JFK and Jesus: 50 Years and Counting…

The 51st anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was all over the media this weekend and much on our collective minds. I happened to catch some of the CNN specials on “The 60s” with many reflections of our society and its changes–good and bad. Those of us in our 60s and older have very vivid memories of that day in Dallas–Friday, November 22, 1963. It all comes back so vividly. In my case it was truly a kind of “coming of age.”  I was a young 17 year old freshman in college at what was then Abilene Christian College sitting in 1st year Bible class–a required course for all students–taught by Carl Brecheen. Around noon someone knocked on the classroom door and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. An audible gasp of shocked disbelief filled the room and Dr. Brecheen had us stand as he led a short prayer, then dismissed the class so we could get to the nearest television. The country and the world were in a state of utter shock. That weekend is a blur as we clustered in groups around televisions with little to say other than “I just can’t believe it.” For me the election of 1960 was truly a “coming of age.” I felt with many of my friends that somehow our “world” had ended that day.I My father likened the experience to the shock over the Pearl Harbor attack, when he like hundreds of thousands of others joined the service the Monday after. The only thing remotely like it in my life has been September 11th, 2001, in terms of the collective shock.

JFK2

So now 50 years have passed and I began to think this morning about the generation living in Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus 50 years after his shocking murder by the Roman authorities in April 30 CE. What were things like 50 years later–around the year 80 CE? What about those living at that time in their 60s and older, who had either known or heard Jesus or seen or heard about his death? What would they remember?

Crucifixion Fedor_Bronnikov_002

We know that the years 66-73 CE were horrible years of death, destruction, and societal disruption as a result of the Jewish Roman Revolt chronicled in such detail by eyewitness Flavius Josephus (Joseph bar Matthias). To understand better the background and foreground of the times I tell my Christian Origins students that before they even think about reading our New Testament documents if they are interested in understanding the Jewish Roman world of Jesus they need to wear out of a copy of Josephus’s Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum) published around 75 CE.[1] Josephus served as both a Jewish commander in the Revolt but following his capture a confident and friend of the emperors Vespasian and subsequently Titus and Domitian. Along with a copy of Josephus I would also recommend The Historical Jesus in Context (eds. Levine, Allsion, Crossan) for the broader context of the “life and times” of Jesus.

I think there is no doubt that the generation of those who had heard of or known Jesus 50 years earlier would have memories both vivid and faded–just as some of our own regarding the death of President Kennedy–which undoubtedly have been refreshed tremendously by photos and film in the intervening years. But still, 50 years is just not that long a time. We all have memories of people, places, and even events and conversations that reach back that far. But as every family knows when someone recounts such things at a typical family gathering there can be drastic differences on details of chronology and setting! But still, with over 40,000 books now published on John F. Kennedy, and an abundance of sources that would take a lifetime to even access–photos, letters, documents, films, and memorabilia–biographers still can’t agree on much about Kennedy–whether in life or death.

So what about remembering Jesus in 80 CE? There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been many who had known or heard–or even heard about–Jesus who would have vivid memories of him, his teaching, and even his death. The problem we face is that other than a basic framework in Paul’s letters (which date back to the 50s CE)–i.e., references to Jesus being crucified, to Cephas, to James his brother, etc.–we have no eyewitness accounts or even contemporary secondary sources that give us anything about Jesus. There is simply no comparison in terms of historical sources and materials between what we have on JFK and what we have on Jesus.

What we have is a single source–the gospel we call Mark, which most of us date in the 70s CE. The problem with “Mark” is that the name is merely a traditional designation–it is not part of the ancient work itself–and the writer neither claims to be an eyewitness nor presents material that one might associate with eyewitness testimony.

Mark is a theological production–a highly self-conscious literary presentation of what the author represents as the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1, some manuscripts add “Son of God”). You might call it a “Drama about Jesus in three Acts” (roughly chapters 1-8a; 8b-10; 11-16). That does no mean it contains no history at all–indeed the basic narrative framework of Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is generally considered reliable by most critical historians. That would include Jesus growing up in Nazareth, associating with John the Baptizer, preaching an apocalyptic message of the imminence of the Kingdom of God, gathering together a group of followers, healing and casting out demons, and confronting the authorities in Jerusalem at Passover in 30 CE.

But Mark is far removed from the kind of memories one would encounter in interviewing people regarding what they remember about November 22, 1963–or even talking to those who actually knew President Kennedy in one capacity or another. There is plenty of myth, legend, and anecdote floating around–since Kennedy has become such an iconic figure–but no dearth of firsthand oral memory.

And that is what we don’t have with Jesus. Mark was subsequently overwritten by Matthew, who used him as a source, reshaped his story considerably, and expanded it with blocks of “teaching” materials or “sayings” of Jesus that are not known to Mark. Matthew clearly has his own very theological agenda–and as with Mark, the name “Matthew” is a traditional association, not one inherent to the work itself. Despite the common assumption that he is an eyewitness (one of the Twelve!), the book itself never makes such a claim, and its content is never presented in the style of eyewitness material. Matthew’s sayings material (most often called the Q source by scholars) seems to have a history that goes back earlier than Matthew’s composition, but it is anonymous and amorphous, and much of it exists in a different version in Luke.

Scholars have expended an enormous amount of effort the past 50 years trying to systematically evaluate our gospel sources in an effort to get back to the historical Jesus.  We don’t all agree on our conclusions but the issues have been significantly sharpened and in some areas there is consensus.  I would recommend first and foremost Dale Allison’s works in this area, starting with his Jesus of Nazareth: Millennarium Prophet and then his more substantial work Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. The latter work is deals specifically with the question of what was remembered, by whom, and how was it passed on and shaped. The one central insight that many of us share, including my own take on Jesus in The Jesus Dynasty, is, to quote Dale Allison, “our choice is not between an apocalyptic Jesus and some other Jesus; it is between an apocalyptic Jesus and no Jesus at all.”

