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The Legend of Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Lovis Corinth - "The Deposition"

Out of the four gospels, it is the Gospel of John’s portrayal of the resurrection that has probably most captured the human imagination, mainly for its depiction of the encounter outside the tomb between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Hinting at a strong emotional bond between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the scene is—in a word—titillating.

Early on the morning of the third day after the crucifixion, we have Mary rising and making her way to the burial place where she discovers the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Mystified, she returns to the city and tells the disciples, two of whom go running to the tomb to see for themselves. The two disciples are Peter and a mysterious fellow who is alluded to several times in the gospel but never identified by name, being referred to only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”—and who today we refer to simply as the “Beloved Disciple.” Arriving at the tomb, Peter and his companion find it just as Mary has described—empty—and equally as mystified, they return to the city, leaving the Magdalene standing there by herself.

Reluctant to follow them back to the city, Mary begins to weep. And entering the tomb once more, she discovers it this time not empty but occupied—by two angels dressed in white—who inquire of her why she is weeping.

“They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,” she replies tearfully.

Still weeping but turning back to the doorway of the tomb now, she suddenly sees a man standing there whom she believes at first to be the gardener and only after a few confused moments realizes it is Jesus. “Woman, why are you crying?” he asks. “Who is it you are looking for?” (As if he didn’t know!)

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him,” she replies, still, incredibly, not recognizing him.

But then it finally comes to her: it is Jesus.

“Mary,” he says to her, in what we can imagine must have been the tenderest of voices.

The scene, as depicted, is extremely heart-rending and poignant, so much so that for 20 centuries now it has managed to fire the imaginations of artists, writers, poets, and composers, some of whom have depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene as lovers, as husband and wife, as having a child together, etc. One artist who obviously drew inspiration from the story is Lovis Corinth, whose magnificent painting, “The Deposition,” appears above.

Human emotions being what they are, it is natural for people to take the romantic view. But is there any actual historical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene herself may have been the mysterious Beloved Disciple? Some have looked to the large body of ancient Gnostic texts as providing an answer to this. Most of these texts date to the second century and a sizeable number of them—previously unknown—were discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, that discovery being known today as the “Nag Hammadi Library.” What we find in some of these writings is a greatly expanded-upon view of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. In the Gospel of Philip, for instance, the two are seen kissing, apparently quite passionately. In the Pistis-Sophia, Mary becomes “the inheritor of the light,” while in another text, Dialogue of the Savior—believed to be one of the earliest Gnostic texts, dating to the first century—she is elevated to “the woman who knew the all,” and who reveals the “greatness of the revealer.” There is even a text that bears her name, the Gospel of Mary, in which she is described as consoling the grieving, fearful disciples after the crucifixion.

The key question, of course, is did the Gnostics, being much, much closer to the time of Jesus, have some inside information that has been lost to us today? Or were they simply titillated by the same passage in John and responding to it precisely as have so many others—by allowing their imaginations to roam? Perhaps one way to get at this is by asking ourselves: Why was the name of the Beloved Disciple redacted from the text of the Gospel of John? Why, in the book’s final edit, was this person referred to simply as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”?

Some years ago, when I was doing research for my novel, The Memoirs of Saint John, I came across an article entitled Mary Magdalene: Author of the Fourth Gospel? , by Ramon K. Jusino. In examining each reference to the Beloved Disciple found in the Gospel of John (there are seven in all) Jusino comes to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene was indeed this person. He further posits that she was the “founder and hero” of what is referred to today as the “Johannine Community”—the group of first-century Christians which produced the Gospel of John. In other words, the fourth gospel was authored not by John the son of Zebedee, as church tradition has long held, but by Mary Magdalene, Jusino is saying. Of course, what we know today as the Gospel of John is very different from the gospel as it appeared in its original form. Redactors came along later, most likely after Mary Magdalene’s death, and rewrote portions of the text, in the course of which the Beloved Disciple’s real name was obscured—in Jusino’s view because male members of the sect were embarrassed at their community’s having been founded and led by a woman.

I believe the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi texts, particularly in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip, is consistent with the portrayal of her in the New Testament’s Gospel of John. In each case she is portrayed as the primary proclaimer of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

A lot of people correctly point out that there is no biblical support for seeing Mary Magdalene as the “repentant whore.” And they talk about her great role in the founding of the early church. But what was that role? The New Testament and the Nag Hammadi Library both agree on this — she gave her life to Jesus as Savior. She was the first to proclaim the message of the Resurrected Lord. Every Easter, Christians celebrate the event that was first proclaimed by Mary Magdalene (John 20:18).

