April 4: John 20:17

John 20:17

Yeshua says to her: “You must not attach yourself to me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father. But you must travel toward my brothers, and say to them, ‘I step up toward my Father and your Father, and (toward) my God and your God’.”

Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in 20:17 represent perhaps the most challenging (and controversial) detail of the Johannine resurrection narrative. Much attention has been paid to the precise meaning of the prohibition “you must not attach yourself [a%ptou] to me…”, but this tends to ignore the reason given by Jesus in the words immediately following: “…for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”. The verb a)nabai/nw (lit. “step up”), is common enough, frequently used in narrative in a general sense (i.e. “go up” {to a place}); however, in the Gospel of John, it has a special theological (and Christological) meaning, along with the related verb katabai/nw (“step down”). In the account of Jesus’ baptism, katabai/nw is used to describe the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (1:32-33, cf. Mk 1:10); similarly, in the visionary scene of Jesus’ saying in 1:51, katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw are used together (i.e. Angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man).

In the Johannine Discourses, katabai/nw refers to the descent of the Son of God to earth as a human being, especially in the Bread of Life discourse (6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58). In descending from heaven, the Son comes to earth from the Father, and is ultimately to ascend back to Him. This is the context of a)nabai/nw in 6:62, and also in 3:13, where the two verbs are paired together. The Son’s ascension (return) to the Father occurs with the completion of his earthly mission—that is, his sacrificial death. In early Christian thought, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus were closely connected, almost to the point of being considered part of a single event (Acts 2:32-33; 1 Pet 3:21-22, etc). This tends to run contrary to the thinking of later Christians, where the “ascension” of Jesus is fixed in terms of the narrative in Luke-Acts (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:1-3ff, 9-11), as a separate event occurring at least forty days after the resurrection, following a number of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. I have discussed this at length in an earlier set of articles.

The references in the Gospel of John to Jesus’ ascension (“stepping up”) to the Father are complicated, because they function on two different levels:

    • Jesus ascends to the Father, then returns to the disciples, and they receive the Spirit
    • Jesus ascends (departs) to the Father, only to return at a future (end) time, and believers receive the Spirit

The first level involves the traditional narrative, and the historical traditions regarding the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. At the second level, the same dynamic of the historical tradition is repeated again for all future believers. Jesus’ words to Mary refer to the first level (i.e. the first ascension); that is to say, after his resurrection, Jesus ascends (“steps up”) to the Father, and is then able to give to his disciples the Spirit when he appears to them (vv. 19-23).

Why does Jesus give the prohibitive command to Mary (“You must not attach yourself to me”)? The Johannine understanding of the resurrection (outlined above) fits uneasily in this narrative framework. It would have made much more sense for Jesus to ascend immediately after his resurrection, without the initial appearance to Mary. However, this would have been impossible, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative; the historical tradition of a post-resurrection appearance to certain women (and Mary, specifically) was so well-established that it had to be included. In the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus appears to a group of women that included Mary (Mk 16:1ff par), while in John, it is to Mary alone. It is not entirely clear whether this difference is specific to the Johannine Tradition, or whether it reflects an intentional simplification of the scene, for literary and dramatic effect. In any case, the Johannine interpretation of the resurrection takes place within the historical-traditional context of the appearance to Mary.

Beyond this, the exchange between Jesus and Mary does have genuine theological significance, and it is important to the Johannine narrative. It establishes a contrast between the disciples (believers), relating to Jesus in terms of his earthly human life, rather than through the presence and power of the Spirit. As Jesus notes in his famous saying in 6:63: “The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. giving] life, the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)…”. Mary was seeking to unite with Jesus again at the level of the flesh (i.e. human friendship/discipleship), whereas the true and proper union of the believer with Jesus can only take place through the Spirit; and, the Spirit cannot be given until Jesus ascends to the Father.

That is the very point Jesus makes to his disciples in the Last Discourse, in 16:7:

“But I relate to you the truth: it bears together (well) for you that I should go away. For if I should not go away, the (One) called alongside [para/klhto$] will not come toward you; but if I travel (away), I will send him toward you.”

