As you know we met on the farm for our annual day to remember Mary Magdala and all women. Our misty morning drove us into the house for Mass but we were able to eat outdoors afterward. Nineteen of us enjoyed this gathering and we learned more of the story of this wonderful woman, Mary Magdala! Thanks to all who could make it and blessings to all others who for one reason or another could not be with us.
Peace and love,
My friends, looking back, this appears to be our 11th Mary of Magdala celebration! We started in 2010, two years after we became a parish, and we missed only 2015, when Robert and I were gone to Alaska and 2020 when in lockdown due to COVID. So, what have we learned in these years?
First and foremost, women theologians, primarily, and some male historians and authors, have uncovered the truth about this “Mary.” Unlike we all learned originally, she was not a prostitute that Jesus saved, but in actuality, she was a prophet and a priest, in the sense that any man was a prophet and a priest at the time she lived! But probably the most enduring character trait of this “Mary” was that she was a most loyal friend and follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
Over the years, at these gatherings where we have attempted to reclaim her true identity, I have shared some of our sorry Church history that let us know that a certain pope, Gregory by name, in the 6th century, took it upon himself to, “throw,” for lack of a better word, all the “Mary’s” mentioned in Scripture, except for Jesus’ mother into a composite that reflected one character trait, and one trait alone—that of “a sinful woman,” –a prostitute, and we know that women who are prostitutes do that all by themselves! Right?! But more so, that naming of the “Mary’s” incorrectly is the greater sin as it took from them their integrity, their honor, and any reason to take them, and by extension, any woman, seriously. And for us in present times, this is most important in making the case for women being ordained in our Church.
These celebrations then are meant to set the record straight! And we need to do this because the Church belongs to women as well as men and because women have gifts to give our Church in the unique way that women do this, that our Church so badly needs today. And believe it or not, men in our Church would be so much better because of it too—when truth is told, all is better, no matter which issue we are discussing! This is why I always open up my homilies to all of you because the Spirit of our brother Jesus speaks to your hearts, as to mine, when the Scriptures are proclaimed and we are all better, when all the voices are heard.
Recently, I came upon some new, exciting exegesis—study of ancient texts concerning our “Mary of Magdala” that I wanted to share today. I learned this “news” to me, through a friend who shared a 40-minute talk given by Christian author, Diane Butler Bass, who has several books to her credit, Freeing Jesus, Christianity after Religion, Christianity for the Rest of Us, and more. I won’t share all that she said in this talk, but if you are interested in hearing it in its entirety; I would be happy to share it with you.
But for today—just the highlights: 1) It seems that in early maps in the time of Jesus, a town or city of “Magdala” cannot be located—the place that our “Mary” is said to be from. 2) New study done in the last several years (2017) by Elizabeth Schrader, then a master’s candidate in New Testament, studying the Greek, Aramaic, and Coptic languages, made a most interesting discovery! She felt called to “know” more about Mary of Magdala and that was why she pursued the Masters in New Testament degree.
In her study, she received access to the earliest texts available and in one such text, Papyrus 66, from approximately 200 A.D., she discovered evidence that in the gospel of John, chapter 11, in the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, that “Martha” may have been an addition to the story. A similar story from the gospel of Luke, chapter 10: 38-42 was used recently for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Now, all of us assume that the two stories are the same and about, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Evidence now shows that this is not the case and here is why.
The first line from the Luke selection says it all: “Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him to her home.” Now, what should have jumped out for all of us was the fact that Martha would not have had a home as women did not own property if they had a father, brother or husband. The reading goes on— “she had a sister named Mary.” No mention is made of a brother Lazarus in this selection.
Let’s go back to Chapter 11 of the gospel of John. What Elizabeth Schrader discovered in the earliest text of John, Papyrus 66, is that it had been changed by someone in the 4th Century. “Mary” in the Greek appears like “Maria” in English. The “i” in Maria is the Greek letter, “iota.” Upon close inspection, as Elizabeth zoomed in on the text, she discovered that the “i” was changed to “th” or “theda” in the Greek, giving us “Martha” instead of “Mary.” Thus, this text was changed from Lazarus having one sister, “Mary,” to two sisters, Mary, and Martha. Why was this done?
