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.

 

 

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 1)

Yesterday I published a piece in the Huffington Post dealing with what I consider to be reasonably strong evidence for a “married Jesus” and within hours it had drawn thousands of responses and hundreds of comments–positive, negative, and even threatening and denunciatory.  Clearly this is a topic that generates more heat than light. The vast majority of my colleagues would take the same position I took for the first 30 years of my career–until I reexamined the evidence a couple of years ago and had cause to be more open to the idea of a married Jesus–much like others have done, including Birger Pearson, whose judgment I greatly respect.[1] Here, in a four part series, I offer my analysis of the source materials we have as I now view them. I hope this series might help readers to at least be familiar with all the evidence and have more of a basis for making a reasoned judgment on the matter should they choose to do so. Like others I could say, “Does it really matter,” and I would say yes and no. In some ways Jesus is Jesus, whether married, sexual,  or celibate, but if in fact Mary Magdalene’s prominent position in his life has been muted by a dominant Christian orthodoxy, and Jesus has been cast as a non-sexual male in the interest of a misplaced sense of purity and holiness–such as we encounter often in early Christian texts–then I think it does matter. Recovering Jesus as he was or might have been as a Jewish male of his time is surely part of the “Quest’ for the historical Jesus.

Paul indicates that “seeing the Lord” is an essential criterion for one claiming to be an apostle. According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection.” Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter, James, or any of the Twelve apostles.

 

Is it probable that Jesus was married?  And that he could have fathered a child?  These claims are in such direct contradiction to our received tradition that it is hard to believe.  Furthermore, there have been such sensational claims in the past, particularly in the famous novel, The DaVinci Code, that it is important to be skeptical and to base any claims on solid evidence.  It is for this reason that in my last book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argued that I did not believe there was sufficient evidence to argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had had a child.  But to be a scholar is to remain open to new data and new interpretations and always to be willing to change one’s position.  Based on new evidence, I now believe that my earlier position was most likely mistaken.

The New Testament says nothing directly about Jesus being married or having a child.  If Jesus had been married with a child would there not be some record, even some hint of this somewhere in the gospels? There are times when the silence of a text speaks volumes. Such silence can reflect absence, ignorance, or suppression. I am now convinced that in the case of Mary Magdalene the silence does not indicate he was unmarried. The authors of the New Testament gospels, written many decades after Jesus’ life, and when most of the original witnesses were dead, were either unaware of Jesus’ wife and child, or more likely, for theological reasons, decided to suppress this information.  The Jesus of these gospels was the divine Son of God, ascended to heaven, and any “earthly,” or sexual ties to a mortal woman were deemed inconceivable. His exalted heavenly status as the Son of God surely precluded him “leaving behind” such mortal remains. The New Testament gospels are male dominated accounts in which the few women who do play a role in Jesus’ life are marginalized and subordinated.   They purportedly did not hold leadership roles equivalent to the male disciples. This is not to say that the gospels are devoid of references to Mary Magdalene’s singular importance in Jesus life. To the contrary, the inclusion of narratives involving Mary Magdalene as intimately involved with Jesus’ mother and his sister in preparing Jesus’ naked corpse for burial, and as the first witness to his resurrection from the dead, signals how central her role must have been in his life. It is as though she could not be written out of the story entirely—but her relatively isolated inclusion in such an intimate and important way makes very little sense overall.

This silence is in sharp contrast to half a dozen other ancient texts that have been discovered in the last hundred years, including several “lost” gospels that are not included in the New Testament.  In these texts, Mary Magdalene is mentioned very prominently, given a role superior to the Twelve apostles, and presented as Jesus’ intimate companion. Even though these texts were written later than the New Testament gospels—most of them dating to the 2nd century CE—they also have their theological axes to grind yet nonetheless bear witness to an expanded and wholly alternative role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life. As such they give voice to a suppressed history and a muted memory that correlates strongly with the evidence in the Talpiot tombs.