For the disciples, this was fulfilled in the Passion and Resurrection, with the sending of the Spirit, narrated briefly, but pictorially, in 20:22. This serves as the type-pattern for all future believers, who receive the Spirit, though no longer in the visible presence of Jesus on earth (cf. 20:29ff and 17:20-23). Until Jesus goes away (ascends, “steps up”) to the Father, he does not send the Spirit.

The relationship between the Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus is often ignored or neglected by Christians. One main reason for this, I think, is the overriding influence of the narrative in Acts 1-2, which effectively separates the coming/sending of the Spirit from the Resurrection. The Spirit is recognized in commemoration of Pentecost, not Easter/Resurrection Sunday. The situation would be different, however, if we focused instead on the narrative in the Gospel of John. Not only does the sending of the Spirit function clearly as the climactic moment of the resurrection narrative in chapter 20, but Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete is central to the Last Discourse that precedes his Passion. I will discuss this further in the next daily note, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), when we turn to Paul’s famous discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Women in Gnosticism

This supplemental article deals more directly with the question of women and female imagery in the Gnostic writings and teachings from the early centuries A.D. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of this subject (cf. the discussion in Part 9, and also my article on Gnosticism), I felt it worth devoting a separate short article to explore it further. While it is not possible to say whether, or to what extent, women had greater freedom of participation among the supposed Gnostic groups (described by Irenaeus, et al), when reading the actual writings which survive—primarily in the collection of texts from Nag Hammadi [NH]—one is struck by certain language and imagery that is often quite different from what we find in the New Testament and early Church Fathers, and which makes significant use of female symbolism. I would isolate four main aspects or components to Gnostic thought in this regard, which may also be grouped together in related pairs:

    • (1) Inclusion of female disciples alongside the male
      (2) The goal for the disciple to “transcend” the duality/multiplicity of the created order (male-female), reuniting that which has been separated
    • (1) The process of creation/fall, described in the mythological (and sexual) language of birth/generation/propagation, involving the interaction of male and female powers
      (2) Birth and sexual imagery is also applied to the believer (gnostic), at the intellectual and spiritual level, who ultimately seeks to transcend these powers and return to the Eternal Father

I begin the discussion with reference to the the role of female disciples of Jesus in the Gnostic traditions, and two in particular—Mary Magdalene and Salome.

We know from Mark 15:40-41 par and Luke 8:1-3 that a number of women followed along with Jesus and the other disciples; they served and ministered in their own way, though there is no indication that they were ever sent out to preach and work miracles (Mark 6:6b-13 par; Luke 10:1-12). Some of these women made the last journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and were standing by watching at his death; Mary Magdalene and Salome are mentioned prominently among them in Mark 15:40 par. All four Gospels attest to the core tradition that women were the first to see the empty tomb, hear the Angelic announcement of the resurrection, and see/meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:1-8, [9-11]; Matt 28:1-10; Luke 24:1-11, 22-24; John 20:1-2, 11-18). Though the names and combinations of women differ slightly, Mary Magdalene appears in all the accounts; this is rather remarkable (and absolutely reliable), considering the fact that she otherwise scarcely appears at all in Gospel tradition, nor in the New Testament (apart from Luke 8:2-3). She does, however, play a larger role in Gnostic traditions; her position, along with Salome, is due to several factors:

    • She experienced the reality of the resurrection before any other (male) disciples
    • According to Gospel tradition, the men were unwilling to accept her witness (i.e., revelation through the women)
    • She received direct communication (revelation) from Jesus which other disciples were (or may not have been) privy to
    • Her intimate relationship to Jesus, suggested by John 20:11-18 (and/or underlying traditions)

In several Gnostic texts, Mary (and/or Salome) is counted among the closest disciples of Jesus, to whom he gives special teaching and insight. There are three illustrative passages from the so-called Gospel of Thomas—a collection of more than 100 sayings by Jesus (many similar to those in the canonical Gospels), probably dating from the early 2nd century, preserved in Coptic (from Nag Hammadi, NH II.2) as well in several Greek fragments. Here are the passages, listed by logion (saying) number and NHL reference:

