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The four canonical gospels agree that Mary of Magdala, either alone (John) or with other women (Mark, Matthew, Luke), was the first to find Jesus' tomb empty, and two of those gospels agree that she was the first to meet the Risen Christ (Matthew, John). It is often concluded from those texts that, because of the alleged cultural disparagement of female witnesses, those events are historical and also, willy-nilly highly complimentary to Mary of Magdala. Who, it is often asked rhetorically, would make up such a female-witness narrative? Well, actually, Mark would, others would follow, and, in any case, these scenes are not that complimentary to Mary or the women, as I will discuss. In what follows, I presume that Mark is the only source for the Easter stories concerning Mary Magdalene in all four gospels. I also presume the following very concentrated summary of Markan narrative theology.

Paul knew from received and therefore very early tradition that the story of Jesus ended with a sequence of: died, was buried, rose, and appeared (1 Cor 15:3-7). In that list of apparition recipients, Cephas and the Twelve, James and the Apostles were emphasized. But that traditional fourfold-sequence confronted Mark with a particular problem about how to end the gospel story. Throughout Mark's gospel a very negative light is cast on the Twelve, on the Inner Three, and especially on Peter himself. First, "the Twelve" or "the Disciples" are accused of "hardened hearts" or culpable ignorance in 6:52 and 8:17. And, after Jesus' second prophecy of his execution and resurrection, they rather inappropriately "argued with one another who was the greatest" in 9:34. Next, the Inner Three of Peter, James, and John, specially renamed in 3:16-17, also respond most inadequately to Jesus' first and third prophecies of his death and resurrection. After the first prophecy, Peter "rebukes" Jesus and is in turn "rebuked" by Jesus as "Satan" in 8:32-33. After the third one, James and John respond by asking "to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" in 10:37. Finally, while the Inner Three all sleep in Gethsemane, Simon who was upgraded to Peter in 3:16 is downgraded back to Simon in 14:37 ("he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep?'") who then denies Jesus thrice in 14:66-72.

Furthermore, and apart from the Twelve/Disciples, Mark identifies Jesus' family as "Mary … James and Joses and Judas and Simon and … his sisters" (6:3). But earlier he counterpoints twin accusations of Jesus' madness/possession, one from Jesus' family and the other from Jerusalem's scribes: "When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind.' And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, 'He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons'" (3:21-22). But, actually, "people were saying" (elegon) could more validly refer to the "family," which is plural in Greek. In other words, both the family and the Twelve are severely criticized in Mark's gospel.

After such a consistent and repeated denigration of Jesus' disciples and Jesus' family, how can Mark end his gospel with apparitions to, for example, Peter or James, the Twelve or his family? He simply cannot, so he created that empty tomb story to replace any set of traditional apparitions such as those summarized by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-7. Besides, after his community's experience of sufferings and persecutions in which, as Mark knows only too well, no such consoling apparitions occurred, the stark vision of an empty tomb and an absent Lord was more theologically fitting, pending, of course, Jesus' imminent return in glory (9:1). Finally, the message that the women do not deliver and the "disciples and Peter" (a very unusual sequence, by the way, with Peter not in first place) do not obey is to relocate from Jerusalem to Galilee (16:7-8). All of that is a concentrated summary of Markan narrative theology as background to the statement that, "When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him" (16:1). What is Mark saying about Mary Magdalene?

In Mark's gospel those who accompany Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem include both women and men: "there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem" (15:41). For Mark, therefore, that entire entourage has heard Jesus' three prophecies about his death and resurrection. But the first and only person to take them seriously, to believe rather than ignore them, is that woman in Mark 14:3-9. She believes from his word alone even before the event itself (empty tomb and/or risen apparition) and acts accordingly by anointing him. She does it now because resurrection would make it impossible and unnecessary later on. That is why, as the first and, be it noted, pre-Easter believer, she gets that supreme and unique accolade from Jesus. "She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (14:8-9)." She is the theological heroine of Mark's gospel, just as the centurion is its theological hero (15:39).

When, therefore, other named women, including especially Mary Magdalene, go to anoint Jesus' body, they are not being complimented but criticized by Mark. Note that only Mark 16:1 has that precise purpose: "bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him." But they had been told by Jesus that he would rise on the third day, so, if they believed him, they would not have come on that day to anoint him. Mark, in other words, accuses them of disbelief. There is, indeed, a framing dialectic in Mark's Jerusalem climax between named disciples who fail Jesus and unnamed ones who do not:

(A1) Failure about crucifixion (named male disciples):

(B1) Faith about resurrection (unnamed female disciple):

(B2) Faith about crucifixion (unnamed male disciple):

(A2) Failure about resurrection (named female disciples):
Mark 10:32-42

Mark 14:3-9 (anointing)

Mark 15:39 (centurion)

Mark 16:1-8 (empty tomb)

From all of that I draw two conclusions: (1) Mark denigrates all the disciples, both female and male, whose names we know in favor of those two unnamed ones. (2) As the critical opposition to Peter emphasizes his importance so does the critical opposition to Mary emphasize her importance. From Mark's point of view, in other words, the criticism of Simon Peter is balanced by a criticism of Mary Magdalene, and the praise of the Unnamed Anointer by that of the Unnamed Centurion. For both Peter and Mary, such strong opposition from Mark indicates their central importance for some other community or communities.

But is that not reversed by Matthew's revision of Mark's ending? Not at all. Mary and the women are indeed the first to meet Jesus in Matt 28:9. They are sent with a message for the male disciples, sent "to go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me" (28:10). But "the eleven disciples" are sent to tell "all nations" and Jesus will be "with them always. To the end of the age" (28:20). A secretarial mandate for the women is not a compliment when followed and absorbed by an executive mandate for the men.

Even though John 20:1-10 is based on the synoptic empty tomb story of Mark 16:1-8 = Matt 28:1-8 = Luke 24:1-10, John has creatively modified it for the very special purpose of the entire chapter. That purpose is to exalt the Other (Beloved) Disciple over three alternative leaders, Peter, Mary, and Thomas. First, in John 20:2-10, the Other Disciple gets to the tomb first, looks in first, and believes first, while all Peter does is go in first (necessitated probably by Luke 24:12?). Next, Mary Magdalene misunderstands the tomb's emptiness as grave robbery and says so three times in 20:2,13,15, not even recognizing Jesus when he finally appears to her (20:15). Finally, in 20:24-29 Thomas believes, but only after demanding and obtaining a touch on the wounds of Jesus. In those three cases, the Other Disciple is the ideal model or leader while Peter, Mary, and Thomas are downgraded (Peter, of course, is re-exalted or counter-exalted in the appended John 21:15-17). In John, as in Mark, therefore, Mary Magdalene is important enough to be opposed alongside Peter.

My conclusion is that a disparagement of Mary Magdalene was already strongly present in Mark and John and that it continued with that claim that seven devils had been driven from her in Luke 8:2 = Mark 16:9 and with the even later identification of her as the unnamed sinner/prostitute in Luke 7:37. But the historical Mary Magdalene was a very important leader whose significance, like that of Peter, is emphasized by all that creative disparage-ment.

John Dominic Crossan is an SBL member and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University, Chicago, IL.

Citation: John Dominic Crossan, " Opposition as Index of Importance: The Case of Mary Magdalene," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2003]. Online:


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