The fact that the Talpiot tomb contains two ossuaries inscribed with names of women—Maria on one and Mariamene Mara on the second—plus a third ossuary Judas son of Jesus, strongly suggests that one of these two Marys is most likely the mother of the son, and thus the wife of the Jesus buried in this tomb. The DNA evidence done on the bones from the Yeshua and the Mariamene ossuaries, further shows that Mariamene Mara is not Jesus’ mother or his sister, leaving her as a possible candidate for his wife, and thus the mother of the son Judas. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother named Mary, and apparently one of his sisters was also named Mary.[i] If Jesus’ sister Mary were married, which seems likely given the norms of the culture, she would not be in his tomb but in the tomb of her husband. If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus and his family, the second Mary—Maria—is most likely either his mother, unless she lived past 70 CE when the tomb went unused.  Alternatively, the second Mary could perhaps be a wife of one of his brothers. That leaves Mariamene Mara as the most likely candidate to be the mother of his child.

There is the related issue of the status of Mary Magdalene. The Mariamene buried in the Jesus family tomb is also known as Mara—the Lady. This title can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement, a role that is hinted at by the evidence in the Talpiot tomb but never explicitly indicated in any of our sparse New Testament texts mentioning Mary Magdalene.

What I present here is a consideration of all the relevant ancient textual evidence regarding Mary Magdalene, both inside and outside the New Testament, with the new archaeological evidence from the Talpiot tombs. There is an impressive correlation between much of this textual material and what we observe in the tombs themselves.

Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels

            I begin with our earliest source on Mary Magdalene—the gospel of Mark, most scholars consider to have been written before Matthew, Luke, or John.  According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly the most mysterious and intriguing woman in Jesus’ life. She appears for the first time completely out of the blue, without any kind of introduction, watching the crucifixion of Jesus from afar. She is named first, surely giving her special priority, and she is associated with an entire group—one might even say, an entourage of women who had followed Jesus down from Galilee to Jerusalem just before the Passover festival began:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41).

Luke supplements this tradition of Mark, also emphasizing the many women from Galilee who were followers of Jesus. He names Mary Magdalene first, implying she has some kind of leadership role, but then identifies two others, a certain Joanna, who is the wife of Chuza, a household administrator in the court of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, and Susanna, otherwise unknown. The implication is that these women are of high standing with financial means. Luke specifies that they provided for the Jesus movement from their means (Luke 8:2-3).

In Mark’s gospel it was Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary, the mother of Joses, most likely Jesus’ mother, who observe Joseph of Arimathea taking down the bloodied body from the cross, placing him temporarily in a nearby tomb, and sealing the entrance with a heavy stone, until the Passover was over (Mark 15:47).[ii] As soon as the Sabbath day was over Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother, and an unidentified woman named Salome, possibly Jesus’ sister, bought spices so they might return to the tomb early Sunday morning to wash the corpse and complete the rites of burial. Mark relates that early on Sunday morning, again, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary and Salome, go to the tomb very early, before the sun is risen, and find the stone rolled away and the body removed. Inside the tomb is a young man dressed in a white linen garment who informs the women that Jesus has been “raised up,” that they are to go and tell his male disciples, and that he is going to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:1-4).[iii] According to Mark they fled from the tomb in fear and astonishment, saying nothing to anyone. In our oldest copies of Mark that is how the story ends—abruptly and mysteriously, with the promise to the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee in the future. The oldest copies of Mark have this abrupt ending with no “sightings” or appearances of Jesus to anyone. Later manuscripts or copies of Mark add on one of three different alternative endings, composed by editors to try and blunt the abruptness of Mark’s original ending. The fear was that Mark’s account, if left as is, might leave doubt as to Jesus’ resurrection.[iv]

Washing and anointing a corpse for Jewish burial was an honored and intimate task. The body was stripped naked and washed from head to toe. It was taken care of by the immediate family or those closely related. Although these narratives from Mark do not identify Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, they certainly cast her as taking the lead in carrying out the burial rites for Jesus—an extremely intimate task for a wife, mother, or sister. Matthew and Luke have Mark as their source, and although they relate the story of Jesus’ burial slightly differently, it is unlikely that they have much independent information. It is also entirely possible, writing so many decades after the events, when all of the original witnesses were dead, that they know the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in Jesus’ burial, and thus find it essential to include her, but have no idea who she was or why she is so prominent in the story they had received.

