrast, the woman gave not from her abundance, but from her very life. As Jesus puts it, she gave “all she had to live on.” She didn’t say, “I don’t have enough to live on, so I will postpone my giving.” She could have given just one lepton, but instead she gave it all. She gave “out of her poverty.”
Women were the first to witness the resurrection
In ancient Israel, women were not qualified to give testimony in a legal case unless they were the only witness. Other texts argue a woman cannot bring evidence at all. It appears she could do so only in exceptional situations.
For example, m. Šeb. 4.1 reads, “An oath of testimony applies to men but not to women.” In addition, Roš. Haš 1.8 reads, “Any evidence a woman is not eligible to bring.” Later b. B. Qam. 88a reads, “A woman . . . is disqualified from giving evidence.”
All of this shows how significant it is that women bring the evidence of the empty tomb. This cultural context of the secondary role of women argues against such an event being created by the community, since one would not choose to use nonwitnesses (women) to make the case for a culturally controversial belief (resurrection).
The gospel affirms the role of women as witnesses who can give testimony to what God has done through Jesus.
The gospel changes the story about women
The Gospel of Luke shows us women from a wide range of social standings, and often portrays their interactions with Jesus in parallel with similar interactions he had with men.
Jesus frequently disregarded cultural norms to help the marginalized. And in many cases, that meant doing the unthinkable as a Jewish rabbi–he treated women like people, created in the image of God and profoundly loved by default.
Learn more by signing up for Darrell Bock’s Theology of Luke and Acts online course.