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'Did He love her more than us?' by Dr Esther A de Boer

'Did He love her more than us?'

by Dr Esther A de Boer

(Unofficial translation by Theresia Saers of the final chapter of Esther de Boer's book on early christian texts about Mary Magdalen and women in general. The Dutch book with the title "De geliefde discipel" has been published in 2006 by Meinema and will be published in English by Continuum International in 2007)

What is fact and what is fiction? That question is often heard where Mary Magdalen is concerned. Was she a prostitute, wife to Jesus, did Jesus entrust the leadership of the church to her? Was she the victim of a secret plot? Was she an initiate who had gone through many incarnations? Did she teach her esoteric doctrine in France?

Now that the early Christian texts about Mary Magdalen have been passed in review, one thing at least is evident: her image as the repentant sinner is fiction, however impassioned Gregory the Great describes her. Nor are there any clues to regard her as Jesus’ wife or to suppose that he had entrusted her with the leadership of the church. Neither do the sources tell us anything about esoteric teachings, reincarnations or about France. What the texts do show is that she was the victim of a plot. No secret plot, for the clues are very very clear. It is not a plot of the church only. First of all it is a plot that goes with a culture that is predominantly male.

Various descriptions of Mary Magdalen

Early Christian texts present a confusing mass of images of Mary Magdalen. She is a witness of the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. But those texts differ in their stories about what exactly it is that she is a witness of and whether that would be important. She is a follower of Jesus. However, in some texts she is part of a larger group of women and in others she belongs to the inner circle of the core team of disciples.

According to some texts she has kept silent about her experiences, but in other texts she tells about her experiences. In that case, she addresses either only the eleven that remained or other listeners too. She tells what the apostles could have known before or brings a new message, revealed only to her. She withdraws and nobody hears of her any more or like Paul she sets out to preach the gospel.

The character of her gospel is Gnostic as in Pistis Sofia. Or it is more orthodox but mostly ascetic of character as in the Acts of the Philip. So that girls remain virgins as a result of her teaching and married women leave their spouses. Or it is about the life of the Lord notwithstanding his death and what that implies for the faithful and their lifestyle as in the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary. Without any special emphasis on ascetism and without Gnostic tendencies.

In Chapter 1 we asked the question of a historically well-considered image of Mary Magdalen. But is it at all possible to reason back from the abundance of early-Christian images of Mary Magdalen to the contours of a historical figure? I think it is, because in those early-Christian texts one theme becomes clear that has played a central role in the conceptualisation.

Several texts demonstrate without any reserve that the perception of the role of women determines how Mary Magdalen is seen. Before the start of the second century it is Peter in the Gospel of Mary and in the Gospel of Thomas who ties his view of Mary Magdalen directly to his view of women in general. In the fourth century Ambrose and Augustine struggle with the exact role of Mary Magdalen, because of the way they view what is allowed to women. Hiëronymus in the fourth and Theofanes in the twelfth century also show that the view of Mary Magdalen is linked to their idea of what a Christian women should be. The main obstacle in the representation of Mary Magdalen appears to be the idea that women are not allowed to teach men.

Because this theme did not arise from any definite time but rather belongs to the culture in which Mary Magdalen was born, it is not possible simply to assume that the oldest sources about her paint the most reliable picture about her. In chapters 3 and 4 we saw that this theme was already present for instance in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. Perhaps we can put it like this: it is likeliest that those images of Mary Magdalen that are defined by this theme are furthest from historical truth. Even when they occur in the oldest texts.

If we take this criterion as a starting point it is more likely to assume that Mary Magdalen was important as a witness than that she would not be. It is more likely that she belonged to the core team of disciples than to a large group of women. It is more likely that she has spoken bout her experiences than that she would have kept silent. It is more likely that she told something new than that she affirmed what the eleven knew already. It is more likely that she has set out to preach the gospel than that she went into retreat. But what was the content of it? Even there interests play their role: in Pistis Sophia Gnostic thinking and in the Acts of Philip the ascetic life style. In the Gospel of Mary these interests seem not to play any role. That text is more about a creative expression of the gospel than about dogmas to be defended.

Thanks to the early-Christian texts we need not leave it at those suppositions, however. They make it possible to situate the various images of Mary Magdalen in historical reality and to retrieve some of the original motivation in the representation besides.

General statements and the appeal to Scripture.

Why must women keep silent? One reply which is often heard refers to society in Hellenist culture. In the second century Celsus considered Christian faith a danger to the stability of the then society (chapter3). In chapter 8 this was discussed more precisely. People saw the family as the smallest unit and the basis of the hierarchical structure of society. If a husband/father/master ruled his household well and similarly the senate ruled the country well human life could be a mirror of the harmony in the universe. In order to mirror this harmony, it was thought extremely important that women, slaves and children knew their place with respect to men, masters and fathers. If they were not to stay in their subservient position they would be a danger to society.

