prodigal windows 1.jpeg
prodigal windows 2.jpeg

Three Stories of Loss

Lk 15:1-32, Mt 18:10-14

Other than the parable of the good Samaritan, the parable of the prodigal son is probably the best-known of Jesus's stories. Often, the fact that it's part of a trilogy gets ignored, but that grouping reveals a much more complex story than a simple tale of sin and forgiveness.

The Father

The Hypothetical Villagers

The Younger Son

The Elder Son

BETTER READINGS
Prodigal_Son_window,_Staveley copy.jpg

Introduction

Even more baffling than the ideas about Jewish attitudes toward shepherds to which the first parable has given rise are the ideas about Jewish attitudes toward women derived from the second.

Prodigal_Son_window,_Staveley.jpeg

Women

The commentary on the figure of the woman in the parable of the lost coin takes a similar approach to that on the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, insisting that the Pharisees—or even male Jews in general—would find it insulting to be identified with, or to be asked to identify with, a woman in a story. See the quotes from Blomberg, Wilson, and Wright in the section above for examples. Levine notes similar quotes from Hultgren and Bailey. Former President Jimmy Carter, in his bible study on Ephesians, argues that first-century Jews made the Taliban look progressive on gender.

Christian attitudes toward women in parables

Even if you assume that later rabbinic attitudes toward women (the shelo asani blessing discussed below, the separation of women in the synagogue) were common in the first century, the textual evidence doesn't support the idea that the Pharisees would have been unable to handle a story that featured a woman as a protagonist or unable to identify with women in stories, or that they would have found the identification of God with a woman offensive, because they told such stories themselves.

As far as difficulty identifying the woman in the lost coin parable with God goes, this seems to be more a case of Christian projection than a Jewish attitude, as Christian commentators seem far more comfortable identifying the sheep owner and the father as allegorical representations of God than they are doing so with the woman.

We find a representative example of this squeamishness in William Bekgaard's The Parables of Jesus Revisited (2011). Bekgaard (a Missionary Baptist) is quite comfortable identifying the sheep owner in the first parable as God:

The second common interpretation allegorizes that the ninety-nine sheep are God’s people, with God being the shepherd. God seeks the sinner and receives the repentant. When "found," God rejoices over them more than the ninety-nine self-righteous lost. 

He's also quite comfortable identifying the father in the third parable as God (in fact, he offers three different interpretations of the story, identifying the father as God in all three):

Some say the story represents the sinner who turns from the Savior at the age of accountability... The father represents God and what would be his typical response.

 

But when it comes to the woman, it's as if he can't quite bring himself to say "the woman represents God."
 

Nearly all interpretations couple this parable with that of the lost sheep. Usually it is not dealt with separately. Here is a typical response to this parable, “The woman in this parable represents the same person the good shepherd did in the former one, and illustrates the persistent anxiety and unremitting diligence of Christ in seeking to find and recover a lost world."

 

Another view, but one that has no support from other interpreters is as follows: The lost coin represents a lost soul [who], realizing that he is lost, [understands] that no effort should be spared by him to find and thus secure salvation that he should seek and seek, and never give over the search until he finds it [his soul]. The woman is the one [with the lost] soul, and the coin is the soul.

 

Lockyer, in his work All the Parables of the Bible, has made this observation: “The shepherd seeking his sheep symbolizes divine tenderness; the humble woman searching for her silver piece with much diligence and painstaking portrays divine earnestness.” He goes on and talks about the manly qualities (courage, endurance) being complemented by feminine virtues (patience, diligence, and minute observation). All of this is relating to God and his seeking. These are very good observations.

EtF8ZSGXMAQVjL1.jpg

While he states straight out that the "shepherd" and the father represent God, Bekgaard seems to avoid saying the same about the woman, talking around it to an almost comic degree. She represents "the same person the good shepherd did." She represents Christ's "diligence." She is someone with a lost soul. She represents "divine earnestness."

Augustine at least manages to associate her with Sophia (Wisdom personified). Most common appears to be the association with the sheep owner as Jesus, the coin owner as the holy spirit, and the father as God (see, for example, this commentary which spells it out quite explicitly).

As I noted above, this reluctance to identify with women or to associate God with the feminine (even the literal figure of a woman), when retrojected onto first-century Jews, appears to be more about Christian projection than actual Jewish attitudes.​

 

"...who did not make me a woman"

A relatively common homiletic prooftext for this attitude is a morning blessing known as shelo asani, a morning blessing in which a Jewish man thanks God for not making him a woman. For example, David Buttrick (Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide) proclaims that "In a patriarchal society where pious men could pray, ‘Blessed be God that he [sic!] has not made me a woman,’ Jesus’s stories with central female characters would be startling, if not offensive.

pexels-cottonbro-4033827.jpg

The blessing is part of the shacharit prayers, a series of blessings in which a Jew thanks God for everything from having awakened to being able to rise out of bed. Traditionally, a Jewish man thanks God for not having made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. A Jewish woman replaces "who has not made me a woman" with "who has made me according to the divine will."

