Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Face of Jesus: Is this what a feminist looked like?

Rembrandt's rendition of Jesus

"Jesus vigorously promoted the dignity and equality of women in the midst of a very male-dominated society: Jesus was a feminist, and a very radical one.  Can his followers attempt to be anything less?

-- Leonard Swidler "Jesus Was a Feminist"

Now through February 12, there's an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts titled "Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus."

The DIA's website says "The exhibition of 64 works includes approximately 52 small, intimate paintings, prints and drawings by Rembrandt and his students that illustrate how Rembrandt broke from traditional 17th-century representations of Jesus."

Actually, nothing is known about what Jesus looked like.  The only Biblical reference that alludes to Jesus' appearance in physical form as the messiah is found at Isaiah 53:2, cited here from the New International Version:

"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
   and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." 

In other words, his appearance was quite ordinary.

There are many ways to "view" Jesus, other than artists' representations.  But whether you see him as God in human form, the Son of God, a savior, a prophet or simply an historical figure, there's one view of Jesus that is seldom discussed:  Jesus was a feminist.

In her essay "A Change in Women's Rights," Marilyn Adamson, director of, says, "In contrast to the Middle East culture that viewed women rather dismissively, we see Jesus giving great honor to women.  Constantly."

According to Adamson, in Jesus' day, women were treated more as property rather than as persons.  Their function was to serve the needs of their husbands and families.  And women's rights were not even a topic for discussion.

My personal favorite depiction of Jesus appears on a book cover
A man could divorce his wife for any reason.  She was given a bill of divorce and sent away without even a right to contest.  But, the wife could never divorce her husband on any grounds.

However, Jesus disagreed.  In his article "Jesus Was a Feminist," Leonard Swidler emphasizes that Jesus' views on marriage were quite different:

"His unpopular attitude towards marriage presupposed a feminist view of women; they had rights and responsibilities equal to men.  It was quite possible in Jewish law for men to have more than one wife, though the reverse was not possible.  Divorce, of course, also was a simple matter to be initiated only by the man.  Jesus rejected both by insisting on monogamy and the elimination of divorce.  Both the man and the woman were to have the same rights and responsibilities in their relationship toward each other."

While advocating marital rights, Jesus also taught women religious truths and the meanings of the scriptures, even though Judaism forbade it, and women were among his first followers.

Swidler calls Jesus' "extraordinary, deliberate decision" to teach women one that can be "properly appreciated only when it is recalled that not only were women not to read or study the scriptures, but were not even to leave their household, whether as a daughter, wife, or member of a harem."

In his teachings, Jesus often used stories, parables and similitude that featured women in a positive light. One of my favorites is the story of the Widow's Mite from the book of Mark, quoted here from the New International Version:

"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” 

A more controversial aspect of Jesus as feminist might be reproductive rights. 

"If one accepts the Bible literally, certain scriptures come to light which will lead you to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus held to the same beliefs as modern Pro-Choice advocates," according to, a website that professes free thought and atheism.

The reasoning is that Jesus agreed with the law of Moses, at least on the point that life begins at birth and a fetus is not equal to a human life, and termination of a pregnancy would not be considered murder.

The website's interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 says, "... if a fetus dies and is expelled from a woman's body as the result of being struck by a man, then the man who struck her is fined a certain amount of money, which he must pay to the husband.  But, and here is the important part, if the woman dies, then the man who struck her shall be put to death (life for life.)"

The website cites John 5:46-47 as Jesus' endorsement of Mosaic law when he said, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.  But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

Of course some will find flaws in this reasoning and cite other scriptures as proof that life begins at conception.  

Still, Jesus' treatment and views of women during his time on earth was extraordinary.  He was an ally of women and not to blame for the abuses heaped on women and other marginalized people by the patriarchal, institutionalized religious institutions of today that claim to act on his behalf.  

Perhaps it is necessary to separate from Christendom when we visualize the face of Jesus for ourselves.

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