It is in the gospel of John one finds an alternative narrative tradition, one independent of Mark. What John brings to the table is utterly fascinating and sheds an entirely different light on what might have happened early that first Easter morning John writes that Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb, very early Sunday morning, while it was still dark. She sees the stone rolled away from the tomb and the body removed and she runs in panic to tell Peter and an unnamed disciple, otherwise identified as the “one whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). What she exclaims to the men is most revealing:

They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2).[v]

In this account Mary Magdalene’s logical assumption is that the body has been removed from the temporary tomb, which John has already emphasized was a tomb of convenience in an emergency, not a permanent burial cave (John 19:41-42). Her reference to “they” obviously refers to Joseph of Arimathea, assisted by another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, whom John says assisted in the initial removal of the body from the cross.

What happens next is a story completely unique to John. Mary Magdalene returns to the empty tomb, weeping outside, she then enters the tomb for the first time to look inside. She sees two angels dressed in white sitting inside. The Greek word translated “angel” (aggelos) can refer to a “messenger,” and does not necessarily mean an angelic non-terrestrial being. These two ask her why she is weeping. She repeats her take of the situation—“Because they have taken away my Master, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Just as she replies she turns and sees a man outside the tomb that she takes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question—“Woman, why are you weeping, whom do you seek?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The man then addresses her by name—calling her Miriam, using the Hebrew form of her name. She apparently recognizes the voice and turns to face him, crying out in Hebrew, Rabboni—a diminutive term of endearment meaning “my dear Master.” She recognizes it is Jesus but he tells her not to touch him, adding that he is ascending to heaven (John 20:16-17). For a woman to touch a man in this culture further implies a familial connection. Mary Magdalene returns to the male disciples and tells them what she has seen.

This remarkable story presents Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike Mark who has no appearances of Jesus following the empty tomb, or Matthew who has Jesus encountering the Eleven remaining apostles on a misty mountain in Galilee much later, or Luke who relates that Jesus appeared physically to the disciples in a closed room, showing his wounds and eating a meal in front of them—John’s story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter stands in sharp contrast. Even John includes in his gospel additional appearances of Jesus to groups of men, but he alone preserves this Magdalene tradition.

My friend, the late professor Jane Schaberg and others have interpreted this singular experience of Mary Magdalene as forming the core of the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.[vi] It is a personal encounter prompted by an exchange of greetings—Miriam and Rabboni—as if those words signaled a flash of recognition based on personal intimacy.  If one asks—who can lay claim to the first appearance of Jesus after his death John’s story offers a clear answer—it was Mary Magdalene. Matthew knows a garbled version of the story in which the group of women encounter Jesus as they flee from the tomb, but without the personal exchange between Mary and Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10). In Matthew’s story they are mere vehicles who are to carry the news to the male disciples, not independent witnesses whose testimony is valued. Jesus commissions the Eleven remaining apostles and the women are nowhere to be seen (Matthew 28:16-20).

Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, just twenty years removed from the crucifixion, says explicitly that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve [apostles], then to James, and finally to 500 brothers en mass  (1 Corinthians 15:5). He either knows nothing of the Magdalene tradition, or given his view of women, considers it less merit.  This was after all a time in ancient history when a woman’s testimony in court did not carry the same weight as that of a man. Even in Luke the initial testimony of the women who first visited the tomb is dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In a male dominated movement how could a hysterical woman, weeping at a tomb, provide any kind of credible testimony?

There is evidence that such a critique was leveled against the developing Christian movement from the late 2nd century CE. Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack of the Christians called True Doctrine around 178 CE, says:

Jesus went about with his disciples collecting their livelihood in a shameful and importunate way . . . For in the gospels certain women who had been healed from their ailments, among whom was Suzanna, provided the disciples with meals out of their own substance.[vii]

He does not specifically name Mary Magdalene he seems to have her in mind:

While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those (women) who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has a happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a change for other beggars.”[viii]

Further on in the same narrative Celsus charges that Jesus “appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own confraternity.”[ix] This is without a doubt an accusation based on his reading of the account in the gospel of John. There is evidence that a number of other pagan writers were critical of the female initiative that apparently was central to Christianity’s development.[x]

Is there any likely historical truth to the notion that the faith in Jesus’ resurrection began with this entourage of women led by Mary Magdalene? Schaberg has argued that this singular account in John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene encounters and speaks to Jesus in the garden tomb, preserves fragments of a tradition of Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus—and thus, “first founder” of Christianity, in the sense of authoritative witness to resurrection faith. Whether this early tradition can be connected or not to later Christian texts that present Mary as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide, a beloved companion of Jesus and transmitter of his teachings I will deal with in the subsequent parts of this blog post.

