The Mixups in Marys

January 10, 1999


The Mixup in Marys

After a sermon several weeks ago about Mary, the mother of Jesus, I had a request to do a sermon about another Mary who apparently came from a little village called Magdala, and who is surprisingly prominent in the gospel stories about the ministry of Jesus. The thoughtful woman who came to me with this request spoke of the large Roman Catholic church which may have to be moved as Kellogg Road expands, and wondered why that church calls itself the Church of the Magdalen. “I thought Mary Magdalen was a prostitute,” she said. “Why would a church honor her name?” A good answer required more time than we had, so I told her that if she would wait until January I would honor her request. I’m doing that this morning, and since the texture gets a little dense at times, I will need your good-listening help.
Mary Magdalen has a complex history in both art and theology, with the latest book about her just off the press. Called Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, it was written by a woman who, like so many others through the centuries, first met Mary Magdalen in a work of art. She was captivated as a child to see a 14th century Italian painting of the crucifixion of Christ in which a golden-haired woman in red weeps at the foot of the cross. Susan Haskins tried to learn more about this woman in Christian history, but she was in a convent school where the Magdalen’s role in the ministry of Christ was always glossed over in favor of another Mary, so after she grew up she decided to research the topic on her own. For anyone interested, hers is the book to read.
I have called this sermon The Mixup in Marys because several women with that name are mentioned in the New Testament and it is not always easy to sort them out. But its the only way to honor the request I received, so please summon up a little extra patience while I first follow the Magdalen’s name through the four gospels, and then address the controversy over what kind of woman she was. If you are accustomed to hearing all about the men who were called — Peter and Andrew, James and John and the rest — it may come as a surprise to hear Matthew and Mark speak of the “many women” — not three or four but “many” — who had been following Jesus and were present at his crucifixion. There is obviously an unwritten story which the men who wrote the New Testament chose not to give us. Among this group of women who watched Jesus die, Matthew and Mark provide names for only two: Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of two sons named James and Joseph. These two women watch the tomb for a while on that Friday evening before going home, but they come back early on Sunday morning to see the tomb again and they become the first followers of Jesus to claim he has risen from the dead. Not the male disciples, but these women who had come down with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. (Curious footnote: Paul says the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, then the 12, then 500 at once, but doesn’t even mention Mary Magdalene. The gospels had not yet been written; he seems to have worked from a different tradition than they had)
We get something new when we come to the gospel of Luke (8) who tells us that as Jesus goes about preaching, the 12 men he has chosen are with him, along with “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities.” Luke elaborates on Matthew and Mark’s comments that these women “ministered” to Jesus by saying explicitly that they were financial sponsors, that “out of their means” they “provided” for Jesus and his fishermen friends. He names three of them, one of whom is our Mary Magdalen again, out of whom, he says, “seven demons “ had been cast out. That is a new piece of information which by and by would become very important as the early church dealt with the character of a woman whose name appears in all four gospel stories of what happened at the crucifixion and afterwards.
Luke adds a couple of names to the two Marys we have met so far. One is a certain Joanna, described as the wife of an official in the court of King Herod, and therefore likely to have had more money and social standing than most of the others. The other is a woman named Susanna, about whom we know nothing except her name. These women were obviously a vital support group, and it is legitimate to wonder why so little has been made of how important they were in the ministry of Jesus, but our focus is on just one of them this morning so I have to put that question aside and go on with our history of the one called Mary Magdalen.
Luke joins Matthew and Mark in making this group of women the first to claim a resurrection, specifically naming Mary Magdalen and Mary the mother of James — the two Marys who must have been especially significant. When the women report back to the men, who may have gone into hiding after the arrest in the garden, the men consider their story “an idle tale” and do not believe it. That raises some interesting questions which greatly tempt me to digress for a while, but this is Mary Magdalen’s day and we need all our minutes to concentrate on her story.
We have now reached John’s gospel, where as usual nearly everything is very different from the way Matthew, Mark and Luke tell their stories. John has three Marys, standing by the cross, and perhaps another woman, although the verses are a punctuation nightmare and no one can be sure. One of the women is new at this scene — Mary the mother of Jesus, whose presence at the crucifixion no other gospel has mentioned. Another is a Mary called “the wife of Clopas,” who could be the Mary we have heard called “the mother of James and Joseph.” And the third is our Mary Magdalen. I find it interesting that while she is at the cross in all four Gospel stories, the mother of Jesus is there in only one of them. I don’t pretend to know what that means, I just think it’s one more fascinating piece of the puzzle as we try to figure out from variant stories what really happened.
John has our final reference to Mary Magdalen, a completely new and different story about her visit to the tomb which in several ways simply cannot be harmonized with the the other three gospel narratives. The four accounts of the resurrection, in fact, differ from each other in so many details that they prove one thing beyond all doubt: the Biblical writers did not remember things alike. In John’s surprisingly long and detailed story, our Mary Magdalen comes to the tomb, but instead of coming after sunup as Mark had told the story, John has her come while it is still dark, and instead of coming with one or more friends, as she does in the other gospel stories, John mentions no one else and makes it appear that she came alone. He says she found the stone taken away from the grave opening, and ran to tell Peter and another disciple, that the tomb was empty. We get a rather curious note that the two men had a foot race to the tomb, and that Peter lost the race, a detail which must once have had some special significance but certainly has little if any now. The two men are said to have looked around the empty tomb and gone back home, but Mary Magdalen returned at some point and decided to take a look for herself.