The traditional explanation for this blessing is that, since women are exempt from many of the commandments (mitzvot) men are obligated to fulfill (for example, the traditional commandment to be fruitful and multiply is binding for men, but not for women (or, outside of traditional circles, for people with wombs, regardless of gender) since childbirth risks the life of the child-bearer), men should be grateful that they have a greater number of opportunities to fulfill commandments. Similarly, since free people have the freedom to fulfill more commandments than slaves, and Jews have been given more commandments to fulfill than Gentiles, a Jew should also be grateful to be both Jewish and free.

The Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, which represent 90% of practicing Jews in the US, have stopped saying these blessings. The Reform movement, for example, replaces the trio of shelo asani ("who has not made me...") blessings with she-asani ("who has made me...") formulations: she-asani btzelem elohim ("who has made me in the divine image"), she-asani ben/bat chorin ("who has made me free"), and she-asani yisrael ("who has made me a Jew"). 

Orthodox Jewish men still recite the shelo asani blessings, but even some Orthodox rabbis and other thinkers express discomfort with it. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests in The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy that women should recite a parallel blessing thanking God for not making them men. Professor Abraham Berliner, who died in 1915, is quoted in the 1961 Hertz Siddur (the prayerbook of the British Orthodox movement) as saying that all three blessings should be replaced with a single blessing thanking God for making the speaker Jewish. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and the past president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, challenges apologists to accept that whether or not the blessing is humiliating is the right of those potentially humiliated to determine (Keren, Issue #2, 2014). Joel B. Wolowelsky, a prominent Modern Orthodox educator, (in Women, Jewish Law and Modernity ) notes that even if one understands the blessing as thanking God for having the privilege of more opportunities to fulfill commandments, it is hardly courteous or compassionate to profess thanks for a privilege in front of people who don't have it. So even in some Orthodox circles, the status of the blessing is contested. 

In other words, I'm not interested in making excuses for it. I think it's misogynist, and I'm glad that most practicing Jews have opted to leave it in the past. 

On the other hand, it's not a useful prooftext for attitudes among first-century Jews. An argument for saying such a blessing is first found in the Tosefta, which was compiled around 200 CE, and it is fleshed out in the Talmud, which was compiled between 350-400 CE. Most importantly, these documents were compiled in exile after both the destruction of the Temple and the disastrous Bar Kokhba revolt, after which the Romans depopulated most Judean communities, killed over half a million Jews, and sold most of the survivors into slavery. What is normative practice for a community after it has been subjected to that sort of trauma may not reflect what life looked like before the disaster, and as we've seen in Afghanistan, in post -WWI Germany, in Iran after the revolution, in the United States after WWII, societies often re/assert "traditional" (conservative) gender roles after periods of upheaval and trauma. I don't know for certain that Jewish men weren't saying something like the shelo asani blessing during Jesus's lifetime, but there's also no proof that they were. It is simply irresponsible to retroject attitudes from a community whose entire world has changed backward. 

It's even more irresponsible to assume that a blessing expressing gratitude for a privilege is incompatible with any sympathy for, identification with, or willingness to interact with people without that privilege. 

 

Women and Stories

While a society's stories do give us some insight into how the society views women, they aren't reliable indicators by themselves of what women's lives were actually like, especially when they're written by men. Stories often portray women as men think they should be, rather than as they are or were. They can be an attempt to get listeners to reinforce roles that are more conservative than what is actually normative for the society, or they can push back against restrictive roles. 

It's irresponsible to assume that the prevalence of female protagonists in stories is automatically indicative of the status of women in a society, especially when that society is removed from our own by two millennia and only a handful of documents from the time period have survived. 

The ancient Athenians revered a goddess as their polis's patron deity, and told stories about many other goddesses and heroines. Yet the Athenian ideal for women was that they remained secluded within the home; Greek writers stated baldly that women were inherently inferior to men; and women were not allowed to conduct financial transactions above a nominal amount, own property in their own name, or represent themselves in court. (As in most cultures, this was the practice for noblewoman and the ideal; poor women, out of economic necessity, did business and left the home, and some noblewoman most likely found loopholes or obliging male relatives who would provide them with legal cover.) Court cases of the time claim that respectable women were ashamed even to be in the presence of their male relatives (Lysias's Against Simon) and that even speaking a woman's name in public implied that she was not respectable (Apollodorus's Against Neaera). Ancient Athens appears to have been full of statues of women, and yet the ideal for actual women seems to have been that they be completely invisible.