Schaberg, in my view, convincingly shows that the narrative structure of John 20 reflects an imaginative reuse of 2 Kings 2:1-18 where Elijah the prophet ascends to heaven, leaving his disciple Elisha as his designated witness and successor. This intimate personal appearance to Mary Magdalene, which focuses on an ascent to heaven rather than resurrection of the dead per se, stands in sharp contrast to the other formulations in the gospels that present indirect angelic encounters to a group of women.  Upon this foundation Schaberg offers a preliminary sketch of what she rather boldly labels “Magdalene Christianity,” both suppressed and lost in the our New Testament gospel tradition, and particularly in Acts, much like the history of James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem community from 30-50 CE.

The notion of apostolic authority in early Christianity depended most of all on one being included as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and receiving a commission.[xi] Paul, for example, bases his own late addition to the apostolic roster upon his visionary experience of the Christ several years after he had been crucified: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). One should not take this modesty on the part of Paul as any indication that he thought he was in the least bit inferior to the apostles who were before him. He says of the other apostles:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Apparently Paul did receive challenges to his rights to be called an apostle. Against such charges he adamantly defended himself, insisting that his apostleship was based squarely on his experience of having “seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). Apostleship was not, in his view, something that was passed on from men, but was given by a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12, 16). According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter. The gospel of Luke explicitly rejects her status in this regard, characterizing the report of Mary and her entourage of women from Galilee and their claim to have “seen Jesus” as an “idle tale,” using language that in the culture of that time was particularly associated with the testimony of women. Mary Magdalene’s disqualification was based on her gender. Paul, for example, insists to his congregations:

 The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

This silencing and subordination of women was carried into the next generation, long after Paul was dead. One of his successors paraphrased Paul’s position with even stronger language:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 1:11-13).[xii]

The remedy for this Adamic curse upon women was that they “be saved through bearing children”

Part 2 follows here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/16/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-2/

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] According to early Christian tradition the names of Jesus’ two sisters, not given in the New Testament gospels (see Mark 6:3), were Mary and Salome, see Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 with Protoevangelium of James 19-20.

[ii] For the arguments for identifying this second Mary as Jesus’ mother see, James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-82.

[iii] Salome is likely Jesus’ sister, or perhaps the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the fishermen James and John (Matthew 27:56). Luke adds that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s assistant, was with them. Even though the verb used for “lifted up” can just mean to pick up or carry, in this context it seems to refer to being lifted up from the dead—in other words, resurrected.

[iv] See James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 223-241. The main appended ending (Mark 16:9-20) does not appear in our two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating to the early 4th century AD. It is also absent from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, the Old Latin version, and the Sinaitic Syriac. Even copies of Mark that contain the ending often include notes from the scribe pointing out that it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

[v] I have translated “Lord” here as Master, which has less theological connotations and fits with what follows in the story where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabboni—my Master.

[vi] See Jane Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continium Press, 2006), pp. 122-126. Schaberg’s full study is The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continium, 2004).

[vii] Contra Celsum 1. 65. Celsus’s critique is preserved by the church father Origin who wrote a defense against him around 248 CE. He apparently knows the passage in Luke 8:1-3 that mentions specifically Joanna. There is a summary of his critique in his own words on-line at: http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm.

[viii] Contra Celsum, 2. 55.

[ix] Contra Celsum 2. 70.

[x] See the study of Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xi] See Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xii] Although the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul scholars are universally agreed that they are “deutero-Pauline,” written by some of his followers in the generation after his death, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, pp. 395-407.