One more reply that is often heard to the question why women must be silent according to Christian teaching, refers to religion in Hellenistic culture. There priestesses and women prophets played a role beside Gods, priests and prophets. This in contrast to Jewish rite, where only one God was adored and there is only a scant woman prophet beside priests and male prophets. By excluding women the Christian church would have desired to follow more expressly the Hellenist religious rites. Our present-day culture is so full of this that even the words goddess, priestess and prophetess are immediately associated with heresy and more especially with fertility religions.

What do the early-Christian texts reply to the question why there is a rule that women must be silent? The authors appeal to Scripture. To the creation story in Genesis in which Eve seduces Adam, to the behaviour of Mary, Jesus’ mother and other women and to Paul. But we have seen that another appeal to Scripture is possible. In Paul’s texts the reference to the creation story functions as a means to show the equality of men and women. Montanists refer to Eve and other women from Scripture and to Paul then they admit women to the functions as prophetess, elder and bishop in the church. The Teachings of the Apostles from the third century suggests there was a discussion in which Mary Magdalen and the other women were referred to in order to defend the right of women to teach. In the fourth century Hiëronymus uses Scripture to encourage women and not to experience their womanhood as a paralysis. He points to excellent women in Scripture among others to Mary Magdalen and the other women followers of Jesus. He praises Marcella to the skies, for the very reason that she uses her learning for the advancement of the church. Also because through her unobtrusiveness she spares the sensitivities of men and creates the impression of respecting the ban on the teaching of men by women.

The issue of exactly what books have come to belong to Scriptures also plays a part in the appeal to the Bible. Didymus the Blind points to the fact that there are no bible texts that are ascribed to women. Which is right he says, for women according to ‘orthodox’ doctrine are not allowed to lord it over men and therefore not allowed to write books that would bear their names. Tertullian refers to the book the Actions of Paul and Thecla as unreliable, because in them Paul allows a woman to act as an apostle, while saying in his letters that he definitely does not. In the twelfth century Theofanes Kerameus turns the same argument upside down. It is precisely to Thecla’s example that he refers in order to show that Paul did allow women to teach.

The appeal to Scriptures therefore is not an objective matter, but it depends on the choice people make about which view Scriptures are thought to defend. It is not Scriptures that orders whether women must remain silent. The choice has been made before the appeal to Scriptures is made.

Superiority, rivalry, sexuality and shame.

Women are not allowed to lord it over men. What considerations play a part in the choice of this ban? Early-Christian texts show that it is not about well-considered arguments but about sentiments.

There is a sense of superiority. Women are associated with the body and earthly things and men with the spiritual and the supernatural as Philo shows. The ultimate consequence of this idea is expressed by Peter in the Gospel of Thomas: Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life. (logion 114) Likewise the deutero-Pauline letter to the Ephesians tells male readers to love their wives as their own bodies. If reciprocated this would sound fine, but women may not love their husbands as their own bodies, far from it, they must acknowledge the authority of their husbands in every respect as the authority of Christ.

Men have greater knowledge than women. Andrew points out to his brothers in the Gospel of Mary that Mary’s words seem to differ from what the men already know. It is impossible that a new thing should derive from a woman on her own.

Men are more important than women. Hiëronymus shows his brother Anthony how Jesus’ attitude towards women is an example of his humility.

Men are stronger than women. Ambrose points to the stamina and the bodily force of men to explain that evangelisation is a command for them and not for women.

Apart from the feeling of superiority there is the feeling of rivalry. In the Gospel of Mary Peter says:

Surely, he has not spoken to a woman, hidden from us and not publicly? So that we should turn and all of us listen to her ? Has he loved her more than us? (GosMar 17:18-22) Origen betrays himself when he states For women may be excellent teachers, but not so that men should sit at the feet of women to listen as if men that serve the word of God are unimportant. (Comment on 1Cor 14:34-35)

In the Teachings of the Apostles we hear the rivalry of the apostles against the women that have told them about the Resurrection. Later women must not think that they therefore are allowed to teach:

For the Lord, our God, our teacher Jesus Christ, has sent us, the twelve, to teach peoples and pagans. Amongst us there were women disciples, Mary Magdalen and Mary of James and the other Mary, but he did not send them to teach the people. For, if it were necessary for women to teach, the Master himself would have instructed them to teach together with us. (Teachings of the Apostles 3:6)

That rivalry is also expressed in the Gospel of Philip when the disciples asks Jesus about Mary: “Why do you love her more than all of us?” (EvFil 55) And in Pistis Sophia Peter says:

Master, we cannot bear to suffer this woman, who takes from us the chance and allows none of us toe speak. She is holding forth all the time.(Pistis Sofia 36)

Apart from the sense of superiority and rivalry there are feelings of a sexual nature. In the Acts of the Apostles Mary Magdalen is considered a prostitute, because she travels and works with men, who are not her relatives. Even though at the advice of Christ she wears men’s clothes and teaches sexual abstention. In the same text Philip recounts that Peter flees every house in which there is a woman, because of the words of the Master: “Every man that beholds a woman and desires her has committed adultery in his heart.” (Mt 5:28) Moreover Peter has prayed to God to paralyse his daughter, so that because of her paralysis she would no longer be a sex object. Pseudo Clemens warns men not to live with women without being married and be served by them. Else the men will try their self-discipline too much. According to Gregory of Antioch the anonymous sinner in Luke is a prostitute and according to Gregory the Great Mary Magdalen was consumed by passion.