Log. §§21-22 [37]—Two partially related sayings are joined together. The first (21) begins with a question by Mary: “Whom are Your disciples like?” Jesus responds with an agricultural illustration similar to a number in the Synoptic Gospels: “They are like children who have settled in a field which is not theirs…” (italics mine). There is a definite gnostic (and Gnostic) sense to this saying—the field is the fallen (material) world in which the disciple (the Soul) is trapped. There is danger and testing until the time of the harvest, which is probably to be understood in negative terms, as a warning—i.e., do not let yourselves be caught up in the way of the world, lest you be plucked away by those (powers) which belong to it. The second saying (22) is again similar to several in the Synoptics, in Jesus’ use of children to illustrate entrance into the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-15 par; Matt 18:3-4). Jesus states that infants being suckled “are like those who enter the Kingdom”. When the disciples ask if they will, or should, enter the Kingdom as children, Jesus responds:

“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female… then you will enter [the Kingdom].”

There are two main points to Jesus’ instruction here, which again has a very gnostic sound to it: (1) the need to transcend the dualistic character of the created order (which includes gender distinction and sexuality), and (2) the importance of interpreting the material, conventional aspects of the world in an intellectual and spiritual sense. A similar saying by Jesus is attested in at least two other early sources (early/mid-2nd century)—2 Clement 12 and the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians” (for more detail, cf. my note on Galatians 3:28).

Log. §61 [43]—A curious (and provocative) episode involving Salome is narrated here, a kind of mini-dialogue with Jesus, which seems to build upon an earlier (authentic?) saying:

(Saying): “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live” (cf. Matt 24:40-41 par)
Salome: “Who are You, man, that You {…} have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?”
Jesus: “I am He who exists from the Undivided. I was given some of the things of My father.”
Salome: “I am Your disciple.”
(Saying): “Therefore I say, if he is <undivided>, he will be filled with light, but if he is divided, he will be filled with darkness.”

The concluding saying, perhaps also inspired from Synoptic tradition (cf. Matt 6:22-23 par), is more decidedly Gnostic (cf. below), and probably is intended here as a kind of commentary or interpretation on the first saying. In between is the mini-scene with Salome, which might suggest the conversion of a sinful woman (a prostitute?), along the lines associated with Mary Magdalene in later tradition (blending Lk 7:36-50 and 8:2). However, in the immediate context, it more likely symbolizes Jesus’ rescue of the disciple from the divided material world, back to the undivided Eternal light.

Log. §114 [50]—This saying concludes the Gospel and well reflects the uniquely Gnostic use of women (and Mary Magdalene) in their traditions. It begins with a very ‘orthodox’ (in the worst sense) and sexist-sounding declaration by Simon Peter: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life”. To which Jesus responds:

“I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This gender-based language is strange (and repellent) from our standpoint today, and can be easily misunderstood. The statement really is another way of approaching the same issue addressed in §22 (cf. above)—that the disciple must transcend the fallen material condition of the world, which is bound by dualistic categories, including male-female (i.e. gender distinction and sexuality). Gnostics, like many other Christians of the 2nd century, espoused a strong ascetic ideal, which involved celibacy and the renunciation of sexuality, marriage and childbearing. All such gender-based distinctions are to be reinterpreted spiritually. For women, to become “like a man” is different terminology for bridging the same gulf, based on the male-dominated mindset of the period (cf. below).

To see how some of these themes play out in other Gnostic writings, I offer here a brief survey of three specific texts, followed by a concluding note.

The Dialogue of the Savior [NH III.5]

Mary (Mariam) is among the disciples (along with Matthew and Judas) who ask questions of Jesus [126, 131-2, 134-5, 137, 139, 140ff], and, at one point, is marked as having special insight—”(she) spoke this word as a woman who knew the All” [139.10]. However, it is important to realize that the three disciples in the dialogue, even more so than in the Gospel of Thomas (cf. above), essentially symbolize the Soul of the believer (gnostic), who is brought to saving knowledge of his/her true (spiritual and religious) identity by the Redeemer Jesus. Several passages are worth citing:

