Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Can We Know About the Prominent Women of the Bible?

As a regular Facebook user, I came across one of their myriad quizzes tonight which tests the user to find out which “mighty woman” of the Bible they are most like. I took it and discovered that, despite some obvious anatomical issues, I am most like Ruth, a figure from the Old Testament. Other users found that they are most like Sarah and Mary Magdalene.

The explanations given with these findings are curious. Consider, for instance, what is said about Mary Magdalene:

She was forgiven much & loved much, and you certainly love much! You are a passionate person, who loves God & life. You have a tendency to count your blessings and be very grateful, even in small things. You are an overcomer, and will not allow any life circumstances to hold you down.

This, naturally, caused me to wonder just where the authors of this quiz were coming up with their information. What, in fact, can we actually know about the prominent women of the Bible?

Because an in-depth look at the prominent women of the Bible could take up a whole book, I will instead focus in this essay on Mary Magdalene, since together with Mary the mother of Jesus, she is the most prominent woman in the New Testament.


Mary Magdalene appears exactly 13 times in the New Testament, with all occurrences happening in the four Gospels. Never is she mentioned in any other New Testament writing. In the Gospels, she appears almost exclusively in the death, burial, and resurrection accounts. In only one place is she ever mentioned being present during Jesus’ actual life ministry – that comes to us in Luke chapter 8, where Luke mentions that she had “seven demons” driven out of her (although Luke doesn’t say by whom) and that she was present there during Jesus’ teachings.

There are no scenes in the Bible that depict the living Jesus ever actually interacting with Mary. Mary’s interactions with Jesus are exclusively with the resurrected Jesus – and that only happens in one account.

Mary enters the Christian canon in the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 C.E., or 40 years after Jesus’ death. Mark mentions that she and other women were present at the crucifixion, and that this group of women were followers of Jesus who “cared for his needs.” The writer tells us that Mary and the other women saw where Jesus was buried, and then later went to the tomb to anoint his body. While there, they were met by a “man in white” who announced the resurrection to them, instructing them to go and tell the others that Jesus would meet up with them in Galilee. Mary and the others, however, are scared and instead “said nothing to anyone.” Mark’s Gospel actually ends right there, without any appearances of the risen Jesus to anyone.

Mary next appears, chronologically, in the book of Matthew. Using Mark as a source, Matthew simply repeats Mark’s assertion that Mary Magdalene and the others were followers who cared for Jesus’ needs and who were present at the crucifixion and then saw the burial.

However, Matthew veers from Mark’s account of Mary’s actions on Easter Sunday. Instead of coming to anoint Jesus’ body, Mary and the other women are simply coming to “look at the tomb,” as though to check up on it. This fits with Matthew’s account of the guards who were stationed at the tomb to ensure that no one tampered with the body – a story that only appears in Matthew’s account. When the women arrive, instead of seeing a man in white, there is now a great earthquake, and an actual angel of the Lord comes down from heaven, causing the guards to drop dead with fear. The angel gives an instruction to the women that is similar to Mark’s (“Go tell everyone; Jesus will meet you in Galilee”), but unlike in Mark’s account, the women actually follow the instructions, heading off to tell the disciples. On their way, however, Jesus actually meets them on the road, and they “clasped his feet and worshipped him.” Afterward, Jesus meets the disciples as promised in Galilee, giving them what is now known as “the Great Commission.”

Mary’s next appearance is in the aforementioned Luke chapter 8, where she is noted as being present as Jesus went around teaching, and that someone (not necessarily Jesus) had driven seven demons out of her. After that, she is absent again until the resurrection (Luke mentions only that “the women” who had followed Jesus were there at the crucifixion – one would assume Mary was included in this). For Luke, Mary and the others are once again heading to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. For the first time, the women actually see for themselves that the tomb is empty – in both Mark and Matthew’s accounts, the women never walk in to see the body missing. After this, two angels appear instead of one, and there is no accompanying earthquake. Their speech to the women is different from that of Matthew and Mark, and there is no instruction to go tell anyone. The women, however, do head straight off to tell the disciples – with no subsequent meeting of Jesus on the road, as we find in Matthew. The disciples don’t believe the women’s story, and Peter goes to see for himself. Mary and the other women are not mentioned again after this.

