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She Shall Be Called Woman

Part Two Session One


Jewish Culture at the Time of Jesus


This lesson on Jewish culture, as it related to women at the time of Jesus, could be really depressing except for one great big fact. What? By coming against these traditions and practices in both His words and His actions, Jesus lets us know that these are not the God’s ways. The sad thing is that we have been ignorant of the culture and have not recognized the tremendous importance of each gospel incident where a woman or women are involved.


The Importance of Culture


As we begin to look at the New Testament to see what is taught there about the place of women in Christ’s Body, a look at culture is necessary. As Christianity moved across the earth, its message had to be understood by people of varying cultures. This is as true today as it was in the first century.


In this chapter/session we will explore why:


1.  Knowledge of culture is critical to understanding the New Testament


2.  The Babylonian captivity had lasting negative effects on Jewish culture 


If fish could think, the last thing they would likely discover is water. For people, culture is like water. Fish are immersed in water. People are immersed in culture. Yet neither is conscious of how their environment influences and affects them. Culture is to most people a hidden dimension--Matthew 13:13b.[1]  A good definition of culture is society’s institutionalized values, beliefs, norms, knowledge and practices that are learned though human interaction.


Throughout the Word, as God teaches through patterns, miracles, events, lives, etc., an understanding of the culture involved sharpens our understanding and clears the way for us to hear from God. We miss SO much of what He wants us to see if we do not know the cultural setting. Remember, “it is the glory of God to conceal a thing but the honor of kings to search out a matter.” Proverbs 25:2


Up until the industrial revolution most of the world lived in an agricultural culture. In much of the world this is still true. Cultures where farming is how most people make their living are patriarchal, meaning there is an authoritative chain-of command pattern of relationships in which men rule with authority over women.


In farming cultures men are valued for their physical strength. Children, particularly male children, are prized as workers in the field and as warriors to protect families, clans and tribes. The major value of women is in their ability to produce children—preferably male children.[2] Think about your cultural and traditions. Do these values sound familiar?


Religion and politics, throughout most of Judeo-Christian history, unknowingly reflect the values of a patriarchal culture that since ancient times portrays women in a negative light. While much has changed in the last one-hundred and fifty years remnants remain even in developed nations. Women are the victims of cultural beliefs that subordinate them, (consider them of lower rank or status) on the basis of their gender in much the same way as racism subordinates an individual or group on the basis of race. The question we must answer is whether such attitudes and traditions are scripturally justified.


Understanding the effect of the Babylonian exile on the Jewish people is critical to understanding the culture at the time of Jesus. 2 Kings 17 through 25 tells of how first the northern kingdom of Israel and then later the southern kingdom of Judah were defeated by the Assyrians and the people taken captive to Babylon. Much of what we read in books of the Prophets is God warning the people that this is going to happen if they continue to sin and worship other gods. God also told Jeremiah that he would bring the people back to their land.  (Jer. 25:11-12).


The Babylonian practice was to absorb captured people into their culture. To accomplish this captives were required to adapt a Babylonian diet, speak their language, (Aramaic), and worship their gods.


The Jews were removed from Israel. Their temple was destroyed leaving the priesthood with no place to function; religious rituals could not be practiced. Although synagogues were organized as places to pray, pagan practices and philosophies were absorbed into Jewish culture. We see the same thing today when local customs are made part of Christian practice. Women fared much better before the exile.


As a result of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews lost Hebrew as their common language. Remember, Jesus, who was born 400 years after the Jewish remnant returned to Israel, spoke Aramaic the language of Babylon as well as Hebrew.


Seventy years after the last captives were brought to Babylon, Cyrus, King of Persia, allowed the Jews to return to Israel. Ezra returned with a relatively small group of the Jewish people---a remnant. However, many remained in Babylon and had a continuing influence on Judaism. Ezra established schools where men studied to become rabbis (teachers) who could read and interpret the Hebrew Scriptures and explain their meaning to the people in Aramaic since most of the people no longer spoke Hebrew. Ezra 7:6, 11 Neh 8:1 12:26


In order to understand the remainder of this session, we need to understand the differenence between the Torah and the Talmud.


The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament containing the law given to Moses.