    • It is said that the disciple(s)—i.e. the divine Soul—will rule over the powers/archons of the world, transcending the material condition, described in evocative symbolic language: “when you remove envy from you, then you will clothe yourselves with the light and enter into the bridal chamber” [138.15ff]
    • This imagery of “clothing oneself” draws upon early Christian metaphor, especially connected with the ritual of Baptism (Gal 3:27; cf. also Rom 13:12-14; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2ff; Col 3:10ff; Eph 4:24). Similarly here—disciples (gnostics, the Soul) are to strip themselves of the earthly/material and “clothe themselves” with garments of light (i.e. reveal the divine light) [143.20]
    • The recognition of one’s true identity (the light) frees one from bondage to the fallen material world and eliminates the distinctions associated with it, often described in gender-specific terms (male-female)—”Pray in the place where there is no woman”, “Destroy the works of womanhood”, “The works of womanhood will dissolve” [144-146] (cf. above on Gosp. Thom. §114).
The (First) Apocalypse of James [NH V.3]

This text offers a relatively clear presentation of Gnostic symbolism, describing the return of the Soul to the pre-existent Father. “Femaleness” is specifically tied to the generation/propagation of the powers and the universe (the created world) [24.25]. Twelve hebdomads (sevens)—that is, the archons or powers—are parallel to the Twelve disciples. James is instructed on how to transcend the powers and return to Him (the Father). We also read of women (seven or four?) who have been Jesus’ disciples [38-41], especially Salome and Mary (Mariam)—on these two, cf. above. Here, again, the inclusion of women is necessary to symbolize the transcending of the material condition, marked by gender-distinction—i.e. the ascent of the Soul: “the perishable has gone up to the imperishable, and the female element has attained to this male element” [41.15].

The Gospel of Philip [NH II.3]

The Gospel of Philip is one of the best known texts from Nag Hammadi, often attributed to Valentinian Gnostics and dated to mid-3rd century. The work abounds with male-female and sexual imagery, which is interpreted and applied spiritually, according to Gnostic principles. The basic principle involves the resolution of duality back to the original unity [53.15ff]. Much use is made of the Genesis Creation account to illustrate this. The (apparent) multiplicity in creation is marked by names (Gen 2:19-20), which are necessary in order to teach the Truth. The envious Powers took the names and bound Man (to the worldly order of things). Jesus came to undo this, bringing saving knowledge out of this condition, as described pictorially in the episode of Jesus at the dye-works of Levi: the 72 colors come out all white by Jesus [63.25]. Or, stated another way, “The children of the bridal chamber have just one name” [72.20]. A distinctly Gnostic view of this process of salvation is detailed in 56-58: the Soul is a precious thing which came to be in a contemptible body [56.25]—the light/spirit in the flesh (invisible in the visible) was rescued by Christ and will ‘rise’. This essentially involves a docetic view of Christ [57-58]. For the purposes of our discussion here, the following images should be noted:

    • Believers are begotten spiritually, symbolized by the kiss [58-59]
    • Three women walked with Jesus, all named Mary—his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene (his companion/lover) [59.5-10]
    • The true Mother is Wisdom (Sophia) [59.25-30; 63.20]
    • Mary was Jesus’ companion, whom he loved [63-64], parallel to Mary the mother (Wisdom)—Jesus’ relationship with Mary symbolizes the wisdom/understanding which the other disciples still lack

Especially significant is the nuptial imagery—marriage and the “bridal chamber”—used prominently in the second half of the text. For believers (gnostics), it is all to be realized spiritually, connected with the symbolism of the baptism rite and chrism (anointing)—light/fire (soul/spirit) come into being in the water [67]. This bridal chamber belongs to the “free men and virgins”. The ritual (baptism/bridal-chamber) symbolizes the spiritual (re)union of that which was divided (just as Eve was separated from Adam). The Divine joined with the man Jesus to effect this reunion [68-71]. True marriage (and sexual intercourse) is not fleshly—but “husband and wife” symbolize Spirit uniting with Spirit [82]. The bridal chamber remains hidden in the current order of creation [84.15-20]. “If anyone becomes a son of the bridal chamber, he will receive the light” [86.5].