It is this radical apocalyptic outlook that most heavily effects out ability to access “memories” of Jesus during the first 50 years. Not only was the world of 1st century Jewish Judea and Galilee utterly shattered by the Great War with Rome, but the hopes and expectations of the Jesus movement had utterly failed by 80 CE. What they most expected to happen never came–namely the “Coming of the Son of Man in the Clouds of Heaven,” and what they least imagined came about–the triumph of the Roman Imperial “Beast” over all enemies and opposition. In my view the early followers of Jesus are best understood 50 years after his death as emerging through the crisis scholars have characterized as “When prophecy fails,” brought on by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In my view S. G. F. Brandon’s monumental work, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church is among the most important work in the field of Christian Origins. I have written extensively on this phenomenon of early Christian apocalypticism, see my blog post “Getting Up to Speed on Apocalypticism,” here for some references and links.

  1. The Penguin paperback translated by Williamson and Smallwood is easy to obtain and a good first choice []

Remembering Norman Perrin

I was reminiscing in my “Historical Jesus” class today about my studies with the late great Norman Perrin (1920-1976) as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I took my first course with him in Autumn, 1974, an “advanced N.T. course.” His textbook, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (Harcourt College Pub., 1974) had just been released. By that time, Perrin, who had been influenced in his earlier days by T. W. Manson and Joachim Jeremiah was quite thoroughly a “Bultmannian,” and one of the clearest thinkers in that regard I have ever encountered. His little book, The Promise of Bultmann, (New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1969), remains a classic, as does his little primer, What is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969). His earliest major work, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) set the stage of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” for a whole generation of colleagues and students–before it became fashionable to talk about a “new” or “3rd quest,” which I always took as more of a self-designation by a handful of younger scholars, in the shadow of Bultmann, Käsemann, Conzelmann, and Perrin, who imagined themselves as doing something quite new.

Perrin Stylized

I took a number of courses from Perrin including his incomparable course on the Gospel of Mark which influences me to this day in all of my teaching–second only to Jonathan Z. Smith and our work on Hellenistic Religions and Robert Grant dealing with “Augustus to Constantine,” as he put it so well. In my case, because we both lived in Park Forest, Illinois, I got to know Professor Perrin on another level. He did not drive a car much and the weather was often too harsh to try to take the train, so many dozens of times I gave him a ride up to campus in my car and we came to know each other very well in our endless private conversations on the hour commute back and forth. I mostly listened and what a treat it was–hearing his whole life and career, peppered with stories of his time in the British forces during the war years. I will never forget the word from his wife the day he died–Thanksgiving Day, 1976–that he had left us. It was quite a shock and a sad loss–he was only 56 years old. Perrin’s productivity was enormous and he was one of the hardest working scholars you could ever encounter. He rose from a working class UK background to a distinguished professor of New Testament at the prestigious University of Chicago–who influenced countless students and shaped the field of Christian Origins forever. I miss him enormously and 40 years seems like but a moment thinking back on those days at Chicago when I sat as a very naive and inexperienced graduate student in his classes and would not missed a word of his lectures or discussions.

Perrin Syllabus 1974

Anyway just today I pulled down from my bookshelves my original copy of Perrin’s New Testament: An Introduction and the one page syllabus we had used in that 1974 course dropped out! Talk about memory lane. I reproduce it here. It shows the advanced work Perrin expected of his students and the independent way he worked with us all. Sweet memories. What a time to be at Chicago: J. Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Norman Perrin–for the study of New Testament and Early Christianity, how could it have gotten any better!

Further resources on Norman Perrin and his “pilgrimage” as he often referred to it see:

  • The Journal of Religion 64 (1984), Norman Perrin 1920-1976
  • David Abernathy, Understanding the Teaching of Jesus: Based on the Lecture Series of Norman Perrin (New York : Seabury Press, 1983).
  • Calvin R. Mercer, “Norman Perrin: A Scholarly Pilgrim” (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1983).
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “Norman Perrin and His ‘School’: Retracing a Pilgrimage”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament (1984), pp. 87–107.
  • Welton O. Seal, Jr., “The Parousia in Mark: A Debate with Norman Perrin and ‘His School’” (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, 1981).
  • Criterion, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1977); personal tributes to Norman Perrin, from a memorial service held in the Joseph Bond Chapel, 30 November 1976

A Married Jesus: Why I Changed My Mind (Part 4)

In early Christian tradition outside the New Testament Mary Magdalene’s profile is elaborated considerably, she is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her against the criticism of the other apostles who are jealous of her role and standing.

N.B. To better explore the texts quoted in this post, examining their relevance, history, and wider context, see my post on Marvin Meyer’s book, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus,” and particularly the movingly challenging essay conclusion by Esther A. de Boer, “‘Should We All Turn and Listen to Her?’ Mary Magdalene in the Spotlight.” I also highly recommend the recent article by Birger Pearson, one of the world’s experts on these “gnostic” materials, addressing the question “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus?” which I posted with some comments here.

Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of the Apostles

            We have seen how Mary Magdalene, and in some case her female entourage, are portrayed as “first witness” to Jesus’ empty tomb and given the commission to tell the male disciples he is risen in our New Testament gospels. In Mark the women flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mark 16:9). In Luke they report to the Eleven remaining apostles but their testimony is considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In Matthew, as the women flee the tomb they meet Jesus, grab hold of his feet, and worship him, and he directs them to tell the male apostles he will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Finally in John, Mary goes alone to the tomb and has her personal encounter and exchange with Jesus, thus becoming the singular first witness to Jesus raised from the dead and ascending to heaven (John 20:11-18).

Outside the New Testament there are a dozen or so ancient texts, most of them discovered in the last hundred years, that present an alternative “lost” portrait of Mary Magdalene and her role as Jesus’ female apostle extraordinaire—quite literally the apostle of the apostles and the successor to Jesus. Five of them were discovered in Egypt in 1945, buried in a jar in a field outside a village called Nag Hammadi.  These texts are:  The Gospel of ThomasThe Dialogue of the SaviorThe First Apocalypse of JamesThe Gospel of Philip, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The others, including Pistis SophiaThe Gospel of Mary, and the Acts of Philip, have turned up in various places, whether on the antiquities market, an archaeological dig, or lost or forgotten in ancient libraries. In these texts Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ intimate confidant and companion, one who possesses unparalleled spiritual insights that she received directly from him. She is praised, but also at times opposed—especially by Peter, leader of the male apostles, who is threatened by her position and status based on her special relationship with Jesus. These texts originate outside the mainstream, that is, the male dominated form of orthodox Christianity that began to take hold and triumph down to the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (c. 325 CE). The canonical New Testament, with its twenty-seven approved documents were increasingly seen to be the only authorized texts, inspired by God, while these other sacred texts were marginalized, declared heretical, and eventually lost and forgotten. They are witness to the diverse mix of “Christianities” that were developing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE before a more singular orthodoxy, backed by Christian councils and creeds, took center stage.

