Scandalous Behavior of Jesus Around Women

by: Mormon Heretic

March 19, 2012

Jesus was a social revolutionary.  He gave women a much larger role in his movement than was traditional in ancient Judaism.  In a previous post, I discussed the story in Luke chapter 7 about a woman wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair.  Such behavior would have been considered lewd by first century Jews.  There are other instances of Jesus interacting with women in ways that upset the social order.  “The Real Mary Magdalene” (part of a 3 DVD set of Science of the Bible –it’s on disk 3), shows that Jesus’ interactions with women would have turned heads in first century Israel.  But first, let’s talk about the name “Magdalena.”  What does it mean?  Quoting from the documentary,

The gospel writers always refer to Mary as Maria Magdalena.  Fifth century Jewish leaders thought this meant she was a hairdresser.

Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman, New York University, “The rabbis of the Talmud mentioned Mary Magdalene but actually in a very strange way.  They understand her to be Miram Magadlassara, which literally means ‘the one who builds up the hair’ and it means a hairdresser.”

But there is a simpler explanation.

King, “We think that this is a place name, that she is from a town called Magdala, which is located on the Sea of Galilee.”

During the first century, Magdala was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee’s western shore.

Professor Jonathan L. Reed, University of La Verne, “Magdala is a small fishing village, a town maybe of a thousand people.  It literally means ‘dry fish-ville’.  It’s where you go to dry fish.  It’s where fisherman work.  It’s not an elegant, nice place to come from.”

It was just 2 hours walk from Capernaum, where the gospels say that Jesus based his ministry.  It’s likely this is where Mary first heard Jesus speak.  But the very fact that the gospels name Mary after her town, just as they wrote Jesus of Nazareth, gives us a clue to who Mary was.

Professor Karen King, Harvard University, “It would be extremely uncommon to refer to a married woman by her place. The more usual thing is to refer to her by the man she is attached to, usually a husband, a father, a brother.  So this indication of calling her Mary of Magdala is for me the strongest indication that she was not married.”

Since her village identified Mary, she most likely had neither husband nor children.  But the real puzzle about Mary is why she was following Jesus in the first place.  Jewish society in the first century forced a sharp division between men and women.

If the gospel of Luke describes Jesus’ band of missionaries accurately, the preacher from Nazareth broke those rules.

Luke 8:2-3, “Mary, called Magdalene…and Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward…and Susanna…provided for them out of their resources.”

Professor Marvin Meyer, Chapman University, “It seems very clear to me, that there were women that were in the inner circle of Jesus, women that are independent of their families and so on.”

And the gospels imply that these women were wealthy enough to supply Jesus and his penniless missionaries.

Professor Carolyn Osiek, Brite Divinity School, “Mary Magdalene is described as a woman with a certain number of possessions, and a woman of substance as it were.”

King, “Perhaps she had an inheritance.  But I don’t think we should think of enormous wealth.  I think we should think of something much more modest.”

Her apparent means, her name with no connection to a man, and her freedom to travel around Galilee start to build a picture of the real Mary Magdalene.”

Osiek, “My assumption is that she is a widow.  Usually when you have someone in this culture, women moving somewhat independently and with a certain amount of goods, it’s usually a widow.”

The gospel writers do not reveal Mary’s age.  We know that life expectancy for those who made it to adulthood was less than 40 years of age, most of the rebels who followed Jesus would likely be much younger.

Professor Marcus Borg, Oregon State University, “We have every reason to think that those who uprooted their lives in order to follow Jesus on the road were probably 18, 20, early 20s.”

But Mary would likely would have been older.

Profesor Jonathan Reed, University of La Verne, “I think it’s quite possible with a high death rates that Mary Magdalene would have been a widow. She would have maybe been in her late 20s or early 30s and would have followed Jesus because of his compelling message.”

Luke says Jesus is about 30 also.  Perhaps Mary and Jesus shared the wisdom that middle age brought.

The documentary turns to a discussion of the Gospel of Thomas, one of several Christian writings included in the Nag Hammadi Scrolls.  In it are more surprising interactions between women and Jesus.

Archaeologists have found small fragments of Thomas’s gospel dating back to the early third century and it could be even older.Professor Jonathan Reed, University of La Verne, “While the copy that was found in Egypt of Thomas dates to the fourth century, it may be that the Gospel of Thomas was originally written in the second century or some have suggested even earlier in the late first century.”

Professor Marvin Meyer, Chapman University, “If Thomas is that old, some of it might be actual words spoken by Jesus, and one particular line of the gospel stands out.  Verse 61 speaks of Jesus dining alone with a woman called Salomé.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Salome looks up and sees Jesus and says to him, he mister, who do you think you are?”

