The gospel reading for Easter Sunday in the Common Lectionary depicts Mary Magdalene in the garden (John 20:1–18)), a mysterious and ambiguous tale. Mysteries and ambiguities prompt questions that often cannot be answered but they cause us to wonder and see new possibilities.
Where does the story come from? The anonymous author of John 20 used Mark 16 as a source. The names of the women in Mark 16 come from a crucifixion story and tradition of women mourning the dead Jesus. The empty tomb story itself is a Marcan invention and the resurrection stories in Matthew and Luke also are dependent on Mark 16. (See my The Trouble with Resurrection.) The redemption of Peter story in John 21 was added later and often moves at cross purposes with chapter 20.
John 20 is a complete narrative unit that originally concluded the Fourth Gospel. It presents three distinct but interrelated scenes: the discovery of the missing body (1–10), Mary in the garden (11–18), the disciples hiding in a room (19–29), and a concluding saying (30–31). Mary Magdalene first appears at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the wife of Klopas.
The beloved student (disciple in traditional translations) in this group only appears after the mention of the women. Since Mary Magdalene’s introduction consists only of her name, the story’s original hearers obviously knew who she was. Modern readers mentally fill this gap with the sordid tale of Magdalene the prostitute, mistakenly applying to John’s gospel a later slander. Mark and John, as well as Matthew, nowhere hint that Mary Magdalene has a dark past. That comes much later but has its genesis in Luke’s account. (The classic treatment of this issue is Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, and now Schaberg with Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Mary Magdalene Understood.) The beloved student remains unnamed, although the tradition has identified him with the apostle John, an identification rejected by modern scholarship. Such contemporary readings misunderstand John 20 but a close reading can restore much of its original potency.
Let us begin with the empty tomb, the starting point of Mark 16. Grave robbery was common in the ancient world, as archaeologists often discover. Upon discovering an empty tomb, resurrection would not be an obvious explanation. Mary concludes that the tomb has been raided: “They’ve taken the Master from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Even though Mary is pictured as the only woman at the tomb, she speaks in the plural, implying multiple women, as in Mark’s story.
When Peter and the other student arrive and find the burial cloths, they apparently draw the same conclusion as Mary, “since neither of them yet understood the prophecy that he was destined to rise from the dead, these disciples went back home.” “Home” implies that they live in Jerusalem, even though later they will all be hiding together with the doors locked, with no mention of an upper room.
The narrator comments that when the other student “saw all this, . . . he believed.” We are not told what he believed but it is not resurrection from the dead. How to make sense of this is beyond me. Raymond Brown in his exhausting commentary spends four pages (2:1004–8) without successfully answering these questions.
Mary’s dialogue uses a simple, repetitive structure.
And say to-her they . . .
She-says to-them . . .
Says to-her Jesus . . .
She-says to-him . . .
Says to-her Jesus . . .
THAT ONE (feminine ) says to-him . . .
Says to-her Jesus . . .
(My literal translation)
The Greek sets up a simple three word pattern:
Verb of saying
“Says to her Jesus” is repeated three times. When Mary speaks, the subject is implied in the verb, indicated here by “she-says” representing a single Greek word. The simple, repetitive, unadorned pattern guides an audience to pay attention to the dialogue. The male subjects are always expressed, but only once is the female subject expressed, and then with a demonstrative pronoun in the first position for emphasis (“THAT ONE says …”). This draws special attention to her one-word response (Rabbuni!).
The present-tense narration presents the story to the hearer as something happening now, right before the audience—the storyteller speaks directly to the audience. This is not being experienced as a past event. All this indicates the artistry and rhetoric with which the tale is told. Unfortunately, it takes longer to explain than it does to experience. Moreover, most English translations, by putting the whole thing in the past tense, “Jesus said to her,” treat the story as a historical event, which it emphatically.
