In Israel in the early period the man was the absolute ruler of the extended family; if a husband died, the widow was given to the nearest brother of the deceased (Deut. 25: 5–10). Women had no powers, could make no decisions, though they could sometimes engage in inspired trickery (Gen. 27 and 31). The subordination of women was maintained during the monarchical period; divorce was exclusively open to a husband, and a woman's adultery was, according to the law, a capital offence (Lev. 20: 10). Women were not entitled to own property and were kept in states of impurity—e.g. during and after menstruation and after childbirth (the length of purdah was doubled if a baby was female). In practice, however, a measure of humanity possibly prevailed, and women were not excluded from worship ceremonies (Deut. 16: 13–14). Women are to be honoured as parents equally with men (Exod. 20: 12). Women could seize opportunities: Abigail, wife of Nabal, loaded a great quantity of her husband's most valued goods on to donkeys and delivered them to David (1 Sam. 25: 23), and Queen Jezebel certainly exercised power (1 Kgs. 21: 7). There had also been women prophets in Israel—Miriam and Deborah, and ‘wise women’ (2 Sam. 20: 16–22). Huldah interpreted Deuteronomy for King Josiah (2 Kgs. 22: 14–20). There is a picture of the ideal domesticated woman in Prov. 31: 10 ff.—but this perhaps is an example of how the generally subordinate condition of women was due to the tradition being shaped by men. Legislation after the Exile imposed more restrictions on women. They were no longer able to participate with men in worship, but in the Second Temple were relegated to an outer court. Their testimony was not accepted in law courts, and they could not teach the Torah. By the NT era there had been a few changes: it is assumed that women in the Graeco-Roman world of the gospels may legally divorce their husbands (Mark 10: 12); but there is evidence that in post-70 CE Judaism male Jews still gave thanks to God that they were not born female (Tosefta Berakot, 7: 18).
In the gospe ls there is no indication that Jesus in his teaching or actions displayed a biased, masculine (‘sexist’) attitude to women, and his being called ‘Son of God’ by the evangelists was more a theological recognition of his close relationship to God than an assertion of maleness. The birth of Jesus gives Mary a prominent role in the scheme of salvation, and women are also prominent in the resurrection narratives: it is they who receive the first revelation that Jesus has been raised. Between the birth and resurrection there are notable healing miracles for women—the distressing case of menorrhagia (Mark 5: 24–34) and the Gentile Syro-Phoenician girl (Mark 7: 24–30). Women anoint Jesus (e.g. Luke 7: 36–50), and Mary and Martha are described, along with their brother Lazarus, as ‘loved’ by Jesus (John 11: 5). Jesus' relationships with women accord with his teaching that the kingdom of God implies a new community of love which embraces all mankind (Luke 13: 10–17). People are welcomed by Jesus irrespective of race, status, or gender, and those who are called to leadership are chosen on the basis of God's gracious spirit not on accidents of birth.
In the Church there were undoubtedly tendencies to retain traditional masculine superiority (1 Tim. 2: 11–12). When, however, Paul urges women in the Corinthian Church to ask their husbands at home about matters discussed rather than in the public assembly (1 Cor. 14: 35) he is making a local regulation for a local problem, in the interests of good order, just as he instructed male prophets to be silent if their speech proved unedifying. Paul certainly did expect women normally to speak to the whole congregation (1 Cor. 11: 5).
The tenor of the Christian gospel is in favour of a true evaluation of women (Gal. 3: 28), though the Church down the ages has been slow and reluctant to incorporate this belief into its institutions and rituals. See feminism.