I argued previously that Jesus viewed slavery—and human hierarchical arrangements in general—as intrinsic to God’s orderly design of the world. When rightly honored, these hierarchical structures were believed to thwart the intrusion of chaos and divine wrath into the body politic. Many of the Israelite law codes, for example, are concerned with the proper upkeep of hierarchical boundaries and thus with the prosperity of social and natural life: kings should submit to God, the rich should aid the destitute, slaves should obey their masters, children should honor their parents, and fathers should teach their sons. Jews, moreover, secured their lives, their well-being, and their land by observing the divinely-ordained social order.
According to the moral landscape inherited by Jesus then, people were unequal in socially-meaningful ways: Jew and gentile, king and subject, priest and layman, clean and unclean, rich and poor, old and young, master and slave, male and female. Depending on his or her station in life, each person was invested with certain obligations and beholden to certain codes of conduct. Given the realities of social mobility in the ancient world, such distinctions were viewed as basically immutable.
So, though it is often disputed, the apocalyptic kingdom imagined by Jesus retained the hierarchical structure of his world. There would be a great reversal of political status vis-à-vis the righteous and the wicked (as defined by Jesus), but no abolition of hierarchy in and of itself. Rather, those most committed to Jesus and his prophetic guild would receive the greatest rewards in the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 19:27-30). Those who desired to be first in God’s impending reign had to become slaves of the church in the present evil age—and thus outcasts of the social world they once inhabited (Mark 10:43-44). The old tenants of Israel and of the nations would be destroyed no doubt, yet replaced not by an egalitarian social order but by new tenants, men worthy of great power (Mark 12:9).
Patriarchy in Christ’s kingdom
A key component of Jesus’ hierarchical social world was, of course, the belief that men, not women, ought to maintain ultimate authority over any given area of life.1 Far from questioning this near-universal understanding of male headship, Jesus appears to have crafted an explicitly patriarchal prophetic ἐκκλησία. When God’s kingdom arrived from heaven, Jesus’ hand-picked male disciples—patriarchs over the eschatological community—would receive the obedience of the nations.
Consider the following.
- Jesus appointed twelve men to rule with him over a restored tribal Israelite confederation:2 “Truly, I say to you, at the renewal [of Israel], when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28, cf. 18:18). Enthroned over Israel in Christ’s kingdom, these twelve men would dominate the nations now under the rod of the Davidic king (cf. Genesis 49: Psalm 2:7-9).
- Jesus installed seventy as emissaries to Israel (Luke 10:1-20). These seventy men, characterized by Jesus in masculine terms (οἱ ἐργάται—”workmen”), evoked the seventy (male) tribal elders chosen by Moses to help shepherd the people (Numbers 11:16-30).3 Like the twelve, these seventy were also destined to receive special standing and authority in the heavenly kingdom, the renovated Israel (Luke 10:20, cf. Revelation 21:14).
- Besides the twelve, only Joseph of Arimathea is identified as a “disciple” in the Gospel traditions (Matthew 27:57, John 19:38). Cleopas and Justus, both men, are likely understood to be disciples as well (Luke 24:13-35, Acts 1:21-23).
- After the disappearance of their master, the twelve follow the pattern instituted by Jesus by electing only men to positions of leadership (cf. Acts 1:15-26, 6:1-6). While Jesus’ brother James becomes one of three “pillars” of the church (Acts 15:1-35, Galatians 2:9), his mother and sisters possess no discernible authority over the earliest church.
- Besides the calling narratives concerning members of the twelve, there is only one passage in which Jesus invites a person into his guild—the rich young ruler: a man (Mark 10:17-27, cf. Luke 9:57-62).
- Various other traditions seem to corroborate the point: Jesus gathered exclusively male disciples.
- Jesus teaches his disciples to refrain from lusting after another man’s wife but says nothing concerning another woman’s husband (Matthew 5:27-32).
- Jesus commends those who have left behind their “wives” (γυναῖκες) for the sake of the gospel but not those who have left behind their husbands (Luke 18:28-30).
- A disciple must hate his “wife” but not her husband (Luke 14:26).
- Jesus directs a women to fetch her husband before he continues his exposition on religious matters (John 4:16).4 Given the marveled reaction of his disciples (4:27), Jesus probably did not regularly engage in prolonged discussion with unfamiliar women.
- Nearly all the characters representative of disciples in the parables are male. The ten virgins are the lone exception. The wise virgins receive entrance into the messianic wedding banquet but obedient male slaves receive cities (Luke 19:17) and great authority (Matthew 24:47, 25:21).
Like it or not, Jesus was a person of antiquity. The egalitarian notion that women might exert authority independently of male headship was therefore beyond his moral imagination. While the kingdom envisioned by Jesus stood ready to liberate righteous Jews from sinners and idolaters, it mustered no fury against the male-dominated structures of ancient Mediterranean society. Though he was usually respectful of women within the confines of his culture, Jesus was not interested in tearing down the essentially patriarchal architecture of his world—or of the world to come.
Appendix: the purpose of discipleship
Modern Christians tend to conflate disciple with believer. They are not, however, identical.
Jesus procured a small team of highly-committed men to serve as itinerant missionaries to the reaches of Israel. These he called his “students” or “disciples.” Under Jesus’ tutelage, the disciples warned their brethren5 about the hastened arrival of God’s kingdom: the time for repentance and celebration was at hand. Those who accepted this message—believed in it—would find peace and reward on the other side of the Lord’s day. Those who took up the terrible task of delivering this message, on the other hand, would reign with Christ forever (Luke 22:28-29).
1—Women might take on authoritative roles but only as agents of their fathers and husbands.
2—Israel’s tribal structure was itself a patriarchal government. The twelve tribes were headed by male offspring descended from Jacob’s twelve sons (cf. Exodus 18:13-27, Numbers 1:1-16, 1 Chronicles 27:16-22).
3—Some manuscripts of Luke 10:1 read “seventy-two.” Like the seventy elders, two others, Eldad and Medad, receive God’s spirit of prophecy while Moses is away (Numbers 11:26-30). Moses approves of their newfound status.
4—Jesus does not tell Nicodemus, or any man for that matter, to fetch his wife.
5—Male householders normally maintained control over the identity and beliefs of their dependents. To convince the head-of-house was to convert his family.