Mary, standing outside, is weeping, for grieving is the proper role of women in their culture. When Mary looks into the tomb, she sees two heavenly messengers, the first hint that the possibility of grave robbery has given way to some numinous realm.
Peter and the other student do not see heavenly messengers. They ask, “Lady, why are you crying?” To which Mary responds once more that the body is missing. Upon turning away, she sees Jesus but does not recognize him. She thinks he is the gardener. Why? As in the Road to Emmaus story in Luke (Luke 24:13–35), is she prevented from recognizing him?
Jesus addresses Mary with the same address as the heavenly messenger, “Lady.” The KJV and most other English versions translate the Greek word literally as “woman,” which in English sounds disrespectful, but the Greek usage implies a more polite meaning. The SV “lady” perhaps sounds a bit too upper class, but it is a better translation than “woman.”
Jesus repeats the heavenly messengers’ question and adds: “Who is it you’re looking for?” Mary sticks to the grave robbery plot: “Please, mister, if you’ve moved him, tell me where you’ve put him so I can take him away.”
Jesus speaks her name, “Mary.” Naming shifts the story towards the Genesis creation story where g-d calls creatures into life by naming them. Mary recognizes Jesus at the sound (logos) of his voice.
“She turns around and exclaims in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).”
Turns around? I thought she was already looking at Jesus and thinking he was the gardener. “To turn” is often used as a metaphor to turn towards g-d. John 12:39–40 quotes Isaiah, illustrating such a usage.
So they were unable to believe, for Isaiah also said,
“He has blinded their eyes,
and closed their minds,
to make sure they don’t see with their eyes
and understand with their minds,
or else they would turn around
and I would heal them.”
Perhaps her turning marks a shift in understanding towards metaphor.
Mary speaks in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Her name for Jesus is surprising. She calls him “teacher,” not a Christological title, as one might expect. On the other hand, throughout the Fourth Gospel, the followers of Jesus are referred to as “students” (in ecclesial speak “disciples”). They are never called “apostles” and only once is “the twelve” used, in reference to Thomas (20:24). In this context, it is very appropriate for a student to refer to a beloved teacher as “Rabbuni.”
Jesus says to Mary, “Let go of me,” which has traditionally been translated as “Don’t touch me,” ever since Jerome translated the Greek into Latin as Noli tangere. In the Renaissance, this Latin phrase named a whole category of paintings. Mary has often been seen as too unclean to touch Jesus, but the Greek makes no such implication. “Don’t keep clinging to me” is the correct sense. Or, as Jesus explains, “do not prevent me from ascending to the Father; do not try to keep me here.”
Jesus commissions Mary to “go to my brothers and tell them this: ‘I’m ascending to my Father and your (plural) Father—to my God and your (plural) God.’” Jesus’ confession equates “my” and “your.” He tells Mary to go to his “brothers,” not his students, as one might expect. Here Jesus stresses mutuality and equality. He is not superior, but a brother.
That this must be the correct confession is confirmed by Jesus calling his students his friends in the discourse at the last supper. Jesus directly contrasts “friend” with slave and master. “I no longer call you slaves, since a slave does not know what his master is up to. I have called you friends, because I let you know everything I learned from my Father” (15:15). Being a friend is then linked with love: “This is what I command you: you shall love each other” (15:17). This section of the discourse is a major attack on hierarchy.
Mary announces Jesus’ message to the students. The Greek word angellousa denotes making a formal announcement. It comes from the same root as the angeloi (heavenly messengers, angels) of verse 12. “I have seen the Master (kurios)” uses the formulaic language of Paul’s kerygma “I have seen Jesus our lord, haven't I?” (1Cor 9:1)
While Mary Magdalene’s is clearly the dominate story in the Fourth Gospel’s resurrection appearance narrative, the tradition has preferred to see Thomas’ confession as the story’s climax. Why? Because it meshes with the emerging imperial Christology of the fourth and succeeding centuries with its accent on the divinity of Jesus and the physical resurrection. This reading of Mary’s story suggests that the traditional preference for Thomas should be reconsidered.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas is the all-knowing recipient of the secret revelation. In the Fourth Gospel, Thomas must touch and feel. “Unless I see the holes the nails made, and put my finger in them and my hand in his side, I’ll never believe.” These are two very different views of Thomas.