Elizabeth Schrader makes the case that this was a way to solve an early Church “problem” of leadership—was it Peter or Mary, or perhaps both, who were called by Jesus to lead? Think what this would mean if the men involved had recognized, as did Jesus, Mary’s ability to lead! Just as Pope Gregory had found it advantageous to “throw” all the Mary’s into a composite that was “unflattering,” basically, silencing them, and their valuable work in the Church, someone in the 4th Century tried to do the same.
Further study by Elizabeth Schrader demonstrated clearly that the John text, in its earliest form had Lazarus having one sister, Mary and that she, and not Martha was the one who proclaimed that, “Jesus was the Christ, come into the world” –a text similar to the account in the gospel of Matthew where Peter proclaims the same belief. You will recall that Jesus then called Peter, “the Rock.”
Even Tertullian, Church father from the 2nd century, labeled by Diane Butler Bass as one of the most misogynist of his time, stated that Lazarus had one sister and that was, Mary. So what are we to make of this?
We get some help if we go back to our key figure of today’s celebration, “Mary of Magdala.” Earlier I stated that at the time of Jesus, there was no town or city of “Magdala.” So why do we assume that the two words written together mean that “Magdala” was where our Mary was from?
The women wanting to understand this have dug deeper and found that, “magdala” in the Greek, rather than a “place” was in fact, “a title.” In the Greek, “magdala” means, “tower,” thus, Mary the Tower, and she was most likely given this title, it is thought, because of her faith— “her tower of faith.” It would seem that our celebration going forward will need a new name!
It is thought then by many trying to unearth the truth, a few things: 1) The Luke story and the John story are about two different groups of people—John’s story is about Lazarus and his sister Mary who proclaims just like Peter in the gospel of Matthew that, “Jesus is the Christ.” 2) It is thought that this “Mary” is the Mary we celebrate today—not Mary from Magdala, but Mary, the Tower (of faith) by which we can all stand! 3) It is this same Mary, formerly “Mary of Magdala,” now reclaimed as “Mary the Tower of Faith,” who was faithful to the end, at the cross, and who was the first to witness the Resurrection, and proclaim it to the men.
Now, I think you can see that if Mary was lifted up as a “Tower of Faith” –given this title because of her actions following Jesus, this will be a problem for the men in the years after Jesus lived who wanted to control the narrative and uplift Peter’s confession over Mary’s –which again, we must remember, was the same!
And uplifting Peter and downplaying Mary was accomplished by blending the John and Luke texts to be a nice story about one family, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and can more easily recede into history. If “Martha” confesses that Jesus is the Christ and Mary is seen as an impressionable, starry-eyed, young woman who merely sits at Jesus’ feet, we cannot easily “connect the dots” to see Mary instead as a strong, prophetic, and courageous woman who assisted Jesus throughout his ministry, followed him to the cross and witnessed the Resurrection. Nor can we clearly see Mary, or any woman called by our brother, Jesus, the Christ, as natural-born leaders, called to serve at our altars, because they too image God every bit as clearly as any man does!
Thinking about the changing of Scripture to accommodate men makes me believe even more firmly in Scripture scholar, Sandra Schneider’s statement that, “Scripture was written by men, about men and for men!”
Now if you are still skeptical about this news, I would want you to know that Elizabeth Schrader wrote her master’s dissertation on her research of the true Mary, and it was picked up by Harvard Divinity School and a professional article followed. Additionally, Nestle Aland Theology Group in Germany, known for being very “stuffy” read Schrader’s work and simply said, “We might need to change something here.”
So, there you have it friends, you know what I know, and I would simply conclude by sharing Diane Butler Bass’ reaction to her friend, Elizabeth Schrader’s research when she first shared it with her over coffee at Starbucks. Diane said that she knew instinctively, upon hearing her friend’s words, that she was hearing the truth!” And she cried for having had this knowledge kept from her and all women so long. And this was the same reaction of many women when they first saw a woman presiding at the altar—I know it was mine because instinctively, we all knew it was right and true.
And friends, I too believe this new exegesis to be so, whether the Scripture texts are ever changed or not, as it has been my experience and that of many other women called to ordination within our Church that our God, shown so beautifully to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, one who was constantly turning things on their heads, had no problem seeing women as the image of the divine, nor should we!
Finally, think what our Church could be if, rather than, “built on Peter the Rock,” which seems to be more about him and others following him, doing their bidding, it was built upon, Mary, the Tower of Faith and all, each of us standing with her. Amen? Amen!