In other words, this woman not only loved Jesus, but she went on, after his death, to found one of the most important sects in the early years of Christianity, a sect which seems to have rivaled the churches set up and ministered to by the Apostle Paul. Yet as Jusino notes, the role played by women—not just Mary Magdalene, but all women—was deliberately minimized throughout history, and this, sadly, was especially true in the years of the early church.

The reason that the Beloved Disciple was turned into a man in the text was because this disciple was clearly the founder and hero of the community that produced this Gospel. At some point after the death of Jesus, the emerging male leadership of that community simply became embarrassed about having a female founder. (Remember, we’re dealing with male attitudes towards women 2,000 years ago.) In order to “mainstream” their community, they suppressed some of the more radical practices that Jesus taught them through his example — such as treating everyone with equal dignity and respect, including the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and women. Jesus apparently did not object to men and women sharing power and positions of leadership. Some of his successors, however, were not courageous enough to be so radical. So, in the case of the Gospel of John, the female Beloved Disciple had to become male.

Jusino’s theory seems all the more credible when we consider an early Gnostic group known as the Naassenes—led by a woman named “Mariamne,” and which seems to have been centered in Alexandria, Egypt. All we know of the Naassenes comes to us from one of their chief critics, Hippolytus, an early third century bishop whose avowed purpose was to “exterminate the monster” of heresy—not, one would think, a reliable or impartial source of information on a group like the Naassenes. Yet in his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus does us the invaluable service of quoting extensively from a Naassene document that evidently had come into his possession. As he tells it, the Naassenes believed “the serpent is a fluid substance” and that “Eden is the brain, as it were, bound and tightly fastened in encircling robes, as if in heaven.” The bishop seems to have had little understanding of the words, dismissing them largely as the “crazy notions of fools.” Yet some people have theorized that members of the Naassene sect were practicing a discipline similar to Kundalini yoga—a fascinating thought, perhaps, yet of course entirely speculative. However, there are some things about the Naasenes that can be reliably gleaned from the bishop’s text: a) that they were a Jewish-Christian sect; b) that their teacher was named Mariamne; c) they were centered in Egypt, most likely Alexandria; and d) that they highly prized one gospel above all others—yep, you guessed it, the Gospel of John. Hippolytus has them quoting it at some length.

Another thing to consider is that when we read the New Testament, Mary Magdalene’s role seems to be deliberately downplayed in places. Her final appearance in the Bible comes in John 20:18, in which she tells the other disciples of having seen the arisen Jesus. After that, nothing. Did she simply drop from sight at this point? Curiously, she is never mentioned in the Lukan Acts or the letters of Paul, a conspicuous-by-its-absence kind of thing, not unlike Paul’s failure to visit Alexandria on any of his missionary journeys, also quite curious. Rome, yes. Corinth, yes. Athens, check. Ephesus, quite naturally. All great cities of the empire, all visited by Paul. The apostle even discusses his intentions, in Romans 15, of journeying to Spain, some 2000 miles distant from Jerusalem. But no mention anywhere of a stop in Alexandria, a city which lay, parenthetically speaking, “just around the corner.” Home to a world-famous library. A city that would have been regarded as one of the most advanced on earth. Yet for some reason, Paul felt disinclined to evangelize there. Why? Could it be because someone of equal or even greater stature was already there? If so, who? Might it have been the Johannine Community/Naassenes?

It’s hard to answer that for sure, but what is clear is that leaders in the early church had far different views toward women than those held by Jesus himself. Consider the words of early Christian author Tertullian (c. 160-225 AD), who in a discussion about the role played by Eve in the downfall, castigated the female sex as a collective whole:

And do you not know that you are [each] an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.

Contrast that to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—a remarkable address for a lot of reasons, though especially striking is the manner in which he completely overturns traditional thinking on the sin of adultery. Whoever looks upon a woman in lust, he tells the crowd, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The upshot, as the Mary Magdalen scholar Susan Haskins has noted, is that it places the burden of the sin upon the beholder, rather than upon she who is beheld, essentially shattering the “woman as temptress” stereotype.

And of course we read of women followers, some of whom supported the group financially. From all the evidence, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would ever, in a million years, have issued a decree forbidding women from speaking aloud in his church. Yet by early second century this was precisely the direction in which the church was headed.