Thomas’ arrival eight days later after a symbolic creation week reprises the Genesis theme. When Jesus challenges Thomas to touch him, he also chides him with the gnomic saying, “Be not faithless but faithful” (my translation). Jesus is not challenging belief, but action. Like Mary, who keeps seeking Jesus, Thomas should be faithful to Jesus.
Thomas responds with his famous confession, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas’ confession contradicts Jesus’ confession. Thomas invokes the preferred title of the then current Roman emperor, Domitian. Thomas has made a category mistake. He has mistaken his brother Jesus for the Roman emperor.
The narrator has continued to introduce Jesus’ speech with a present tense “he says,” while framing Thomas’ confession with the formulaic "he answered and said" in the aorist (past) tense. Jesus and Thomas are in different imaginative times. Jesus is in the present going forward; Thomas is in the past.
Jesus concludes with a beatitude: Blessed are those who remain faithful without seeing,” pointing back to Mary Magdalene, who remains faithful. She recognized Jesus when he called her name.
The narrator concludes this section and the whole gospel by stating the narrative’s point:
Although Jesus performed many more signs for his disciples to see than could be written down in this book, these are written down so you will come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the son of God—and by believing this have life in his name.
Substituting “trust” for “believe” brings us closer to the sense of the Greek. In the ancient world, the reader of a book would actually be a hearer. The narrator aligns the hearer/reader with Mary Magdalene as the model who heard the voice of Jesus. All this in a gospel that begins with logos. A word in Greek is a sound, not a collection of letters.
John 20 suggests a radical re-envisioning of Christology along lines of equality and mutuality, love and friendship, not imperial models of lord and master that traditional Christology has pursued.
The story of Mary Magdalene undercuts the primacy of Peter as a witness to the resurrected Jesus. Although no writer from the early Jesus movements claims to have witnessed the resurrection itself, several writings claim that various people experienced appearances of or saw Jesus postmortem. The earliest of these is Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8, which places Cephas at its head and Paul at its end. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians between 52–55 ce, while chapter 20 of the Fourth Gospel dates about a half-century later.
Mary Magdalene does not appear on Paul’s list, which only names males. She might well be implied in the group of apostles. But what interests me more is the freedom with which the stories of appearances are developed. The author of the gospel attributed to Mark apparently knows no appearance stories. It is illogical to argue that he omitted them when we have no evidence that any such narratives existed prior to Mark’s gospel. All the subsequent stories associated with the empty tomb depend on Mark’s story, which ends by declaring that the women told no one about these things. To remedy this problem, Matthew has Jesus appear to the women and remind them to go to his brothers in Galilee (Matt 28:10). In a gospel in which Peter is promised the keys to the empire of g-d (Matt 16:18), Peter disappears at the resurrection! Amazing. The author of John 20 emphasizes that the other student gets to the tomb first, before Peter. The author reduces the three women in Mark’s gospel to one—Mary Magdalene—making her the story’s center.
The author of the gospel attributed to Luke, while relying on Mark’s story, has the women report to the apostles (Luke 24:9). Only after the report of two disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus do the eleven proclaim, “The Master really has been raised, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34). Luke keeps the eleven in the loop as somehow vaguely in charge and reports only at the last minute the kerygmatic statement. I find it interesting that, in the tradition, Peter gained primacy without a canonical story of an appearance to Peter. Either these various authors do not know of Paul’s letters or the list in 1 Corinthians or, if they do, they see no reason to be bound by it. All these writings exhibit a wonderful freedom in imagining the resurrection.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are from The Complete Gospels.
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