Was Jesus nice to women?

I’ve been thinking about that gospel reading that we had on Sunday all week.

Here at St Mary’s I read the central part of the reading, the dialogue with the woman at the well as a dialogue between my voice and that of a female member of the congregation. You learn new things by the way you perform scripture. I found myself feeling more uncomfortable reading the words of Jesus to a woman who was standing there responding than I would had I just read the whole of the gospel out in my own voice.

‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
‘I have no husband.’
‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’

How did it feel to be on the receiving end of that?

It made me wonder whether again whether Jesus was nice to women and how I can know.

There is a view that is fairly common that Jesus was better than most men at the time because he spoke to women and the culture he lived in was not one in which women and men could normally converse. This is a relatively common reading of Jesus’s dealings with women, particularly by liberals.

I would parrot that view were it not for a conference I went on a few years ago when a feminist orthodox Jewish scholar made the case that this is an antisemitic reading of scripture and that Jewish culture then as now was one in which men and women could converse, do business and make friends. Imagining a world which is particularly negative for women and placing an imagined Jesus in the middle of it who seems to have more liberal values is a way of denegrating the culture and sociological surroundings that he had.

That gospel reading does provide some fuel for this negative reading of Jewish culture of the time with the line:

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’

However, one can counter that by saying – well, John’s gospel is the most uneasy of the gospels when it comes to affirming the Jewish tradition that Jesus came out of. Perhaps this is an early Christian slur against Jewish life alongside a lot of other negative language about “the Jews” in that gospel.

It often strikes me that we want to believe in a Jesus who was nice and who by implication will like us and like our own mores, presumptions and even peccadillos.

Scripture doesn’t always help us to maintain that view.

Was Jesus nice to women? Can you answer this in the affirmative without denegrating the culture he came from?

And for a side discussion – what are the issues around giving this picture to children to illustrate the tale?

jesus-with-the-samaritan-woman-at-the-well - small


  1. margaret of the sea of galilee says

    Quote: “Jewish culture then as now was one in which men and women could converse, do business and make friends. ”
    After nearly 30 yers in Israel I beg to difffer. From day One I have had men hide their faces behind their hand or their hat so as not to see me. men have waited outside shops till I have left…I could go on and on. Today the separation of women is a huge issue and “incidents” (to put it politely) are increasing in both number and intensity. Many young people (even not particularly religious ones) are declaring themselves “touch-free zones” (shomer/shomeret negi’ah”).
    I am a feminist and I DO like to think Our Brother from Nazareth was different from his contemporaries.
    I am as critical (very!) of Jews as of any men or any society around this issue of enforced separation.
    So call me anti-male if you like, but not anti-semitic!!

    • Is it Judaism per se that is doing this? I rather think not.

      • margaret of the sea of galilee says

        Well, we know how clergy can do anything with bits of the Bible…well it’s tha same with all the Peoples of the Books
        Sadly it is.
        On my daughter’s army base recently 100 of the 300 present soldiers walked out as the national anthem was sung at the end of a ceremony. Who? The religious soldiers. Why? Beause the women soldiers in the unit were singing too! (Women’s singing is regarded as permitted only in all-women settings – “Kol b’ishah ‘ervah”)
        Trust me, Kelvin. I don’t say these things lightly. And I don’t like washing my home’s dirty linen in public. That’s why I tell these truths in the framework of stories of things that have actually happened to me or somone close.
        There is so much more to religion (this goes for all of them) than this kind of thing. But things happen, pronouncements are made, trends develope, people are convinced… and down the slippery slope we go. And only some of us kicking and screaming.
        Look at some of Jesus’ “anti-semitic” statements. They were based on things he saw.
        That said, I repeat I’m sure that Jesus was different and so are you and I. And God is with us.

  2. It’s in John, and therefore I wouldn’t read anything as reflecting the historical Jesus – the story is a plant to convey John’s themes of “real life” and “God is not tied to place”.

    The picture is lacking a chessboard. (That’s how it reads to me, after all – advance the pawns, introduce “water”; advance a knight, introduce “husbands”, etc…)

  3. Was Jesus nice to women? I think I’d consider this in a wider context of asking if Jesus was ‘nice’ to anyone! There are numerous examples in the gospels of him causing trouble by being outspoken to the point of rudeness, he called people names (‘Satan’, ‘whited sepulchres’ etc) and behaved outrageously in the Temple and by allowing a woman to anoint his feet when at a supper arranged for him to speak to a group of me .