Conclusion

Whatever oddities and/or errors one may find in these Gnostic writings, there is a certain appeal (for many modern readers at least) in their extensive use of female types and symbols. The use of the figure of Mary Magdalene, in particular, has caught the fancy of the popular imagination, and well demonstrates, I think, how little the ancient Gnostic way of thinking relates to the modern. I believe the examples cited above show clearly enough two main points: (1) how and why characters such as Mary and Salome functioned, as disciples receiving special insight (revelation) from Jesus, and (2) that the inclusion of female disciples was essential to Gnostic symbolism and interpretation. It is not a matter of merely recording historical traditions about Mary and Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2; Jn 20:11-18); rather, any core traditions have undergone an elaborate (and often radical) re-interpretation. The outlines of this process can be glimpsed in the surviving pieces of the writing known as the Gospel of Mary (Coptic version in the Berlin Gnostic codex, along with another Greek fragment), dated perhaps as early as the latter part of the 2nd century. A Gnostic revelation regarding salvation, i.e. of the Soul from the powers of the world, is couched in the context of Mary’s post-resurrection announcement to the disciples (Peter, Levi, etc)—cf. Lk 24:10ff; [Mark 16:10f]; John 20:18. As in the Synoptic narrative, many of the disciples are unwilling to accept Mary’s word (“I at least do not believe that the Savior said this… Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge… Did he prefer her to us?”). Peter, at first wants to hear Mary (“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you… tell us the words… which you remember, which you know but we do not…”), but, upon listening to her, doubts that she brings genuine revelation. It is the disciple Levi who offers (the pro-Gnostic) support for Mary’s words:

“…I see you [i.e. Peter] contending against the woman like the adversaries (do). But if the Savior has made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as he commanded us, and preach the gospel…”

How far did these Gnostic groups go in the inclusion of women as equals, such as the text itself suggests? This is difficult to say, as we have very little direct evidence on the matter, one way or the other. There is at least one Gnostic writing which was addressed to a female believer—Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, surviving only in fragments, preserved in book 33 of the Panarion by Epiphanius. It deals primarily with a specific (Gnostic) approach to the Old Testament Scriptures. What is particularly worth noting, however, is the nuanced, relatively sophisticated (and semi-critical) treatment of the material. Flora must have been an educated and religiously astute person, who, one may assume, wished to know more about such questions, from the “Gnostic” point of view. It is to be regretted that more such writings—whether Orthodox or Gnostic—from this period have not come down to us.

The quotations and short extracts of Gnostic writings, included above, are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library [NHL], ed. James M. Robinson (Brill: 1978), translating from the Coptic:
“The Gospel of Thomas”, transl. by Thomas O. Lambdin, pp. 117-30
“The Gospel of Philip”, transl. by Wesley W. Isenberg, pp. 131-51
“The Dialogue of the Savior”, transl. by Harold W. Attridge, pp. 229-38
“The First Apocalypse of James”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 242-8
“The Gospel of Mary”, transl. by Douglas M. Parrott, pp. 471-4

April 12 (2): John 20:11-18

For the three days of Easter (in the afternoon), I will be discussing three Resurrection Appearances of Jesus: (1) to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), (2) to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and (3) to Thomas. Interestingly, these persons are hardly even mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels. As for Mary Magdalene, her presence at the tomb, with Jesus’ early appearance to her, is a fixture in Gospel tradition—indeed, it is one of the indisputable facts in the Resurrection Narratives. And, while the basic outline may be the same in all four Gospels, how different are the precise details! John’s account is perhaps the best known, but is complicated by the presence of Peter and the Beloved Disciple (20:2-10)—the narrative makes more sense (and is more consistent with the Synoptics) if one reads 20:1 followed by vv. 11-18.

Looking at the episode in vv. 11-18, I highlight three principal motifs: First, an initial lack of recognition of the risen Jesus (vv. 14-15)—a motif which occurs in other Appearance stories (Luke 24:13-35; John 21:1-14). However, in John we also find repeatedly the motif of the audience misunderstanding what they see or hear Jesus saying or doing; in this instance, it is Jesus himself that Mary misunderstands (“…supposing that he is the gardener”). The verb here is doke/w, which has a fairly wide range of meaning: “think, consider, seem, appear, recognize”; a derived word is do/ca (usually translated “glory”), but which has the general sense of “thought, consideration, what seems (to be), what appears (to be)” (only secondarily does one speak of do/ca as “reputation, esteem, honor, glory, etc”). In the context of the Person of Christ, one naturally also relates the word to “docetic/docetism”—that Christ only appeared or seemed to be fully human. So, the word may have a deeper meaning here than it appears at first glance. It is only when Mary hears Jesus say her name, that she recognizes him.

