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What Jesus’ encounters with women teach us about God, life, and gender

A new book by Frank Viola and Mary Demuth uses five of Jesus' encounters with women to teach interesting lessons. - (Image: "Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Martha at Bethany" by J.J. Tissot - Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum:
A new book by Frank Viola and Mary Demuth uses five of Jesus' encounters with women to teach interesting lessons. - (Image: "Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Martha at Bethany" by J.J. Tissot - Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum:

A new book by Frank Viola and Mary Demuth uses five of Jesus’ encounters with women to teach interesting lessons. – (Image: “Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Martha at Bethany” by J.J. Tissot – Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum – e ttp://

Theologian Stanley Grenz once observed, “[Jesus] treated every woman he met as a person in her own right.” According to a new book, The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing of Diaries of Five Women from the Gospels by Frank Viola and Mary Demuth, Jesus’ encounters with women tell us more than we might assume. Here I dialogue with co-author Mary Demuth, a prolific author and blogger, about what these tales teach us about God, life, and gender.

RNS: You say that Jesus’ interactions with women were “shocking considering a woman’s position during that time.” Is this true and, if so, why is it significant?

MD: It’s significant because [tweetable]Jesus reserved some amazing Scriptural truth exclusively for women.[/tweetable] Consider his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4. She is part of a maligned race according to Israel, is a woman alone at a well and culturally should not be addressed by a man, and she is portrayed as immoral. But what does Jesus do? He has the longest recorded conversation with anyone in the Gospels. He reveals He is living water. He explains what true worshippers are. He says that a time is coming where the Kingdom of God will be for everyone, not simply Jews. And when she articulates truth about the Messiah, Jesus says, “I am He,” giving her a clear Messianic proclamation. Her interaction with Him and her subsequent sharing with the village results in Jesus essentially evangelizing a town of Samaritans. She is a missionary.

Image courtesy of Baker Books

Image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: You include a diary entry from the woman with the flow of blood. What does her story say to modern readers?

MD: Many suffer from chronic conditions and feel abandoned by God. The woman with the issue of blood not only suffers from an incurable illness for more than a decade, but she also experiences social ostracizing as a result. Imagine not being hugged or touched for 12 years! She represents those who physically suffer and those who hurt emotionally. She doesn’t presume upon Jesus. She knows her smallness, yet she is desperate enough to risk defiling Jesus by touching his cloak. Most likely crawling to touch Him in the lowest place. And yet, even in her quiet reticence, Jesus notices her. Listens. And then he heals her. She is restored physically and communally in one beautiful instant. While Jesus may or may not physically heal us today, he absolutely notices us, meets us, and helps us heal from our wounds.

RNS: You recall story of the woman caught in adultery. What’s going on behind the scenes here?

MD: Many scholars and readers of the Bible have noted that this woman was most likely set up in order to test Jesus and see what he would do with such a clear case of sin. Conspicuously absent is the “man caught in adultery.” He is never mentioned. Only she is left alone to bear the weight of public shaming, and, inevitably, death that will follow according to the Law. And yet, Jesus turns the tables on those that set this let’s-test-Jesus scenario. He issues a simple statement about sin, everyone leaves, and he alone stands with her. He alone has the power to condemn her, but he does not. Instead, he restores her to a new life.

RNS: This story is actually believed to be a later addition to the text and is not reliably present in early manuscripts. Why did you include it anyway?

MD: We were aware of this, and we deal with it in the chapter. While the story appears in some manuscripts, doesn’t exist in others, and is placed in different parts of the Gospels in yet other manuscripts, most evangelical scholars believe the story is authentic for compelling reasons.

Mary Demuth is an author, blogger, and popular speaker. - Image courtesy of Mary Demuth

Mary Demuth is an author, blogger, and popular speaker. – Image courtesy of Mary Demuth

RNS: The story of the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet has some oft-overlooked details. Tell us why this story is so illuminating.

MD: The woman had the prior intention of anointing Jesus, so she most likely heard Jesus preach or watched him heal or heard the cries of demons being exorcised. She didn’t just wander into the home and randomly pour perfume on Jesus. She meant to, as an act of worship. Unbinding her hair was a scandalous act, like a woman going topless in public today. Kissing the Lord’s feet was perceived to be an erotic gesture, which is why the Pharisees were repulsed and shocked that Jesus would allow this woman to do this. Yet Jesus didn’t rebuke her exhibition of extravagant love. Instead he defended it and rebuked the Pharisees. The God of the universe welcomed perfume that was paid for by prostitution, yet he condemned the self-righteous around her.

RNS: You refer to Mary of Bethany as “the woman whom Jesus loved.” Why?

MD: The Gospel of John uniquely singles out Lazarus, and his two sisters, Mary and Martha as those whom “Jesus loved” on more than one occasion. Jesus spent time there. We see Mary making the most of her time with Jesus by sitting at his feet, the typical place for a disciple of a teacher–reserved for men. She did not care that she entered the central room and unabashedly sat in the place of a male disciple. Her love for Jesus and her fascination with Him and the theology he espoused trumped social norms. Jesus affirmed her risk and devotion while others must’ve mocked.

