Witnesses to a World-Transforming Event

There's Something About Mary, part 1

There’s Something About Mary – which was the title of a 1998 Ben Stiller movie that has nothing that all to do with what I’m talking about. There was another movie, and book, The Da Vinci Code, which does relate because it plays on the fascination with Mary Magdalene and the possibility that she may have had a child with Jesus. We have no evidence of a child – though, of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: there might have been one. We do have texts that refer to Magdalene as the woman Jesus loved best among women – whatever that might mean.

Whatever happened at the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, Mary Magdelene is at the center of it. She was there at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary, as Jesus’s life ebbed away. She was there at the discovery of the empty tomb. Jesus appears to her, and it is she who then tells the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” With those words, the Christian religion begins.

The Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning: Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four. She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back. In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

In all four gospels, women were the first to find the tomb empty and were the only witnesses who had seen Jesus placed there and could vouch that the empty tomb really was the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid a day-and-a-half before. In two of the Gospels, women were the first to see the risen Lord.

In Jewish Palestine of the time, women’s testimony was widely regarded as unreliable and untrustworthy. Women were not eligible to be witnesses in court. They “were thought by men to be gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.” In that world – and, to an unfortunate extent, persisting still today -- men’s dominant power enabled the delusion that men alone occupied the rational domain while women belonged to the more suspect emotional end of the spectrum of human response. Given those attitudes about women, why would the gospels give such a prominent role to women? Why would anyone make up a story based on such low-credibility witnesses?

According to the story, women were the first, and in some cases only, witnesses to key aspects of the death and resurrection narrative. But that's in flagrant violation of the norms of credible story-telling. So it's probably true that women really were were the ones who discovered the empty tomb, and told the others about it. If that part were made up, it would have been made up with men being the main actors and witnesses. By the time the Gospels shifted from an oral to a written form, some one to two generations after Jesus’ death, that story had been so widely retold that it had a staying power that the prejudices of later writers could not overcome.

The Christian tradition, at its inception, took the patriarchal religious priority given to men in God’s dealings with the world and turned those assumptions on their head. By giving women priority, the story confronts and challenges cultural assumptions. “In these stories women are given priority by God as recipients of revelation and thereby the role of mediators of that revelation to men” (Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women, 2002, 275). By reversing the normally expected priority of one gender over another the gospel cancels out gender privilege in the new order heralded and constituted by the resurrection – a kin-dom of God in which, as Jesus had said, “the last shall be made first and the first last.”

Because we see women central to the creation and dissemination of the message, we understand that everyone is included in the hope of the message. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene tells the apostles that they have been commissioned by Jesus to spread the word of hope. She was the apostle to the apostles. The women become
“witnesses of the crucified and risen one...through the deeply disturbing encounter with the numinous that transforms their faithfulness into something more than their accepted role: the vocation to be witnesses of a world-transforming event.” (Bauckham 293)
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This is part 1 of 3 of "There Something About Mary"
See also
Part 2: Her Gospel
Part 3: Our Commission of Compassion

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