This leads to the second Johannine motif of seeing and hearing. These appear frequently in both the narratives (miracle stories) and the discourses, and are often a source of misunderstanding (cf. 9:39-41, etc) for the audience. Jesus stresses repeatedly that he only says (and does) what he sees and hears the Father saying/doing (5:19-20, 30; 12:49-50, etc); similarly, believers will see and hear what Jesus says and does (5:24; 8:47; 12:47-49; 14:10, 24; 17:24, etc), which leads to the experience of (eternal) life in Christ (5:25, 28; 6:63, 68; 8:51; 12:50; and cf. the raising of Lazarus, 11:1-44). So, when Mary hears Jesus say her name, and recognizes his voice, it is not merely a dramatic narrative detail: one may say she is herself coming out of the tomb at the sound of his voice (5:25, 28); for she truly hears his voice (10:3-5, 16, 27; 18:37 [“all who are of the truth hear my voice”]). She also sees, that is, she recognizes Christ; just as only those who belong to the truth can hear God’s voice, so only those who are “born from above” can see the kingdom of God (3:3).

However, Mary’s understanding is not complete. This brings me to the third motif of ascension. Perhaps the most famous (and controversial) part of this narrative is in verse 17. Upon recognizing Jesus, Mary turns to him and calls to him (“Rabbi/Teacher”); Jesus’ response is: mh\ mou a%ptou ou&pw ga\r a)nabe/bhka pro\$ to\n pate/ra, “do not touch me, for not yet have I gone up toward the Father”. The verb a%ptw generally means “connect, fasten, bind”, or, more figuratively, “touch”; in this regard, one may “touch” either lightly or strongly (“handle, cling to”, etc). The exact context and meaning of Jesus’ words here remain in dispute, with any number of suggested interpretations (many exotic or implausible); however, since the precise action is not specified, I believe they should be taken in a more symbolic fashion. Mary responds to Jesus in a natural, human way (addressing him as “Teacher”); whether or not she might actually try to embrace or “cling to” him physically, that would seem to be the underlying reality—she seeks to “touch” Jesus at the physical, rather than spiritual, level. So we have Jesus’ answer: “I have not yet gone up [i.e. ascended] to the Father”. This image of going up, taking up, lifting up, etc. occurs in Jesus’ teaching throughout the Gospel, related to both his death and resurrection, and to his return to the Father. Particularly, in the last Discourses, does he refer to this “going away” (13:33-36; 14:2-4, 16-19, 26-31; 16:5-16, 19-24, 28; 17:11-13), back to the Father, which, in many instances at least, Jesus connects directly with the sending of the Spirit/Paraclete. It is by the Spirit that we are able to “touch” and “cling to” Christ, and only by the Spirit (being born from the Spirit, “from above”) that we can see and enter into the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is also reflected in the powerful language of union/unity expressed by Jesus throughout the Gospel (see especially chapter 17), and, I think, stated clearly again in Jesus’ closing words to Mary: “but go toward my brothers and say to them, ‘I go up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God‘”.

April 8 (3): Mark 14:3-9 par

Traditionally, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany inaugurates the Passion as celebrated during Holy Week. In addition to its poignancy, and spiritual teaching, the episode (or episodes) are immensely instructive for studying the ways in which the Gospel writers may have dealt with early tradition. Each Gospel contains an Anointing episode: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8. The account in Matthew and Mark, occurring after Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, is virtually identical; John’s account is similar, but is placed prior to Jesus’ Entry; Luke’s account is, in most respects, quite different, and is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry. A strict traditional-conservative approach might end up positing three separate events, but this is quite improbable; the choice, rather, is between one event, or two. Many critical scholars posit a single incident which branched off in early tradition to form the kernel of the Gospel narratives we have now. A more reasonable critical approach, I think, is to assume two historical episodes: one matching Matthew/Mark and John, one matching that found in Luke. Very straightforward; however, the situation is actually more complicated than that. For, despite the very different setting of Luke’s account, there are details which curiously match John’s account (against Matthew/Mark), and even several which match the account in Matthew/Mark (against John). I offer some comparisons here below; since Matthew and Mark are nearly identical, I will use Mark’s account for comparison.

