From Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies by Amy Welborn.
De-Coding Mary Magdalene by Amy Welborn
‘WHY ARE YOU WEEPING?’
Luke is the only evangelist to mention Mary Magdalene before the Passion narratives, but once those events are set in motion, Mary is a constant presence in all of the Gospels, without exception. For the first few centuries of Christian life, it is her role in these narratives that inspired the most interest and produced the earliest ways of describing Mary Magdalene: “Myrrh-bearer” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”
At the CrossIn both Matthew (27:55) and Mark (15:40-41), Mary Magdalene is named first in the list of women watching Jesus’ execution.
Luke doesn’t name the women at the cross, but he does identify them as those who had “followed him from Galilee.” John also mentions her presence (19:25), but his account highlights the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ words commending her to John’s care.
After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, Mary and the other women are still there. Matthew (27:61) and Mark (15:47) both specifically mention her as seeing where Jesus’ body was laid, and Luke again refers to the “women . . . from Galilee” (23:55), whose identity we are expected to understand from Luke’s early mention of their names in chapter 8.
Finally, as the Sabbath passes and the first day of the week dawns, the women still remain, and the Twelve are still nowhere in sight. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (not the mother of Jesus, but probably the Mary, mother of James and Joseph, whom he had mentioned in 27:56) coming to “see” the tomb. Mark and Luke get more specific, saying that the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. John, interestingly enough, in chapter 20, ignores any other women, and focuses on Mary Magdalene. She comes to see the tomb, finds the stone moved and the tomb empty, and runs to tell Peter.
At least one early critic of Christianity seized on Mary Magdalene’s witness as discrediting. As quoted by the Christian writer Origen,the second-century philosopher Celsus called her a “half-frantic woman” (Contra Celsus, Book II: 59), thereby calling into doubt the truth of her testimony of the empty tomb.
What is striking about John’s account is that even though Peter and others do indeed run to the tomb at Mary’s news and see it empty, that is all they see. They return, and after they have gone away, Mary remains, alone at the tomb, weeping. It is at this point that, finally, the risen Jesus appears.
Of course, Jesus appears to Mary and other women in the Synoptic Gospels as well. In Matthew (chapter 28), an angel first gives them the news that Jesus has risen from the dead. The women then depart to tell the Twelve, and on the way they meet Jesus, they worship him, and he instructs them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.
In Mark (chapter 16), they meet the angel first as well, and receive the same message as Matthew describes, and are, unlike the joy described by Matthew, “afraid.” (Fear and lack of understanding on the part of disciples is a strong theme in Mark’s Gospel, by the way.)
Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen
Mark presents us with a bit of a problem, because the oldest full manuscripts of Mark, dating from the fourth century, end at 16:8, with the women afraid, and with no appearance of the risen Jesus described. Manuscripts of a century later do contain the rest of the Gospel as we know it, continuing the story, emphasizing Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, and identifying her as the one from whom he had exorcised seven demons. She sees him, she reports to the others, and they don’t believe it. Jesus then appears to “two of them” (perhaps an allusion to the encounter on the road to Emmaus we read about in Luke 24) who then, again, report the news to the Twelve who, again, do not believe it. Finally, Jesus appears to the disciples when they are at table, and as is normal in the Gospel of Mark, their faithlessness is remarked upon.
Some modern scholars suggest that Mark 16:8 is the “real” ending of this Gospel, which would mean that it contains no Resurrection account. Others, including the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, a preeminent scholar of the New Testament, argue that when one looks at Mark as a whole, it is obviously building up to the Resurrection,including prophecies from Jesus himself. Wright theorizes that the original ending was perhaps lost (the ends of scrolls were particularly susceptible to damage), and that what we have now is an attempt by a later editor to patch up that lost ending, but not in a way inconsistent with Mark’s intentions.
The theme of disbelief also runs through Luke. Interestingly enough, this Gospel doesn’t recount an encounter between the women (who are finally again specifically identified) and Jesus, but only the appearance of “two men” in “dazzling apparel,” who remind them of Jesus’ prophecies of his death and resurrection. The women, no longer afraid, go to the apostles, who, of course, dismiss their tale as idle chatter.
What’s clear in these Synoptic Gospels is, first, the strong sense of historical truth about the accounts. Rationalist skeptics would like to dismiss the Resurrection as a fabrication, but if it is, then the storytellers did a terrible job, didn’t they?
After all, if you were creating a myth that would be the origins of your new religion, would you write something in which the central characters — the first leaders of this same religion — were so filled with fear and doubt that they appeared weak?
If you were making up the story of the Resurrection from scratch, you would, as a person living in the first century, in the Roman Empire, and presumably as a Jew, only be able to think about this resurrection business in the terms and concepts available to you. And, as N. T. Wright has so ably demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003), even the first-century Jewish world, which did believe in a resurrection of the body, saw it in completely different terms — that it would eventually happen to everyone, at once, at the end of time (Wright, pp. 200-206).