RNS: You’re talking about bucking social norms and breaking taboos when it comes to gender. If Jesus were here today, where do you think he would fall in the church’s gender debates?

MD: I know this: He wouldn’t jump into a specific theological camp in order to denigrate a person who held a different view. He wouldn’t demonize someone. Instead, I think he would ask a lot of questions, listen well, and then say something surprising. He does that constantly in the gospel accounts, where he confounds people with out-of-the-box responses.

RNS: Would Jesus be an egalitarian or complementarian today?

MD: The Gospel accounts don’t explicitly address this theological debate, and Jesus doesn’t say one way or another. These labels and camps are a 21st century construct. What I can say is that Jesus absolutely treated women differently than the prevailing religious authorities of his time. He dignified. He healed. He interacted. He debated. Women played a vital role in Jesus’ ministry, standing with him at the cross, and seeing him first after resurrection.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • This is incredibly refreshing and desperately needs a hearing in so many churches today!

    When you read who Jesus really was and what He said and did, without the preconceived ideas that will undoubtedly be expressed in some of the comments that follow, you start to comprehend how radical his love and respect for all people truly was and is.

  • That is exactly what makes people love Jesus. Jesus was kind, compassionate and He truly cared about the person He met.

    Jesus was able to touch and transform human lives and met people at their greatest point of need without having to parade on their ‘sinfulness’.

    Jesus connected with people through love. His followers must do the same!

  • Jesus was a true ladies’ man. Neither man nor woman can deny Jesus had the touch; be it intelligence, insightfulness, bravery, tenderness and, above all, charisma. What woman would not like to be seated next to this man called Jesus? PS He was hot.
    Over 50% of the population of the world is the female species of humans. Make no mistake; Jesus’ true essence is neither male nor female. He is both in spirit and one is not lesser than the other. As a young boy, I took note of these passages and took them to heart for what they showed. If Jesus could love like this, could I do any less?
    I learned through the years what it means to be a true ladies’ man. Jesus, in the author’s book, brings an understanding of what should be and, what is lacking in today’s culture.
    PS Don’t get me wrong. Women are not perfect; neither are men.

  • Eric,

    Of course Jesus did, being the son of God! He could let people know (since he was the spokesperson for God, also called the Word), what kind of God his Father was, and he imitated God’s qualities explicitly, with love being the dominant quality (1 John 4:8).

    Both God and his son, Jesus’, love is evident to all mankind through the ransom sacrifice of Jesus’ perfect body, which will eventually lead to mankind living forever on earth (John 3:16; 17:3), without any more sickness and disease, old age and even death (Revelation 21:1-4).

    God’s purpose for man will soon finally be realized since the time that Adam and Eve introduced sin and death to the entire human family (Romans 5:12, which will be no more!

  • Why do these “New Testament” stories always end with Jesus being the only decent Jew around? The depiction of the Pharisees in the New Testament is completely distorted and inaccurate. I recommend that readers and staff, including Jonathan Merritt, read Amy Jill Levine’s article in Sojourners, “Quit Picking on the Pharisees.”

  • Regarding the point on gender debates and how Jesus liked to buck social norms, perhaps he would quip back something like the response to the Pharisee asking about divorce in Mark 10 saying, “it was not this way in the beginning.” Even in his social bucking, Jesus was very clear about God’s intentions even where they had been distorted by the larger society.

  • Every word out of your mouth proves you more and more a fraud. Someone with even a basic knowledge of Judaism should know that human beings are not the ones’ to forgive other humans’ sins against God. Only where one person has sinned against another person is this necessary. The “Pharisees” were in no position to grant forgiveness to Jesus. And even if they were, there’s no record of him ever asking for forgiveness for any offenses he committed against them.

  • Christians are gradually accepting Jesus’s Jewishness, but they get around it by making Jesus so unique that he is completely different from all other Jews. They are unwilling to accept that the Pharisees are depicted wrongly as part of early Christian polemics to prove the moral superiority of Christianity over Judaism.
    The Pharisees were human and had faults, but they never were the hypocrites you see in the New Testament. Those so-called disagreements wit the Pharisees were set up to make the Pharisees look bad.
    Jesus was a follower of Hillel and some Pharisees were followers of Shammai, but they were all Pharisees. Shammai tended to be stricter. They didn’t forgive Jesus, because most Pharisees did not think that he had done anything that needed forgiving.

  • Just to be clear, I was responding to Stephen, not Susan. His comment about Judaism not having a doctrine of forgiveness seems to have disappeared. #toobadsosad

  • However, Susan, the NT records Jesus as doing or saying plenty of things the Pharisees would have seen as “sinful”: calling them hypocrites, a brood of vipers, saying their father was the devil, etc. — and that’s not even getting into his theological statements, which, as the NT accurately records, they would have seen as daft or even blasphemous. But Jesus never asked for their forgiveness — that’s why he didn’t forgive them.

    Also, I think it’s more accurate to say that Jesus agreed with some of Hillel’s statements (e.g., what is hateful to yourself, do not do to others) and some of Shammai’s (e.g., divorce). He didn’t belong to either school as such.