Last week we saw that the Jesus of Mark 14:4 saw Mary Magdalene’s anointing as somehow central to his mission and to preaching the gospel. But what could that mean especially about Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus?
For Lynn Picknett (author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess), it points to a pre-anointing intimacy between Mary of Bethany and Jesus. Were they husband and wife? Lovers? Even more importantly however, Mary’s act has the character of a sacred ritual pre-arranged by Mary and Jesus – an extremely important one, far surpassing the spontaneous act of repentance and pre-burial ritual that ordinarily explains it.
The act says something important both about Mary of Bethany, and was intended to say something even more important about Jesus himself. It shows Mary to be the bearer of a type of priestly power. After all, there is only one anointing of Jesus (the Christos, i.e. anointed one) recounted in the Gospels. And the anointer is this woman who is acting like a priestess. Just before his death, her act finally designates Jesus as the One – the expected Messiah. It’s like Nathan’s identification of David as king a thousand years earlier. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. The priestess has spoken. That’s what it says about Jesus.
But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ. That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods (58). This concept of sacred marriage, Picknett notes, would have been familiar to the pagans of Jesus’ day whose “dying and rising gods” were typically anointed by priestesses and assisted by them across the threshold of death while remaining conscious of the entire process (59). Pagans would have recognized in Mary of Bethany such a priestess who in the Gospels anoints Jesus as “Christos,” especially if she were also involved in the burial of the anointed one.
It’s that association with the burial of Jesus that suggests a syndrome of connections between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. According to Picknett, the two women are identical. To see the author’s point, remember Magdalene’s importance. Luke listed her prominently among the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry. More significantly, she is the one who took charge of Jesus burial following his crucifixion. This suggests continuity with the priestess functions belonging to the agent of the Bethany anointing. More importantly still, Magdalene was remembered as the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. That appearance alone conferred on Magdalene incomparable dignity and implies the type of special relationship the anointing story establishes between Jesus and Mary of Bethany. Additionally, John the Evangelist outright identifies Magdalene as a woman especially beloved by Jesus. Finally, there exists a long church tradition consistently identifying Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. On Picknett’s analysis, those characteristics taken together more than justify the conclusion that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person.
Why then the confusion? Why did the evangelists apparently split a single person into three: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed penitent woman? Here the plot thickens. It was because, Picknett says, the patriarchal evangelists wished to obscure the primacy of this woman whom Jesus loved more than them, and who, precisely as woman could not possibly be accepted as superior to men. The trouble was, the events at Bethany were so central and well known that none of the evangelists could omit the story altogether. So they transformed it from a messianic anointing into an act of repentance. Simultaneously, they converted the presiding priestess/paramour into an anonymous sinful woman “from whom Jesus had cast out seven evil spirits.”
And where is the proof for that? Here Picknett refers her readers to the Gnostic Gospels. In The Gospel of Thomas, for example, the tension between Magdalene and the male apostles and with Peter in particular is palpable.
. . . the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Saviour answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as I love her?’
As Picknett notes, the word for “companion” here is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. That description alone could easily explain the alienation of the disciples from Jesus’ companion as well as the desire of the evangelists and church fathers to demote her to an anonymous, penitent and distinctly fallen woman. More reason for antipathy on the part of Jesus’ apostles emerges from the Pistis Sophia (Faithful Wisdom), a Gnostic source discovered before the unearthing of the 1945 cache of Gospels. There Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of attention (85). He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries” (89). Most gratingly of all, Jesus calls her the “apostle of apostles” (157). Jealousies arising from such preferences on the part of the Master are entirely understandable. Moreover following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus (215). In view of all this, it is not surprising that again in the Pistis Sophia, Magdalene accuses Peter of threatening her because, she says, of his own hatred of women (86).
Additionally, in the light of Jesus’ praise of the “apostle of apostles,” it is not surprising that Mary of Bethany should be called “the Tower,” “The Great,” “The Magnificent” – possibly in itself another cause of jealousy vis-à-vis the apostles. As Picknett argues, the real meaning of “Magdalene” might well refer to rank of this sort rather than to place of origin (82). For if this Mary came from Bethany, “Magdalene” would not refer to her supposed hometown in Galilee. In fact, no town with any name resembling “Magdalene” is to be found in first century Galilee. (There was, however, a place in Egypt by the name of Magdolum and also a Magdala in Ethiopia. So the term might have referred to either of those locations as Mary’s place of origin – adding additional credence to the theory that she was an Egyptian priestess and perhaps even black). Picknett concludes however that the term “Magdalene” most likely refers to Mary’s preeminence among Jesus’ disciples. In any case, it has some connection with terms for “Tower” and greatness. Jesus’ own reference to her in the Gnostic sources as “the All” and the “One who know all” seems to support this.
Next week: Pulling It All Together