These feelings of men towards women, sexual feelings, rivalry, superiority, are a cause of shame for those men that consider women their equals or their superiors. Shame, not towards women but towards their fellowmen. Hieronymus expresses the feeling while discussing the inability of people to explain Scripture. He says: “Others - I blush to say so – learn from women what they have to teach men” (Letter 53:7) And when Hieronymus praises Marcella in his necrology about her he is aware of the male ridicule that he will arouse.

No measured arguments but feelings of superiority, rivalry and sexuality. It is those sentiments that the early-Christian texts mention in the discussion of men’s choice not to consider women as equals in the furthering of the church. This choice leads to the matching appeal to Scripture. This choice is an element in defining what books are going to make up Scripture. This choice also defines the image that is created of Mary Magdalen. This choice, however, belongs to a historical reality, in which at the same time other choices are possible. From these various choices and the conflict between them we may explain the large variety of early-Christian descriptions of Mary Magdalen.

A historically sound description of Mary Magdalen

To find some of a historical reality it is important, when reading the texts, to distinguish what the author in question prescribes as desirable behaviour and what the author describes as the actual situation. Even when the author does not describe the existing situation explicitly we may take it that a certain order is not given without reason. Obviously the situation demands it. The rule that women must keep silent for instance is only relevant where women (want to) speak.

The instructions in the texts of chapter 9 show that an active role of women was criticises because of ‘orthodox’ faith. Especially the deutero-Pauline interpretation of Paul’s words appears to have been authoritative (chapter 8). According to ‘orthodoxy’ women are not allowed to teach, to baptise, to write books in their own names, nor hold positions of prophets, elders or bishops, because they are women. Women may not undertake anything in which they would appear to hold authority over men. They should show ready to serve and be obedient. Whoever behaves differently definitely does not have ‘right’ faith. Active women were thus reduced to silence. Not because they said unholy things but simply because they were active but were not male.

Against this background it is not strange that the Gospel of Mark presents a silent Mary Magdalen and that the gospel of Matthew distinguishes between her proclamation to the apostles and the proclamation of the apostles to the nations (chapter 3). This fits in with the information that it is not Mary Magdalen but Peter in Luke’s gospel who is the first witness of the resurrection (chapter 3) and that Peter replaces Mary Magdalen as an apostle in the Acts of Philip (chapter 5). The rise of this ‘true’ faith also makes the idea more acceptable that the Gospel of John has partly ascribed the role of Mary Magdalen as the main witness to an anonymous male figure (chapter 4).

At the same time it is also evident that the active part of women was defended. Women and men appealed to the female figures from Scripture as they had it. They referred to Eve, Miriam, Deborah, Hulda, the four daughters of Philip, to Thecla. They also appealed to Paul. With this background of attack and defence fit the texts in which Peter as a jealous hothead attacks an active role of Mary Magdalen, as in the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas and Pistis Sophia. There as in the First Revelation of James the Master himself is shown as the person who made Mary Magdalen worthy to play an active role. Hippolytus, too, stresses the fact that Christ himself sent Mary as an apostle and Ambrose and Augustine explain the role of Mary Magdalen from a special choice of the Lord.

The texts in chapter 9 show first of all that women indeed had an active part in the growth of the early church. They taught, they preached the gospel, they baptised and they wrote books. They were prophets, elders, bishops. There were learned women that explained and applied Scripture in the face of less learned brothers who had more important functions in the church. From the texts it appears that this does not only hold true for Montanists and then maybe more especially in the area of Phrygië, where the movement of the ‘New Prophecy’ started with the revelation of Priscilla. No, Origen from Alexandria also knows of women whosay holy things and people that hold that Paul does allow unmarried women to speak in the assembly. Tertullian from Carthage in his own circle knows women who baptise and give instructions, appealing to the Acts of Paul and the example of Thecla. And Hiëronymus of Rome praises to the skies Marcella’s learning and her teaching of men within the orthodox church.