Similarly, future generations will likely regard with horror and contempt the fact that women couldn't open bank accounts in the US without a husband's permission until 1971, or that marital rape was legal until the 1990s; that a 13-year-old could be married off by her parents in New Hampshire until 2019, or that a woman who bears a child that is the result of rape still can't put the child up for adoption without the rapist's consent in some states. Our society retains some profoundly ugly attitudes toward women (especially women of color, trans women, and lesbian/bisexual/asexual women), which nevertheless do not equate to considering stories about women scandalous or ensure that men are unable to understand stories in which women are the protagonists. 

I am not arguing that first-century Judea or the Galilee was egalitarian or particularly enlightened on gender issues—far from it. Jewish culture of the time was firmly and unapologetically patriarchal. But there is no evidence that it was particularly different from the rest of the Mediterranean milieu at the time, or even that it was more misogynist than most societies throughout most of human history. As I noted above, we know from the New Testament itself that at least some women had control of their own money, had freedom of travel, owned their own homes, and so on.

The idea that men didn't talk to women would have prevented business from getting done in the marketplace, we have ample mentions of female patrons of Jesus's ministry from the NT, and no one in the NT seems to find Jesus talking with and teaching women to violate social norms. (Particular women, such as sex workers and foreign women, yes. Women in general, no.) There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus's attitudes or behavior toward women were at all unusual for a Jewish man of his time. 

 

Women in Traditional Jewish Texts

So what do Jewish texts actually say? Do they indicate that male Jews of Jesus's time would have been offended by the idea of treating a female character as an allegory for God? That they would have been scandalized by stories with female protagonists? That they would have been offended by the idea of being asked to identify with female characters, or at having feminine characteristics ascribed to them?

The Tanakh usually uses masculine pronouns for God (although Moses occasionally addresses God in the feminine), but the use of masculine pronouns can be misleading. Hebrew is much more strongly grammatically gendered than English, so everything from people to objects must be identified as either male or female; it goes further than the Romance languages in this regard, as even verbs in Hebrew are gendered. The Jewish imagination has had no trouble comparing God to women, starting with the Torah itself.

  • The assertion that humans are created in the divine image comes immediately before the specification that humans were created as both male and female. The idea of humanity as created in the divine image is explicitly not limited to male humans.

  • God is addressed as El Shaddai ("deity of my breasts," a name that almost always occurs in the context of blessings of fertility) and El Rahum ("deity of the womb").

  • God cries out like a woman in labor, and addresses Israel as the child of God's womb.

  • Rabbi Benjamin Blech (Understanding Judaism) notes that the divine name (the Tetragrammaton, usually translated as "the Lord") is grammatically feminine. (The other name most often used for God, elohim, is not simply a plural for el, god (elim). The most plausible explanation for it is that it is the feminine word for a deity, elah, with the masculine plural ending -im.)

  • The presence of God (which would become the Holy Spirit in Christianity, and usually gendered as neuter or male in Christian texts) is, in Hebrew, the feminine shekhinah.

  • In mystical exegesis, discussion of the feminine aspects of God flowers (see Rafael Patai's The Hebrew Goddess for a thorough survey). 

Nor do the Tanakh, rabbinic literature, or Jewish mysticism shy away from asking the (presumably male) reader to identify with women: 

  • Moses (Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi), the prophet par excellence in Judaism, whose importance is unparalleled, compares himself to a mother and a wet-nurse.

  • The prophets repeatedly identify themselves and other Jewish men with women.

  • The most common metaphor for the people Israel as a whole is God's wife.

  • The Tanakh is filled with female heroes such as Ruth and Esther and Jael.

  • The Jewish people themselves are specifically the children of Sarah, not Abraham, as Abraham has other wives and children.

  • The Tanakh's book of erotic poetry, Song of Songs, switches off between male and female narrators, who describe, quite explicitly, their lovemaking.

  • There are female Jewish war leaders, like Deborah.

  • Moses, the most important figure in the Torah, spends his entire childhood being saved by women.

  • The Torah, the holiest object in Judaism and the source of Jewish culture and identity, has to be verified by a female prophet, Huldah, before it can be trusted as genuine. 

The rabbis are also described in the Talmud as teaching women directly and consulting with their wives. They told parables about women, and compared themselves, biblical heroes, and God to women:

  • Bereshit Rabbah (midrash on Genesis) compares Abraham's adherence to Torah to a woman who holds onto a spindle that has helped her become wealthy, and Abraham himself to a woman whose husband should cease testing her.

  • Midrash Tanchuma compares God to a mother screaming in sympathy with her daughter in labor.

  • Bamidbar Rabbah (midrash on Numbers) compares the appearance of God's presence after the death of Aaron to that of an unkempt woman.

  • Sifra (midrash on Leviticus) compares Aaron to a shy bride.