In the strange story which follows, read literally by many but viewed as part of Christian folklore by others, Mary Magdalen sees a pair of angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been. The author seems oblivious to the fact that we will all wonder where these two angels were when Peter and the other disciple went into the tomb. The angels ask why Mary is weeping, and she explains it is because the body of Jesus has been removed and she doesn’t know where it is, at which moment she turns to see Jesus standing nearby, although she does not recognize him at first and thinks he is the gardener. She says, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where you took him, and I will go get him,” at which point the mysterious stranger calls her name, she realizes who he is, and obeys his request to make a report back to the disciples.
This takes care of all the references to Mary Magdalen by name, but the early church linked her with a three other stories that caused people to think for centuries that she had been a notorious prostitute before she became such an amazingly devout disciple. I would guess most of you have seen Jesus Christ-Superstar , Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970’s popular musical, in which she is depicted as a harlot platonically in love with Jesus, obsessed and baffled by him, not knowing how to love him — a dilemma that gives rise to the most poignant of all the songs in that production. At about the same time Franco Zeffirelli did a television movie in which Anne Bancroft plays the Magdalen as a prostitute of angry intelligence, in contrast to the unbelieving male disciples of Jesus. More recently, a controversial film called The Last Temptation succeeded in shocking most Americans with the Magdalen as a tattooed prostitute to whom Jesus was physically attracted — the last temptation of the film’s title.
So where did we get this idea that Mary Magdalen was a prostitute before she became the primary witness to for resurrection faith? It happened something like this: Remember Luke’s remark that some women followed Jesus who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities? And how he singled out Mary Magdalen as one from whom whose life “seven demons” had been banished? In the thought world of first-century Palesatine, people with mental or physical problems were thought to be possessed by demons. And since the number 7 signified totality, completeness, to say someone had seven demons was a way of saying the case was really desperate. But exactly what Mary Magdalen’s problem was — whether it was physical or mental or spiritual, we have absolutely no way of knowing, we have not one shred of evidence.
But when you don’t know, you become creative, and that’s what some of the early church students of Scripture did. In a process called “conflation,” different texts are fused together in ways that can create a story for which there is no solid basis in fact. What happened is that Mary Magdalen somehow got linked with three stories in the New Testament about women who are not named. In one of them , Jesus is eating in the house of a man known as Simon the Leper when a woman shows up and anoints the head of Jesus with ointment so expensive the disciples are shocked at what they consider waste. Matthew and Mark do not name this woman, but John’s gospel (11) seems to be talking about the same incident when he says the woman who who anointed Jesus was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
Luke has a similar story (it could be the same story remembered a little differently) in which Jesus is having a meal in the house of Simon the Pharisee when an unannounced woman shows up whom the guests immediately recognize as a notorious sinner, “a woman of the city” — pretty obviously a prostitute. Jesus may have spoken to her gently somewhere, so that she wishes to thank him and show her respect, but she is emotionally overcome in his presence. And when her tears fall on his feet she wipes them with her hair and bathes his feet with ointment — a common courtesy in a hot, dry country. Nothing is said about it’s being an expensive waste; in fact, according to this version no disciples are even mentioned. The Pharisee host sort of mumbles to himself that if Jesus were a real prophet he would know what kind of woman was touching him and would, of course, reject her. Jesus promptly blows him away with a lecture about love and compassion and forgiveness, and the story ends.
The third story involving a woman whose name is not given is the famous one in John (8) about an unfortunate woman caught in an illicit relationship and brought before Jesus by some religious leaders who are trying to trap him. They know she can be stoned according to law and they wonder whether Jesus will uphold that law. When he suggests that anyone in the crowd without sin should go ahead and cast the first stone, they disappear one by one, and Jesus says to the woman that he does not condemn her but that she needs to change her life.
The name of Mary Magdalen is not identified with these three stories, but that would change. According to some of the rabbis, her home town of Magdala had a bad reputation, which would have made it easy to decide that her seven unidentified demons were demons of unchastity. I have no trouble imagining the early church fathers sitting around and working the text like a crossword puzzle until they linked the name of Mary Magdalen with the nameless women of the three stories you have just heard.
The creation of myths has always been a big business in Christianity and it ran unchecked through the Middle Ages. One legend is that Mary Magdalen spent her final years in France as a religious hermit, with the result that if you travel there today you find her name everywhere, given to churches, to towns, even to fields in honor of a woman there is no basis in fact for calling a prostitute. But unfair as it may have been, that reputation stuck, too, and as the cult of the Virgin Mary grew, the name of Mary Magdalen was more and more used for hospitals and convents were dedicated to rehabilitating prostitutes.
As Catholic and Protestant scholars have studied the New Testament with keener critical skills in recent years, they’ve seen there is no reason to think Mary Magdalen was ever anything but a loyal follower of Jesus who stood by him during the final hours of his life when almost everybody else managed to get lost. In 1969, just 30 years ago, the Roman Catholic church officially removed from Mary Magdalen the stigma of having been a streetwalker and reinstated her as a dominant person in the resurrection stories and a primary witness to the Christian faith. And that explains why, not far from where we sit, another audience is worshipping in The Church of the Magdalen.
And all those other women who supported Jesus and his disciples — why have we not heard more of them? Well, you know the answer. The church had no interest in following that trail. Popes have pointed out repeatedly that only males can be priests because the 12 known as apostles were all men. It isn’t hard, in the interpretations of the early church, to get the sense that all those women tagged along just to make the coffee. How I wish one of them had kept a diary! I have no hesitation at all in telling you that as a lifelong student of the Bible, there are several books in the New Testament I would trade in a minute for one by Mary Magdalen, with a woman’s point of view about how it all got started. Travels With Jesus , by Mary Magdalene — what a book!
Eternal God, we have been remembering a woman of extraordinary
devotion, whose life reminds us once again how wrong it is to deny
her daughters an equal standing in thy sight. Amen.