Professor Schaberg has constructed a working profile of Mary Magdalene from these texts, isolating the major elements. She is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her.[i]

Each of these texts contains an assortment of these elements but one in particular, The Gospel of Mary, has them all. This is an extraordinary text. Before there were only gospels of men but now we have a gospel of a woman—not just any woman—Mary Magdalene. A fragmentary copy of The Gospel of Mary was purchased in Cairo in 1896. It is written in Coptic but was likely translated from a Greek original. It dates to the early 2nd century.[ii] In this text Mary Magdalene is a beloved disciple of Jesus, taking center stage in leading the apostles and encouraging them. Peter is jealous of her, but admits her status as one closer to Jesus than anyone else, and more important, one who received revelations that the male disciples were not privy to:

Peter said to Mary: “Sister we know the savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember, which you know but we do not, because we have not heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you” (Gospel of Mary 10).[iii]

As she begins to recount her visionary message both Peter and his brother Andrew express doubts about her veracity and question her authority. Peter objects:

Did he really speak with a woman in private without our knowledge? Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us? (Gospel of Mary 18).

Levi, who is better known as Matthew in the New Testament, defends her and rebukes Peter:

If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than us (Gospel of Mary 18).

The message Mary reveals, in this and many of these other texts, has been characterized as Gnostic, but most scholars consider the term to be less than helpful in characterizing the Christian groups reflected in these texts with their alternative versions of Christianity. It tends to lump them together as a monolithic whole.[iv] In my analysis I am not so much interested in the content as the framework of the profile of Mary Magdalene and her prominent status alongside Jesus.

The Gospel of Philip is a beautifully written “gnostic” sermon by the followers of the brilliant 2nd century early Christian mystic and teacher, Valentinus. Some have even suggested he is the author of the text. It only refers to Mary Magdalene twice, but both passages are noteworthy:

Three women walked with the master: Mary his mother, [his] sister, and Mary Magdalene, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother, and his companion (Gospel of Philip 59:6-10).

The companion of the [savior] is Mary Magdalene. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth]. The other [disciples] said to him, Why do you love her more than all of us? (Gospel of Philip 63:32-64, 9).

The word translated “companion” means his partner or consort. There is a worm hole in the papyrus right at the point where it says Jesus used to kiss Mary often on the …? Most scholars have restored this to “mouth.”  Whether this relationship between the two involved sexual intimacy or not, scholars have debated, but given what we know of Valentinian ideas it most likely did. It was considered a “sacred union,” but it was nonetheless carried out through the vehicle of the body.[v]

Pistis Sophia contains a series of questions asked of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene has the most prominent role among the disciples. She asks thirty-nine of the forty-six questions and offers elegant teachings about the nature of life in the world.  Jesus extravagantly praises her:

Blessed Mary, you whom I shall complete with all the mysteries on high, speak openly, for you are one whose heart is set on heaven’s kingdom more than all your brothers (Pistis Sophis 18).

Peter complains about her, telling Jesus “we cannot endure this woman,” but Jesus praises her pure spiritual insights and declares her the most blessed of all women.

Scholars who work on these texts generally do not take the prominent and privileged portrait of Mary Magdalene reflected therein unmediated history. Clearly the accounts themselves have been embellished and elaborated for theological reasons. However, it is generally agreed that since she becomes the vehicle for these alternative forms of emerging Christianity her special role in the life of the historical Jesus, more muted in our New Testament gospels, was not a fictional creation lacking any basis whatsoever. Many of them come from the 2nd century CE and are accordingly not so far removed from the earlier Christian oral tradition.

Mary Magdalene and the Talpiot Tombs

 We live in an age of the rediscovery of long lost texts and ancient manuscripts that are adding immensely to our understanding of early Christianity. Along with the exposure of the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem, we truly stand on new ground as we seek to evaluate the evidence found in the Talpiot tombs, especially with regard to Mariamene Mara and her role in Jesus’ life and family.

Given the collective evidence, and particularly the unique tradition that the gospel of John adds to the core story of Mary Magdalene from Mark and Matthew, it seems entirely plausible that the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene as first witness to Jesus’ resurrection can be seen alongside that of “Mary of Bethany,” and the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head as well as his feet and dries them with her hair. These are acts of intimacy, as is the preparation of his body for burial, seem most appropriate for a wife. The fact that her first impulse on seeing Jesus resurrected was to touch him, further suggest the intimate relationship between them.  Taken together, these texts along with the later 2nd century “gnostic” ones, provide us with a broader context in which the evidence form the Talpiot tombs can be read in a new light. Jesus may very well have been married and had a son named Judah, and to reject this tomb as that of Jesus of Nazareth on the grounds that he could not have been, is based on traditional bias and misguided criteria.

The position of Mary of Bethany in the gospel of John also offers a new interpretive possibility for the names in the Talpiot tomb. If the traditions about her and about Mary Magdalene are confused, as they seem to be in the New Testament gospels, then Mary Magdalene might well have had a sister named Martha. Some scholars have read the Mariamene Mara ossuary inscription as Mariam and Mara—referring to two women named Mary and Martha. I am convinced otherwise, namely that Mara is more likely a title of honor for Mariamene, but having these two sisters, “Mary and Martha,” buried together in a single ossuary, one the mother of Jesus’ son, the other her unmarried sister, would also fit closely with the thesis that the Talpiot Jesus tomb is the family tomb of Jesus.


[i] Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 71-97.

[ii] Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003) is the most thorough study of this text with a full introduction and translation. Since the discovery of the Coptic manuscript two additional fragments in Greek have turned up. King includes them as well in her analysis.

[iii] Translations of these Mary Magdalene related texts that of Marvin Meyer, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004).

[iv] See Schaberg’s observations in Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 68-71.

[v] See April D. DeConick, The Great Mystery of Marriage: Sex and Conception in Ancient Valentinian Traditions,” Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003): 307-342.

 

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 3)

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.