 

  1. There have also been a few scholars, influenced by some of the later gospel traditions (particularly the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip), who have argued that Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene included some type of sexual intimacy if not marriage. William E. Phipps published a full-scale study in 1970 titled, Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row). Phipps argued that Jesus’ status as a Jewish male, a teacher, and a rabbi, would have virtually required that he be married. I have never found these arguments from silence convincing, knowing that there were forms of Judaism, at least according to Josephus and Philo, that honored celibacy, and that Paul himself mounts a strong argument in defense thereof, even as a Jewish male and “rabbi.” I found the treatment summarized by Birger A. Pearson, “Did Jesus Marry?” (Bible Review Spring 2005, pp 32-39 & 47) to be quite convincing. What seems notable is that over the years Pearson may have begun to change his mind, or at least to express more openness to the idea of a married Jesus, see his latest here, “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus? Was She a Prostitute?” []

If I Ascend to Heaven…Paul’s Journey to Paradise

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, on “Paul’s Ascent to Paradise” under Jonathan Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Bernard McGinn. Its focus was the celebrated passage where Paul reports his extraordinary experience, as a “man in Christ” who was taken to the “third heaven,” and then into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). I completed the degree in 1982 and published the dissertation as a book, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (Brown University Studies in Judaism) in 1986. It is long ago out of print but I plan to make an e-book or PDF edition available soon for free downloading.

Paul is not the only one in antiquity reported to have experienced such a “heavenly journey.” In my latest book, Paul and Jesus I discuss the implications of these claims of Paul to extraordinary revelations and how they created both conflict and controversy in what I call the “battle of the apostles.” What few readers of the New Testament might not realize is that the phenomenon of the “heavenly journey” is a rather common one in Paul’s time, and stretching back several hundreds years before him. What follows here is a rather thorough study and analysis of the various reports we have of figures, both legendary and historical, who are said to have ascended to heaven. As you will see, there are several types of such journeys, each with its own specific meaning, context, and implications. Paul’s report fits into a certain genre which helps us to understand the implications of the claims he is making.

 

Paul’s Ascent to the Third Heaven by Poussin

The motif of the journey to heaven is a vitally important phenomenon of ancient Mediterranean religions. There are five figures in the Bible who, according to standard Jewish and Christian interpretation, are reported to have ascended to heaven: Enoch (Gen 5:24); Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1-12); Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4); and John (Rev 4:1). There are also four related accounts in which individuals behold the throne, or heavenly court, of Yahweh: Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11); Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-23); Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13); and Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10). Finally, there is the scene in which an otherwise unidentified “son of man” comes before the throne of God in an apocalyptic vision of Daniel (Dan 7:11-14). This notion, that mortals enter into, or behold, the realm of the immortal God (or gods) undergoes various complicated developments from the Ancient Near Eastern into the Hellenistic period. It is closely related to a number of other topics such as the descent or journey to the underworld of the dead, the heavenly destiny of the immortal soul, the apotheosis or divinization of selected mortals (rulers, philosophers, divine men), and aspects of Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian mysticism. Sorting through this complex conceptual web, and trying to understand these Biblical texts with their contexts and complicated traditional development, has occupied historians of ancient religions for the past 150 years (Bousset 1901; Segal 1980).

The various types of the heavenly journeys we have reports about can be divided into four basic categories, based upon the fundamental purpose or outcome of the ascent as reported in a given text. Generally speaking, the first two categories are more characteristic of the Ancient Near Eastern, or archaic period, which would include most texts of the Hebrew Bible (OT). The latter two categories are more typical of the Hellenistic period, which reflects the perspective of the NT.

1. Ascent as an invasion of heaven.
In the cosmology reflected throughout most of the Hebrew Bible mortal humankind belongs on earth, not in heaven, and at death descends below to the nether world known as Sheol. Ps 115 expresses this succinctly:

The heaven’s are the LORD’S heavens,
but the earth he has given to the
sons of men.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.

Generally speaking, just as there is no coming back from the dead, there is no idea or expectation that humans can go to heaven, a place reserved for God and his angelic attendants. This means that any report of a human being ascending to heaven would be seen as not only extraordinary, but often even as an intrusion or invasion of the divine realm. In an Akkadian text, Adapa, the son of Ea, attempts to ascend to heaven to obtain eternal life but is cast back down to earth (Pritchard 1969:101-3). A somewhat similar story is told of Etana, one of the legendary rulers of the Sumerian dynasty of Kish (Pritchard 1969: 114-18). A direct protest against such an ascent is found in Isa 14:12-20 (compare Ezk 28:11-19). There the prideful King of Babylon, who wants to ascend to heaven and become like God, is cast down to the nether world of worms and maggots (v 11). The ironic language of Prov 30:2-4 (compare Job 26; 38:1-42:6), though not a tale of ascent, emphasizes the contrast between the human and divine realms. A similar idea lies behind Deut 29:29 and 30:11-14. There is no need for one to ascend to heaven to learn the “secret things” which belong to God (compare Sir 3:21-22). Lucian’s tale, Icaromenippus, though from the Roman imperial period, typifies this understanding of ascent to heaven as an invasion of the realm of the gods.

