Jesus Was a Radical Feminist

Bleeding Woman

Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As emerita director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.

“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100718.cfm

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much time talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: Homily for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Bleeding Woman

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13-16; Mk. 5:21-43

My wife, Peggy, is a radical feminist. As director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Berea College in Kentucky, she has always been so.

Whenever we discuss world issues, my tendency is to trace their roots to capitalism. Peggy’s is to find their origins in patriarchy. Capitalism itself, she says, is founded on patriarchy. Until we realize that and address the influence of patriarchy, nothing can really change.

She goes on. Ironically, patriarchy has men making decisions for women on issues that impact females much more directly than males – matters such as contraception, maternity leave, funding for childcare, abortion, wage disparity between men and women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and wages for housework. All of that, she adds, has to change.

I find Peggy’s logic and criticism compelling. This morning’s gospel reading indicates that Jesus would too.

In fact, the gospels in general show Jesus himself to be a radical feminist. In addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring the disobedient ones to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. To repeat: we find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all, consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So, to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12-year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community.

Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So, the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the patriarchal oppressor of the second woman. On top of that, the older woman in the story has been humiliated, exploited, and impoverished by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition.

In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So, she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

Instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” (What we therefore end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.)

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Mark records Jesus’ actual words. The Master says, “Talitha Kumi,” i.e. “Wake up!” Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save our world from death. It will awaken us from our death-like slumber.
“Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise our world will be for all practical purposes dead.”

Could this possibly mean that feminist faith like that of the hero in today’s Gospel will ultimately be our salvation from patriarchy? Is our reading calling us to a world led by women rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim hold elective office?

My Peggy would say yes.

Today’s Gospel, she would say, suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood.

Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our world which is currently sick unto death.

Talitha Kumi! It’s time to wake up.

Churches, Popes, Women, and the “V” Word (Sunday Homily)

thevaginamonologues[1]

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 6:1-2a, 3-8; Ps. 138: 1-5, 7-8; I Cor. 15: 1-11; Lk. 5: 1-11. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/021013.cfm

Have you ever seen Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues?” A few years ago that series of dramatic readings was presented at Berea College where I taught for 37 years. The readings were as provocative as the play’s title. All of them reflect the unique experience of being woman that most of us Christian males find so difficult to understand, especially after so many years of brain-washing at the hands of predominantly male clergies.

Significantly, Ensler refers to that particular churchly indoctrination in the prologue to her text. There she quotes Gloria Steinem who recalls:

“In the sixties, while I was doing research in the Library of Congress, I found a little known treatise about the history of religious architecture which blithely stated a thesis, as it were known by everybody, to the effect that the traditional shape of most patriarchal buildings of worship imitates the female body. Thus, there is an external entrance and another internal one, the labia majora and the labia minora; there is a vaginal central nave, which leads to the altar; there are two curved ovarian structures on either side; and finally, in the sacred center is the altar or uterus, where the great miracle takes place: men give birth.

“Though this comparison was new for me, it opened my eyes with a shock. Of course, I thought. The central ceremony of the patriarchal religions is nothing else but the ceremony in which men take control of the “yoni” power of creation by giving birth symbolically. It is no wonder that male religious leaders state so often that we human beings are born in sin … because we are born from female tummies. Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be “reborn” through men. It is no wonder that priests and pastors decked out in long vestments sprinkle our heads with a fluid that mimics the waters of birth. It is no wonder that they give us new names and promise us we will be reborn in eternal life. It is no wonder that the male priesthood attempts to keep women far removed from the altar, just as we are kept far removed from control of our own powers of reproduction. Whether symbolic or real, everything is aimed at controlling the power that resides in the female body.”

Talk about provocative! Here Ms. Steinem is claiming that creative power is focused chiefly in the female body, though men obviously have an ancillary role in the begetting of life. Because their role is so obviously secondary, a primary male purpose in organized religion, Ms. Steinem says, is for men to alienate or steal the vastly superior womanly power of life and to control it – against women themselves.

Patriarchal religion accomplishes its task by dressing men up like women. It has them sprinkling their congregations with the waters of birth introducing them to “eternal life.” This form of life is held to be more important than physical life, and male pastors claim to control it to the exclusion of women. The prerequisite for women’s access to life eternal is that they adopt the rules of the exclusively male priesthood especially those connected with female powers of reproduction centered in the woman’s body whose architecture the male priestly domain of church actually mimics.

I bring all of that up because today’s liturgy of the word is so obviously male-centered in a very misleading way. Together with Ms. Steinem’s reflections, the readings of the day suggest why someone like our present Pope Benedict XVI along with Christian pastors of many denominations participate so enthusiastically in what has been called a 21st century “War on Women” and why the pope is so afraid of women priests.

