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The Attitude of Jesus Toward Woman by M. Madeline Southard

*This is a long (1,600 word) review. I considered breaking it into parts, but decided to keep it as one post.*

This book was a master’s thesis written in 1919, and then slightly edited for book format in 1927. In 1999, it was reprinted by the International Association of Women Ministers, Stroudsburg, Pa. I managed to get a tangible copy at a reasonable price. It is not so reasonable anymore, but you can also access it online for free.

My previous post was a preamble for this one, so you may want to read that post first. The end of it stated the thesis Southard was defending. In summary, it is that Jesus treated women – not as creatures of their relationships (as they have historically been treated) – but as persons in themselves.

From the forward: Back in 1919, Southard defended her master’s thesis at Northwestern University’s Garrett Biblical Institute on “The Attitude of Jesus Toward Woman” before an all male committee. Despite her advisor’s doubts that there was enough material in the New Testament even to carry out such a project, she successfully defended her thesis. Southard wrote in her journal that one of her professors called her a “militant suffragette.” The forward further notes: The Rev. M. Madeline Southard’s book is one of several texts of her era that brought to light in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries what biblical scholars of the 1970’s would publish as new insight.

When you have read multiple books on this topic, you can think there isn’t much new to learn, but Southard’s “simple” observations about the interaction of Jesus with women was tremendously insightful. I’ve not read anything quite like it – mainly because of the total focus on Jesus. The challenging passages in the Pauline epistles are not even considered, because that is not the point. The point is: how did Jesus treat women?

Remember this is a thesis, so any claims are backed up with examples and explanation, but my review will only touch on certain things.

The first chapter of the book reviews the historic treatment of women. Is a woman viewed as the creature of her relationships, or as a person with relationships? It is usually the former, and a woman’s worth is tied to her connection to a man. She notes that in recent times, in lands where Christianity was introduced, it did lead to improvements for women – such as the ceasing of female infanticide and the burning of widows. Yet the church has, for the most part, failed women, and has even been a hindrance to the emancipation of women. But what about Jesus? As the Founder of Christianity, his treatment of women should be paramount.

Southard carefully considered every instance in the Gospels where Jesus interacts with women, and then groups these encounters together based on similarities. Some women are discussed more than once, and another chapter brings out another nuance of her interaction with Jesus.

The second chapter is entitled “His Recognition of Woman’s Intellectual and Spiritual Capacity” and focuses on the conversations Jesus had with the Samaritan woman and Martha. Jesus had a spiritual conversation of depth with the Samaritan woman. It is also the first clear statement by Jesus about his being the Messiah – and he said it to a woman.

And did you think I mis-typed Martha instead of Mary? We tend to think of Martha as the cook, and perhaps neglectful of studious pursuits, yet remember Jesus had a conversation with Martha by the grave of Lazarus. It showed Martha to be capable of high spiritual insight, as Jesus spoke to her about his being the resurrection and the life.

Finally, Southard points out that 6 people in the Gospels are called out for having special or great faith. Three are men, and 3 are women. And the one preeminent among the 6 is a heathen woman, the Syro-phoenician woman.

The third chapter is entitled “His Defense of Women” and focuses on Mary of Bethany. Two out of the 3 times she appears in the Gospels it is to be met with criticism, and both times Jesus defends her against her critics. Many are familiar with the famous incident of Jesus defending her right to learn at his feet. Southward briefly discusses how Jesus defended women who brought their little children to see Jesus. And while discussion of the woman caught in sin (John 8) is reserved for another chapter, if you include her, there are 6 instances where women were criticized in the presence of Jesus and in each case Jesus defended them. One criticism was from another woman, 2 from Pharisees, and 3 times from his own disciples. Men were surprised and startled at how Jesus interacted with women.

The fourth chapter is entitled “His Reproofs of Women.” To bring clarity from the last chapter, did Jesus only defend women because they were weak and feeble? No! Jesus defended them because he was in sympathy with their position. And in this chapter we see that Jesus also rebuked women. The teachings of Jesus include some hard and challenging statements about the priority of spiritual things over family, and Jesus expected women to make this divisive choice just like men.

