Easter Reflection: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Resurrection

Readings for Easter Sunday:ACTS 10:3A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3:1-4; JN 20: 1-9.

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic gospels, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because his experience was equivalent to that of the companions of Jesus who were known by  name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus.

In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he (incredibly) not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance, Matthew 28:11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24:13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 100) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.

However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it flatten the significance of resurrection belief to simply one more “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened up in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

We are called to live in the “other world” our faith tells us is possible – a world that is not defined by market, consumption, competition, technology, or war.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti supplies the details.

“Mary Magdalene” Saves My Lent

I didn’t feel good about my Lent this year – until Holy Week. I don’t know why, but my heart just wasn’t in it till then. However, beginning on what used to be called Holy Week’s “Spy Wednesday,” a whole series of events unfolded that returned me to the spirit that should have characterized the previous 40 days. Its highlight was experiencing an extraordinary film that I want to recommend here. It’s called simply “Mary Magdalene.” It raises questions about women’s leadership in today’s Catholic Church.

What I did just before seeing the film prepared me. It began on Wednesday when I watched an Italian production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” The next night brought a brief celebration of Maundy Thursday at our new non- denominational Talmadge Hill Community Church. The following morning, I took part in a two hour “way of the cross” through the town of nearby Darien. Immediately afterwards, came a “Tre Ore” observance at the town’s Episcopal Church. The recollection of Jesus’ three-hours on the cross was marked by long periods of silence broken by seven sermons delivered by ministers from a whole variety of area churches. (At times the latter seemed like a sermon slam, with the clear winner the entry delivered jointly in dialog by our own two pastors from Talmadge Hill.)

Then on Holy Saturday, Peggy and I took in “Mary Magdalene,” directed by Australian, Garth Davis. For me, it was Holy Week’s capstone. To begin with, Joaquin Phoenix embodied the best Jesus-representation that I’ve seen so far. It was understated, believable, sensitive, compassionate, and challenging. Phoenix’s mien and demeanor reminded me of the Jesus forensic archeologists have estimated looked like this:

But it is Mary Magdalene (played by an unglamorous, but beautiful Rooney Mara) who supplies the eyes through which viewers finally see the peasant from Galilee. She’s a midwife, we learn. Far from the one defined as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th century, she rejects intimate relationships with men. “I’m not made for marriage,” Mary explains to the shock of her scandalized father, brothers and suitor. “Then, what are you made for?” they demand. All of them join together and nearly drown her as they attempt to exorcise the demons responsible for her refusal to submit to marital patriarchy.

Nevertheless, Mary persists and eventually tags along with those following Jesus – the only woman among the band of men called apostles. She herself is baptized by Jesus. She also pays closer and more perceptive attention to Jesus’ words than the others. She even gently corrects her male companions, suggesting that their interpretation of the Kingdom of God entailing violent revolution might be mistaken. Peter’s comment about such impertinence is “You weaken us.” But in the end, Mary quietly retorts, “I will not be silenced.”

Soon Jesus commissions Magdalene to baptize women.  As a result, they end up following the Master in droves. From then on, we see Mary habitually walking next to Jesus as he treks across Palestine’s barren landscape from Galilee through Cana and Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. At the last supper, after washing Jesus’ feet, she sits at his right hand. Clearly, she’s in charge and a leader of men nonpareil.

At one point in the journey to the Holy City, Mary unmistakably demonstrates her unique leadership. She implicitly reminds viewers of the words John the Evangelist attributes to Jesus, “The one who believes in me, the works that I do shall (s)he do also; and greater works than these shall (s)he do . . . (JN 14:12) For after witnessing Jesus restore a dead man to life, Mary herself emulates the healer’s ritual and restores to life a score of people left for dead by the brutal Roman occupation forces. None of the males among Jesus’ followers even dares such close imitation of Christ.

Then there is Magdalene’s relationship with a young smiling, cheerful, and very sympathetic Judas. He came to follow Jesus after his wife and child had been brutally killed by the Romans. So, he hears Jesus’ words about God’s Kingdom as a promise that Jesus will inspire and lead a retributive rebellion against Rome. But after Jesus’ participation in a direct-action demonstration in Jerusalem’s temple, Judas appears worried that Jesus is losing resolve and direction. So, in an evident effort to force Jesus’ hand, the apostle cooperates in Jesus’ arrest and collects the reward on his head. Judas fully expects that his teacher’s plight will mobilize his followers to the uprising Judas confidently anticipates. When that doesn’t happen, Judas is filled with despair. He returns home. The next we know, he’s hanging from the lintel of his hovel’s doorway.