A Married Jesus and the Silence of the New Testament

            Even though there is no explicit reference to Jesus being married in any of the four gospels or other New Testament writings the silence might turn out to be less deafening than one would suppose. There are several factors one must consider in making the judgment that he lived a celibate single life.[i]

First, it is important to realize that we know very little about the historical Jesus. What historians are relatively certain about could be written down on a single piece of paper. What we have in the gospels are not biographies of Jesus—far from it—but theological presentations regarding his preaching, healing, and in particular the significance of his death and resurrection. They contain almost no personal information. The gospel of Mark, for example, never names or mentions Jesus’ father while the gospel of John never names his mother. We have one childhood story, when he was twelve years old, and most scholars consider it a standard literary motif, not a historical account (Luke 2:41-52).[ii] We know nothing of his life beyond that point, including his teens and 20s when most Jewish males were expected to marry.

Second, in regards to the Twelve apostles, no wife is specifically mentioned or named for any of them. None of their children are mentioned or named—how many, what they did, or any personal details about them. Most of the Twelve, with the exception of Peter, hardly speak at all in our gospel accounts—a few lines at most.

This silence hardly means that none of them were married. In fact, there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed of a fever in Mark 1:30—but her name is never given. Paul refers to the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, but again, no names are given (1 Corinthians 9:5). He even mentions that these women accompanied their husbands on their missionary travels. We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.[iii]

Third, celibacy was not considered an ideal or valued lifestyle among Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Even though it is mistakenly believed that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued and practiced celibacy, this notion is a pure invention. They were one of the three major Jewish groups of this period, along with Pharisees and Sadducees. This misunderstanding stems from the reports of Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100 CE), Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Hellenistic philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE), and Pliny, the Elder, a Roman official (23-79 CE) about the Essenes. Each of these writers projected their own admiration of celibate idealism onto the Essenes, though, ironically, each of these writers was married. Josephus, for example, in writing of the sect of the Essenes, makes the following observation about women and marriage:

They [the Essenes] do not absolutely deny the value of marriage, and the succession of the human race is thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.[iv]

Such a negative attitude toward women commended here by Josephus, who was unhappily married three times has no basis in history. Philo writes:

[the Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice self-control to a remarkable degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.[v]

Pliny the Elder says that the Essenes “have no women and have renounced all sexual desire.[vi] We know that what each of these men claim about the Essenes is untrue. What is most telling here is that none of these three were celibate, all were married.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, representing over 600 texts of the period before and after the time of Jesus, were discovered hidden away in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, never hint at celibacy, but quite the opposite. Like other pious Jews of the time, they strictly adhered to the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The Scrolls are full of instructions about marriage, divorce, and avoiding fornication, or sex outside of marriage.[vii]

Jesus as well as John the Baptist have been rightly connected to the apocalyptic and messianic ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though neither was likely a formal member of the Dead Sea community, there are common ideas they share. Since the Dead Sea community is most often identified as Essenes, and it is mistakenly assumed that the Essenes practiced celibacy, the argument is often made that Jesus’ own celibacy arises out of this context

It is true that the New Testament says nothing about either Jesus or John being married, but such silence is part of the cultural norm. It is the same with the rabbis that we know from this period. There are few explicit statements about rabbis being married in the rabbinic sources, but we can be sure that marriage was the norm and not to be married an anomaly. Entire tractates of Jewish Law deal with marriage, divorce, and what is forbidden and allowed in terms of sexual behavior. As a Jew of his time we should assume that Jesus was married unless we have some statement to the contrary.

Finally, the apostle Paul is the major Jewish figure of the time who does in fact commend, but not require, celibacy, based primarily on his notion that the apocalyptic end of the age has drawn very near (1 Corinthians 7: 26, 29, 31). His was a “situational” celibacy; a practical choice one might make in view of the stressful times that he believed were imminent. Paul recommends celibacy for those who can handle a non-sexual life, but he knows most simply cannot and end up falling into fornication (1 Corinthians 7:2).

It is entirely possible, even likely, that Paul had been married earlier in his life.[viii] He says that he “advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age,” indicating that he had formal training as a Pharisee, presumably in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:14). Since for Paul the end of the age was at hand, he thought it inopportune to invest one’s life in a gendered humanity that was soon to be transformed into a state where there would be “neither male nor female.” Paul expected to live to see a cosmic transformation—a new creation in which birth and death, and mortal states of life in general would pass away.

One of the strongest indicators that Jesus was married comes from Paul directly.   He quotes Jesus freely on the prohibition against divorce, but fails to use a celibate Jesus as his major model to back his position on celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:25). In fact he says quite the opposite, that when it comes to celibacy: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25). Had Jesus been unmarried he would have undoubtedly said that all men should live like him, following the celibate ideal espoused by the Lord, but he says nothing of the kind. In this case Paul’s silence indicates that he certainly did not think Jesus was unmarried. Given these considerations one can conclude with some degree of confidence, that Jesus was most likely married, and married people at that time usually had children, as the first commandment required.

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

This was not based on any historical memory of an unmarried Jesus but rather upon Paul’s commendation of celibacy—now removed from its apocalyptic conditional context.

The celibacy these Christian leaders embraced was based on an aversion to the material world and the body, seen as inferior to the unseen spiritual realities of the heavenly realms. Christians rejected this world, even hated this world, with all its imperfections. They turned their attention wholly toward the heavenly, nonmaterial world beyond. This dualistic view of the cosmos owes little to the historical Jesus the Jew and everything to Hellenistic philosophy and its ascetic ideal.[ix] Unfortunately, the negative view of women already so rife in the dominant cultural norms of the time was radically advanced by the Christian philosophers and theologians since women, and the sexual temptations they represented for men, were shunned as the ultimate obstacle to a higher spirituality. Tertullian, often called the “father of Latin Christianity,” best represents this radically misogynous trend that remains deeply ingrained in Western Christian culture to this day. Although he believed that even women could be saved by God’s grace, he warned them that the whole responsibility for the human condition lay with Eve and her successors:

You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.[x]