Details common to Mark/Matthew and John:

    1. Setting in Bethany, near the time of Passover, in proximity to the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 14:1, 3; John 12:1, 9ff)
    2. A woman (apparently a disciple: in John it is Mary of Bethany) pours perfume on Jesus as he reclines (Mark 14:3; John 12:2)
    3. The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
    4. The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
    5. Mention is made of the cost, and that the money could be sold and given to the poor (Mark and John use almost identical language, including mention of the price [“300 denari”])
    6. Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
    7. The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)

Details common to John and Luke:

    1. The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
    2. Mention is specifically made of “anointing” (form of a)lei/fw, John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of “pouring [out]” (kataxe/w, Mark 14:3)
    3. Mention is made of wiping Jesus feet with her hair (however, in Luke the woman wipes her tears; in John, apparently, she wipes the perfume [?])

Details common to Mark/Matthew and Luke:

    1. The name of the man hosting the feast is, apparently, Simon (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:40ff)—apparently, two different men with the same name [?]
    2. Mention is made of the woman carrying an “alabaster box/jar” [a)la/bastron] (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37)

How does one explain so many coincidental details across two very different story settings (Matthew/Mark & John vs. Luke)? Critical scholars generally assume details have been transferred/distorted during transmission (presumably in the early oral stage); but I wonder, at least in the case of Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke contains no Passion-week Anointing scene, which is strange, if, as many scholars assume, he knew and made use of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems most unlikely that he could have confused the story he records in 7:36-50 with the later Bethany scene. This, perhaps, could be seen as evidence that Luke did not use Mark; but, I think it at least possible that Luke has intentionally omitted the Bethany scene (from whatever common tradition he knew), and has merged details from it into his own account set earlier in the ministry. This might explain the curious detail of anointing Jesus’ feet (v. 38): tears falling on his feet makes more sense, but pouring perfume on the feet? Yet the author had to know as well how odd this might appear—either, then, he simply records an unusual fact, or he purposefully includes the detail from the Bethany scene in the context of the sinful woman. Even harder to explain is John’s mention of anointing the feet, since the parallel account in Matthew/Mark specifically mentions anointing the head (not the feet). Is it possible that John has intentionally modified his narrative, just as Luke has, but in the opposite direction?— details from the anointing by the ‘sinful Woman’ (which John does not record) have merged into his account of the Anointing at Bethany. Whether accidental (in early transmission) or intentional (by the Gospel writer), details between the two stories have somehow merged together. Is it justifiable or proper to read the texts this way?

From the standpoint of Church Tradition, of course, such a ‘merging’ clearly occurred. For the “Mary” of John’s account (who is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus), became joined together with the “Sinful Woman” of Luke’s account, in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Under the influence of Luke 8:2 (and Mark 16:9), which states that “seven daimons went out of” her, the traditional story developed of Mary’s former life as a prostitute, from which she repented and became a follower of Jesus. When she appears at the tomb, the perfume she carries (for anointing Jesus’ body) is the same with which she anointed him once before!

Perhaps we should at least consider meditating on both women at the same time: the devout disciple (Mary) who anoints Jesus’ head (and feet?) as an act of worship and consecration; with the (anonymous) “sinful” woman who wipes tears and anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship and repentance. “Righteous and Sinner at the same time”, in Luther’s famous phrase (simul iustus et peccator). John’s Gospel sums up the scene (and result) of this offering beautifully: h( de\ oi)ki/a e)plhrw/qh e)k th=$ o)smh=$ tou= mu/rou, “and the house was filled of the smell of perfume” (12:3).

For more on the Anointing scene, see the notes on this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The image of the repentant Magdalene came to be very popular in the West, a symbol of penitence and the ascetic ideal—a visceral image to be sure, very suited to individual dynamism of the Renaissance (one thinks immediately of Donatello’s great sculpture, see right). The story of her life as prostitute, her conversion, repentance, and appearance at the tomb on Easter, expanded in legend over the years, culminating with her appearance (along with Martha and Lazarus) in southern France. The Magdalene story would go on to maintain a position in both art and ritual for centuries in the Western Church.