Of course, there is no uprising. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. Afterwards, his limp body is placed in the lap of his mother. He’s then buried. While the other apostles flee, distancing themselves from the corpse, Magdalene faithfully sleeps on the ground outside the tomb. In the morning, she’s awakened by Jesus’ voice. He’s clothed in martyr’s white. Without uttering a word, she quietly sits on the ground next to him, convinced that he has come back to life.

So, she returns to the site of the last supper and tells Peter and the others her good news. They refuse to believe her. It’s at this point that Mary says those words, “I will not be silenced.”

According to Pope Francis, that refusal and her bringing of Good News to the apostolic leadership has merited for her the title of “apostle of apostles.” She is more important than any of them.

As you can see, I’m grateful to “Mary Magdalene” for salvaging my Lent. However, her story makes me wonder about the absence of female leadership in Francis’ church.

How about you? See the film and decide for yourself.

Forget Martha; Be Like Lazy Mary and Jester Jesus (Sunday Homily)

Moreno

Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/072113.cfm

What do you think you’ll regret most as you lay dying? If you’re like most, it will be that you spent too much time at your day job – too much time working and not enough time socializing and enjoying life. Study after study affirms that.

Commenting on this regret, one Hospice nurse said:

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

I’ll bet almost everyone reading this can relate to those words and would like to avoid final regrets about overwork.

Problem is: our culture sets overwork as an ideal. In fact, we’re taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of “American” culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our Europeans sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off less than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations – 16 ½ weeks per year.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it’s too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ teachings.

Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural. We shouldn’t forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus’ wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. Of course, most of us don’t listen to Jesus when he says things like that.

And did you notice the description of the “Just Person” in today’s responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.

But how about, “They lend not money at usury?” What about that? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. (What if all Christians (and Jews) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.)
The world would also be different – our lives would not be the same – if we acted like Mary instead of Martha.

The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives – as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha’s sister “choses the better part” like a contemplative “religious” eschewing “the world of work” and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.

I used to think that too – until I read Un Tal Jesus (“A Certain Jesus”) written by Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother, Jose Ignacio. (The book has been translated into English under the title Just Jesus.) The authors are Cuban and now live in Nicaragua. Maria is a former nun; Jose Ignacio, a former priest.

Together the Lopez-Vigils created a series of radio programs broadcast all over Latin America. The shows dramatized the four gospels and presented a very human Jesus – the one who emerges from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus.

In Un Tal Jesus, Jesus is black, has a winning smile, and a very down-to-earth sense of humor. (The photo at the top of this blog entry shows Jesus as depicted in the Lopez-Vigil’s book.) The human Jesus portrayed in that radio series scandalized many and inspired even more throughout the Latin world and beyond.

As the Lopez-Vigils envision it, today’s episode takes place in a Bethany tavern owned by Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. It’s a place of eating, drinking and lodging for travelers. It’s a place of laughter, joking, over-eating and drunkenness. And Jesus is right there in the middle of it all.

Passover is approaching, and the inn is full of pilgrims. It’s steamy, noisy, and loud. Martha is on the job, waiting on tables and controlling the rest of the staff. Meanwhile Mary (whom scholars increasingly identify with Mary Magdalene, Jesus closest female companion) is distracted by conversation with Jesus, who is bantering with his friends.

And what are they talking about? Religion? God? Spirituality? No, they’re joking. Jesus is posing riddle after riddle. And Mary finds it completely entertaining. In part, their dialog goes like this:

Jesus: What’s as small as a mouse but it guards the house like a lion. One, two, three: Guess what it is!
Mary: Small as a rat…and…it’s a key! I guessed it, I guessed it!
Jesus: Listen to this one: It’s as small as a nut, has no feet but can climb a mountain.
Mary: Wait… a nut going up the mountain…a snail!…Ha, ha, ha, tell me another one!
Jesus: You won’t guess this one right. Listen well: It has no bones, it is never quiet, with edges sharper than scissors.
Mary: It has no bones… I don’t know…
Jesus: It’s your tongue, Mary, which never rests!