The brilliant 4th century Augustine of Hippo carried forward  Paul’s  perspectives and pressed their implications to the limit. He faced sexual temptations his entire life, even fathering a child with his lover, but he sought to suppress his lust by choosing a rigorously ascetic life. His famous dictim; inter faeces et uriname nascimur—“We are born between feces and urine,” yet with an immortal soul, lay at the root of his attraction and aversion to women.  Perhaps the most notorious example of this unfortunate development in Christianity was the 5th century Latin theologian Jerome, the most learned of the Church Fathers. His savage condemnation of women and human sexuality was only matched by his disparagement of the “Old Testament” Law and those Jews who did not respond to Christ. He connected the two by arguing that the Old Testament was “carnal,” of the flesh, whereas Christ was spiritual and pure, from above. The virginal Christ, removed from the filth of sex, showed humankind the way to escape their fleshly bonds and achieve heavenly perfection. He even went so far as to state that a husband can best show his love of his wife by abstaining from all sexual intercourse, even in marriage. He opposed bathing, makeup, and female adornment, and saw sex, symbolized by the female temptress, as fit for pigs and dogs. Jerome wrote openly about his bouts with sexual temptations.[xi] Given this dualistic orientation towards the heavenly world and denigration of sex and birth—and therefore women as the vehicle of both, one can readily see how Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, and even Joseph her husband had to be cast as living a non-sexual life. The belief that Jesus must be a perpetual virgin is firmly grounded in 2nd and 3rd century CE asceticism, not in Jesus’s own life and times.

Mary Magdalene as Sinner and Whore

            It is an easy step from this stream of dualistic misogynist thinking, the core of emerging fourth and fifth century Christianity, to recasting the New Testament figure of Mary Magdalene as a sinner and even a whore. None of eleven New Testament texts that mention her present her in any negative light whatsoever. On the contrary, as we have seen, she is the leader of the band of faithful Galilean women who stand by Jesus at the cross.  Even when the men have fled in fear she prepares spices and perfumed oils in order to complete the Jewish rites of burial, and she becomes a first witness to the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. She enters and exits the scene in the space of a few pages of our texts—never to appear again in any New Testament text.

There are three scenes in Mark, Luke, and John respectively that recount how Jesus was anointed with a flask of costly scented oil by a woman. As they now stand in our texts they are not the same narrative, yet their core elements are so similar they appear to be three versions of the “same” story—namely of a woman anointing Jesus.

In the gospel of Mark the scene takes place in Bethany, a small village on the backside of the Mount of Olives, just east of the city of Jerusalem, two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Mark 14:3-9).[xii] Jesus is dining as a guest in the house of one called Simon the leper, otherwise unknown. A woman arrives with a flask of pure nard ointment, broke it, and poured it over Jesus’ head. Some at the dinner protested that such a costly ointment had been wasted and could have been sold and given to the poor for 300 denarii—which would be a year’s wages for a day laborer. Jesus defends the unnamed woman’s action, saying “You always have the poor with you. She had done a beautiful thing.” He then declares:

She has done what she could. She has anointed my body for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her (Mark 14:8-9).

The gospel of John seems to know a very similar story (John 12:1-8; 11:1-3). Again the scene is in Bethany, but six days before the crucifixion, and at dinner in the house of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Martha is serving but Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair. Judas Iscariot, who was to betray Jesus, objected that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor. The text points out that he did this out of greed not care for the poor, for he served as bursar of the group and used to pilfer the funds. Jesus replied:

Let her alone; let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me (John 12:7).

In both texts the woman has a prophetic role—anointing Jesus’ body beforehand as if he were already dead; she is commended for her actions, as if she somehow “knows” more than the others, perhaps without even realizing it herself, while the others miss the point of her actions entirely. In John the woman is named—Mary of Bethany, and her family has already been introduced (John 11). In Mark she is unidentified, with the irony that her story will be told perpetually “in memory of her.” John’s account is more shocking, since the anointing of the feet, and especially the wiping of the feet with her hair, either implies a shockingly inappropriate intimacy, or a familial bond, since men and women who are not married would never touch in this way. The hair of a woman is considered sexually provocative and was to be covered, as in conservative Middle Eastern societies today, both Jewish and Muslim.[xiii] In that sense the story is scandalous, foreshadowing the attempt of Mary Magdalene to prepare spices and anoint the corpse of Jesus when he is dead. The problem is, Mary of Bethany is not Mary Magdalene—or is she? Mark had emphasized that Mary Magdalene and her entourage came from Galilee, whereas John introduces her at the crucifixion scene as an intimate family member, standing with Jesus’ mother.

It is impossible to reconcile these differences in any forced harmony. Mark and John clearly have the same story, but their details are simply different. The strong implication in John is that Mary of Bethany is otherwise known as Mary Magdalene, and she is either married to him or otherwise considered like a sister, a part of the family. Mark knows nothing of this and never mentions Mary of Bethany.

Luke’s story recasts everything (Luke 7:36-50). The setting is in Galilee, not Jerusalem, weeks if not months before Jesus’ death. Jesus is dining at the house of a man named Simon, though it is not said he is a leper. A woman comes in off the street, unnamed, uninvited and unannounced, but known to the village as a “sinner,” which implies she was a whore. The diners are reclining, in Greco-Roman banquet style, and she stands behind Jesus at his feet and begins to weep, wetting his feet with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with oil. Nothing is said about the cost of the oil and the objection is not the waste but that Jesus would permit himself to be touched by such a sexually promiscuous woman and not realize, were he a prophet, her sinful status. Simon objects and Jesus rebukes him, commending the woman for her uninvited hospitality in welcoming him, washing his feet, and loving him. He declares:

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.

He then turns to the woman and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The dinner guests were even more scandalized that he could claim the right to forgive sins.

Some have doubted the parallel accounts in Mark and John are related to this one, but most scholars, knowing that Luke is using Mark as his narrative source, are convinced he is deliberately recasting the scene to disparage Mary Magdalene. He drops the anointing scene entirely from the last days of Jesus’ life, moves it to Galilee and puts it much earlier. Why would he do this?

The answer is most likely that he wants to subtly disparage Mary Magdalene. Immediately following his anointing story he introduces her by name but presents her as a terribly deranged woman, possessed with seven demons that Jesus had cast out! (Luke 8:2). Later, when he introduces the women from Galilee who stood by at Jesus’ crucifixion, he does not mention their names or put Mary Magdalene at their head. He records no appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, as do Matthew and John.  Knowing how deeply embedded she is in early Christian tradition, Luke can not write her out of the story completely, he can minimize and disparage her role. Later in his narrative, as a further way of distancing himself from the anointing story in the gospel of John, he presents two sisters, Mary and Martha, but has them living far outside of Jerusalem, somewhere in Galilee to the north (Luke 13:22).