I would suggest, for those who are interested, reading Jusino’s article in its entirety. Judging from the copyright date, it would appear Jusino wrote the thesis in 1998, which, if so, would mean it predated Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by a good five years.

In summing up, I can only conclude that from all the evidence what we here is a man—Jesus—and a woman—Mary Magdalene—both of whom, regardless of what their relationship may have been to each other, were exceptional human beings in their own right.

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20 Responses to The Legend of Jesus and Mary Magdalene

  1. searching April 8, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    well,well, nice deliberations.
    If only there were true??
    First of all Jesus, for Christians ,is considered to be not only a man, a human being, but mainly a GOD, the GOD.
    The part of One God in 3 Persons (Trinity), who came down on earth to save our sorry souls and behinds from eternal condemnation and teach us how to behave.
    Since we are in a story/legend time, I will tell one story as well:)
    St Augustine tried to comprehend the idea of God, of holy Trinity. He thought, wondered, deliberated on it, and could not come up with anything certain,logical.
    One day he was walking along the seashore and saw a little boy, who made a hole in the sand, and using a small shell was carring water from the sea to the little, self-made hole in the ground.
    “What are you doing little boy?” St. Augustine asked: ” I am trying to move the sea into this hole in the sand” answered the boy.
    “But , but it is impossible, you won’t be able to do it in a 1000 years” said St Augustin.
    “The same goes for you trying to understand the MYSTERY of Holy Trinity”, answered the little boy.

    • Laura Stuart April 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

      “The same goes for you trying to understand the MYSTERY of Holy Trinity”, answered the little boy.

      These mysteries are exactly what made me leave a lifetime of Christianity for Islam.

      The fact that Jesus a.s. was up and walking about in the Garden of Gethsemane, feeling pain in his wounds and later went on to eat and drink would imply that he WAS NOT DEAD.

      • ariadna April 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

        Is it all “above board,” rational and without miracles in Islam (I know next to nothing about it)?

  2. searching April 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Life itself is a great mystery, and only one thing that we know for certain is the fact that we will die. We don’t know how and when, but we know that we do, one day. Otherwise everything else is unknown, uncertain, unpredictable…..
    The older I get, the less I know for sure.

    • Jonathon Blakeley April 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

      Very true. I like this article it has hidden depths. From Jesus to Mary to Kundalini Yoga and the Holy Trinity. Perhaps the holy trinity is a metaphor for Being/Non-Being and Becoming, to couch it in “Christian terms”. The Life of Jesus, the Death of Jesus and the resurrecton of Jesus.

      Or in another way Jesus as Being, God as Non-Being and Mary as the Becoming force of the Christos.

      • Richard Edmondson April 10, 2012 at 12:04 am #

        The Christian Trinity might also have been a modification of the Hindu trinity (Creator, Preserver, & Destroyer). All religions borrow things from other religions, which does not necessarily invalidate the religion–something that was recognized by the 19th century British scholar Max Muller, one of the first Western scholars to translate Buddhist texts into English.

        “There has never been in the whole history of the world what could be called an entirely new religion,” Muller said. “Every religion we know presupposes another religion, as every language presupposes an antecedent language.”

        Noting striking similarities between the teachings of Christ and those of the Buddha, Muller, who was Christian, divulged that rather than feeling threatened by these congruities between the two faiths, he counted himself “delighted,” for, as he put it, “Surely truth is not the less true because it is believed by the majority of the human race.”

    • ariadna April 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      So it is true that the older you get the wiser you get.
      I have kept waiting but it did not happen to me…

      • ariadna April 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

        The “older and wiser” comment was addressed to searching.
        Hard to tell with the way the comments string up.

        • searching April 8, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

          There was a guy, named Socrates, who said a famous line known as :”scio me nihil scire”, which basically means, ” I know that I know nothing”.
          I will fully endorse his humble statement even though it was made few thousands years ago.

          • ariadna April 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

            1. “I will fully endorse his humble statement”

            but you never got around to implementing it?

            2. It is not known if he ever said it. Might as well cite Plato.

            3. Why would Socrates speak Latin? Might as well write it in English.

          • searching April 9, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

            I love the way Latin sounds:). I am such a snob:)
            Plus, I’ve been “tortured” in my High School with Latin for 4 years, and the only thing that’s left in my memory from those formative years are a few proverbs.
            Quite an accomplishment:)
            I think the meaning of “scio me nihil scire” IS very deep.
            There is a time in life when one realizes that all his knowledge,experience inteligence, education ,etc. still won’t answer many of a very basic transcendetical/eschatologial questions.
            And then one has to /should rely on a faith, and hope, and of course on Love. Sometimes is good and wise to surrounder, but to surrounder to the One who is only the Love.