  • In Bereshit Rabbah, the rabbis note approvingly that Sarah (in contrast to other women of the time) ruled over her husband.

  • Lamentations Rabbah compares Israel studying Torah in exile to a woman abandoned by her husband, who remains faithful and comforts herself by reading her ketubah (marriage contract): the most privileged activity in Judaism is reimagined as the act of a woman.

 

Imagining Oneself as the Other 

Cross-gender imaginative identification was hardly unknown or taboo in Judaism. Most of the instructions in the Torah apply to both women and men, and yet assume that the listener or reader is male; women have to imagine themselves as men all the time in patriarchal cultures. And Jewish men told stories in which women were the heroes and point of identification.

Again, this is not to say that Jewish culture before modernity was what we today would recognize as egalitarian or feminist. It was explicitly patriarchal (as Christian cultures have been until modernity). Even the stories starring women were most likely written by men, so they can hardly be said to be giving a voice to women. Poet Merle Feld poignantly laments the absence of stories by women and imagines what our tradition might look like if women's first-hand experiences had been a central part of our texts in her poem We All Stood Together:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

 

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down...

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

pexels-gabriel-bastelli-1759823.jpg

Male imaginings of women's experiences are not a substitute for women's actual accounts of their experiences. But arguments that patriarchal traditions simply despise feminine identification and refuse to imagine feminine experiences ignore that those traditions often prefer to appropriate them (again, this is not a mitigation of the marginalization of those with non-male genders, but it also belies the idea of total contempt for the feminine). 

Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), while traditionally very much the province of men, involved regular gender-bending. The indeterminacy of gender identification continues today in the mystical elements that have become part of normative Jewish practice. On Friday evening, Jews gather for kabbalat shabbat, greeting Shabbat, which is envisioned as welcoming a bride to a wedding. However, the various layers of tradition associated with the practice make the identification of exactly who is uniting whom in this wedding slippery: the Jewish people are the bride, uniting with God the groom; Shabbat is the bride, uniting with Israel the groom; the feminine aspects of God are reuniting with the masculine ones to return reality to primordial wholeness; the Shekhinah is uniting with the people of Israel. 

Far from being offended by the idea of imagining themselves as women, male Jewish mystics reveled in attempting to cultivate the qualities Kabbalah identifies as "feminine" within themselves, and pictured both Torah study (in which the male student romanced the feminine Torah) and human union with the divine (in which the male human played the receptive, feminine-coded role and might even imagine himself as female) as erotic encounters.

Jay Michaelson notes in Kabbalah and Queer Theology: Resources and Reservations:

Men with feminine souls, women with power and traits traditionally associated with masculinity, men whose genitalia is said to contain both masculine and feminine attributes, and of course a godhead which is itself in a state of constant auto-eroticized, multi-gendered, polysemous sexual congress—all of these are themes which, while imbricated within an ostensibly conservative theological structure, present a radical rereading of the intersection of gender identity and, with appropriate qualifications, can provide useful resources for contemporary queer theology.

Of course, not every Jewish man was encouraged to imagine himself as feminine. Jewish tradition paints mysticism as dangerous for all but the wisest and most educated practitioner, and even includes a parable warning of its dangers.

If this seems odd, implausible, or extreme, consider that imagining the encounter between the divine and human as erotic is also a trend in Christian mysticism, in which the male mystic is clearly either imagining himself in a feminine role or a same-sex encounter. See, for example, John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14: Batter my heart, three-person'd God" (c. 1610):

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Even more explicit is St. John of the Cross's "Dark Night of the Soul" (c. 1578):

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

On a darker note, among the many negative stereotypes Christendom has leveled against Jews, the idea of Jewish men as overly feminine has been one of the most enduring, from medieval rumors that Jewish men menstruated to modern images of the Jewish man as weak, soft, and effeminate

It strikes me as almost emblematic of the paradoxical nature of Christian antisemitism that in the midst of still-current stereotypes of Jewish men as too feminine and of Jews generally as violating normative, traditional gender roles, Christian commentators also position Jewish culture as so profoundly misogynist that even telling stories with a female protagonist would have been so outside the norm that it might have resulted in death for the teller.

 

Women in Second-Temple Literature

Jewish literature before and after the time of Jesus is comfortable comparing both God and its male culture heroes to women. It includes female heroes and protagonists, and tells stories that expect the audience to identify and sympathize with women.

But what about Jewish literature around the time of Jesus?

Josephus (37-100 CE) chronicles the lives of Hasmonean and Herodian women such as Mariamne and Salome. He also expands on the role of biblical women such as Michal, the wife of David. While his portraits of women are not always positive, he seems to treat telling stories about them as normal and expected. Similarly, Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) often treats non-Jewish women (and non-virginal Jewish women) as threats to Jewish men, he had no problem telling stories about both women of his time and women in the Tanakh. Of course, both of these men were upper-class, highly Hellenized Jews. 