The Gospel of Peter, discovered in fragments in Egypt in the 1890s, adopts and further appropriates Luke’s marginalization of Mary Magdalene. In this text Peter is prominent, narrating the events surrounding Jesus’ empty tomb, but no women are mentioned at Jesus’ crucifixion scene, standing faithfully while the men fled. Although Mary Magdalene is mentioned, and even called a mathetria—a female disciple of Jesus, who comes early Sunday morning with her friends to mourn inside the tomb, most significantly Jesus never appears to the women and they receive no commission to go and spread the good news of the resurrection to the male disciples (Gospel of Peter 12:50).

Luke’s strategy had a lasting effect. Readers of the gospels later found it easy to conflate the stories. First, it became common and accepted to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and brother of Lazarus. As early as the late 2nd century, Tertullian had already equated Mary Magdalene as the “woman who was a sinner.”[xiv] This salacious identification stuck. The image of Jesus as the all forgiving one—the friend of prostitutes and sinners—was both irresistible and sexually provocative. The idea of the sinful woman, like Eve, seduced by the Devil, but now redeemed, could serve as the story of all women.[xv] It was Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) who sealed her fate. He conflated John’s story of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke, and declared both women were Mary Magdalene.  He waxed on as to how Mary the whore, who once perfumed herself to seduce men, flirted with her eyes, arranged her hair, and made use of her lips, now turned all those elements in chaste service to the Lord—anointing him, weeping and wiping the tears with her hair, and kissing his feet.[xvi]

In the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene became wildly popular with legends growing up regarding her missionary travels to Europe. She became the penultimate model of the hopeless sinner, transformed from a sexually fallen woman to a chaste and forgiven saint. All over Europe there are hundreds of shrines and churches dedicated to her with her supposed relics. Her feast days are among the most popular on the church calendar. It was not until the late 1970s that the Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the connection between Luke’s sinful woman and Mary Magdalene. Ironically, on a more popular level, the myth continues and most people still think of Mary Magdalene as the deranged whore whom Jesus redeemed, spurred on by films, plays, and books such as Martin Scorsece’s The Last Temptation of Christ (based on Kazantzakis’s novel), and of course Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s an image too hard to resist and yet if the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of the Jesus family and Mariamene can be identified with the historical Mary Magdalene, then the alternative untold story is perhaps even more compelling.

The fourth and final installment is here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/18/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-4/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.


[i] For a typical defenses of the idea Jesus was not married by an evangelical Christian writer see, http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2003/11/Was-Jesus-Married.aspx.

[ii] Josephus mentions a similar story about his own precociousness at age fourteen, see Life 9.

[iii] See Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schoken Books, 1995).

[iv] Josephus, War 2. 121.

[v] Philo, Hypothetica 11. 14

[vi] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5. 73.

[vii] See the excerpt on celibacy among the Essenes by Lawrence Shiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Anchor Bible Reference Library  (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 127-144, available on-line: http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Celibacy_of_the_Essenes,_Lawrence_H._Schiffman,_Reclaiming_the_Dead_Sea_Scrolls,_Jewish_Publication_Society,_Philadelphia.

[viii] Like Jesus Paul forbids divorce, reflecting a primordial ideal, but his assertion that a Christian abandoned by an “unbelieving” mate was free from the bonds of marriage might well reflect his own experience (1 Corinthians 7: 12-16).

[ix] See Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1997) pp. 158-179.

[x] Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 1.1.

[xi] Elizabeth Clark, Women in the Early Church (Willmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983.

[xii] Matthew 26:6-13 has the same story, based on his source Mark, but he specifies that the objection to the waste came from “the disciples.”

[xiii] See Paul’s insistence on covering the hair in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

[xiv] Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:18.9, 16-17.

[xv] See Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century bishop, who equated Mary Magdalene with Eve, Against Eunomius 3. 10. 16.

[xvi] Homily 33 on Luke 7.

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 2)

A Woman Called Magdalene

            Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.

 In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the MagdaleneMiriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]

Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.

The city was apparently more Romanized than the nearby Jewish cities of Capernaum or Chorazin with a cosmopolitan atmosphere more akin to a Greek polis.[iv] Ongoing excavations at Migdal, including the 2009 discovery of an ancient 1st century CE synagogue at Migdal, will likely reveal much more as to what this important city was like.[v] I visited the excavation site last fall and one of my graduate students excavated there this summer. It is clear that only a small part of this extensive city has begun to be uncovered. If Mary’s designation as “Magdalene” refers to her city of origin, placing her in that context, growing up in Magdala, gives us a glimpse into her possible background. One is tempted to take Luke’s tradition at face value and imagine her as a cosmopolitan woman of independent means and wealth who was able, with her connections reaching even into Herod Antipas’s household, to head a sizeable entourage of woman who followed Jesus in Galilee and thus to wield considerable influence in the Jesus movement (Luke 8:1-3).

Even though the identification of Mary’s name with the city of Magdala seems to carry the most weight there are two alternative suggestions.

It is possible that the designation “Magdalene” is a nickname, perhaps even given to Mary by Jesus. We know in the gospels that Jesus often gave his closest followers descriptive nicknames to characterize either their role in his movement or in some cases their personalities. For example, Simon son of Jonah, that most people know as “Peter,” was given the nickname Cephas or Petros (Peter) in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively—“the Rock,” or “Rocky” (Matthew 16:18). The two fisherman brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “sons of Thunder,” apparently based on their aggressive personalities (Mark 3:17; 10:35-41; Luke 9:54). The apostle James was nicknamed “James the Less,” or “James the Younger,” either referring to his shortness of stature or his young age, and distinguishing him from the other James, son of Zebedee (Mark 15:40). Simon, another of the Twelve apostles was called “Simon the Zealot,” either referring to his militant bent or to his zeal for a cause (Luke 16:15). Since the name Magdalene comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic word migdal—meaning tower, perhaps she was given this surname meaning “Mary the Tower,” as a description of her status or her strong personality.