The accounts of Enoch and Elijah are best understood in this context. First and foremost, they are extraordinary. The normal fate, even of great heroes of the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David, is death or “rest” in Sheol (Gen 25:7-9; Deut 34:6; 1 Kgs 2:10, cf Acts 2:29-34). Furthermore, both texts, particularly the one about Enoch, are ambiguous. Genesis 5:24, from the P source, in lieu of recording Enoch’s death, simply says “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” Where he was taken, the text does not say. Though the bulk of later Jewish and Christian tradition understood this text as ascent to heaven (Charlesworth 1983: 1: 3-315; Tabor 1989), this was not universally the case (compare Heb 11:5, 13-16). The author might have had in mind a journey “Beyond,” to some special region on this earth (e.g. “Isles of the Blessed”), as in the cases of Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim or Menelaus in Homer. Such might also be the case with Elijah. Though he is clearly taken from the earthly scene in a chariot of fire that rises to heaven like a whirlwind, the author might well have had in mind his removal or “retirement” to some remote area. If so, “heaven” in this text is equivalent to “sky,” and the author does not intend to imply that Elijah joined Yahweh as an immortal in the heavenly court. This appears to be the understanding of the Chronicler who reports that much later, Jehoram, king of Judah, receives a letter written by Elijah (2 Chr 21:12-15).

2. Ascent to receive revelation.
This type of ascent involves a “round trip” from earth to heaven and back again, or some visionary experience of the heavenly court from which one returns to normal experience (ascent/descent). In contrast to the previous type, the journey or experience is appraised most positively. The earth, not heaven, is still understood as the proper human place, so that the ascent remains a “visit,” though not an intrusion, into the divine realm.

The complex literary traditions surrounding the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai, now found in Exodus 24, though not explicitly referring to a journey to heaven, are closely related to this category. Moses (or alternatively Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders), in ascending the mountain, enter the presence of God, the realm of the divine. He is given revelation in the form of heavenly tablets, then descends back to the mortal realm. Though he is not explicitly deified or enthroned, he becomes a semi-divine figure, eating and drinking in the divine presence and returning from the mountain with his face transformed like an immortal (Exod 24:11; 34:29-30). In later interpretation this was understood as full deification (see Philo, De vita Mosis 2.290-91; De virt. 73-75; Ezekiel the Tragedian 668-82). The prophetic call of Isaiah is a further example of this same pattern (Isa 6:1-3). Since there is no specific reference to Isaiah being “taken up,” this is a “visionary ascent,” though the distinction between the two types is not always clear (see 2 Cor 12:2-4). He sees “The LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up . . . .” (v 1). He is then given a message with a corresponding prophetic commission. As a mortal, he is out of place in the divine realm; he cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v 5). The throne visions of Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10) should be compared here, as well as the scene before the throne of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:14 where a “son of man” is given cosmic rulership over all nations. Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly court also belongs under this category (1 Kgs 22:19-23). In all of these texts the ascent or vision of the heavenly throne serves as a way of claiming the highest and most direct heavenly authority for the message. Such experiences are clearly evaluated as more noteworthy than the epiphany of an angelic messenger or receipt of a prophetic “word of the LORD.” Widengren (1950) has traced this motif of royal or prophetic enthronement (ascent, initiation into heavenly secrets, receipt of a divine commission) into later Jewish traditions involving kingship, prophetic commissions and the revelation of secret heavenly lore. This understanding of ascent dominates one of the oldest sections of 1 Enoch, the Book of the Watchers (chaps. 1-36). The legendary figure Enoch is taken through the heavenly realms and shown cosmic secrets, even appearing before God’s lofty throne. The Greek version of the Testament of Levi (2nd century B.C.E.) draws upon the ascent motif in a similar way, as does the Latin Life of Adam and Eve (1st century C.E.) and the Apocalypse of Abraham. In each of these texts the ascent to heaven functions as a vehicle of revelation, offering divine authority to the cosmological and eschatological lore the authors were expounding.