Well, Mary and Jesus might have found that sort of patter entertaining, but Martha did not. She’s in charge of the inn and is worried about her guests waiting impatiently for their food while bread is burning in the oven. So she makes her complaint to Jesus: “Stop your chatter and let my sister do her job!” It’s then that Jesus makes that remark about Mary’s choosing the better part. She’s chosen socializing and play over work.

Does that scandalize you – Jesus distancing himself from work? Well, it seems completely consistent with what I said about Jesus earlier. It coincides with his general approach to work, money, profit, saving, and anxiety about the future.

What difference would it make in our own lives if we accepted that message: socializing, community, and fun are more important than work? What difference would it make in our culture if, in a context of widespread unemployment we elected candidates advocating “spreading the work around,” spreading the money around, shortening the work week, and affording us more time with friends and family, eating, drinking, joking, and playing?

What difference would it make to us on our death beds?

What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

Move Over, Pope FrancIs, and Bring on FrancEs I!! (Fathers’ Day Sunday Homily)

Anointing

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:2 SM 12:7-10, 13; Ps. 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7:36-8:3. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061613.cfm

Today is Father’s Day. So, happy Father’s Day to all of us who merit the title “father.”

However, I must observe that despite the male focus which our culture gives this June 16th, today’s readings end up being quite critical of men and patriarchy. They reveal the misogyny of western culture and of the Christian tradition right from the beginning. Unwittingly, they also make a strong case for female leadership in the church even to the point of suggesting female leadership for the entire enterprise. Sorry, dads!

Start with the first reading. There Nathan condemns the great father-figure, David for his own male chauvinism and for his disregard of all the gifts the prophet says he himself gave David in God’s name.

Nathan recalls that as prophet he himself anointed David king over both Israel and Judah. Nathan rescued David from his rival, Saul. The prophet gave him the Lord’s dwelling and a harem to live with David in his palace. All these including David’s many wives, Nathan says, were gifts from God. (So much for Yahweh’s “traditional family values” allegedly favoring domestic arrangements with one father and one mother.)

And what was David’s response to all the favors conferred by Nathan? Adultery and murder. He used his power as king to steal the wife of one of his generals, Uriah the Hittite. Then in effect, he “rendered” Uriah to the Ammonites to have him killed, while preserving his own “deniability” for the crime. But neither Yahweh nor Nathan was fooled.

Of course, the woman’s in question was the famous Bathsheba who eventually gave birth to King Solomon, who ended up succeeding David as King of Israel instead of David’s eldest son, Adonijah.

In fact the section of 2nd Samuel in which this episode is found is referred to as “the succession narratives,” because it answers the question “why is it that Solomon is sitting on the throne instead of David’s eldest living son, Adonijah?”

Solomon is on the throne, the story says, because of David’s theft of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah, and the curse of Nathan which resulted: “The sword will never depart from your house.” That is, all of David’s sons, but Solomon were condemned to die violent deaths. According to this tradition, God’s sole “blessing” for the eventually penitent king is limited to the boon that he himself will not be killed. Father-rule – the patriarchy – does not come out well in this first reading.

Neither is today’s gospel selection kind to patriarchy. Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system But in this case, the “host” proves to be an inhospitable man in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Jesus as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one.

This is extraordinary, since the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Jesus the Christ. And it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in the reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Jesus’ time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Jesus, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

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. These facts would have been evident to Jesus’ contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Jesus’ company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Jesus tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Jesus’ company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community knew: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Jesus were his financial supporters of Jesus and “the twelve.”

But Luke doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Jesus. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Jesus or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Jesus as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas describes says:

“. . . the companion of the Savior 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?'”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of his attention. 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.” Additionally, 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.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and us patriarchs so fond of “Father’s Day. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s readings help us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Mover over, Francis; bring on Pope FrancEs I!

Stage Two in the Early Development of the Christian Tradition: The Resurrection Experience

(This is the eighth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

There were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. In the postings of the last two weeks, we examined the first stage, the life of Jesus.

There we saw a Jesus who was (1) an insightful teacher, (2) a faith healer, (3) a prophetic critic, (4) a Jewish mystic, and (5) a movement founder. More specifically, Jesus scholarship has uncovered a prophet who was baptized by John and was probably John’s disciple. This Jesus carried on a ministry in the rural areas of Galilee and Judea, and finally in the urban center, Jerusalem.  He was an exorcist and miracle worker. He didn’t follow Jewish laws about fasting. He practiced table fellowship with the poor and outcasts.  Finally, this Jesus was crucified by Rome with the form of execution reserved for rebels and revolutionaries. Scholars draw these conclusions by applying the “criteria of discernment” described earlier in this series of postings.