But in addition to the writings of historians, we also have the rich vein of apocryphal literature from this time period. Ascetic literature like that from the community at Qumran (which may be the same as the Essenes) tends to focus on male characters (and such celibate communities may have been single-sex or at least separated men and women, although the absence of women at Qumran is disputed—see, for example, the survey of literature on the subject by Tal Ilan and the summary of the essays in the Women at Qumran issue of Dead Sea Discoveries). 

The apocrypha contain both expansions of the roles of biblical women and new stories featuring female protagonists:

Judith_with_the_Head_of_Holofernes_by_Cr
  • The Genesis Apocryphon (3rd century BCE-1st century CE) expands the roles of biblical women such as Sarah and Lamech's wife Bath-Enosh.

  • The Books of Maccabees​ (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE), which detail the martyrdom of a heroic mother and her seven sons.

  • The romance of Joseph and Asenath​ (200 BCE-200 CE), which greatly expands the role and character of Asenath (Joseph's Egyptian wife), including her divine visions and conversion to Judaism. 

  • Additions to the Book of Esther (1st century BCE).

  • The Book of Judith (1st century BCE), in which Judith beheads Holofernes, the general of the attacking Assyrian armies.

  • The Book of Tobit (1st century BCE), which tells the story of Tobit, raised by his grandmother to remain loyal to his Jewish identity in exile, rescues and wins the love of Sarah, who is being tormented by the demon Asmodeus.

  • Expansions on the characters of Deborah and Jael in Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities 31 (1st century CE). 

  • The Life of Adam and Eve (1st century CE) tells Eve's side of the expulsion from Eden story. 

  • The Book of Gad the Seer (1st century-2nd century CE), which details the life of Tamar, daughter of King David, after she moves to her mother's birthplace after being sexually assaulted by her brother and slays her would-be rapist with a sword. 

  • The Wisdom of Solomon (mid-1st-century CE), in which the narrator is Lady Wisdom. 

Far from considering telling stories about women to be unseemly or insulting, first-century Jews were producing a veritable explosion of literature starring women. Moreover, that literature offered diverse (and sometimes conflicting) views on what roles were appropriate for women, and what made a woman heroic, from prophetesses like Sarah the matriarch and pious damsels in distress like Sarah in the Book of Tobit to chieftain-generals like Deborah and rape-victims-turned-avengers like Tamar. Women triumph through seduction, like Esther; through wisdom and openness, like Asenath; through martyrdom, like the mother in Maccabees; and through violence, like Judith. 

 

The Pharisee Queen

The Pharisees' greatest patron, and the individual who may have done the most to make both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity possible, was Shelomtzion, Queen Salome Alexandra. Shlomtzion's husband, Alexander Jannaeus, hated the Pharisees and massacred 6,000 of them in a fit of pique when they pelted him with fruit after he rmocked the Pharisees by performing a ceremony on Sukkot incorrectly, an incident which helped spark a civil war. After winning the civil war, Alexander slaughtered the wives and children of 800 of the surviving Pharisees in front of them as entertainment at a feast before crucifying them. The remaining Pharisees went into hiding.

Shelomtzion, whose brother was a Pharisee leader named Shimon ben Shetach, had little power while her husband was alive, but seems to have done what she could to hide and protect the surviving Pharisees. 

Nevertheless, Alexander declared Shelomtzion his successor instead of any of his sons. He died while conducting a siege of Ragaba. Shelomtzion became queen on a battlefield, in the midst of hostilities. She concealed his death until she had won the day.

 

As soon as his death was made public, she reached out to the Pharisees to make peace with them, avoiding a potential uprising at his funeral. The funeral went off smoothly, and she immediately began settling various internal political disputes and enmities, which she accomplished peacefully.

Shelomtzion appears to have been an extraordinarily skilled military strategist, diplomat, and project manager. She fortified and provisioned border fortresses to such a degree that neighboring monarchs felt it would be folly to attack them, and gave the Sadducees (the party of her deceased husband) their own towns outside of Jerusalem so they'd stop feuding with the Pharisees. She also re-established the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. 

shutterstock_712735840.jpg

In the last years of her reign, her sons fought over the throne. One of them, Aristobulus, declared war on her in order to ensure he, and not his brother Hyrcanus, would hold the throne after her. Both brothers turned to the Romans for help, which opened the door for Rome's occupation of Judea. Salome Alexandra died as the last free Jewish ruler. 

She was praised by contemporaries such as Josephus as having greater intelligence, political skill, and military acumen than the men around her (although Josephus, an ardent misogynist, later decided that it was inappropriate for her to rule), and the stories of Esther, Judith, and Susanna may have been written (or in the case of Esther, edited and codified) in her honor. 