Mary’s final appearance in the Bible comes in the book of John. John agrees with the other three writers that Mary and the other women were present at the crucifixion; however, there is no mention of them necessarily seeing the burial place. On Easter Sunday, Mary goes by herself, instead of with other women, to the tomb. John does not tell us why she went. When she arrives, there are no angels or earthquakes, but Mary simply sees that the stone has been rolled away. She does not look inside, but immediately runs to tell the disciples.

After Peter and the unnamed disciple see the empty tomb for themselves, they go back home, leaving Mary there at the tomb, crying. At this point, two angels appear, asking her why she is crying. “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,” is her famous response. At that moment, Jesus appears to her, but she mistakes him for the gardener. She assures the gardener that if he knows where they’ve put Jesus’ body, she’ll go and retrieve it. Jesus then says her name, and she realizes it who it is. Jesus, however, instructs her not to touch him (unlike the scene in Matthew, where Mary and the other women clasp Jesus’ feet when they meet him on the road). After this, she goes back to the disciples and tells them that she has seen the resurrected Jesus.

And that’s the last we hear in the New Testament of Mary Magdalene.

From these accounts, we can take only a very few things about Mary.

1. She was a follower of Jesus who, among other things, “cared for his needs.” This is probably a way of saying that she and the other women helped to finance his ministry. If true, then she was a woman of financial means.

2. She had demons driven out of her. We can take this one of three ways: A) it is a 1st century legend born from ignorance about illness or prejudice against women; B) Mary had a legitimate illness (such as epilepsy or porphyria) which she overcame, and was thus said to have been cured of demon-possession; or C) we can take it as a literally true statement – Mary had literal demons inside her, which someone exorcised. Either way, beyond Luke’s parenthetical statement, we know nothing of the circumstances surrounding Mary’s demon possession, or who cured her.

3. Mary was present at the crucifixion, and may have witnessed the burial of Jesus. All four Gospels agree that Mary and the other women were at the crucifixion. This is significant not only because all the Gospels agree (often a rarity, especially in the crucifixion and resurrection stories), but also because the disciples were not present. It was clearly well-remembered in the Christian community that the male disciples had fled and abandoned Jesus. His female followers, however, stayed by his side. This would not have been a happy thing to admit – that the women, who were second class citizens, were more faithful than the men – so it seems likely to be historically accurate.

4. Mary went to the tomb on Easter Sunday, perhaps to anoint Jesus’ body, or perhaps simply to check on the tomb. Again, all the Gospels agree on Mary’s presence on Easter Sunday, implying that whatever the resurrection was (physical or metaphorical), Mary and the other women were at the center of it. This, of course, has dramatic theological implications that are beyond the scope of this particular essay.

5. Mary, along with other women, was the first to discover the resurrection, and may have been the first to see Jesus in resurrected form. Again, this has dramatic theological implications that I won’t go into here.

Based on these things, consider again what the Facebook quiz had to say about Mary Magdalene:

She was forgiven much & loved much, and you certainly love much! You are a passionate person, who loves God & life. You have a tendency to count your blessings and be very grateful, even in small things. You are an overcomer, and will not allow any life circumstances to hold you down.

1. She was forgiven much and loved much. Nothing in the Bible would support the idea that Mary was any more “forgiven” or any more “loved” than anyone else. Medieval theology suggested Mary was a prostitute, which is in no way supported by the earliest texts, and this, no doubt, is where the idea comes from in modern Christian circles that Mary was somehow “forgiven much.”

2. Mary was a passionate person, who loved God and life. Mary’s crying scene in the Gospel of John might support the claim that Mary was “passionate,” but such a claim is tenuous at best. “A weak-willed woman” would probably make more sense in the 1st century context. Otherwise, there is no evidence to suggest that she loved God and life any more than anyone else.

3. Mary counted her blessings and was very grateful even in small things. Again, nothing really exists in the Biblical text to support this as a description of Mary Magdalene. It’s simply an idea that seems like a pretty way for a good Christian woman to act.

