Monday, February 11, 2008

There's Something About Mary (2)

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, by Jane Schaberg

Continuing the summary of chapter 3. How, I asked in a previous post, did Mary Magdalene (MM) get turned from one of the central witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus into the popular image of a whore? Schaberg suggests that the transformation is already happening in the biblical texts, particularly the Gospel of Luke. Luke adds an important detail to the story about MM not found in Mark (apart from the later addition to Mark found in 16:9*) or Matthew. In original Mark and then Matthew and John MM is only named in the death-resurrection narrative. But in Luke 8:1-3 the author tells us that MM was part of a group of women who had been cleansed of evil spirits. What, pray tell, might those evil spirits have been? This is the first important piece of information that contributes to a process of conflation.

The second is that nowhere in the gospels does it say that MM anointed Jesus; we are only told that she unsuccessfully attempted to anoint the body of Jesus at the tomb. But we are told that Jesus was anointed by a woman. In Mark and Matthew she is unnamed; John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Both Mark (14:3-9), Matthew (26:6-13) and John (12:1-8) tell us that a woman anointed the feet of Jesus and this anointing was interpreted by Jesus as a prophetic act anticipating his death. Once again, though, Luke 7:36-50 gives this story a different interpretation:
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Oremus Bible Browser)
Schaberg says of Luke's move:
Luke has radically rewritten Mark's account and turn the anointing prophet into a woman most readers have seen as a prostitute, forgiven for her great love it. Even though the Markan and Matthean versions carry the remark of Jesus that "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she [the prophet] has done will be told in remembrance of her," Luke's story -- without the remark and without the prophetic dimension of anointing -- overpower the other two by means of its dangerous artistry and its ideology. The prophet is morphed into the whore. This moment of forgiveness for sexual sin all but obliterated the political anointing, and later became the central moment of the mangling legends. (p.74)
The conflation of MM who wanted to anoint the dead Jesus with the prostitute whose sins were forgiven and anointed Jesus in gratitude has begun. And it takes off. By the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great could declare:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices....It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefor displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner... (p.82)
The legend of MM the repentent whore is fleshed out in some fascinating ways in the Middle Ages, as we will see in a subsequent post. But it is important to note Schaberg's commentary on why this happened. There was, she said, a need to downgrade her and to deny her authority. There was also "the desire to attach to female sexuality the notions of evil, repentence, and male mercy."
She became a whore for many reasons: sexism, never simple, and misogyny; the struggle to create and maintain a male hierarchy with its male models and precedents; unconscious or semi-conscious androcentrism; asceticism and the increasingly high value put on celibacy; intolerance of difference; the genuine fear of one's opponents within and without; political and social and cultural pressures; the liking for a good story; anger. (p.81)
It didn't have to be this way; it almost certainly wasn't this way in the Jesus movement or the Pauline churches, although it didn't take long for men to put women in their "place." It apparently wasn't this way in some of the gnostic-inspired communities where MM was recognized and revered as a leader, as we will see. But in the proto-orthodox to orthodox church movement, sexism became the norm sanctioned by "the will of God." We are just beginning to correct that wrong interpretation of God's will.

*There is a consensus among biblical scholars that Mark 16 originally ended with verse 8. Verses 9ff were later added to bring Mark into conformity with the later gospels.

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