  4. That should be ‘men’ but can’t see an edit button.

  5. Pam has got there before me – I think this is the wrong question. As we normally use the word, Jesus (like most who speak prophetically) was rarely nice.

    (Personally, I think the aim of being ‘nice’ is one of the things that we should aim to do far less of!)

  6. Bro David says

    Not to Samaritan women.

    • Bro David can you tell us more about this? I’m interested. I understand everyone else’s points but I’d like to hear more about this point of view. Running a retreat for gay and bisexual men with Kelvin, the issue of gender relations as well as the issue of space for women/ men came up. If you’d like to reply at more length, clicking my name leads you magically to my life coaching website where you can contact me. This isn’t a plug, I understand you live in the US and I only on face to face, but I’d like to learn from your perspective.

      • Bro David says

        Sorry, my error, he wasn’t nice to a Canaanite woman, until she put him in his place.

        Matt 15:21-28

        • The Syro-Phoenetian woman? I often think that lgbt people in traditional churches are like the housedogs, eating the scraps of bread that fall from the table. I love her answer and I wonder, as a consummate performer, whether Jesus was giving her a dramatic cue for a great line.

  7. Jesus was/is honest, truthful, challenging and demanding, these things are not always nice, but then nice is such a horrible word anyway. To twist the question slightly, I would me more offended if Jesus called me nice than if he pointed out the truths in my life that were less than comfortable.

  8. I’ve always been “blessed” to see through nice which hasn’t been nice for me.

  9. Rosemary Hannah says

    I am with tom and Pam – niceness is not something Jesus is not very good at, and he most definitley uses uncomfortable to teach. so many of the parables put the listeners on the spot – not individually and publicly but in terms of making them think.

    The public sphere is not a good one for my unexpurgated opinion of teaching materials for children.

  10. Rosemary Hannah says

    The other thing is of course that, as Tim says, it is in John. I would not myself think that it does not have a historical basis, but the fact is that even if we grant it does, it is written by somebody not Jesus, reporting him, years later. Suppose it did happen just as recorded. Suppose Jesus said: ‘No, you are not married. The bastard you are with now has not been willing to marry you.’

    • A friend, Rev Lindsay Biddle, has made the point to me that this Samaritan woman may have been trapped in Levitical marriage to a series of brothers and the current one just didn’t bother with the ritual. So rather than her flouting the tradition, she may have been adhering to it – even though her bidie-in was not. (‘Common law husband’ would be the less appropriate translation.)

      • Alan: sadly I forget where, but somewhere in my readings about this I encountered the idea that the Levitical succession business was limited to 5 times, or something. That would put her necessarily on the borderline, legally and socially, and not necessarily entirely of her own choosing.
        The other angle of looking at this is about vulnerability – we often say[0] in those older societies women married for reasons of support / protection / income – hence the famous injunction in James 1:27. Either my previous paragraph is true, or she had guts in choosing an unconventional arrangement by the standards of her time.

        I also read that the Greek puts Jesus’ word “husband” in an emphatic position – so it could read as a contemptuous sneer, perhaps? That certainly wouldn’t be nice – but I’d have to take the word of someone who knew Greek on that.

        [0] Speculative projection alert.

        • In John 4:17 she says Ουκ έχω άνδρα (Negative, I have, man) and he paraphrases her words as Άνδρα ουκ έχω (Man, negative, I have). We could translate this as “I’ve no man” and “Husband have I not!” perhaps. I’m making this up as I go along, as free translators do, but what interests me is the possibility of the implication that this bloke hasn’t been man enough to marry her, given what’s been said here about responsibility. An old flame of mine used to say that the problem with using the word patriarchal disparagingly (as opposed to matriarchal – this was in N. California) is that it obscures the reason for loutish behaviour: that men have not been fathers. Was Jesus saying by this exchange, “Your man needs to man up” and she replying, later, “Tell me about it!”? Anyone who’s sung the opening lines of Dreamcoat knows that the giver of this well was a family man and that this shifty Samaritan bloke took neither the example of his illustrious ancestor nor that of his compassionate kinsman.

    • Rosemary: yes, if nothing else then it purports to talk about Jesus who we tend to take as a historical figure. The blanket “it’s in John” is my starting-point, but there’s also the rationale of v27 – so who recorded the story with all the detail of the words supposedly used, if it wasn’t one of the disciples, then?

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