Rabbinic sources describe her as a figure of almost supernatural goodness whose presence on the throne ensured divine favor for Judea, claiming that during her reign, the rain fell only on Shabbat so people had good weather to work in, and the produce of the land was massive and abundant.

 

Women in First-Century Judea

As I noted above, the New Testament itself provides evidence that Jewish women at the time could have control of their own money, conduct lawsuits in their own name, own their own homes, travel freely, and that they provided patronage for rabbis. As Levine notes, somewhat tartly, in the New Testament, women appear in public, the Temple, synagogues, and court and nobody faints.​​ The earliest evidence for a normative practice of separating men and women during worship is from the 6th century.

Jewish women are identified in inscriptions from the time as heads of synagogues, as "leaders," "elders," "mothers of the synagogue," and—most intriguingly—as "priestesses" (although this may simply be an indication that they were Levites, members of the priestly caste). As Brooten and Kraemer both note, the common claim that such titles merely reflected the status of the named women's husbands is not supported by anything in the inscriptions, and in some cases women are clearly identified as independent donors. Jewish women may also have numbered among the Zealots, resistance fighters primarily aligned with the Pharisees, who favored immediate armed resistance to Rome rather than waiting for an opportune time, as most of the Pharisees seem to have advocated. (Josephus, attempting to smear the Zealots, identifies them as men in women's clothing who engaged in feminine behavior and homosexual activity who transformed themselves into women to get close to their prey, but a simpler explanation is that they were actually women, as Tacitus claims.) Women were likely even participants in the supposedly all-male Qumran sect. New Testament indications of women leading early Christian congregations are not a departure from Jewish norms; they are a continuation of them.

An uncertainty as to who qualified as a "Pharisee" also helps obscure the likelihood of the existence of female Pharisees.

 

Queen Shelomtzion is not the only aristocratic woman who is recorded as acting to save the Pharisees from powerful opponents. Josephus records an incident in which a woman identified (as is customary for Josephus) only by the name of her husband rescued the Pharisees from the consequences of their refusal to swear loyalty to Rome:

At least when the whole Jewish people affirmed by an oath that it would be loyal to Caesar and to the king’s government, these men, over six thousand in number, refused to take this oath, and when the king punished them with a fine, Pheroras’ wife paid the fine for them. In return for her friendliness they foretold—for they were believed to have foreknowledge of things through God’s appearances to them—that by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendants, and the royal power would fall to her and to Pheroras and to any children they might have. (Ant . 17.42–43) 

Shelomtzion was from a family of Pharisees; we don't know much about Pheroras's wife, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that she was too, given her defiance of both Rome and Rome's puppet kings, the Herodians. Josephus also observes:

There was moreover a gang of women at court, who created new disturbances. The wife of Pheroras, in league with her mother and sister, and the mother of Antipater, displayed constant effrontery in the palace and even ventured to insult two young daughters of the king. She became in consequence the object of Herod’s aversion; yet notwithstanding the king’s hatred, these women domineered over the rest. (BJ 1.568) 

But who counted as a Pharisee?

The first problem with identifying who counted as a Pharisee is that the term seems to have been used somewhat like the term "Democrat" is used today. When one refers to a Democrat, one can be referring to someone who is an elected representative and member of the Democratic Party or a professional political operative employed by the Democratic Party (these are generally the people we're referring to when we say things like, "The Democrats completely caved on that bill"). Not just anyone can claim to be a Democrat in this regard: it is a formal association with processes to join. However, we can also use the term "Democrat" to refer to voters who are registered as Democrats. Again, there is a formal process for joining and recognition, although it's certainly a lower bar than obtaining employment with the Democratic Party or getting elected as a Democrat. There is a third major way in which we use the term: for people who largely agree with the Democratic Party's platform and tend to vote that way. 

The term "Pharisee" seems to have a similar fuzziness. First, it tends to be a term that is applied by others. The Pharisees appear to have referred to themselves as chaverim, a Hebrew term that can be translated as "friends," "associates," or "companions." (Think of the Quakers, who referred to themselves as Friends; the term "Quaker" began as an insult leveled at them by outsiders and evolved into a normative term.) Second, in the Mishnah and Talmud, the rabbis are at pains to not self-identify as Pharisees, since the Pharisees were a sect of Judaism and the rabbis want to be seen as the experts in the only Judaism that there is. Therefore, they tend to identify people (or positions) as Pharisees (just as they do with the Sadducees) when they want to emphasize that they are not representing a majority opinion, and as "sages" when they are.

So it's unclear whether the term "Pharisee" was used only for a group of teachers and students that had formalized procedures for induction and recognition, for families that had members recognized as part of certain houses or academies (such as Hillel and Shammai), for any Jew that followed Pharisaic practices, or for any Jew that recognized the Pharisees' teachings as the "correct" form of Judaism. 