The focus of today’s entry is Jesus’ resurrection, the second of the five stages in the early development of the Christian tradition.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, Jesus was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion. The exact nature of the experience remains unclear.

In Paul (the earliest 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience is clearly visionary: he sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, the original Marcan manuscript ends without any narrations at all of resurrection appearances. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). The absence of resurrection appearances in Mark indicates either that he (writing about the year 70) didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.”  So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection is powerless to explain the profound change that took place in the disciples after Jesus’ death. After all, before the resurrection they were fearful and cowardly; afterwards they were bold and courageous. However, according to the early traditions, it was not the resurrection that transformed the disciples in this way. It was the specifically spiritual experience of Pentecost with its “descent of the Holy Spirit” upon them (Acts 2).

What do you think? Do such reflections make it easier or more difficult to accept the Christian message?

Women Show the Way to Fullness of Life (Not to Heaven)

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 53:10-11; Ps. 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Heb. 4: 14-16; Mk. 10:35-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102112.cfm

Marcus Borg, the great Jesus scholar, talks about his list of the “Ten Worst Contributions of Religion to Human Culture.” Topping that list, he says, is popular Christianity’s belief in the afterlife. When asked about the other nine, Borg says he can’t remember what they are. . . .

Second on my own list (perhaps even first) would be the idea that God has designated men to be rulers of the world and church, while women are to be seen and not heard. Today’s liturgy of the word addresses both of those items in Religion’s Worst Ideas.

Take that first one about heaven and hell. Borg sees belief in the afterlife is so harmful because it has led to a law and rule-based Christianity that centers on “going to heaven” as a reward for “keeping the commandments.” Such quid pro quo thinking, he says, is a complete distortion of Christianity.

Borg reminds us that the afterlife is not at all the focus of Christian belief – nor of Jewish “Old Testament” faith for that matter. In fact, ideas about life after death didn’t surface in Judaism till well after the Babylonian Exile six centuries before the birth of Jesus – probably as a result of contact with the Persians.  And the first unambiguous biblical reference to meaningful survival of the individual after death comes only in the book of Daniel which was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus. That means that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and none of the prophets were motivated by desire for heaven or escape from hell. Those ideas were simply not part of their mental landscapes.

Instead, for those tribal people, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about land – the Land of Canaan which was celebrated as God’s gift to his favored People. The word “salvation” then meant a Palestine free from occupation by imperialists, be they Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings and their references to “long life,” “fullness of days,” and “greatness” for the “Suffering Servant” who is “crushed” and loses his life on behalf of others. The words are reminiscent of Jesus’ pronouncement that sacrificing one’s life was the way to save it. Conversely, trying to “save one’s life” was the sure way to lose it.

Those are mysterious words. What might they mean: by giving one’s life for others, one actually achieves long life and fullness of days? How can one have long life and fullness of days when he or she is dead? (You can see how that question would lead subsequent generations of Christians to adopt the “afterlife” hopes of Greco-Roman, Persian and Egyptian cultures to answer that question.)

Given Jesus’ centralization of God’s Kingdom, the answer of Jesus (and that of Second Isaiah) seems to have been that self-sacrificial non-violent resistance to all forms of imperial domination provides such a powerful example and inspiring force that the community rises with new energy, life, and fullness of life when the suffering servant is inevitably killed by imperial forces.

For Mark’s community, that had proven true in the case of Jesus; its members experienced Jesus’ presence more intensely and more meaningfully following his execution than before. For us, we can see the same truth illustrated in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Rachel Corrie and Karen Silkwood. After their deaths, and arguably because of their deaths, they exercise more influence on us today than they did while they were alive. That’s the mystery Jesus gestures towards in today’s reading.

What can this mean for us? For one, it calls us to recommit ourselves to non-violent resistance of the anti-kingdom forces among us. That’s our political task as we live out our lives in the belly of empire’s beast here in the United States.

But Jesus’ words about servanthood show us that such resistance should permeate our lives at the domestic every-day level as well. (And here’s where the point about women comes in.)  In both cases, the political and domestic, the kingdom is not brought on by exercising the kind of “power over” that characterizes empire, and that apparently motivates the request of the Sons of Zebedee in this morning’s Gospel. The Zebedee boys have a typically patriarchal approach; they’re asking Jesus to let them exercise “power over” others.  This typically male idea sees force and violence as the solution to most problems.