Gospel of Thomas 61, “Salome said, “Who are you mister?  You have climbed onto my couch and eaten from my table.”

Meyer, “And then Jesus responds and Salome says, I am your disciple.  It is remarkable because they are reclining on couches together.  It is also remarkable because Salome is a disciple of Jesus, a part of that kind of inner circle.”

Being alone with an unmarried woman would have been scandalous.

Reed, “I think for Jesus to have relationships with women in terms of teacher/student would have been highly unusual not only within Judaism, but in the whole broader Mediterranean world.  It was not typical for men to be instructing women in such an intimate way.”

The Gospel of Thomas confirmed what many had suspected from reading the New Testament: that Jesus’s interactions with women were radical.

Professor Carolyn Osiek, Brite Divinity School, “To have a mixed group of men and women following an itinerant preacher, I wouldn’t say that it’s completely unique, but in a village situation like that, it’s very unusual I think.”

Jesus’s band of travelers would have raised eyebrows around rural Galilee.  But when they looked for refuge at night, raised eyebrows may have turned into open outrage.

Professor Stephen Patterson, Eden Theological Seminary, “Maybe it’s revealed that this woman travelling with him is not his wife, so there’s a bit of a scandal.  Now you have the challenge of whether or not you would welcome such a dishonorable woman travelling unattached with a man?”

But the presence of women would have helped Jesus’ group gain trust.

Professor Marcus Borg, Oregon State University, “It may have been part of a strategy of Jesus. If a group that was only men came into a village or town, the villagers, the townspeople might be very suspicious.  But if there are women with those men, then there are no longer looks like a threatening group.”

Traveling as a mixed group also reflected Jesus’s desire to change the social order.

Meyer, “The Jesus movement becomes a movement not just because of one person with a bunch of men, then it becomes a kind of a new family of people that are creating a new kind of order of life together.  This is a new order family that goes beyond the biological family.”

The Gospel of Thomas drives the point home, that if they obeyed God, Jesus’ followers would become his family.”

Gospel of Thomas 99, “He said to them, ‘Those here who do what my Father wants are my brothers and my mother.”

But this wasn’t the only surprise in the books of Nag Hammadi.  There was new evidence here about Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene.

Gospel of Philip 63, “The companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene…he loved her more than all the disciples.”

The Gospel of Philip claimed that Mary Magdalene had a special even intimate relationship with Jesus.  But the words that followed were even more surprising.

Meyer, “It is suggested that Jesus loved Mary more than the other disciples, and he used to kiss her often on her—and then unfortunately there is a hole in the text.”

Gospel of Philip 63:35, “…and used to kiss her on her…”

Reed, “And of course, it’s in that hole that various people have filled in all kinds of imaginable options. “

Linguists agree on the word most likely to fit.Professor Karen King, Harvard University, “The word mouth fits in there very nicely, and that’s usually how it’s stored.  Jesus used to kiss Mary Magdalene often on the mouth.”

This suggestion sent shockwaves through Christianity.

Professor Lawrence Schiffman, New York University, “For a man to kiss a woman who is not his wife or mother or something like that, in traditional Judaism is actually forbidden.”

The idea that Jesus and Mary were married is at the center of the plot for one of the most popular books about Jesus after the Bible: The Da Vinci Code.  But it is not clear that the author of the Gospel of Philip actually meant this kiss to be romantic.

Reed, ”You have to keep in mind that in the Mediterranean world and in the Middle East that a kiss between two people shows camaraderie and friendship and appreciation, and we don’t have to read something sexually into this.”

When Judas kissed Jesus on the night of his arrest, the gospel writers treat it as a regular greeting.  Kissing may even have been incorporated into early church ritual.

Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the churches of Christ greet you.”

And a careful reading of Phillip’s gospel shows the kiss might just be symbolic.

King, “In this text in the Gospel of Phillip it talks about kissing as a kind of intimate way of communicating teaching, of communicating and understanding the teaching of Jesus, so it may have meant a deep, spiritual, perhaps even mystical understanding of Jesus’s teachings.”

Most scholars don’t believe the Gospel of Phillip is older than the third century, or that it is even historically accurate.  It is evidence however, that a tradition of intimacy between Jesus and Mary survived for centuries after they died.  But the deserts of Egypt held another secret about Mary: a gospel that the Catholic Church feared even more than the kiss.  One that showed Mary as the leader of early Christianity.

We don’t know how long Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus and the other disciples.  But as they moved from village to village, they probably grew to think of each other as family.  Then around 30 AD, Jesus led his followers to Jerusalem for Passover.  Thousands of pilgrims and their families had come for the most important Jewish religious holiday of the year, but Jesus’s family was about to be torn apart.  Jesus staged a series of public demonstrations against the authorities.  He wanted everyone to hear his message of social equality.