The closest non-Jewish, or Greek, parallel to this notion of ascent is probably Parmenides’ prooemium, which survives in only a few fragments (Taran 1965). He tells of being taken in a chariot through the gate leading to daylight, where he is received and addressed by a goddess. On the whole, for Greeks in the archaic period, revelations came through epiphanies, oracles, dreams, omens, and signs of various sorts, not by being taken before the throne of Zeus. The fair number of Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) texts which make use of ascent to heaven as a means of legitimating rival claims of revelation and authority is likely due to the polemics and party politics that characterized the Second Temple period. It became a characteristic way, in the Hellenistic period, of claiming “archaic” authority of the highest order, equal to a Enoch or Moses, for ones vision of things.

3. Ascent to immortal heavenly life.
This type of ascent to heaven is final or “one way:” a mortal obtains immortality, or release from mortal conditions, thorough a permanent ascent to the heavenly realms. Broadly, there are two overlapping ideas involved here, both of which have been extensively investigated. First, that a hero, ruler, or extraordinary individual has obtained immortal heavenly existence (Farnell 1921; Guthrie 1950; Bieler 1935-36; M. Smith 1971; Gallagher 1982). Second, the more general idea that the souls of humankind, bound by mortal conditions, can obtain release to immortal heavenly life (Rhode 1925; Bousset 1901; Burkert 1985). The second is not merely a later democratization of the first, rather, the two exist side by side throughout the Hellenistic period. While they are distinct from one another, both are related to a fundamental shift in the perception of the proper human place. Increasingly in this period one encounters the notion that humans actually belong in heaven, with life on earth seen as either a “fall” or temporary subjection to mortal powers (Nilsson 1969: 96-185; J. Z. Smith 1975).

The only candidates for such immortalization in the Hebrew Bible are Enoch and Elijah, though, as noted above, both texts are ambiguous. As early as the Maccabean period (2nd century B.C.E.) Daniel speaks of the righteous dead being resurrected and “shining like the stars forever and ever,” having obtained immortality (12:3). A similar notion is found in the Wisdom of Solomon, where the “souls of the righteous” are promised immortal life (3:1-9). Gradually, in Jewish and Christian texts of the Hellenistic period, the older idea of the dead reposing in Sheol forever is replaced with either a notion of the resurrection of the dead or the immortality of the soul or some combination of the two (Nickelsburg 1972). Both ideas involve the notion of a final ascent to heaven.

The NT reflects this Hellenistic perspective in which mortals can obtain heavenly immortality. Matthew 13:43, reflecting the language and influence of Daniel, asserts that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Eternal life is promised to the righteous throughout the NT corpus (Mark 9:42-48; Q [Matt 10:32-33=Luke 12:8]; Matt 25:46; Acts 13:48; John 3:16; 14:1-3; Rom 6:23; Col 3:1-4; 1 Tim 1:16; Heb 12:22-23; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 1:4; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 5:11; Jude 21; Rev 20). In most cases this involves ascent to heaven and life before the throne of God (1 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 7:9-17). According to the NT, the righteous of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, are included in this promised resurrection to immortal heavenly life (Heb 11). In the NT the ascent of Jesus to heaven is the paradigm for all those righteous mortals who follow. Just as he was raised from the dead, made immortal, and ascended to the Father, so will followers experience the same at his return (John 14: 1-3; 1 Cor 15: 20-28; Rom 8:29-30). The state of the the righteous souls who have died prior to the time of the end and the resurrection and ascent to heaven is not always clear. Paul seems to prefer the metaphor of “sleep,” which parallels the Hebrew Bible notion of Sheol (1 Thess 4:13; 5:10; 1 Cor 15:18-20). But in two places he might imply that these “souls” or “spirits” depart immediately at death and ascend to the presence of Christ in heaven (Phil 1: 21-24; 2 Cor 5:1-10). In Revelation the “souls of the martyrs” are pictured as under the altar, presumably in heaven, longing for their time of vindication (6:9-11). In distinction to both of these views, the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, unique to Luke, pictures the Hadean world of the dead, which is below not above, as a place in which rewards and punishments are already being experienced prior to the final resurrection and judgment (Luke 16:19-31). This latter text is more in concert with other Jewish materials of the period which see the “dead” as conscious, but in the Hadean world below, awaiting the resurrection and last judgment (cf. Rev 20:11-15). There is no uniform NT view of this subject of the “state of the dead.”

