The Fallible Gospels, Part 48: The development of resurrection stories: the witness of Mary Magdalene: the Gospel of Mary
We need to consider what real people were doing in real situations. We have to appreciate that we can think of resurrection stories as having three basic purposes and three layers of development.
The third and final layer of development would be stories of encounters with an actual physical Jesus. This would be related to two of the purposes of these stories, to convert people, and to “prove”, to potential converts and also to critics, that you were emphatically “telling the truth” — yes, he is alive, I touched him, he was real I tell you, he ate fish with us. This story, of the risen Jesus eating broiled fish, ended up in the Gospel of Luke at 24.41–43.
Paul, who regarded the resurrection appearances as visions sent from heaven, would probably have considered the suggestion of eating with the spiritually exalted Jesus as absurd or even blasphemous. If he had not taken himself so seriously he might have found it comical. It is like authenticating the experience of a ghost sighting in an allegedly haunted house by insisting that you dragged the ghost out to the nearest McDonalds, where before your very eyes it consumed French fries and a large Coke.
Before that, the second level of development would arise from the idea that there was no body; that in a more subtle sense, Jesus has risen, meaning he has gone to God, back where he came from, not that his formerly dead body is walking around again. This idea of “no body” became an “empty tomb” story. Look at all of the following passages with a fresh mind: in themselves they have no necessity for a resurrected Jesus in a physical sense.
“Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free. And this is not all: two whole days have gone by since it all happened; and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they did not find the body, they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing.” (Luke 24.21–23)
“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would.” (Matthew 28.6)
“So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.” (John 20.18)
The Gospel of Peter also specifically mentions “Mary of Magdala, a disciple of the Lord” wanting to go to the tomb to perform the customary rites of mourning. She takes her (unnamed) friends with her, and finds an open tomb and a handsome young man who says:
“Why have you come? Who are you looking for? Surely not the one who was crucified? He is risen and gone…” (Peter 13.2)
The first level of development, then, was the original impetus for these claims: an experience of Mary Magdalene. Much has been made of women being the first “witnesses”. It has been claimed that this must be historically authentic, because a church that originally came out of Judaism would not have invented stories relying on the testimony of women; as we have noted, women were not allowed to give evidence in Jewish courts of law, as their evidence was regarded as worth nothing.
I imagine this is right: the early male leaders in the Church would have preferred it otherwise. But the story is there just because they had no choice. It was too well established too quickly for them to deny it completely. However, as we shall see, this did not prevent them rewriting it, because of the third purpose of resurrection stories: which was, to establish authority and leadership among early Christian groups.
Let us look at what I suspect is an extremely important piece of evidence. This is the Gospel of Mary, the existence of which is not even known to most Christians. We do not have a complete copy of this Gospel. We have only two fragmentary manuscripts in Greek, dating from the third century, and a longer fifth-century copy translated into Coptic. We might have only about half of the total text.
Despite how late these manuscripts sound, and despite the time this allows for imaginative and theological development, it seems to me extremely likely that the original historical core of this document goes back a long way and is of great significance for understanding the origin of the resurrection stories:
“But they were distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to preach the good news about the kingdom of the son of man?’ they said. ‘If they didn’t spare him, how will they spare us?’
Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all and addressed her brothers. ‘Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has joined us together and made us true human beings.’
When Mary said these things, she turned their minds toward the Good, and they began to ask about the words of the Saviour. Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Saviour that you know, but which we haven’t heard.’
Mary responded, ‘I will report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know.’ And she began to speak these words to them. She said, ‘I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, “Lord, I saw you today in a vision.” He said to me, “Congratulations to you for not wavering at seeing me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.” I said to him, “Lord, how does a person who sees a vision see it — with the soul or with the spirit?” The Saviour answered, “The [visionary] does not see with the soul or with the spirit, but with the mind which exists between these two…”
…Andrew said, ‘Brothers, what is your opinion of what was just said? I for one don’t believe that the Saviour said these things, because these opinions seem to be so different from his thought.’
After reflecting on these matters, Peter said, ‘Has the Saviour spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not (wish to indicate) that she is more worthy than we are?’
Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Saviour?’
Levi said to Peter, ‘Peter, you have a constant inclination to anger and you are always ready to give way to it. And even now you are doing exactly that by questioning the woman as if you’re her adversary. If the Saviour considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he knew her completely and loved her devotedly. Instead, we should be ashamed and, once we clothe ourselves with perfect humanity, we should do what we were commanded. We should announce the good news as the Saviour ordered, and not be laying down any rules or making laws.’
After he said these things, Levi left and began to announce the good news.”
(Gospel of Mary, 5.1–7.6, 10.1–14)
Think about what we have here. Mary, despite being a woman is clearly a figure of authority. This is consistent with what Jesus would have accepted, but not something the early Church of the next few centuries would have been comfortable with. Mary sees the Lord in a vision: not at a tomb, or in a garden, or on a road or eating fish. She sees Jesus in what was either a dream or some kind of subjective religious experience.
Peter and Andrew are jealous, and male chauvinists, and they turn on her. By the time they get their act together, Levi has already been out spreading the word. The appearance of Jesus to Mary has now been told to the other “Christians” — there aren’t many of them yet, and they aren’t even called that yet — and the “tradition” has been established.
It is so depressingly realistic, to imagine the terrible misery caused by the death of their Master being gradually replaced by the oh-so-human pantomime of bickering and power struggles. “I think we should do this.” “But that is not what Jesus would have wanted.” “Who said you were in charge?” “Jesus told me special things.” “He told me special things too.” “No, he didn’t.” “Yes, he did.” “But you’re only a woman.”
Next, in Part 49: Rivals establishing authority in early Christianity