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?