Friday, March 5, 2010

A Case of Mistaken Identity

In my New Testament classes at Liberty University the students have to write a final paper for me, and one of the options is to do a “Character Study” on a New Testament character that figured prominently in Jesus’ life and ministry. Every term several choose Mary Magdalene. For centuries she has been one of those New Testament figures about whom much speculation has swirled. Thanks in part to fanciful theories about her relationship with Jesus (see, for example, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, and Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code), Mary of Magdala continues to command curiosity from students and scholars alike.

However, much of what we think we know about Mary Magdalene has no basis in the actual text of the New Testament itself. The name “Mary Magdalene” occurs thirty-two times in twelve verses in the Gospels (Matt. 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18). Moreover, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the name “Mary” occurs 51 times in the Gospels, and it is not always possible to determine which “Mary” the text has in mind. In brief, there are three “Marys” who figure prominently in Jesus’ life, according to the Gospels: Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary of Magdala, and Mary of Bethany. Of course, no one mistakes Mary, Jesus’ mother, for the other two Marys, but many have incorrectly assumed that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person. They are not.

Mary Magdalene is a prominent Galilean woman who became a follower of Jesus. She is called “Magdalene” because she came from Magdala, a small fishing and ship-building village situated on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee at the southern end of the Plain of Gennesaret (the small, but fertile plain on the northwestern side of the Sea of Galilee near the present day kibbutz, Nof Ginosar). [Incidentally, the Sea of Galilee was referred to by locals as “Lake Gennesaret” derived from the Hebrew Kinnereth (cf. Numbers 34:11; Joshua 12:3; 13:27), which in turn comes from the Hebrew kinnor meaning “harp” or “lyre” because the Lake is harp-shaped. The name was pronounced “Gennesaret” in Greek, and the term was applied both to the Lake and the plain on its northwestern shore.] Magdala probably takes its name from the fact that it sat at the foot of the entrance to the Valley of the Wind, or as it’s sometimes called, the Valley of the Doves, because the wind whistles through the valley sounding like cooing doves. The valley is part of the natural wadi system of the Via Maris that guided caravans from Nazareth to Capernaum (see my book, Where Jesus Walked, for more information). Magdala is Greek for the Hebrew migdal which means “watch tower.” At the entrance of the Valley of the Wind (Wadi el-Hamam in Arabic) are two large natural stone towers (migdaloth) that appear to guard the entrance to the wadi. Hence, the village that lay on the Lake’s shore came to be known as Magdala.

In the New Testament, Mary of Magdala is said to have been the woman from whom seven demons had gone out (Luke 8:2). In the New Testament world where there was no notion of secondary causation of things (i.e., they had no concept that illness was caused by germs and viruses), everything was considered either to be the work of God or the work of Satan and evil spirits. Hence, demon possession was thought to be the cause of such physical maladies as leprosy, epilepsy, paralysis, and various forms of mental illness. There is, however, little if any evidence that ancients believed demons to be the cause of promiscuous and salacious behavior (that’s a modern idea). And so, the tradition that Mary was a “loose woman” before she met Christ and that He delivered her from her salacious ways is just that – a tradition that has no basis in the text of the New Testament. The tradition was, perhaps, abetted by the fact that Luke, in his Gospel, introduces Mary of Magdala immediately after his story of the woman (who was a “loose woman” according to Luke) who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (see Luke 7:36-50). But nowhere does Luke ever identify this woman as Mary Magdalene. Indeed, the fact that he formally introduces Mary in 8:2 probably means that he doesn’t want his readers to understand the woman of 7:36ff. as Mary Magdalene.

Then, of course, the fact that the unnamed woman of Luke 7 washes Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair has caused some to mistakenly associate her with the “Mary” who does something similar in John 12:1-8 (see John 11:1-2). However, John specifically identifies this woman as “Mary of Bethany,” sister of Martha and Lazarus, not Mary of Magdala. Mary Magdalene was, as I’ve already indicated, a Galilean, while this “Mary,” sister of Martha and Lazarus, was a Judean from Bethany, a small “bedroom community” on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Moreover, there is no hint in the stories of Mary of Bethany in the New Testament (see also Luke 10:38-42) that she had ever been “delivered from demons.” They are clearly not the same person.

The confusion, unfortunately, continues to be perpetuated by uninformed persons who pass on the misinformation. Hence, I thought it helpful here to offer the evidence from the New Testament itself about Mary of Magdala. She’s been a victim of “identity theft” long enough.


