Luke 10:39:

She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

I understand that sitting at someone's feet in this context can be like a student listening to a Rabbi. Mary was probably sitting together with the disciples (who were apparently present, according to verse 38).

So my question is - how unusual was it for Mary to sit with the (male) disciples at Jesus' feet? Would it have been common for women to sit with men listening to a Rabbi?


3 Answers 3


My understanding is that Jesus was really challenging the view of woman in the current society even having a serious conversation with a woman. And he, as you note, did have woman disciples:

Some time afterward he went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Cuza (Herod's household manager), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their own resources. (Luke 8:1-3 NET)

In this context it is interesting to see what happens when Jesus has that famous chat with a woman in Sychar and the disciples later returns:

Now at that very moment his disciples came back. They were shocked because he was speaking with a woman. However, no one said, "What do you want?" or "Why are you speaking with her?" (John 4:27 NET)

I don't think it was only because she were a Samaritan they were "shocked". A popular teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, from around the time of Jesus is famous for saying:

  • "Instructing a woman in the Law is like teaching her blasphemy"
  • "Let the Law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman"
  • "A woman's wisdom is limited to the handling of the distaff"

Source: Wikipedia.

There were other Rabbis who did think it was advisable to teach to woman. But it was not the mainstream thing to do.

  • Thanks, this matches my interpretation. Until now, I've heard people mention the John 4 story demonstrating Jesus' attitude to women, but never this story, hence my question. Jul 2, 2013 at 14:25
  • Yeah! It might be more common with the Sychar story when speaking in these matters. I just tried connecting the dots when mention it :) Jul 2, 2013 at 16:20
  • The text itself indicates that they were shocked "because he was talking with a woman," not because he was talking with a Samaritan.
    – user2027
    Dec 13, 2013 at 17:44
  • I think it was both. If I, for example, didn't eat mushrooms someone could be shocked about me and note to somone that "I saw him eating it with a Sarah". That would make it sound like it was unexpected that I ate it with Sarah, but the context (that I usually don't eat mushroom) would tell the listener that it the shocking thing was that I ate a mushroom. A bad example maybe, but I hope you see what I mean :) Dec 13, 2013 at 19:43

When I.H. Marshall comments on the Mary/Martha story in Luke he indicates that a female student would be rare.

I have a recollection of a lecture by Amy Jill-Levine who indicated that there is some evidence for female students of Rabbis, but I've not actually come across many citations in my studies since then. Even if it were to be demonstrated true, its clearly the exception and not the rule, as indicated by the reaction of observers of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Dr. Craig Keener Notes in the IVP Bible Background Commentary1

People normally sat on chairs or, at banquets, reclined on couches; but disciples sat at the feet of their teachers. Serious disciples were preparing to be teachers—a role not permitted to women. (The one notable exception in the second century was a learned rabbi’s daughter who had married another learned rabbi; but most rabbis rejected her opinions.) Mary’s posture and eagerness to absorb Jesus’ teaching at the expense of a more traditional womanly role (10:40) would have shocked most Jewish men.

It seems that indeed the female disciples of Jesus were exceptional in 1st century Palestine.

1Keener, Craig S. ; InterVarsity Press: The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1993, S. Lk 10:39

  • Hello Matt, If you have not already done so, I recommend you take our site tour. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. You have clearly done some reading, but haven't cited your references. I happen to have the IVP and have done the Keener quote, but please add I.H. Marshall if you can. Also, be sure not to just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. Jul 26, 2016 at 2:39

Leaving the "heavy lifting" of researching and citing various authorities on sex roles of the first century to people more competent to do so than I, I will limit myself to giving a gospel overview of Jesus' interactions with the fairer sex in His earthly ministry.

Jesus challenged the status quo quite frequently, not just in obviously "religious" issues of the day, but also in tangential issues, such as the disparate roles of men and women in both religious and cultural contexts.

That Jesus would engage a woman in conversation, for example (John 4), was truly unusual at the time (Jn 4), and His disciples were taken aback at Jesus' breaking of such a cultural taboo. John tells us Jesus' disciples were "amazed that He had been speaking to a woman" (and a Samaritan woman at that, given the antagonistic relationship between Jews and Samaritans at the time; see John's explanatory comment in verse 9).

The disciples did not realize that whereas earlier they had been commanded not to take their kingdom message to any city of the Samaritans but to only Jews (Ma 10:5), the same "rule" did not apply to their Master, because He had a divine appointment to introduce the kingdom of heaven to the despised Samaritans. Why? Because "He had to pass through Samaria" (v.4).

Jews of that day would skirt Samaria entirely as they journeyed "up to Jerusalem," so as not to become ceremonially unclean by, heaven forbid, bumping into a "half-breed" Samaritan. Not so Jesus. His message of love and forgiveness was to all humankind, not just His own "kind," who by and large rejected Him and His message (see Jn 1:11, "His own . . . did not receive Him").

That Mary felt free to be at Jesus' feet was indicative of her Lord's "open door" policy with women, even though women were considered third-class citizens at the time. Evidently Jesus had set some sort of precedent that gave Mary "permission," as it were, to position herself physically at Jesus' feet.

Remember, Jesus loved "Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (11:2 and 5), and on more than one occasion stayed at their home in Bethany. Even the apostle John gets in on the act of sexual equality, so to speak, by saying that Bethany was "the village of Mary and her sister Martha" (11:1) and that the house He entered was "Martha's home" (Lk 10:38)! I would venture a guess that a Jew in those days would describe neither the village nor the house of a woman as the abode of "Mary and her sister Martha," but rather the abode of the man Lazarus!

Luke also informs us that in addition to the Twelve, "some women" (8:2 and 3) were with Jesus as He traveled "from one city and village to another" (8:1). Moreover, it was women such as Joanna, Susanna and "many others" who supported Jesus and His disciples financially "out of their private means" (v.3). In short, Jesus was anything but a sexist in the way he recognized women to be fully equal to men, while at the same time showing due deference to the weaker sex (see Jn 19:26 and 27).

I find it interesting that in Matthew 12, Jesus, after asking the question to the crowd of people "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" followed up His question with the statement, "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother" (v.50, my emphasis). In other words, there are not just brothers in the family of God, but mothers and sisters, too!

In conclusion, while neither Jesus nor later his disciples did not obliterate all cultural male-female distinctions in their day, they did recognize the inherent equality of the sexes in the eyes of God. In Christ, there is no male or female (Ga 3:28). In the church of Christ, however, there were and are somewhat distinct roles for men and women, which we need not delve into now.

Clearly Jesus was eons ahead of His time in recognizing the inherent worth of women, not to mention children, too, both boys and girls, of whom He said, "Permit the children to come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Lk 18:16; Mk 10:14; Mt 19:14).

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