Instead, the approach of “servanthood”—of putting the needs of others first – is typically feminine. And in Mark’s Gospel from beginning to the end it is women who are referred to in servant language. In the beginning of Mark (1:31), the first act of Peter’s mother in law upon being cured by Jesus is to serve food to her benefactor and his companion. And at the end Mark (15:41) Mary Magdalene along with another Mary and Salome are identified beneath Jesus’ cross as “those who used to follow him and provide for him when he was in Galilee.”

All of that suggests, as scripture scholar Ched Myers has said, that Jesus here is proposing the notion of “servant leadership.” It suggests that the practical content of that concept is typically embodied not in men, but in women.

In fact, I think, it suggests that in a patriarchal system like ours (politically, domestically, and in the church) the only ones fit to exercise leadership are women. Typically, they are the ones who shed light on the meaning of “servant-leader” and of fullness of life. And they do so in ways that those bad ideas of heaven and “power-over” simply cannot.   What do you think?

(Discussion follows)

Conclusions about “The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess”

To say the least, Lynn Picknett’s The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess makes a distinct contribution towards a fuller understanding of the “woman called Magdalene.”  Picknett helps us see beyond the prostitute stereotype to a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry;  the African priestess (from Egypt or Ethiopia) who anointed Jesus as Christos; his lover and perhaps his wife;  the holy one who prepared him for crossing over to the other side; the disciple who first perceived that Jesus had risen from the dead;  first among the women who stood by Jesus in his darkest hour;  the “Apostle of Apostles” enjoying primacy among those within the Master’s inner circle; the mystic whom Jesus called by names originally belonging to the goddess, Isis; the real founder of the church, and an object of jealousy, hatred, and threat by the patriarchal Twelve. Picknett indeed helps us see how we know those things.

In addition, the book’s clear exposition of the identity of Mary Magdalene and her primacy among Jesus’ followers is invaluable for a more complete understanding of the earliest traditions within the Jesus Movement where women were not only prominent but preeminent.  Those traditions, it turns out, prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. For they highlight the way female disciples of extraordinary talent and charisma were not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. They were the victims of an extreme misogyny that continues in church circles to our very day. Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, Picknett’s “secret history” exposes the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical patriarchs in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. It also uncovers the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

As noted previously, Picknett is especially strong in her willingness to effectively question and turn upside-down long-accepted “truths” about the focus of her study. To reiterate, “Magdalene the whore” is the prime example. Examination of extra-biblical and especially historical sources revealed the sixth century origin of that smear. That revelation evidently led Picknett to better understand the smear’s source in the biblical texts themselves. As she indicates, those texts lose no opportunity to denigrate the woman from Bethany. In other words, regarding the Magdalene, Picknett’s methodology is that of scripture scholars over the last hundred years and more: she distinguishes the historical Magdalene from what biblical traditions on the one hand and patristic glosses on the other made of her. Like the good scholar she is, she peals back layer after layer till she gets to the historical woman.

It is here, however, that a curious inconsistency surfaces in the final third of Picknett’s work. There she deconstructs the person of Jesus of Nazareth, finding him, as noted earlier, to be self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. She is able to do so only because she ignores the findings of scripture scholarship over the last one hundred years – especially the findings of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Form Criticism is the branch of biblical study which has pointed out that not everything in the Bible, not even most of its contents, is history. Instead, there are many literary forms there including myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, genealogies, parables, allegories, law, letters – and Gospel. If one mistakes the literary form and reads legend, for instance, as history, the reader will miss the intended meaning of the text. And yes, Gospel is its own literary form distinct from history. And so the work of the evangelists cannot be treated as “lives” or biographies of Jesus. Instead (and Picknett is correct here) they are religious propaganda. This however does not mean, as Picknett often implies and even states, that they are lies, deliberately disguised half-truths, or outright deceptions. They are “Gospel” and as such express not what happened, but the meaning of what happened for those who already recognize Jesus as the Christ. Picknett however often crossly dismisses the gospel authors as charlatans and deceivers. And she reads their portrayals of Jesus as though they were falsified histories. And so she reports that believers have been deceived into believing in a virgin birth, that Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, and that his corpse was resuscitated three days after his death (which, she points out may have been only apparent). At the same time, however, Picknett takes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as though they were his very words. Thus she finds him bad tempered when he curses a barren fig tree, a braggart, when he calls attention to his union with God, and in general a human failure when he fails to live up to the traditional image of “Jesus meek and mild” (186, 208).