Finally there is a third option, less well known but interesting to consider in the light of the Talpiot tombs. It is found tucked away in the Talmud, the ancient written collection of rabbinic oral tradition that was put together between the 5th and sixth centuries CE. There is a strange story about two women named Miriam—one is a hairdresser, presumably referring to Jesus’ mother, the other is called Miriam the Megadla—meaning the “baby tender,” or the one who “grows” the child.[vi] It is generally recognized that these are veiled cryptic references to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

One of the most fruitful new aspects of the study of the early development of Judaism and Christianity is the realization that Jews and Christians were living side by side both in the Land of Israel and in the major urban centers of the Roman world between the 2nd century CE into the early Byzantine period (4th century CE). Both religions were thriving and both were seen by the dominant culture as strange and foreign due to their adherence to monotheism and their refusal to worship the emperor and participate in mainstream Greco-Roman religious and civic rites.  The Jews and the Christians lived side by side and were in dialogue and debate with one another. For that reason there are many cryptic passages in the rabbinic literature of this period that refer to Jesus, his disputed paternity, his mother, his disciples, his teachings, and even his execution. These sharply polemical passages can seldom be taken as history per se, but they do reflect genuine debates and polemics between Jews and Christian in this time.[vii] This material has often been dismissed or ignored because of its complexity. It is also very difficult to date. It is an area that should not be overlooked since most of the other sources we have on Christianity come from its adherents, written for the purpose of promoting the Christian faith. For example, the late 2nd century philosopher Celsus, mentioned above, says that he based his primary knowledge of the Christians by listening to a Jew who knew the “inside” story that the Christians were trying to repress. What we can begin to construct from the rabbinic materials is an alternative side of the story by those who rubbed shoulders with Christians daily but strongly disputed their claims.

For this reason I believe that this possible interpretation of a more cryptic, coded, meaning of Magdalene should be brought into the discussion and considered. Based on this tradition there were two Marys in Jesus’ life—his mother and the one who “grew” the baby. Since this appears to be what we might have in our 1st century Talpiot Jewish tomb, as I argue below, perhaps this understanding of “Magdalene” should be given some serious consideration.

Finally, as with the possibility that the surname means “the Tower,” all three could be true. Nicknames often can have variant meanings and that is one reason they are so popular.

 

Is Mary Magdalene called  “Mariamene Mara”  

As many of my readers know the name Mariamene Mara is inscribed on one of the ossuaries or bone boxes in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. This ossuary, as well as the one inscribed “Judah son of Jesus,” is elaborately ornamented and the inscriptions are elegant and more formal in appearance than the graffiti like name tags that many ossuaries exhibit. The inscription Mariamene Mara is even more fascinating with regard to the mistaken assertion that the names in the Jesus tomb are exceptionally common.  Clearly it is some form of the common name Mary or Mariam/Mariame in Hebrew—but what about its strange ending? And what is the significance of Mara?

Of the six inscriptions from the tomb this is the only one in Greek.  In contrast to the ossuaries of Jesus, Maria, and Yoseh, which are plain, this woman was buried in a beautifully decorated ossuary. The venerable expert, Levi Rahmani had first deciphered her inscription in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries published in 1994. For most of us Rahmani has become the “Bible” for the study of ossuaries and their inscriptions. His keen eye and uncanny ability to decipher some of the most obscure inscriptions is legendary.

Rahmani read the inscription as Mariamene Mara. No one questioned his judgment for thirteen years—until the publicity about the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” hit the headlines. Suddenly everyone was scrambling, it seemed, to come up with arguments against those that Simcha Jacobovici had put forth for the first time in his 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” There he had suggested, based on Rahmani’s reading, which no one had disputed at the time, that Mariamene was a unique form of the name Mary that was used by Jesus’ first followers when referring to Mary Magdalene.

Several scholars have subsequently suggested that Rahmani misread the Greek, and that it should read Mariame kai Mara—Mary and Martha, referring to two individuals, perhaps even two sisters buried together in this one ossuary.[viii] Since Mariame (without the final stem ending “n”) is the most common form of the name Mary in Greek, any argument about uniqueness would thus evaporate. The Mary in the tomb might have been any Mary of the time and she would be impossible to identify further. And her sister Martha would be equally unknown.[ix]

I find this new reading unconvincing and remain impressed with Rahmani’s original transcription. The inscription itself appears to be from a single hand, written in a smooth flowing style, with a decorative flourish around both names—pointing to a single individual who died and was placed in this inscribed ossuary. According to Rahmani, Mariamene is a diminutive or endearing variant of the common name Mariame or Mary.[x] Mariamene—spelled with the letter “n” or nu in Greek, is quite rare—only one other example is found on an ossuary.[xi] There are no other examples from this period—or as I have now discovered, in the entirely of Greek literature down through the late Middle Ages.

A couple of years ago I ran an exhaustive computer search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a comprehensive digital database of Greek literature from Homer through 1453 CE.  To my surprise I only found two ancient works that use Mariamn—with this rare “n” stem ending and both texts specifically referred to Mary Magdalene!

The first text is a quotation from Hippolytus, a third century Christian writer who records that James, the brother of Jesus, passed on secret teachings of Jesus to “Mariamene,” i.e., Mary Magdalene.[xii] There it was, in plain Greek—this unusual spelling of the name Miriame or Mary—precisely like the spelling on the ossuary. How could this be, since the ossuary was from the 1st century and Hippolytus was writing at least 150 hundred years later?  According to tradition Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John—who of course knew both Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps it is this link of oral teaching, through three generations, that somehow had preserved this special name for Mary Magdalene. Its diminutive ending makes it a term of endearment—like calling someone named James “Jimmy,” or an Elizabeth “Betty.”

The second text that had uses the name Mariamene was a rare 4th century CE Greek manuscript of the Acts of Philip, dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE.  Throughout the text Mary Magdalene is called Mariamene—again the precise form of the name found on the Talpiot tomb ossuary.

Some critics have argued that one has to jump to the third or fourth century to find a parallel to a 1st century name on an ossuary in order to try and argue it belongs to Mary Magdalene.  Quite the opposite is the case. What the ossuary preserves is a rare endearing form of the common name Mariame. What should surprise us is that it shows up, out of the blue, in Hippolytus and the Acts of Philip—two centuries later, when referring to Mary Magdalene. They could not know anything about the ossuary or these inscriptions—so where did they get this tradition of the rare form of the name?  That this rare form appears in these later sources strengthens rather than diminishes the argument here. If Mariamene is a late form of the name, only found in these 3rd and 4th century texts, as some have asserted—what is it doing on the Talpiot tomb ossuary?