          • fool me once... April 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

            Some not so deep, but funny latin phrases for you searching ;)
            Mathis, merae fabulae sunt, et eas esse tales scis!
            solar, stipator stultus es optimatum!
            Eldon, rem veram non cognoscas etiamsi frontem tibi feriat!
            And one for special occasions;
            Te amat Iesus – ceteri te putant irrumatorem!

  3. Laura Stuart April 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    The Quran is very scientific and many scientists came to be Muslim by trying and failing to disprove the scientific facts presented in it. Maurice Buceille is a well known case, he wrote books about the creation, the drowning of pharoah etc The Bible is factually incorrect on the creation of the earth and universe the Quran is not.

    Interestingly enough in Quranic Arabic humans are called INSAN – which means in English “forgetful beings”. So yes we forget and make the same mistakes again and again and we always need reminding. Not much older and wiser then!

    • ariadna April 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

      “The Quran is very scientific and many scientists came to be Muslim by trying and failing to disprove the scientific facts presented in it.”

      Wow. I did not know that.

      “The Bible is factually incorrect on the creation of the earth and universe the Quran is not.”

      How is the Quran factually correct on the creation of the universe and what does “factually” mean?

      Does it say anything about the deluge and Noah’s ark and how the animals that could not swim sank to the bottom and thus they can be found in the lower strata of archeological digs or is this only the christian creationists explanation?

  4. Simorgh April 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    The flood story (Noah’s arc) is a Sumerian tale that predates Hebrew scripture retelling of it by several hundred years. When archeologists uncovered Sumerian literature (clay tablets etc) in mid-19th century, Judaism & Christianity began to unravel. Having been ‘biblically literate’ for only a few hundred years (ie printing press was only since 1450s, and into 1700s not that many Europeans could read), biblical beliefs were totally upended by ‘revelation’ that ‘revealed’ bible was not only not ‘revealed’ but plagiarised. Both Jewry and Christianity have been furiously engaged in damage control ever since, but the truth just keeps leaking out. See for example https://ashraf62.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/in-ancient-egypt-canaan-revisited-without-israel/#comment-1626 and especially this biting comment on that forum: “even Sigmund Freud wrote that the biblical story of the exodus did not make any real sense if studied rationally. And when you add in the Temple Pomegranate and Jehoash Tablet forgeries, you begin to see the entire Old Testament (and the religious foundation for the state of Israel) rests on a fantasy from thousands of years ago created by primitive tribal nomads trying to convince themselves that they mattered.”

    priceless: “primitive tribal nomads trying to convince themselves that they mattered.”

    From the time we leave our mother’s womb life is one long journey into the realization that we are not the center of the universe. Some people handle it better than others.

  5. Laura Stuart April 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    This is the problem with believing that Judaism and Christianity are separate religions. Noah Abraham Moses etc all Messengers who came from God to the people with the same message. God is ONE and the message is universal. The story of Noah is in the Quran.

    • aemathisphd April 9, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

      That’s your belief and that’s fine, but it isn’t the belief of either Jews or Christians. Further, Jews don’t accept the primacy of Muhammad as a prophet, nor are Christians ready to part with the notion of a triune godhead. As such, whether you believe they began as the same religion or not, they’re different religions now.

      That the story of Noah is in the Qur’an proves nothing one way or the other. It’s also in the Torah. Then, there’s this story about Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic that is eerily similar to the Noah story. Seems fishy.

  6. Laura Stuart April 10, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    Some Christians do not believe in the Trinity – the Unitarians for example. I wouldn’t say they were different religions rather people have interpreted the message in different way or deviated from the original message, carried along by their whims and desires. In fact many Jews did accept Mohammed p.b.u.h. as a Prophet and became Muslims particularly the Jews of Medina.
    Adriana i think I might be pushing the limits if I start posting too many links on the Quran. You can just google Quran and Science or Quran and whatever you want to know. Try searching Dr Maurice Bucaille as I think he has written quite a lot about this topic. No the Quran doesn’t mention animals falling off Noah’s arc because this would have upset animal rights activists!

    • aemathisphd April 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      To be a Christian means to believe in the trinity; Unitarians, by definition, are not Christians.

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