It is here that Picknett overlooks the insights of “redaction criticism.” Redaction critics are the scholars who have helped us realize that the gospels are thickly “layered,” and as such rather far removed from what Jesus actually said and did. That is, the words and deeds of Jesus were one thing; how they were remembered in oral tradition was another, how they were written down another still, and how they were interpreted by later generations something else again.  To sharpen the point, the works of the evangelists are post-resurrection compositions (whatever the resurrection might have been).  As such, they reveal an understanding of Jesus that was not apparent, and therefore impossible before the resurrection event. Accordingly, one must distinguish between the pre and post-resurrection Jesus; one must separate the pre-resurrection Gospel of Jesus from the post-resurrection Gospel about Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God, not Caesar were king. The Gospel about Jesus (the product of the emerging church) was indeed about Jesus. So according to that latter gospel, Jesus is made to say what would have been both impossible and highly improbable for him to utter before his death. Consequently when Jesus apparently says, “I and the Father are one,” that is not Jesus boasting about himself, but the early church “boasting” about Jesus, i.e. expressing its post-resurrection faith.

Similarly, the Gospel about Jesus is full of symbol, which as Picknett well knows, is the normal language of faith. It is not denial or misrepresentation of fact; it is more than fact. So when Jesus is presented as cursing a barren fig tree, it is not a sign of his irritability, as Picknett would have it, but probably has something to do with “fig tree” as a traditional symbol for Israel itself. Yet, despite an entire book devoted to identifying layer upon layer of tradition and unpacking symbols (relative to Mary Magdalene) Picknett finds such unpacking and layer-identification as “unconvincing” when it comes to any positive view of Jesus’ words (193) . And while she had no trouble demythologizing the Magdalene’s traditional identity as a prostitute, Picknett scandalized by any gospel departure from the “Jesus meek and mild” image that has prevailed in understandings of the central figure in mainstream Christianity (186, 208). Any departure from that milk-sop image to show him politically engaged or prophetically outspoken is interpreted as somehow reprehensible. This is a shortcoming of her book and misleads her audience.

The misdirection would have been avoided had Picknett muted her book’s sensationalist tone to explain that under the leadership of Mary called the Magdalene (possibly Jesus’ spouse) the discouraged male apostles did not give up as they would have without her encouragement. Instead they pondered and discussed the words and deeds of Jesus. They realized that inspired by his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus had continued the latter’s ministry. Unexpectedly and scandalously however, Jesus too been executed – by Rome (rather than by its puppet, Herod as was the case with John). Meditation, discussion, and (as they claimed) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit led that first community of the Jesus Movement to realize that their martyred master had not really joined the ranks of the hundreds of failed Messiahs who regularly surfaced in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era. Instead, he was somehow more present among them than he was before his death.

But how were they to explain this to their contemporaries – to Jews first of all, and later to those outside the Jewish community? Their answer was to use one language set for Jews and one for Greco-Romans. The language set for Jews presented him in terms of a new Adam, or in reference to Abraham, David, or as fulfillment of inferences derived from the prophets. By modern standards, their connections seem forced, stretched and artificial. And no doubt, they invented some of the words and deeds they attributed to Jesus to make the point about his continuity with Jewish tradition. In other words, for the evangelists, the Jesus of faith sometimes took precedence over the Jesus of history.

In the same way, the Jesus story was reshaped for those outside the Jewish community for whom things like circumcision, the prophets, Abraham and David meant nothing at all. For these, Jesus had to be re-presented in religious terms understandable to Hellenistic culture. “Pagans” knew about Isis and the “dying and rising” gods. They knew about hieros gamos or sacred marriage with its priestesses and anointing. So Jesus was presented in those terms. We find them buried in stories like the anointing at Bethany.

Such retelling and refashioning of the Jesus story went on orally for many years. Then (beginning around 70 C.E.) the oral traditions were given written form. By then one could hardly distinguish what the historical Jesus had said and done from what was part of the retelling of his story specifically tailored for Jews on the one hand and for Greco- Romans on the other. Additionally each evangelist further reformulated the received traditions to address problems unique to his own community and its problems that Jesus could never have anticipated. This called for additional retailoring of Jesus’ words and deeds to fit the even newer circumstances further removed from the original consciousness of the historical Jesus.