This fuzziness has led to a myriad of scholarly debates about whether the Pharisees represented a relatively small Jewish sect (as the idea that there were only 6,000 of them to resist pledging allegiance to Caesar would suggest), the normative Judaism of the time (as suggested by Josephus), or something in between. 

I think the truth of the matter is similar to the use of the term "Democrat" as outlined above. People probably did, depending on context, use the term "Pharisee" to refer to formally recognized members of Pharisaic houses or academies, to the families of those teachers and students, to anyone who followed their teachings, and even to any Jew that mostly agreed with them.

Tal Ilan argues (in my opinion, quite compellingly) that there were indeed female Pharisees in the sense of being initiated and recognized members of Pharisaic associations, both because of the use of the feminine form of the word for "Pharisee" in rabbinic literature, and because women from the families of chaverim were regarded as "trustworthy" or "reliable" (in a legal sense) even if they married into families outside the chavurah. In other words, having been raised in the chavurah seems to trump their married identity and they retain their status as part of it even though they should (by normative Jewish practice at the time) now be considered subject to their husband's authority.

In any case, the Pharisees rose to prominence under the protection of a sovereign queen. Powerful women sponsored them, advocated for them, and paid for their freedom when they ran into trouble with Rome. They taught women, they told stories about women, and they considered the women in their families to be members of their associations even when they married men who were not. 

The only ways you arrive at the idea that the Pharisees would have objected to women as main characters in stories are:

  • By retrojecting later rabbinic attitudes, formed in exile, in the wake of genocide and trauma, and in contexts where they were living among gentiles and struggling to define themselves as different from the dominant culture, onto Jews living in their own lands in a different era.

  • By narrowly reading texts by non-Pharisaic Jews (specifically upper-class, highly Hellenized Jews living in non-Jewish lands, such as Josephus, or Jews from separatist, fringe ascetic communities such as the Qumran sect) as representative of Pharisaic attitudes.

  • By trying to reconcile Christian patriarchy and misogyny with the need to see Christianity and/or Jesus as fundamentally progressive by insisting that it must have been a step forward for women's freedom, and therefore normative Judaism must have been more misogynist than early Christianity.

The idea that the Pharisees would have been offended that one of the main characters in Jesus's trio of seekers is a woman is absurd.

 

Coins and Virtue

Not only do Christian commentators have difficulty identifying the woman in the lost coin parable with God (when they have no trouble doing so with the corresponding male figures in the lost sheep and lost sons parables), but unlike the loving shepherd and loving father, they want to identify her as a figure of questionable sexual virtue. 

R.T. Kendall (a charismatic/evangelical pastor) starts out relatively innocently in The Parables of Jesus:

In this second parable, Jesus was almost certainly referring to this woman’s bridal headdress (Luke 15:8). Historians report that in ancient times it was a common custom for ten coins to be placed inside bridal headdresses. If a girl lost one of the coins from her headdress, no doubt she would be very concerned until she retrieved it.

Hunt Bride Bethlehem.jpg

No sources are cited, but other than the implied need to position the woman as a wife, it's not particularly objectionable.

J. Ellsworth Kalas (president of the Asbury Theological Seminary and United Methodist Church pastor), explains in Parables from the Back Side Volume 1:

Jesus also might have had in mind the headdress that married women wore. These bands were made up of ten silver coins, held together by a silver chain. Girls sometimes saved for years to collect their ten coins. To lose one was almost like losing your feminine honor.

Bekgaard has quite an elaborate explanation:

Many Judean women wore a headdress with silver or gold coins sewn onto it. These coins were not of the same lot as those she would carry in her purse. Any money in her purse might easily have been stolen or spent. The coins from her headdress were nearly sacred. No one but herself was allowed to even touch them. This included her husband, unless she cut one off of her own accord and placed it in his hands. These were her personal possessions. On the other hand, the coins in her purse would have belonged to the family, to be used for household purchases or expenses.

When a woman married, she carried with her a dowry, called a ketubah, which was exclusively hers. These personal valuables could be in coin or jewelry. The divorce customs at that time gave no protection to women. A husband could legally divorce his wife at any moment for the most trivial reason, such as burning his meal. All the man had to do was to declare the divorce, and the woman had to leave the house immediately. She did not have the right to pack or take anything from the house except what she was wearing. For this reason, her dowry was worn at all times. It was never removed from her person; even while sleeping she wore it. This would ensure that if she were separated from her home and material possessions, such as her clothes, she would not be destitute. So if the lost coin was from her headdress it was a much greater personal loss than if it had been lost from the family money. Still, in either case, a loss of 10 percent was significant. The measures she took in her search and the joy over finding the coin suggest that it was part of her dowry.

Again, no sources are cited.

No sources are cited because, as usual, Christians commentators are just making up things about Second Temple Judaism. 

