Mary of Magdala: Christian Polemics and Demonic Influence
The following will examine ways in which Luke places his unique touch upon the portrayals of Mary Magdalene and Peter in this gospel, especially Luke's preferential treatment of Peter.
|Luke's presentation of Mary Magdalene is significantly different from the other three canonical gospels. According to this account before she encountered Jesus, Mary suffered from "demon-possession"(a tradition later appended to the end of Mark as well). A striking correlation exists between this demonic reference concerning Mary and the absence of any reference to satanic or demonic influence in the same gospel with respect to Peter. Whereas both Mark and Matthew present references to Jesus saying to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan," this quote from Jesus is curiously missing in Luke. Since Peter holds an especially esteemed status in Luke, it seems more than merely coincidental that Luke fails to mention this tradition. It likewise seems highly relevant that the very gospel that most diminishes the overall role of Mary Magdalene and other women in the passion narrative is also the one that makes a unique reference to her "demon-possession." |
Part of the exceptional nature of the Gospel of Luke arises in the way it introduces Mary Magdalene into the gospel at a significantly earlier point in the narrative than the other gospels; before the passion narrative begins. The advantage of this early Lukan reference (8:1-3) is that it attests to the inclusivity of Jesus' close band of followers, correcting the common misconception that Jesus surrounded himself with a core of only twelve men. According to verse 2, then, the women traveled with Jesus in his teaching and preaching of the good news. The disadvantage of Luke's presentation of the women lies in their description as a group that needed healing from evil spirits and diseases.
It is curious that numerous texts exist outside the canon that feature Mary (either explicitly or implicitly identified as the Magdalene) and yet do not refer to Mary being demon-possessed or in need of healing from that condition. Since such texts often feature the figure of Mary and present her in such detail, why is it that only Luke preserves such a noteworthy report? Two additional points accentuate the remarkable nature of Luke's description of her demon-possession. Luke depicts Mary not only as possessed by a demon but by seven. This number has significance in that the number seven in ancient representations connoted completeness, thus implying that Mary was not only previously possessed by a demon but was completely possessed. Also peculiar is the way the Lukan text attributes the need for healing to this entire group of women.
New Testament scholars have long discerned the political and theological differences among the first generations of Christians. Such differences extended even to competing portrayals of early Christian resurrection accounts, particularly the primacy of Jesus' resurrection appearance to certain individuals. My own book on the conflict between the portrayals of Mary Magdalene and Peter builds the case that the more prominent Peter's role in a text, the more diminished is the portrayal of women's leadership, especially that of Mary Magdalene. The juxtaposition of references to demonic influence mentioned above could well be part of the early Christian polemic concerning the first witnesses of Jesus' resurrection. The unique perspective that Luke presents with respect to demonic influence suspiciously corresponds to perceivable changes in Luke's portrayal of these two leading figures. A comparison of Luke with its canonical counterparts shows that the status of Mary Magdalene is lessened while Peter's is uplifted.
Crucial to the portrayal of women's contribution in early Christianity is the way Luke presents multiple unique narratives concerning women's roles—in fact, this gospel offers twenty three passages about women unknown elsewhere in the canon. Yet, despite all this additional material, Luke's female figures emerge not as active leaders but as quiet, contemplative role models. Nor do the differences in Luke's presentation appear merely accidental. An analysis of all four canonical gospels, especially the crucifixion and resurrection passages, reveals how Luke's version actively diminishes women's leadership roles. Only Luke introduces additional characters called "other acquaintances" into the crucifixion scene in addition to Mary Magdalene and the other women and even mentions them first. Of the four gospels only Luke portrays the women at the cross as nameless. In fact, Luke refers to this group of women four times in the passion narrative, but names them only once, at a later point coterminous with the harsh reaction of the male disciples when they dismiss the women's witness as leros ("futile nonsense"; "idle talk"). It is pivotal in Luke that, in addition to making no reference to a resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the women, this is the only canonical gospel that addresses no commissioning to them from either an angel or Jesus to spread the good news. Crucial to Luke's resurrection narrative is the way it presents Mary Magdalene's tradition so as to counteract her authority and primacy as a resurrection witness. Without the presence of a commissioning from either an angel or Jesus, the mandate for women to preach or transmit the good news to others is absent.
A comparison of Peter's role in Luke to his portrayal in Matthew and Mark highlights significant differences in his presentation as well. Luke's gospel unquestionably assigns a privileged status to Peter in the way that it programmatically lifts his figure to even greater prominence than its canonical counterparts. Luke contains special narratives about Peter not present elsewhere, such as his individualized calling (Luke 5:1-11), comprising eleven verses instead of the significantly briefer three verses in the other versions (Mark 1:16-18 and Matt 4:18-20). Moreover, despite the greater detail, this call narrative focuses upon Peter without mentioning Andrew as do the other two. Only Luke includes the miraculous catch of fish in Peter's calling (Luke 5:4-7), as well as an identification of Peter as one of the two disciples preparing the Passover Meal (Luke 22:8), and only Luke portrays Jesus specifically commissioning Peter to strengthen the others despite Satan's demand upon him (Luke 22:31-32).
Although Luke parallels many of the other synoptic traditions of Peter, the absence of certain status-diminishing traditions about him likewise speaks volumes concerning the pro-Petrine nature of this gospel. Luke's portrayal contains some conspicuous omissions, modifications, and replacements of traditions that could potentially undermine the position of Peter. For instance, in Matthew and Mark when Jesus returns from praying in the Garden and finds them sleeping, he singles out Peter for scolding, while in Luke he scolds the group as a whole. When Jesus predicted that he would suffer in Jerusalem, both Mark and Matthew portray Peter rebuking Jesus (Mark 8:32b and Matt 16:22). The synoptic parallel one would expect to find in Luke is absent. Likewise, in Mark (8:33) and Matthew (16:23) Jesus subsequently rebukes Peter, but again there is no Lukan parallel. The absence of this scene is intriguing because the Lukan text immediately preceding and following this incident otherwise closely parallels the Markan material.
In addition to traditions that are absent in Luke, this gospel also presents modifications of Markan tradition that inarguably enhance the portrayal of Peter. These modifications include changes in Peter's words in response to Jesus' prediction of his denial. In Luke, Peter never falsely promises not to deny Jesus but rather states he is ready to follow Jesus to prison and to death (compare Mark 14:29, Matt 26:33, Luke 22:33). Nor does Peter swear or call down a curse on himself during the denial in the courtyard (cf. Mark 14:71a, Matt 26:74a, Luke 22:60a). Lastly, this preferential treatment of Peter in the third gospel appears most clearly in Luke's supplementation of other canonical Petrine tradition with a resurrection appearance made exclusively to Peter in Luke 24:34. Only in Luke do the disciples declare, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon."
Despite innumerable parallels within the synoptic gospels, they differ significantly in their descriptions of Mary Magdalene and Peter, as highlighted by their references to demonic or satanic influence. I believe it is illustrative within the polemics of early Christianity to note which gospels refer to such an influence and with whom. Let us be cautious not to promote a false dichotomization that Peter was the canonical authority par excellence while Mary Magdalene was the preferred apostle of the Gnostics and the heretics. Indeed, three of the four gospels portray a commissioning to Mary Magdalene to transmit the good news to others. While Peter undoubtedly ranks as an important figure in early Christian history, his status is reinforced even more so as a result of Luke, a text that fails to give Mary Magdalene her due and introduces her in the narrative as someone who was once completely demon-possessed.
Ann Graham Brock is an author, lecturer, and SBL member.
Citation: Ann Graham Brock, " Mary of Magdala: Christian Polemics and Demonic Influence," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=209