Female priests might inspire women to recognize their inherent superiority over men in terms of centrality to the life processes (both physical and spiritual) that the patriarchy struggles so mightily to control. If women were allowed the leadership that their biology suggests, what would become of the male-centered church – of the male-centered world?

Today’s liturgy of the word tries to keep us from asking such questions. It begins with a description of God in highly masculine terms centered in the macho realm of palace and court. God is depicted as “king.” He (sic!) is “Lord.” He inspires fear and awe. He dwells in a smoke-filled room surrounded by all the trappings of power and might. Like the prophet Isaiah, those who appear before him feel small and ashamed of the very words that come from their lips.

This, of course, is the image of God we’ve been offered from the cradle. (Can you imagine how different we’d feel personally, ecclesiastically, nationally and internationally if the familiar image of God were a mother nursing her child? Would you feel any different towards such a Mother God? – Remember, it’s all just symbolism. And the image of God that’s come to dominate arises from one of the most patriarchal traditions in the history of the world.)

The male-centeredness of today’s readings continues in the selection from Paul’s first letter to Christians living in Corinth. It’s a key passage because Paul is trying to establish his identity as an “apostle,” even though he never met Jesus personally. Paul bases his claim on the fact that Jesus appeared to him just as he did to the other apostles. So he says “Remember what I preached to you:” Christ died for our sins. He was buried and raised on the third day. He appeared to the 12, then to 500 “brothers” at once, then to all of the apostles, and finally to Paul himself.

There is so much interesting in this summary of Paul’s preaching. What, for instance, happened to Jesus’ words and deeds? Paul’s gospel begins with Jesus’ death! What about Jesus’ life which revealed the character of God as compassionate and “womb like?” (See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus again for the First Time, chapter 3.)

However, even more to the point is Paul’s omission of the fact that according to ALL of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in the canonical gospels, Jesus’ first appearances were to women, not to men!! (Remember Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18?) Using Paul’s logic, doesn’t that establish the primacy of women in the church – and in the priesthood? The misogynistic Paul doesn’t want to go near that question. And neither does the equally misogynistic Pope Benedict XVI.

And then we have today’s gospel selection from Luke. It’s the call of the first apostles. According to Luke, Peter, James, and John are the first to follow Jesus. That leaves us with the usual impression that Jesus called only men.

Omitted from our vision is the fact that according to Luke himself (8:3) there were “many women” taking an active part in the Jesus Movement. Besides Jesus’ mother Mary, we know the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, several other Marys, Suzanne, Salome, Martha and Mary of Bethany, Joanna. . And the roles of these women weren’t confined to preparing food and washing clothes.

In the first Christian communities, men and women met and worshiped together. Both men and women preached the message of Jesus with the same authority, and both men and women presided at the celebration in remembrance of their crucified Master. Like the men, the women had representation and decision-making power in the communities as priests and bishops.

That was even true of the communities of Paul. Paul himself taught that “In Christ there is no male or female” (Galatians 3,28). With this claim he legitimized the active participation of women in the first Christian communities. Also, he makes emphatic mention of many women in his letters and lavishly praises their work. For example, he mentions by name the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16,1), Junia (Romans 16,7), Prisca, Julia, Evodia and Sintece, all of whom he called his “collaborators” (Philippians 4,2). He also mentions Claudia, Trifena, Trifosa, Prisca, Lyida, Tiatira and Nympha of Laodicea. Of the 28 persons to whom Paul accords special praise in his letters to the early churches, 10 are women!

All of that changed in the 4th century, when Christianity lost its soul and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then Christianity adopted for good the courtly vision today’s first reading affirmed: macho-kings, courts, palaces, smoke-filled rooms, men dressed like women, denigration of women’s bodies, men trying desperately to affirm their superiority against all the evidence of biology, life’s processes, Jesus’ own example, and women’s traditional roles as nourishers, healers and spiritual counselors.

Let’s talk about how women might take back those roles both in church and in politics. How do we “get to” someone as closed as Benedict XVI? How do we get to our bishops and priests? How do we get to our own acquiescence to the misogyny of our church and culture?
(Discussion follows)

Magdalene: Egyptian Priestess and Consort of Jesus (Fourth Posting in a Series on MM)

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

Who Was Mary Magdalene? Breaking the Magdalene Code (Third in a series on M.M.)

Last week we saw how Lynn Picknett, the author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, relies on suppressed “alternative” sources beyond the fours canonical gospels to reconstruct her “secret history” which we’ve been reviewing here for the past three weeks.   That emergent story reveals not only the centrality of Mary Magdalene, but also of John the Baptist.