If it seems a little too pat that Jesus happens to tell a story about a woman with ten coins who loses one, and that bridal headdresses specifically had ten coins in them, that's because it is.

First, coin headdresses certainly exist, and are most closely associated with Palestinians. They're beautiful and intricate and specialized by region. Palestinian women from Hebron wear an araqiyyeh, those from Ramallah wear a smadeh, and those in Bethlehem and Jerusalem wear a shatweh. Palestinian bridal clothing is beautiful, and you should check out this exhibit on it. You'll note, however, that most of them don't have exactly 10 coins. In fact, most have considerably more.

 

They're also not Jewish. 

It's understandable why people might assume that Jewish women of Jesus's time might have worn similar headdresses, since people in the region have been wearing them for a long time. And it's possible that Jewish women of the time might have, but we don't have any evidence that they did. 

As Platt ("Jewelry in the Levant" in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader) explains, the practice of putting coins in a woman's headdress appears to be an Arab custom that spread into the Levant after the Arab conquests:

A.1955.1.276_1.jpg

In the Arab Periods (beginning in 640 C.E.), jewelry developed more toward styles familiar in bedouin tradition. It became the domain of women’s personal property, given to brides upon marriage, worn as a kind of bank account (not hoarded), and as amuletic protection from misfortune as well as to bring prosperity. Silver and iron were the metals prized most, and stones of reddish colors (carnelian and agate) and amber were associated with life, health, affection, and attractiveness. Chains with pendants, especially of discs and coins, were worn with textiles on the head and facial areas. Necklaces had crescents, stars, triangles, fish, lizards, toads, “cucumber amulets” (cylinder containers), pear-shaped pendants, and an array of smaller chains and coins. Religious phrases of praise, blessing, and protection, especially against the “evil eye” of envy, psychic and social negativity, were inscribed. Bangle bracelets were ornately decorated and widened to the clip and cuff styles, and rings were complimentary to them. The decorations were appropriate to the embroidery work on head and dress textiles. Silversmithing for this magnificent jewelry came virtually to an end in the 1960s (C.E.); it had been replaced by the mass-produced gold jewelry that developed in the 1940s and became popular in the second half of the 20th century.

Yemenite Jewish women wear a gargush, a headdress that is sometimes decorated with coins (especially for their weddings), but again, this is a custom that appears to have developed under Arab rule.

Christian commentators seem to have started with "ten coins" and "woman" and attempted to find some sort of custom that they could fit to those parameters, but the headdresses don't have ten coins specifically and are an Arab custom, not a first-century Jewish one.

It's also unclear where they get the idea that a loss of a coin indicates a loss of sexual virtue. Coin headdresses do often serve as a sort of financial safety net for women: women throughout history have often literally worn their wealth, both as an indicator of status and, more crucially, as a highly portable savings account. But it would hardly be a safety net if the woman can't spend it. Bekgaard, predictably, throws around some Hebrew terminology while managing to get every detail wrong: a ketubah is not a dowry, it's a contract; and far from having no rights in the marriage, the wife has the rights outlined in the ketubah. It is not the case that the husband may not lay a hand on the wife's dowry; it is money that the wife brings into the marriage. And a dowry has nothing to do with sexual virtue.

Why do Christian commentators want to put the woman's virtue in question in a way they don't seem to do with the sheep owner and the father? Is it misogyny? Is it that she seeks and finds money instead of a living creature? In any case, a woman as the hero of a story seems to be far more troubling to Christian exegetes than it would have been to Jews of Jesus's time.

 

Did you find this helpful? Buy me a coffee on Ko-fi.

8ea9f7fd-3dd0-4b11-bf9c-d61976cab87d.png
Buon_Pastore_-_Ravenna_grande.jpeg

Learn More

In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.

Yehudah Mirsky, Feminine Images of God, Jewish Women's Archive

Irwin Keller, Marriage and Mysticism in a Less-Gendered World

Tal Ilan, Silencing the Queen

Kathy Ehrensperger and Shayna Sheinfeld, Women in Second-Temple Judaism

Art Notes

EtF8ZSGXMAQVjL1.jpg

James Tissot, Abraham's Servant Meeteth Rebecca (c.1896). Source: WikiArt

pexels-cottonbro-4033827.jpg

cottonbro, Bearded Man Holding a Book. Source: Pexels

pexels-gabriel-bastelli-1759823.jpg

Gabriel Bastelli, Silhouette Photography of Man and Woman. Source: Pexels

Judith_with_the_Head_of_Holofernes_by_Cristofano_Allori.jpg

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613). Source: RCT

shutterstock_712735840.jpg

Source: Shutterstock

Hunt Bride Bethlehem.jpg

William Holman Hunt, The Bethlehem Bride (1884). Source: Arthive