And in general, when you read over the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels, you are immersed in an account in which people are afraid, confused, in awe, and eventually profoundly overjoyed. There is a veil drawn over the core event — the Resurrection itself is never described because, of course, none of the witnesses saw it.
They saw the empty tomb, and they saw the risen Jesus. A clever fabricator and mythmaker would not have woven his account with such nuance, and would probably have offered a direct account of the event itself, perhaps even with a clear explanation of what it all meant. But that’s not what we read, and somehow, ironically, all of the confusion and human frailty is powerful evidence for the truth of the account.
Most importantly for us, a first-century mythmaker would not have featured women as the initial witnesses of these formative events. It is inaccurate to say that first-century Jews did not accept women as reliable witnesses at all. There was, of course, no unified system of law within Judaism, and what was practiced was dependent upon which rabbi’s interpretation of the Law was used. Some rabbis did, indeed, hold the opinion that women were not reliable witnesses, but others disagreed and counted a woman’s witness equal to a man’s.
However, the fact that a woman’s reliability as a witness was disputed, unclear, and not consistently accepted, would, it seems, discourage a fabricator from using women as his source of information that the tomb was indeed empty. It certainly wouldn’t be the first choice to come to mind if your aim was to present a story that was easily credible, would it?
“[And] so that the apostles [the women] did not doubt the angels,Christ himself appeared to them,so that the women are Christ’s apostles and compensate through their obedience for the sin of the first Eve. . . . Eve has become apostle. . . . So that the women did not appear liars but bringers of truth, Christ appeared to the [male] apostles and said to them: It is truly I who appeared to these women and who desired to send them to you as apostles.” (Hippolytus, third century, quoted in Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, by Susan Haskins [Berkley, 1997], pp. 62-63)
‘Noli Me Tangere’John’s account of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to Mary in chapter 20 adds more detail than the Synoptics. She comes to the tomb while it is still dark — recall how John’s Gospel begins, with the wonderful hymn describing the Word bringing light into the darkness — and she sees that it is empty, and then runs to get the disciples. Peter and another disciple come to the tomb, see it for themselves, but leave, since, as John says, they didn’t yet understand “the scripture” — perhaps the Hebrew Scriptures as they would be later understood by Christians.
Mary stays, though, weeping ( John 20:11). She peers into the tomb (the level of detail in this account is fascinating) and sees two “angels in white” who ask her why she is crying. She says, sadly, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” ( John 20:13). She then turns and sees another figure; we are told it’s Jesus, but she doesn’t know until he speaks her name ( John 20:16)
One of the more well-known moments in this account comes in John 20:17, when Jesus says to Mary, in the famous Latin rendering of the words, “Noli me tangere,” which has commonly been translated, “Do not touch me.”This, however, is not the most accurate translation — either in Latin or English — of the Greek, which really means something like, “Do not cling to me” or “Do not retain me.”
So, no, Jesus is not engaging in misogynistic behavior here. Nor is he (as some modern commentators suggest) alluding to a supposed former intimate relationship between him and Mary. This is not about touching; it is about understanding who Jesus is and what his mission is. After all, Thomas is invited to touch the wounds of Jesus in John 20:27. No, Jesus tells Mary to let go of him, to look beyond the moment, to the future. After all, his very next words direct her to go to the apostles and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” ( John 20:17). Knowing Jesus for who he is, we cannot stand still. We have to move, get out, and share the marvelous news that in Jesus the barriers between humanity and God are dissolved.
Which, of course, Mary Magdalene does. All of the evangelists agree that she was the first to announce this Good News to the apostles, who, more often than not, responded with skepticism.
But such is the way it has always been. God always chooses the least in the world’s eyes, the unexpected and the despised, to do his most important work. To see this event only through the prism of politics, and to be inspired by it to think only about gender roles and such, is to be willfully blinded to the greater reality: Jesus lives, Jesus saves, and as we are touched by this truth, we are, at the same time, called to go out and share it.
Mary of the Bible
Mary Magdalene’s future in Christian spirituality and iconography is rich, evocative, and even confusing, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters. But it all begins here, with powerful simplicity and themes that will resonate through the centuries.
Mary Magdalene, healed of possession, responds to Jesus with a life of faithful discipleship. As spiritual writers and theologians will point out, she’s like the Bride in the Song of Songs. She’s like the Church itself, called by Christ out of bondage to the evils that pervade our world, giving ourselves over to him in gratitude, waiting with hope by the tomb, even when all seems lost, and rewarded, in a small, grace-filled moment, when, in the midst of darkness, we hear him call our name.
Questions for Reflection
- What does Mary’s desire to hold on to Jesus symbolize to you? How do you experience this in your own life?
- Why is Mary referred to as “Apostle to the Apostle
- What can Mary’s fidelity teach you about your own relation-ship to Jesus?
De-Coding Mary Magdalene by Amy Welborn