This week, let’s confine our exploration to the identity of Mary Magdalene especially as she appears within the Sacred Canon.  There the confusion starts immediately. For in the gospel texts three women appear who over the centuries have been identified with “Mary Magdalene,” even though only one of them is so identified by name. There is the “Mary called Magdalene;” there is “Mary of Bethany” (the sister of Martha and Lazarus), and then there is the unnamed “penitent woman” who anoints Jesus in preparation, it seems, for his death.

As for the “Mary called Magdalene,” Picknett begins her process of identification with Luke 8:1-3. There an apparently wealthy Mary Magdalene is listed as a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry. As such she is classified with a group of women including Joanna, the wife of Chuza (the manager of Herod’s household), Susana and “many other” women as supporting Jesus work “of their own means.” The only distinguishing information Luke gives about this Mary is that seven demons had come out of her. The Magdalene’s name is cited again at the end of Luke’s story when its bearer comes out of nowhere intending to anoint Jesus’ dead body to give it proper burial. Meanwhile in the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene is named among the women who remained faithful to Jesus in his final hour after he had been deserted by his male followers.  In the apocryphal ending of that same Gospel, she is (significantly) the first witness of the resurrection (16:9). John’s Gospel also identifies her in this way. From this material alone, and to say the least, Mary Magdalene was the most prominent of Jesus’ women followers. Even more, as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, she might arguably be identified as the foremost of all disciples, male or female, and even as the legitimate head of the church. This is because ignoring women altogether, the patriarchy’s traditional argument for identifying Peter as “head of the church” has been that the risen Christ appeared first to him of all the (male) apostles.

By the way, nowhere in the “sacred texts” is the woman “called Magdalene” identified as a prostitute. In fact, that identification surfaces only in the sixth century in a homily delivered by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE. Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church repudiate Gregory’s defamation of the Magdalene. However, even apart from the tradition’s late origin and retraction, a prostitute Magdalene seems unlikely in the light of the role Luke assigns her as a financial supporter of Jesus’ work. Otherwise, as Picknett acerbically observes, “We are faced with the unpalatable suggestion that Jesus and the likes of Peter were happy to live off immoral earnings!” (42)

The second and third “Marys” traditionally conflated with the Magdalene are Mary of Bethany on the one hand and on the other, an unnamed “penitent woman” whom the Synoptics identify as anointing Jesus with costly spikenard from an alabaster jar. Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, good friends of Jesus who resided in that town. This Mary is famous for the argument involving her sister, Martha, about the relative merits of sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his words vs. serving at table. It is specifically this Mary (of Bethany) whom the Gospel of John has anointing Jesus just prior to his crucifixion (11:2).  Meanwhile, in the Synoptics the anointing woman is described as penitent, but remains unnamed.  However, both Mark and Matthew also record her act as happening in Bethany close to the time of Jesus’ execution (Mk. 14:3-9; Mt. 26:6-13). Only Luke locates the anointing in Capernaum and at the beginning of Jesus’ mission (7:36-50). For Picknett, John’s identification of the penitent woman as Mary of Bethany along with the locations cited by Mark and Matthew are enough for her to conclude that the penitent and Mary of Bethany are one and the same (50).

And what do the texts reveal about this woman anointer of Jesus? First of all, that her identity was not unknown (as the Synoptics would have us believe), and certainly no stranger to Jesus. Instead she was a member of a family which regularly offered Jesus hospitality. Significantly, the anointer and anointed were on familiar terms. Second, this Mary disregards Jewish law restricting women and governing interaction between the sexes. For one thing, she wears no head covering in public – an omission associated with sexual license in Jesus day (as it is today among Muslims and Jews in the Middle East). Moreover, she flaunts this disrespect of Jewish custom by appearing before Jesus (and those present at the event) as a woman was allowed only before her husband – with hair loose and flowing (55). Then she performs an act that could only be seen by onlookers as inappropriately intimate. She incessantly kisses his feet, wets them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. She finishes by breaking open an alabaster vessel of costly spikenard ointment and using its content to anoint Jesus’ feet. All of this Jesus approves. Far from rebuking her, Jesus is remembered as saying “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14:4). In other words, Jesus saw this woman’s act not only as appropriate but as central to his mission and to the preaching of the gospel.

Why then was Mary Magdalene not given her due or even clearly identified by the Synoptics? Why did Luke gratuitously say that seven demons had been driven from her? Was there some sort of early church vendetta against MM? Picknett thinks there was.

Next Week: Magdalene as Egyptian Priestess