Southard states “in every instance where Jesus reproved women it was for their failure to subordinate their feminine interests to their interests as citizens of the Kingdom of God.” Southard discusses Mary (mother of Jesus, multiple passages), a woman out of the multitude (Luke 11:27-28), the mother of Zebedee’s children (Matt 20), and Martha. In summary, Jesus treated women as rational beings and rebuked them when needed just as he did his male disciples.

Jesus “persistently set himself against a woman’s own belief that she was primarily a female, a creature of domestic relationships, and demanded of her that she realize herself to be a self-determining person, responsible for the exercise of the highest intellectual and spiritual faculties.”

Chapter five is entitled “His Treatment of Outcast Women.” This chapter opens: “Nothing more clearly reveals the usual view of man as a person in himself and woman as a creature of relationships than the different treatment accorded them when guilty of violation of the law of chastity.” Again, Southard points out that Jesus treated women guilty of this sin as persons in themselves, and reached out to them to bring them into his kingdom. Neither did Jesus ignore their sin. Women considered are: the woman of John 8, the Samaritan woman, and the woman of the street (Luke 7).

Chapter six is entitled “His Courtesy and Consideration for Women.” This chapter highlights instances where Jesus manifested “spiritual chivalry” towards women. While a number of cases are discussed, I was most impressed by insights about Jesus and the Syro-phoenician woman. You might say that this woman, in essence, boldly “talked back” to Jesus! She challenged him. Men who feel themselves superior to women can be sullen or ugly if a woman wins a point over them in conversation. But Jesus accepted this woman’s interpretation, valued her insight, and commended her faith.

Chapter seven is entitled “His Acceptance of Woman’s Ministry” and states “Jesus was willing not only to minister unto women but to be ministered unto by them.” Among friends, there must be a willingness to both bestow and receive benefits. According to Luke 8, a number of women financially supported Jesus and his ministry. Matthew 27 and Mark 15 both speak of women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him. Etc.

Chapter eight is entitled “His First Resurrection Appearances to Women.” Women were the last at the cross, and the first at the tomb. Women were the first evangelists, bearers of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. It is also noted that when Jesus was being tried and his followers scattered, that it was a woman – the wife of Pilate – who alone put forth real effort to save Jesus.

Now that all the occasions which reveal the attitude of Jesus toward woman have been considered, the final 2 chapters look at relevant teachings of Jesus. The reason this is tacked on the end is that Jesus actually did not have special teachings concerning women! This is unlike other sacred books of various peoples where much is said specifically about women, their nature, how they should be treated, etc. Not one word such as this is found in the teachings of Jesus! Southard states:

“Either He ignored women entirely or He so believed in the equality of men and women that all his teaching applies to humanity without sex distinction. An examination of the records…shows that the later and not the former is the case.”

I think that is a critical point! As emphasized earlier in the review, Jesus recognized the mental and spiritual capacity of women, just as he did of men. Jesus taught people how to follow him – irregardless of whether they were women or men.

Chapter nine is entitled “His Social Teaching that Affected Women” and is primarily focused on what Jesus taught about marriage, divorce, and social sin. Chapter 10 is entitled “His Religious Teaching that Affected Woman.” I love this chapter, and it emphasizes how Jesus combined the virtues of the masculine and feminine natures.

Women, having less physical strength than men, and also having long seasons of life consumed with child-bearing and child-care, is at a disadvantage in a world of brute force. “When physical prowess was the standard of excellence, woman was naturally rated as an inferior being…In her work of child-care and serving, women developed certain qualities commonly referred to as feminine. Men thought these qualities very important in women, but disdained them for themselves. Jesus took these traits of character, esteemed only in an inferior class, and made them the crown of his nobility.”

Jesus, in his life, combined the virtues of the masculine and feminine. The chapter highlights things like compassion, tenderness, gentleness, meekness, and humble service in the life of our Lord. Yes, Jesus had qualities typically considered masculine, but we can not overlook that Jesus also encompassed qualities typically considered feminine – even elevating these virtues! This should show the completeness of the humanity of Jesus. It took a male and female to properly reflect the Image of God.

I feel like this review does not do the book justice, as I found it loaded with insight and fresh observations. There is no way that the male committee could have failed Southard with this work! She was thorough and articulate. If I have not represented it that way, it is my fault at my attempt to summarize it. Take advantage of this book being available free online, or get a tangible copy like me.

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