Borg, “You take your message to the center of authority. If you’re going to risk your life, you want the people at the very top of the power system to be responsible for that because it makes much more of a statement.”

One night after just a few days in the holy city, men came to arrest Jesus, and the following morning, they crucified him.

Schiffman, “I think that the Romans were convinced that Jesus wanted to foment a violent revolution.  They had to get rid of this guy!”

I hadn’t heard of Jesus as a social crusader, so it was interesting to listen to these scholars discuss this aspect of Jesus’ movement.  Do you think Jesus supported more gender equality than those of his generation?  How does this fit in with Mormon theology?  Do our gender roles need to be revised?

As for the missing word, what do you think fits best in the Gospel of Phillip?

Gospel of Philip 63:35, “…and used to kiss her on her…”

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19 Responses to Scandalous Behavior of Jesus Around Women

  1. hawkgrrrl on March 19, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    Spending time alone with a woman? Somebody had better pull this Jesus fellow aside and have a chat with him. That’s not going to fly in the Mormon church.

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  2. hawkgrrrl on March 19, 2012 at 6:22 AM

    . . . way back from Damascus?

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  3. Jeff Spector on March 19, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    With all the woo-hawing back and forth here, it seems like the one aspect not covered is the simple fact that a man of age 30 would have been married with children in that culture, especially with a) life expectancy issues and b) his own mother was betrothed or married in her early teens. And yet the scriptures do not seem to address that at all. with any of the men in the story.

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  4. mh on March 19, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    stay tuned. the marital status of jesus and mary is on tap for next week.

    has anyone ever heard of this ritual kiss in romans 16?

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  5. Jeff Spector on March 19, 2012 at 9:50 AM


    Can’t wait! Thanks for a great series of posts

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  6. SteveS on March 19, 2012 at 10:08 AM

    The Mormon Bickertonites apparently greet each other with a kiss, although only along same-gender lines. No wife swapping!

    As for gender roles and Mormon theology, from my studies in new testament-era history and early Christian writings, it seems evident to me that Jesus had a radical egalitarian stance that stood in direct opposition to the domination systems of his day: that is, the religious and political legitimization of empire through urbanization for commercial gain. His itinerant lifestyle, his association with the outcasts of society and rejection of the respectable “pillars” of the religious and governmental communities, his message of distributive justice and economic interdependency, his making clean of people who were rejected from places of worship from health problems beyond their control, AND his seemingly equal treatment of men and women (remember the Gospel of Mary, a 2nd century Gnostic text that claims that Mary of Magdala was an apostle, even Jesus’ favorite apostle (to Peter’s dismay)) all point toward a Jesus who seems quite different than the one portrayed by Western Christianity, which paints him as a meek and lowly lamb, an historical anachronism, out of time and space and not entirely one of “us”. And the historical Paul (not the pseudepigraphical Paul of Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus, and some late textual additions to the authentically Pauline epistles) seems to have had a much more egalitarian view of women, relying on wealthy women to provide spaces for the house-churches in which his early congregations met, and also in his reference to Junia, a woman, who was “pre-eminent among the apostles” (Rom: 16:7 (see

    To me, it seems clear that in the early church, although it may have been less common for women to play leadership or evangelist roles, both Jesus and Paul relied and appreciated those women who did. In many cases, it was precisely because of their gender that certain concessions were accorded them that benefited the early Christian communities they served that could not have been accomplished by men.

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  7. Mike S on March 19, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    I really like the idea of Christ as a radical. Seen in the context of his time, many of the things he did seem to be done to cause people to question their assumptions. It is easy for any group, society, organization, etc to get complacent. They then start emphasizing minutae and rules and hierarchy and such, and it takes someone “radical” to come along and change things. They are often seen as outsiders. They are often denounced from people within the hierarchy.

    I consider Joseph Smith to be a radical. I consider Lehi to be a radical. I consider Samuel the Lamanite to be one. I put many people in this role. And I consider Christ the greatest radical of all.

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  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 19, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    If you go to a catholic mass you will see the ritual kiss in one form or another. FYI. Usually a handshake or hug.

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  9. FireTag on March 19, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    Crossan suggests that Jesus actually was a Jewish Cynic, which doesn’t mean that He was grumpy or pessimistic about the future. Cynicism was actually a respected school of philosophical thought in the Roman Med. He totally rejected the pursuits and cultural assumptions of those around Him and relied upon a direct connection between people and the Spirit of God.

    Cynics often dressed as Jesus and His disciples did, and were marked by carrying what his disciples did (and did not). They also traveled with wives or sisters or unrelated women, and were often willing to leave the exact relationship, if any intentionally vague.

    This will be an excellent series of posts, MH.