Not only in Asia Minor but also in Egypt, Africa and in the heart of the Roman Empire women therefore appear to be active, both in Montanist as in more orthodox circles. Against the background of this information, that women had an active part in the formation of the early church, the representation of Mary Magdalen as a disciple and apostle does not appear strange. The picture of Mary Magdalen in the Acts of Philip as someone that bears witness of the words of Jesus and explains them , who teaches and baptises, fits with this background. From this perspective it is also credible that she had disciples that wrote down her testimonies, as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of John suggest.

Early sources do not tell us who exactly Mary Magdalen was. Was she a young women with long golden or copper-coloured hair, as she is so often represented by artists? Or could she have been Jesus’ mother with a tuft of grey hair? Was she married? Did she have any children? How did she experience the fact that Jesus taught her and how to follow him?

There is no diary or biography of Mary Magdalen. There are only those early-Christian texts, so varied in their representation of her. However, one that reads patiently is rewarded with some insight into an intriguing discussion about the role of women in the developing Christendom. A discussion, not dated but still carried on. Women still contribute to the advancement of he church and in most churches there still is a male hierarchy that puts restrictions on women and defines what the substance of faith is and what rules govern it. The early-Christian texts show that this is not about a historic necessity or a divine command. There are not even well-considered arguments. It is a choice dictated by sentiments. Anyone that acknowledges this must wonder about the fact that this way of being church has continued to this very day.

The early-Christian discussion about the role of women also allows us to detect behind the various representations of Mary Magdalen the contours of a historically sound picture of her. An inspiring picture at that. Mary came from Magdala, a town on an international trade route, where different cultures met. A fortified town where resistance to Roman rule smouldered and was dealt with forcibly. Mary Magdalen knew what it was to see people crucified. A town where Hellenist culture flourished, but where also the more orthodox of the Jewish laws were important.

In the beginning of the Gospel of John the first disciple of Jesus is an anonymous figure who with Andrew belongs to the group of disciples of John the Baptist (Joh 1:35-42). Maybe Mary Magdala was this person and therefore a former disciple of John the Baptist. We know for certain that she became a disciple of Jesus. Early, when he had just started to teach and to preach openly. His Gospel worked out her emancipation. And then there is the awful event: he is crucified. Almost every source about her in the first century relates how she witnessed this, also witnessed the entombment and how after a few days she was bewildered to find the tomb empty. There she receives a revelation. “I have seen the Lord, “ she tells afterwards, “and this is what he told me.”

First she goes to Peter and the disciples. Then she sets out to tell others about her experiences with Jesus. She herself gets disciples. She meets with opposition because she is a woman. Nevertheless people pass on and put down in writing what she has to tell. What the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary show us about Mary: that is the limit of how close we can come to the substance of her teaching..

This woman is not the fully initiated and not perfect in her love of Jesus. She is not an example of penitence or femininity itself. She is a person of flesh and blood who knows what it is to suffer and rise above suffering. Mary Magdalen has had a special experience at the empty tomb, which caused her to speak about Jesus’ resurrection and what the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus mean.

This Mary from Magdala tells people about new life notwithstanding death and the ever present threat of suffering. She holds forth about the new Human Existence and about the corresponding life style. She consoles and encourages and points in the right direction. From down below upwards. From darkness to life. And most of all she witnesses of the song of praise and the joy that accompany a human being on that right road. Whatever else happens.

Significance for Christian faith

What would it mean for the Christian faith, if we took this Mary Magdalen seriously? The fictive, classical portrait of Mary Magdalen as a repentant sinner served the sacrament of confession and the faith in God’s mercy as well as the necessity of atonement. That image not only affirmed the rite and the faith of the church but also the traditional representation of sexuality as sin and of woman as a sexual being. We gain much if we let go of this fictive representation and nothing important will be lost. There are plenty of examples of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Peter could easily take over this role of Mary Magdalen

The historically sound image of Mary Magdalen does not bear out traditional faith and existing rite, as does the classic one, but contradicts it. Whoever takes the historical image seriously, accepts the extra biblical Gospel of Mary as a source of faith and therefore criticises the conviction that the Bible is the full and definite Word of God. Whoever adheres to the historical picture of Mary Magdalen will also within the Bible clearly distinguish between what is culturally defined and what could be gospel truth. That person moreover will consider a church with an exclusively male hierarchy and also a church that exercises force as unevangelical. That person will also deal summarily with thinking in terms of enemies. The forces that keep people away from God exist not only outside the church but in it as well: they are in every human being.

Nor is the historically sound image of Mary Magdalen about outward obedience but about inner certitude It is no longer about sitting wordless at the feet of the Lord but about beginning to speak and act self-reliantly. Sin, penance and grace are not the central issue in this Mary Magdalen, but the confusion of the world and the liberation from this confusion, made possible by the Redemptor. It is not self chastisement which takes pride of place, but joy. Not only the suffering of the Lord but also his greatness. Not the belief in dogmas, but the inner will to seek the Lord, to find him and to follow him.

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