Surprisingly, an actual narrative account of the ascent of Jesus to heaven occurs only in Luke (24:51, but see textual variants; Acts 1:9). It is assumed in Matthew and Mark and spoken of in John (20:17) and Paul (Rom 8:34). A similar resurrection from the dead followed by bodily ascension to heaven is prophesied for the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation (11:7-12). They are God’s final prophets before the return of Christ and the last judgment. The contrast between the NT and the Hebrew Bible regarding this expectation of ascent to heaven could not be more striking. Other than the doubtful examples of Enoch and Elijah, it is not until the book of Daniel, which is perhaps the latest text in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, that one finds any reference to mortals ascending to heavenly life (some would include Isa 26:19; Job 14:14-16 is a longing, not an affirmation). The NT is fully a part of the process of Hellenization in which notions of resurrection from the dead, immortality of the soul, and ascent to heaven were the norm rather than the exception.

4. Ascent as a foretaste of the heavenly world.
This type of ascent involves a journey or “visit” to heaven which functions as a foretaste or anticipation of a final or permanent ascent to heavenly life. Though related to the second category, ascent to receive revelation, it is fundamentally different. For example, when Isaiah is taken before God’s throne, though he receives a commission and experiences the glories of the heavenly world, there is no idea that he will return to that realm. He remains a mortal who dies and descends to Sheol with all the other dead.

The earliest example of this notion of ascent is in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), probably dating from the 1st century B.C.E. In chapter 39 Enoch relates how he was taken to heaven. The experience transforms him (39:14) and he is told that he will later ascend to heaven permanently and receive glory and immortal heavenly life (chaps. 70-71). 2 (Slavonic) Enoch also reflects a similar pattern. Enoch’s journey through the seven heavens, which lasts 60 days (chaps. 1-20), is followed by a return to earth. The experience transforms him and functions in anticipation of his final translation to heaven. Christians later took up and elaborated this understanding of ascent from such Jewish models, as seen in texts such as the Ascension of Isaiah. In the NT we have the striking firsthand account of Paul’s own experience of ascent to Paradise (2 Cor 12:2-4). This text provides evidence for the actual “practice” of ascent to heaven in Jewish-Christian circles during this period, in contrast to a purely literary motif adopted to lend heavenly authority to a text. Obviously, Paul’s experience functions as a highly privileged foretaste of the heavenly glorification which he expected at the return of Christ (Tabor 1986).

There are definite links between the language and ideas of these Jewish texts from Second Temples times, the testimony of Paul, and the Tannaitic and Amoraic Merkabah (and later Hekhalot) traditions (Scholem 1960; Gruenwald 1980; Halperin 1980).

There are also examples of this type of ascent to heaven in non-Jewish/Christian materials. Perhaps the clearest is Cicero’s report of the “Dream of Scipio Africanus” in his Republic (6. 9-26). The text was highly influential and functions as a kind of universal declaration of the gospel of astral immortality (Luck 1956). Scipio travels to the heavenly world above and returns with a revelation that all humans are immortal souls, trapped in mortal bodies, but potentially destined for heavenly life above. The gnostic text Poimandres, found in the Corpus Hermeticum also fits this category of ascent. There is also an important text in the Greek Magical Papyri, mistakenly called the “Mithras Liturgy,” (PGM 4. 624-750). It provides the initiate who desires to ascend to heaven with an actual guide for making the journey with all its dangers and potentials. There are Jewish texts such as Hekhalot Rabbati which have strong parallels with such magical materials, showing that we are dealing here with an international phenomenon of late antiquity (M. Smith 1963). It is also likely that the rites of initiation into certain of the so-called “mystery religions,” such as that of Isis, involved such proleptic experiences of ascent to heaven (see Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11 and discussion of Tabor 1986: 89-92).

It is noteworthy that Paul’s testimony in 2 Cor 12:2-4 remains our only firsthand autobiographical account of such an experience from the Second Temple period.

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