The Talmud (also called the Babylonian Talmud because of its origin) is a written record of spoken rabbinic discussion.[3]  


The Talmud was done orally before it was written down and is known as the oral law. It pertained to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. Quotes from the Talmud use the name of the book and the verse (Sotah 3:4) Confused? Don’t worry about it. The point is to realize that it is not scripture but commentary on scripture.


We know that the Jews were taken as captives to Babylon.  Seventy years later, only a remnant returned to Isreal.  The majority remained in Babylon and continued as a religious influence even on those who returned.   The Babylonian culture was very prejudiced against women. The effects of living in that culture during the Babylonian captivity and the continuing influence of those who remianed can be seen in the following are quotes from the oral law:


  • Saith the Scripture, “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things. Let her, therefore, be obedient to him” (Apion 2:25).


  •  Let a curse come upon the man who must needs have his wife or children say grace for him.


  •  Praise be to God that he has not created me a gentile; praised be God that created me not a woman; praised be God that he has not created me an ignorant man. (Menahot 43b) (This was a thanksgiving prayer of Jews at the time of Jesus.)


  • It is well for those whose children are male, but ill for those whose children are female . . . At the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad . . . When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes . . . Even the most virtuous of women is a witch. (Niddah 31b)


  •  Jesus Ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus (an apocryphal book of the Old Testament, second century BC) says, From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die Ecc 25:24 (We know this is not true, don’t we! )


  •  “Let her [woman] be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man” Apion 2.201).


Examples of social practices in Jesus’ day also help us understand the deprecation of women.


  • A rabbi regarded it beneath his dignity to speak to a woman in public. Women were kept for childbearing and rearing and were always under the strict control of a man. They were considered property.


  • The Jewish thinker, Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, thought women ought not leave their households except to go to the synagogues (and that only at a time when most of the other people would be at home); girls ought even not cross the threshold that separated the male and female apartments of the household


  • Herod’s Temple, the one Jesus frequented, was specifically built for the separation of women and gentiles.[4] The court of the women was free of buildings and surrounded with a gallery so that the women should not mingle with the men. They had their own gates through which they entered the Temple. The temple was constructed to make a clear distinction between man and God, Jew and gentile, male and female, priest and people.


Remember, these Jewish regulations for the submission of women are based on ancient sources in the Talmud, and not of the Bible. We are seeking an unbiased study of scripture which means putting aside our preconceived notions and taking a fresh look at what the scripture actually says.


She Shall Be Called Woman, is a course on “Biblical Womanhood.” When we speak of women in God’s economy we are not just talking about their place in religion or “church.” What we believe about womanhood determines what we believe women can and should experience in terms of relationships, opportunity, marriage, quality of life, and ministry. Biblical womanhood involves every facet of a woman’s life. It is critical that our understanding is scriptural rather than being based on tradition and culture.[5] We will find that Jesus and the apostles both understood and taught in this encompassing manner.  


In this chapter/session we noted that:


  • Culture is society’s institutionalized values, beliefs, norms, knowledge and practices that are learned though human interaction.


  • Culture is so much a part of our daily lives that we are seldom aware of it or its influence on our thoughts and actions.


  • Knowledge of the cultures of the people addressed in the New Testament can help us to a clear understanding of the teaching of scripture.


  • Scripture is God’s way. As Christians we must learn to recognize and reject culture and tradition that are not scriptural.




1.  Matt. 13:13b because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

2.  Carrie Miles, The Redemption of Love, Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2006).

3. The Talmud was not started until around 200 AD. Before that time the discussions were oral. The amount and complexity of these oral discussions made a written record necessary.

4. According to Josephus, the women entered the first court, the court of the gentiles, and went to the court directly above that, the women’s court. It was five steps above the gentile court, but still fifteen steps below the men’s court.

5.  Susan Hyatt, In the Spirit We’re Equal, The Spirit The Bible and Women a Revival Perspective (Dallas, Hyatt Press, 1998).




1.  What is culture?


2.  Why is it hard for us to be aware of our own culture? 


3.  Why is it important to know the cultural setting in Israel at the time of Jesus? 


4. Do you see a relationship between subordination on the basis of race and subordination on the basis of gender?  Explain.  


5. What is meant by patriarchy?   


6. How strong is patriarchy in your culture?  Explain. 


7. Do you see in your own cultural setting the attitudes expressed in the quotes from the oral law? If so, how are these attitudes expressed in your culture?


8. Give examples of how traditions and customs replace God’s word your culture?


Click here to discuss 


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