4. Mary was someone who overcame adversity and would not allow life circumstances to hold her down. This is perhaps the only thing in the quiz that might be linked to something in the text. While I think that this impression of Mary comes, again, primarily from the medieval idea that Mary was a prostitute-turned-Christian, one could argue that overcoming demon possession (whether that should be understood as a physical illness or an actual spiritual attack) indicates that Mary indeed overcame adversity and bettered herself. The problem, of course, is that we have only one source for this demon possession story – the parenthetical remark that Luke makes in chapter 8. No other Biblical writer says anything about Mary having been cured of demon possession, even though this seems like a rather important nugget to leave out.

All in all, it seems apparent to me that what Christians commonly suppose about Mary Magdalene comes more from Church imagination rather than from the New Testament. In the New Testament, there is very little we can know about Mary, with the primary things being that she was a close follower of Jesus who may have been financially sound, she was somehow intricately involved in whatever the resurrection was, and she may have overcome a serious illness earlier in life.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Mary Magdalene is that she – along with Jesus’ other female followers – did not abandon him at his crucifixion, like his male disciples did. This sends me the message that Mary may have been a woman of great devotion, fearlessness, and faith.

Ironically, yet not surprisingly, none of these traits are included in the Facebook quiz’s explanation of what Mary Magdalene was like.


Anonymous said...

Ha! Every now and then, I try to Google "taking God's name in vain". Your view is definitely uncommon. Similarly to you, this is how I've come to interpret it. I think it means that you should not falsely profess to be a person of God for personal motives or benefit. An example would be when a politician says that they are a Christian, but they are not truly so in their heart. They go through the motions and keep up appearances in order to gain the support of religious-minded voters. Religious leaders also pull this crap. Like the alleged hypocrisy of Ted Haggard. The list is surely long.

I was raised Southern Baptist as well. The interpretation of this commandment has ALWAYS bothered me. I could never accept that this was supposed to mean "don't use the word 'God' in a cuss word or as an interjection." Too many people tend to mindlessly accept biblical teachings, without looking for something deeper or more meaningful.

I also like what you said about Christianity being a "get out of death free card." Too many times I have seen a younger, newly converted Christian on TV shows (especially shows like SteelRoots) say that, "I used to sin, but now I am saved. I'm not going to Hell anymore. Don't you want to go to Heaven, too?"

Which leads to what initiated today's Google search. I was posting on a forum in a thread about religion/"God". I remembered Kirk Cameron and his buddy and their Way of the Master "witnessing system". I visited their site and started watching one of their presentations, What Happens When You Die. I was soon reminded of how some people use their interpretations of the scriptures to guilt-trip others. To me, this is just might be another way of using the Lord's name in vain. I'm sure their egos are inflated with each new lamb they feel they've added to the fold. I haven't looked at all of their material, but I wonder if all they spout is doom and gloom in order to convert. I'm pretty sure Jesus said some positive things.
I just read your "What Christianity Means To Me" entries before I posted this. It feels good to finally encounter such a kindred spirit. I subscribed to your feed, and I look forward to seeing more of my thoughts and ideas written in your words. The more I read, the crazier things seem. Damn, I just noticed we're the same age as well. Let me stop.

Scott said...

Thanks so much for reading, Anonymous. It's the comments like these (few and far between though they be!) that make it worth it.

I recently had a bad experience with an evangelical Christian that I am acquainted with, and although we sort of worked our disagreement out, it reminded me more than ever that the problem isn't Christ, but rather many Christians.

A lot of my very strong, traditionally-leaning Christian friends often wonder why I have a "bone to pick" with Christians. The reason why is because I see so many Christians who are Christians in name only. They aren't actually interested in living the life Jesus taught. It's either too difficult or (and I think this is the most likely answer) too inconvenient to our modern lifestyles of greed, materialism, and selfishness. We're self-centered creatures, and Jesus' message is dangerous because it urges us to be selfless. It's not unlike Buddhism, in that sense.