J. Travis Moger said...

Thank you for untangling the knotty problem of the three Marys. The gospel writers bear some of the responsibility for the confusion and not simply because Luke introduces Mary Magdalene right after the anointing story. Is it just a coincidence that Jesus is anointed at the home of a man named Simon in all three synoptic gospels or that Matthew, Mark, and John agree that the anointing took place in Bethany? Although there are some differing details, the stories are quite similar. Is it irreverent or illogical to conclude that there was an anointing story based on one historical event, which each evangelist retold differently to suit his own rhetorical purpose?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

One of the problems we moderns have in understanding the Fourfold Gospel Tradition is that we are afflicted with what I sometimes call "The Sergeant Friday Syndrome." You may remember the old Dragnet television series (That's right...I really am that old!) in which Sergeant Friday would investigate some crime, and there would be an hysterical witness blurting out his/her "take" on what had happened, complete with a lot of information Sergeant Friday regarded as either irrelevant or unnecessary or both. Finally, in exasperation, he would tell the eyewitness: "Just the facts, ma'am. Just give me the facts."

Sometimes we read the Gospels as "Sergeant Friday" looking only for the facts without remembering that the Gospels were composed by believers for believers...people who were not trying to be "objective" by modern standards (the quotation marks being intentional), but were rather witnessing to their faith in Jesus in ways with which their audiences could connect and relate. That doesn't mean that they were not telling the truth; they were, and any honest and fair attempt to assess ALL the evidence (even by modern evidentiary standards) will, I am convinced, bear that out. But what it does mean is that they were not dispassionate or disinterested observers uninvolved in the events to which they were bearing witness, engaging in what one has called "drive-by reporting." Rather, they were first and foremost believers in Jesus Christ. And because both writers and audiences differed from Gospel to Gospel, the tone and texture, colors and hues, of their witnesses were crafted by and shaped for their peculiar purposes.

Through the years, the way I've explained it to students is by asking them to think of the Gospels more as "portraits" than "photographs." If I were to give four different people cameras and ask them to take a photograph of the same subject, all things being equal, the photographs should be identical. But if I were to give them a canvas and paints and ask them to paint a portrait of the same person, I would get four recognizable, but somewhat different, portraits of that person, each portrait revealing BOTH the subject and the painter; that is, his peculiar skill, emphasis, and perspective.

Of course one must also take into account the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the production of the Gospels (in ways I believe but cannot fully explain), and, of course, any analogy will break down if pressed too far; but this illustration does justice both to the fact that God's Spirit inspired the Gospel writers and also worked through each one's individuality in providing for the Church four different "portraits" of Jesus. That is to say, in the Gospels we see the real Jesus, (not a "made up Jesus" on the one hand, or four different "Jesuses" on the other); but because we're looking at Him through the medium of each Gospel writer's "portrait," we see Jesus through the eyes of the individual Gospel writers, each one choosing which aspects of Jesus he will emphasize in his "portrait."

Perhaps that will help. If not, you needn't bother with it a moment more.

John King said...

Yes, the witnesses of the gospels are anything but dispassionate. Jesus came to mean everything to them and He was the way they came to understand and interpret God and their relationship to Him. Their ultimate concern flows through history to this very day.

I think the analogy of "painting" vs "photography" is a good one to explain the four canonical perspectives on Jesus. I think scholars are still trying to figure out if the artists were more like Bonheur, Van Gogh, or Pollack.

J. Travis Moger said...

Wayne, I do find your comments helpful. I was reacting to your statement: “The confusion, unfortunately, continues to be perpetuated by uninformed persons who pass on the misinformation.” I don’t think all of the confusion is caused by ignorance. Some of it is the result of the synoptic problem itself. Like most conservative scholars you posit two very similar anointings, which both coincidentally took place at the house of a man named Simon—one in Galilee in Luke, another in Judea in Matthew, Mark, and John. If that works for you, fine. You still have discrepancies among the non-Lucan accounts to sort out, which may be due to artistic license as your portrait analogy suggests. I want to push your analogy a bit further. John is the only evangelist who identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany and John’s gospel was written after (perhaps long after) the synoptics according to Bible scholars. Is it possible that John attributed the story to Mary for rhetorical, not historical, reasons? Or would that be pushing your portrait analogy too far?

John King said...

J. Travis,

I for one do not know if you have pushed the analogy too far or not. However, I think you have moved from Bonheur to Van Gogh.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

My! Lots of interest in this! Glad to see that ministers are still reading the Bible! Encouraging.

Don't know, Travis, whether the accounts can be harmonized or not; don't know who knows. That was not my point or purpose. My point was that there is no basis in the text of the New Testament for the false tradition that Mary of Magdala was a "loose woman" or worse, a prostitute. Best we can tell, that whole thing got started as a result of a sermon by Pope Gregory in the 6th century and has been perpetuated ever since. It still amazes me at the lengths to which Christians will go to avoid actually reading the text!

John King said...


Well, even more than ministers read the Bible. How about a retired CPA? I do not know if that is more or less encouraging. However, I think it is a small minority of people who actually read it for themselves. More people read or have it read to them in church. Even more people in the western world have an opinion about it. Few try to understand it in its original context (to the extent that it is possible to do this). Personally, I do not get very far without having my own perpective or tradition creeping into the picture. Of course, the post-modernists keep telling us that we have no other choice.