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  10. Heber13 on March 19, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    The word cynic comes from “dog” because they often lived like dogs in the street and against social or economic structure. Jesus’ teachings about leaving riches behind and following him do sound like cynics of that time.

    He certainly was upsetting the powers that be at the time, or he would not have been killed.

    After death, he first appeared to a woman, not the priesthood authorities. That says something too.

    Regarding him being alone with a woman, perhaps he had one foot on the floor at all times, I think that is the eternal rule restored in BYU dorm rooms during open house hours.

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  11. SteveS on March 19, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    Haha. Jesus would have been kicked out of BYU for so many reasons (and probably escorted from the campus by the police)! Taken further, he probably would have been similarly escorted from the premises any one of the temples, too.

    But that’s how Jesus rolled, yo. With an entourage of social misfits and Occupy protesters.

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  12. Bob on March 19, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    #11: SteveS,
    But he does clear up nice (see Christus Statue in Temple Square).

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  13. Taylor Berlin on March 19, 2012 at 6:54 PM

    I just want to say, I loved comments #7 and #11. I’d also like to believe that Jesus was a feminist. I really, really love the notion of Jesus, the radical.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on March 19, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Jesus as a political and social dissident is nothing new. He was killed because he was viewed as a revolutionary. He lived in revolutionary times. They kill people who threaten the existing power structure. The question is – which power structure did he threaten? The Roman one (the only ones who really had power to kill him since Jerusalem was under military occupation)? Or the Jewish rulers (who were already subjugated by Rome)? The Jewish rulers were threatened by him and had to convince the Romans that he was a threat to the Romans. That’s the story of political intrigue that frames the gospels.

    I have a post that should complement this one coming up tomorrow about the real character of Jesus. He was no shrinking violet, even if you set aside the accounts in the apocrypha (which also confirm him as an enigmatic radical). We usually just hear about him being compassionate and all his anger is recast as “righteous indignation,” but he did have a strong agenda that was very out of step with the power structure of his day. He was not conflict averse.

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  15. SteveS on March 19, 2012 at 10:30 PM

    Hawk: I look forward to tomorrow’s post. In regard to your comment (#14): I don’t think it’s an either/or in regard to Jesus threatening power structures. It was both, but not perhaps in the ways that some people suppose(d). Like most Jews of his day, Jesus opposed Rome’s rule, but it doesn’t seem like he advocated the political overthrow of the Roman leaders. Rather, the members of the Kingdom of God would subvert the power of Rome by refusing to participate in their domination system. Similarly, Jesus opposed the Jewish leaders who legitimized Rome’s domination by controlling temple worship and rejecting the radical economic egalitarianism built in to the Law of Moses. In his lifetime he never rejected the Law, and never seemed to be setting up a completely new religion. Christianity was a post-Easter invention.

    In other words, Jesus’ Kingdom movement wasn’t a revolutionary movement as much as it was a spiritual exodus movement away from the political AND religious power systems and toward a more grassroots spiritual transformation.

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  16. Chris on March 20, 2012 at 12:32 AM

    MH, thank you for this thought-provoking post!

    Jesus’ respect for women gives hope to all women who feel so marginalized in the Church. Throughout His ministry, Jesus included and celebrated women. His first miracle was performed at the request of his mother. Although Samaritan women were despised by the Jews, the Savior taught the Samaritan woman, who became one of his most ardent followers. His love for Mary, Martha, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna, the woman taken in adultery, the poor widow who gave her mite at the temple, the many women whom the Savior healed, and the Syrophoenician woman were all blessed by the Savior’s love, respect, and mercy.

    I look forward to the day when Church leaders and members understand and follow the Savior’s example by valuing and respecting all, including those whom society rejects, ie. sinners, the poor, women, and those who are sick or rejected. I wonder how many members leave the Church because leaders and/or members are Pharisaic in their attitudes and actions, and yet it was the Pharisees that the Savior most condemned. If God is no respector of persons, our challenge is to love as He loved and live as He lived, looking beyond outward appearance to see the hearts of others.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on March 20, 2012 at 2:09 AM

    Origen felt the need to respond to criticism that Christianity was a religion for poor people and women because women had such a prominent role. Some scholars believe this meant they were the leaders of congregations in the early church.

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  18. What Would Jesus Do? | Wheat and Tares on March 20, 2012 at 3:48 AM

    […] people talking about is feminized and sometimes even, dare I say, Republican.  As Mormon Heretic pointed out yesterday, Jesus’ behaviour was often much edgier than we tend to think; he would suffer the little […]

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  19. […] of theology, LDS history and doctrine took center stage this week in discussions over what Jesus would really do, the true definition of a Christ-centered faith, interpretations of the Book of […]

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