Subsequently, church fathers and popes like Gregory I added their own layers of interpretation for their own communities now centuries removed from Jesus and his original intentions, words,  and deeds. In the process the Jesus of history was nearly swallowed by the Jesus of faith. However, that Jesus of history has to comprise the standard for soberly determining the essential elements of the Christian faith.

That’s what modern scripture scholarship has determined. Uncovering the Jesus of history is the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose members, it seems, would be open to most of the conclusions Picknett draws about Mary Magdalene. They would not however agree with conclusions based upon uncritical attribution of deeds and words to Jesus that fails to distinguish between layers of gospel texts.

Nothing said immediately above should detract from the fact  that Lynn Picknett is a wonderful reader, a diligent energetic researcher. She knows how to make the ever-present connections that in fact link everything that exists. Picknett is expert in applying the principle of analogy in both its negative and positive meanings. Negatively, that principle holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. According to that principle, she helps the non-academic community understand what scholars have been up to over the last hundred years and more. Positively, the principle of analogy says that the same natural and human forces and dynamics that are operative in the world today (especially in the realm of historiography) were also operative in the past. Those forces and dynamics indeed include lies, cover-ups, propaganda, and self-interest.  Applying that version of the analogy principle, Picknett’s Hidden History helps readers see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It’s the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.

I’m going to recommend this book to that friend of mine with all that rage to know “how do they know all of that?”

Next week: What Jesus Scholarship Tells Us about the Historical Jesus

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

“Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday Series on Mary Magdalene)

Not long ago a friend asked me about Mary Magdalene. Yes, Mary Magdalene. Thanks to Dan Brown and others, she’s been cropping into conversations lately much more than she used to. In any case, the observation had been made in this particular exchange that there existed animosity between the Magdalene and Peter the apostle. From there it was a short step to sharing opinions about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Were they married? Were they lovers?

After a while, my friend asked in apparent frustration. “But how do they know these things?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was mentioned, and then the conversation trailed off into more mundane topics. As a theologian, I was left wishing I was more informed about the Magdalene part of the discussion. I knew there were plenty of recently published books on the topic, but I hadn’t read them. Shortly afterwards, almost by sheer chance one of those books dropped into my lap. It was written by esoteric researcher Lynn Picknett and called The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess.  I devoured the volume immediately finding it every bit as interesting and just as much a page-turner as The da Vinci Code.

Unlike Daniel Brown’s work however, Picknett’s work is a largely successful effort at serious scholarship. Though not writing for academicians, she uses non-canonical gospels and heretical sources as well as their biblical counterparts to substantiate her surprising conclusions. Basically, they are that far from being a reformed and eternally penitent prostitute and sinner, Mary Magdalene was actually the spouse or lover of Jesus, possibly an Egyptian priestess, and very likely black.  She is the one whom Jesus often “kissed upon the mouth,” and whose intimate relationship with the Christ enraged Jesus’ male companions, especially Peter who actually threatened to kill her. Even more, in words attributed to Jesus in that Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), she was “the All,” “The Woman who knows all,” the “apostle of apostles.” Such apostolic primacy makes the Magdalene the true founder of the church and rightful possessor of Peter’s throne. In fact, as the anointer of Jesus, Mary Magdalene may have been his equal – a true Egyptian goddess, an incarnation of Isis. Possibly, she was even Jesus’ superior.

According to Picknett, such pre-eminence even over Jesus should not astonish, for a close reading of the Synoptics and John show that even those Christian propagandists present a Jesus with feet of clay. He was often self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. The Jesus hidden in those “sacred texts” was a bitter rival of John the Baptist, and may even have been part of a plot which ended in the Baptist’s beheading. In any case, on Picknett’s analysis, Jesus was not the Messiah; John was. And although branded as heretics, John’s followers survive to this day as bitter  opponents of the Jesus Movement. Most prominent among them was Leonardo da Vinci.

Even readers of The da Vinci Code would find such positions not only surprising but shocking. But how does Picknett arrive at such conclusions, what are the details of her argument, and how is one to evaluate the evidence she marshals?

Tune in next week to find out. . . .

Next Monday: “The Methodology of Magdalene Scholarship”