A lot of times, traditionally-leaning Christians will agree with me that many Christians are Christians "in name only." But I generally get the impression that they are envisioning the kinds of people you noted - athletes who are always getting arrested, getting suspended and fined for fighting, etc., but who are always quick to throw a shout-out to God whenever they win a championship; preachers who are secretly doing drugs and visiting prostitutes and putting hits out on enemies; rich businessmen who go to church every week, but then spend Monday through Friday cheating employees and investors out of money. The list, as you said, goes on and on.

But I go even a step further than this. I'm talking about those kinds of people too, of course, but I'm also talking about many average, everday, decent, law-abiding people. People who go to church, say their prayers, don't commit crimes, are well-adjusted members of society, etc. Many of these people may be "good" people by society's standards, but they are still definitely "conformed" to the world. They want to get rich. They want that big house and those nice cars. They give only sparingly to charity if at all. They don't dirty their hands working in soup kitchens. They're judgemental and selfish and narrow. They spoil their children and teach them to be materialistic just like they are. They don't want the government taxing their hard-earned dollars to be given to some crack-whore as a welfare handout. On and on and on.

I'm not saying these people are bad people. What I'm saying is that they are everyday, average, normal people. But the life of Christ, in my opinion, calls us beyond the everyday, the average, and the normal!

I'm also not trying to be hypocritical, because I freely admit that I am "normal, average, and everyday" in many of the same ways. As I said, Jesus' message is difficult because it's inconvenient to our modern lifestyles. But just because the vast majority of us, myself many times included, frequently fail to meet Jesus' standards doesn't mean that the standards aren't there. If we really have faith in Jesus' standards, then we must face the fact that most of us fall well short of them every day.

Again, many evangelicals would no doubt agree with that. But they would say that this is why God's mercy is so wonderful - he accepts us even though we are sinners.

But I believe this is a self-defeating attitude, because it works in a way to keep us from improving ourselves, to keep us from legitimately striding toward the teachings that we claim to have "faith" in. "I'm not able to meet Jesus' standards, so I'll just keep being well beneath them and count on mercy for my get out of death free card." Focusing too much on belief in God's mercy and a joyous afterlife inhibits us, I believe, from real personal, spiritual growth - the abundant life Jesus promised would result from his message.

I don't know if there's a heaven. I hope there is. I don't know if God is real. I hope God is and live my life as if God is real. I don't know what the real historical Jesus was like or whether he really was something other than a human being. But I find the life of Jesus, and the things he taught, to be powerfully relevant ways to live and grow personally and spiritually, and whether I routinely fail or not, I have great faith that Jesus' path is the best way for me to live. If that gets me to heaven, excellent. If it gets me to hell, well I suppose I'll count on God's mercy for trying my best. If there's no afterlife at all, then I've lived a pretty full, abundant life in the here and now, which is what Jesus encouraged us to do anyway.

And I do say "God" as a cuss word now and then :) (although this comment thread is on the wrong article...this is the prominent women of the Bible article...)

Scott said...

To make one more comment on the statements I made about how so many Christians don't act like's pretty much commonly accepted in most circles that America, as a whole, is greedy, selfish, and materialistic. I think most Christians would agree with this as a general statement about modern America. Why are evangelicals constantly harping about the degenerancy of the modern era, otherwise?

But if a country where 85% of the population claims to be Christian is characterized as greedy, selfish, and materialistic, then it certainly isn't that way because of the 15% who aren't Christians! Clearly a major chunk of that 85% must be greedy and selfish too!

Again, this isn't me attempting to point the finger at everyone else, this is me pointing the finger at all of us, myself included.

Anonymous said...

You are a gifted writer and historian. You love history and you love trying to pursue the truth, no matter what "orthodoxy" is overthrown in the meantime. Many more honest people need this type of commitment. To quote a preacher I heard many years ago while speaking to church youth: "Shoot your arrow toward TRUTH, not orthodoxy! They are seldom the same thing!" Not bad coming from a Southern Baptist Preacher (though he is no longer associated with that fundamentalist driven "denomination".

Anonymous said...

LOL. Really, I don't know how my comment got over here! For some reason I just started looking for other posts with comments and found it. I blame Blogger. :-D

I had saved a copy of my post and have moved it to the correct post. If you want to move your responses as well, I might have something else to add to the conversation. I'll check back.


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