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Mary, surnamed the Magdalene. Chapter Eight from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

Mary, surnamed the Magdalene

Chapter Eight from The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

It is less well known what Jesus did in the opening period of his ministry. It would seem that after his baptism he lingered on in and around Jerusalem before launching on his ministry in Judea. Although the Fourth Gospel puts him in Cana of Galilee where he has been invited with his disciples, we cannot take this as a chronological indication. Modern exegetes agree that the expression ‘the third day’ has strong symbolic overtones. It appears therefore that the evangelist’s third day when Jesus appeared in Cana with a group of disciples is merely some sign to the reader. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus, like John the Baptist, stayed for some time in the area of the Jordan and close to Jerusalem. Only after John had been arrested did he go to Galilee, leaving the self-righteous people of Jerusalem to their fate. By then the Pharisees had become scandalised because Jesus attracted even more listeners than John, thereby encroaching on their own power and influence.

How great must Mary’s predicament have been. Already she has become a woman of bad repute by her obvious lack of interest in marriage candidates. She has been much too strong a defender of John the Baptist and now she has committed the unpardonable sin of choosing to be among the disciples of the new and dubious teacher. Should she stay in Bethany in order not to add more fuel to the anger of the Pharisees? Mary has chosen to be a disciple and for a disciple to leave the teacher is unthinkable. So she is faced with the prospect of parting from Bethany, and going to Galilee, the province that was less than clean in the eyes of the orthodox. She must have raised quite an argument with her brother and sister, when, as an unmarried woman she wanted to follow the itinerant preacher. She wants to follow Jesus? How on earth is she going to travel safely without the protection of a husband? How will she be able to survive?

‘Now after this he made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.(Luke 8:1-3).

Mary’s acquaintance with Johanna, the wife of Chuza, who worked at the court of Herod, ruler of Galilee, may have stood her in good stead. She could travel in the protection of the latter’s caravan. For her sustenance Mary must have claimed her part of the inheritance. That the family was fairly well to do can be inferred from the fact that Mary, with those other women, is said to have provided for Jesus during the time of his ministry out of her own resources. We also remember the alabaster jug filled with costly nard that she had kept back until the day she produced it to anoint Jesus.

But what about the strange surname? I would like to offer a solution.

Mary could not very well have stayed at the court after her arrival in Galilee. When the caravan travelled on to Herod’s palace near Lake Tiberias, she must have looked round for a town to settle in; the stories of bacchanals at the palace made the place a very undesirable one for an unmarried woman. Magdala, important market town, with a flourishing fishing industry, could have provided an incognito, that is, so long as the spies from Jerusalem would not find out her whereabouts. But whatever the reason, the name stuck.

The male disciples, too, may have found the surname an easy way to distinguish our Mary from the important member of the women’s group that Matthew called ‘the other Mary’ and who we also find in Jesus’ surroundings and even at the foot of the cross. The expression ‘the other Mary’ is indicative of the fact that two Maries stood out among the women around Jesus. Was that other distinguished Mary the same as the mother of Jesus, namely the Mary of Joseph that Mark mentions, but who we never hear discussed in this connection? Was this Mary of Joseph the mother of James and of another son, also called Joseph?

The Pharisees, back in Jerusalem and Bethany, who sent their spies to the north to check on Jesus must have seen Mary of Bethany in the company of Jesus. It would have been easy to inquire where she was living, and once these critics of her lifestyle knew it, they may have become the authors of what to them could be a term of contempt. Anyway, the surname stuck in a country where Mary was a favourite name to give to a girlchild. That is why Luke states, Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out (Luke 8:2). Actually the seven demons are easy to understand. Had not the Pharisees claimed that John the Baptist was possessed by the devil and that Jesus exorcised demons through the power of Satan? A woman follower of these two prophets must have been so totally and fatefully condemned that nothing but the symbolic use of the number seven would be strong enough to warn people against befriending her. It is interesting to call to mind the anointing by the woman whose name only John reveals as Mary of Bethany. According to Matthew, Mark and John, it takes place at the house of a certain Simon in Bethany. John mentions the fact that Martha was allowed to serve. Mary wasn’t. The Pharisee who hosted the meal may not have wished to have her around.

Unfortunately it is hard to understand Luke´s treatment of the women followers of Jesus. On the one hand he mentions their generosity and faithfulness in providing for him (and probably for the poor villagers who flocked to hear his teaching and to be healed), on the other hand he is quick to add a smell of decay, a sort of blight, in 8, 1-3 as well as later in 7,16-50. His behaviour here is on a par with his leaving them out of his history of the Early Church in Acts. It is not very likely that they did not figure conspicuously in those days as well. The official redaction of the Gospels cannot get around their importance in Jesus´ days, and nowhere do we read that Jesus told the women to stop their ministry after his death and resurrection. On the contrary, even then he makes them witnesses, apostles, since the male disciples are not even around at the moment of his death and resurrection. I find it hard to believe his statement that all of them had really been either possessed by the devil or sick, or that Mary was really a great sinner. However, I will return to that subject later.

© Theresia Saers



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