It strains any credibility to imagine that Rahmani, who was unaware of any association whatsoever between his transcription of this ossuary inscription and identifications with Mary Magdalene in these later texts, would have mistakenly and accidently come up with this exceedingly rare form of the common name Mary.  It seems clear to us that Rahmani’s keen eye and years of experience have unwittingly provided us with one of the most important correlations between the names in this tomb and those we might expect, hypothetically, to be included in a Jesus family tomb—a name uniquely appropriate for Mary Magdalene. Does it make any sense to think a misreading of the name in this inscription would end up producing two hits for Mary Magdalene? The force and implications of this evidence is so strong that a few scholars have even suggested that the text in Hippolytus somehow got corrupted. Again, it strains all credulity to maintain that mistakes, misreadings, and scribal areas would just happen to produce a match for an ossuary inscription in a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What are the chances?

What about the second word in the inscription—Mara? Rahmani understood this as an alternative form of the more common name Martha and many scholars apparently agree.[xiii] He translated the full inscription:

[the ossuary] of Mariamne also known as Mara

His understanding was that this Mariamne was also called Mara—a kind of nickname equivalent to the more popular form Martha.

Readers will recall that one of the inscriptions we found on one of the ossuaries in the nearby Patio tomb also read Mara. Is it just another form of the name Martha? In looking through all 650 ossuary inscriptions that are extant we discover that Mara is also quite rare, with only five examples other than the two in the Talpiot tombs.[xiv]

I am convinced that Mara is an honorific title not a proper name per se.[xv] Mara and Martha are related; they both come from the Aramaic masculine word Mar, which means “Master” or “Lord” in English.[xvi]  This is true still in Modern Hebrew today. One can  address a man formally as “Mar,” meaning “Sir” or “Mister.” It is a title not a name. If you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara—it is that simple. The problem is we have no good word in English to translate the feminine. If we try “Mistress” there are negative connotations. “Lordess” sounds awkward, and “Madame” surely will not work. English simply has no good alternative for the feminine, while we use the masculine constantly. The followers of Jesus called him “Lord” or “Master,” but how would we translate that title for a woman in English—perhaps one they also honored as his companion, partner, and wife?  Probably our best equivalent in English is “the Lady,” which is the formal feminine form of the masculine Lord. When Catholics speak of “Our Lady,” referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, they are preserving and echoing this very honorific title—they just don’t use it for Mary Magdalene. As we shall see she was vilified as a whore or as mentally unstable, or both, and was finally written out of any dominant version of the rise and development of Christianity. Fortunately we can pick up her muted and forgotten story as we will see in subsequently in this series of post.

There are two other ossuary inscriptions that are relevant to a proper understanding the Mariamene Mara inscription. The first refers to two males, a Matthew and a Simon, who are called “masters” of their tomb—meaning they own it. The word there for master is the plural of Mar. It is obvious that when it comes to males there is no hesitation to read Mar as a title. Even Jesus was referred to as Mar in the New Testament, in the early Christian Aramaic prayer—Mar-na-tha—meaning “our Lord come (1 Corinthians 16:22).”[xvii] The second inscription names a woman named Alexa, who is called Mara—just as in the Mariamene inscription. Rather than a second name, I take it as a title, so the inscription would read: “this is the ossuary of Alexa, [the] Lady.” It is a title of honor. Her name is given in the possessive case—showing the ossuary belongs to her, but her title is nominative—indicating it is not part of her proper name.

Continued here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/17/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-3/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.



[i] Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18.

[ii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462ff.

[iii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462–505, 532–542.

[iv] Rami Arav and John.J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), p. 189.

[v]See: http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1601&module_id=#as and http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/09/11/jerusalem.synagogue/index.html.

[vi] b. Chagiga 4b. In another story in the Talmud Jesus’ mother is referred to as the “hairdresser,” who was seduced by a gentile named “Pandeira” (b. Shabbat 104b). There is a play on words here, likely referring to two Miriams, one who “grows” the hair, the other who “grows” the child. In the story the angel of death strikes the wrong Mary—in this case Miriam the Megdala, getting the names confused. See Burton Visotzky, “Mary Maudlin among the Rabbis,” in Fathers of the World: Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literature, ed.  (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1995), pp. 85-92.

[vii] See Peter Schaeffer’s comprehensive study of all the major passages, Jesus in the Talmud, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[viii] See S. J. Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room. A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701,” Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 3-4 (2006): 130-131. Pfann’s reading is accepted by Jonathan Price and others, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 447.

[ix] Even though we do not accept the reading “Mariam and Martha” it is worth pointing out that those two names come up in the gospels for two sisters who live in Bethany, near Jerusalem, along with their brother Lazarus (John 11:1). According to our records Jesus is quite close to this family, so ironically, the names “Mary and Martha” are not alien to the Jesus tradition of intimates. Some have even suggested that the Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene.

[x] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 701 as well as his introductory comments, p. 14. The Greek is in the genitive case, a diminutive form of Mariamhnh. This form of the name is rare and is found also on one other ossuary, Rachmani #108. Di Segni supports Rahmani’s reading (as per private e-mail correspondence with the author in 2007).

[xi] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 108. It is interesting to note that Jonathan Price, who disputes Rahmani’s reading of the Talpiot tomb as Mariamene, accepts tentatively his reading of this second ossuary as Mariamene—and yet the inscriptions are almost identical, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 133 as well as the representations in Rahmani of the inscriptions themselves.

[xii] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.1.

[xiii] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 97.

[xiv] Cotton, et. al., CIIP, nos. 97, 200, 262, 517 and 563. We do not accept that no. 543 is using Mara for a male named Joseph. A close examination shows a line break that would indicate this man is being called Mar—the son of Benaya, son of Yehuda. See the limited examples of the use of Mar/Mara in Aramaic and Greek in Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in late Antiquity, pp. 422-423.

[xv] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 262 where Jonathan Price writes that although Mara is short for Martha it can be a title.

[xvi] Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine word Mar is the absolute feminine, whereas “Marta” (Martha) is the emphatic feminine. They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved more into a name and is common (18 examples on ossuaries), whereas Mara functions more as a title and is rare.

[xvii] Paul translates the Aramaic into Greek as maranatha.