The vulnerability of the Word
The editing of Mary Magdalene & the God who isn’t done with us
We expect that the Bible will continue to have new things to teach us. It might be surprising, however, for many of the faithful to discover that what we think is in the Bible isn’t always right. Biblical scholars are constantly studying the earliest available manuscripts we have of the various parts of Scripture, looking for clues about what was originally written, and what — over the course of translation and hundreds of years of copying those Biblical texts by hand — got distorted or changed in the process.
It would be hard to identify anyone’s scholarship in challenging our Biblical perceptions more than Elizabeth Schrader. Through a compelling journey of prayer and curiosity, Schrader discovered a visible editing of the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel, particularly in the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). As we are familiar with it, the Bible tells us that Lazarus had two sisters — Mary and Martha — and that it was Martha who, at the grave of her brother, proclaimed the truth of Jesus’ identity: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Schrader’s discovery, however, suggests the strong possibility that Martha was an addition to the Lazarus story. Early patristic writings support the view that Mary was the sole sister to Lazarus, as well as identifying Mary of Bethany as Mary Magdalene. The odd editorial activity around Martha in several important early copies contribute to a picture of Mary Magdalene as the one to make the Christological confession at her brother’s grave regarding the identity of Jesus, the one to anoint Jesus prior to his burial, and the first to see him rise from the dead.
Based on her study of the manuscripts, along with tradition and non-canonical writings, Schrader hypothesizes that Martha was added into the story in order to distract the reader from seeing clearly that Lazarus’ sister was actually Mary Magdalene. It was not just Peter and a few other favoured male disciples at the centre of Jesus’ group of disciples. It was also the one called Magdalene, which means “the Tower.”
Schrader’s research is exciting, reminding us that our faith is alive and mysterious. But what I find most compelling about Schrader’s work is how she frames it theologically. In the podcast “In Search of Truth,” Schrader observes that John’s Gospel reveals to us the “vulnerability of the Word.” The narratives of Matthew and Luke draw our attention to the small, fragile nature of God’s Incarnation in the birth of a peasant baby to a mother who, but for the mercy of a man who didn’t impregnate her, would have been stoned to death for adultery. John’s Gospel complements these birth narratives by speaking of the Incarnation as a simple utterance. That utterance is unheard by many and a threat to some. And while John reassures us of the eventual triumph of God’s Word — that this is a light that can’t and won’t be extinguished — it is also clear that this triumph must take a circuitous path, revealing as it goes all of the many ways that human beings will put on our blinders and refuse, or be unable, to see. It is also clear that the Word of God ultimately seeks partnership with a whole raft of different, often disreputable, and sometimes downright disappointing, sorts of people to amplify and spread that utterance.
This theological insight is remarkably descriptive of life in the church. I don’t always like the implications of what she is saying, but it might just be true enough to provide a moral framework for staying in an institution that can get it so very wrong.
On the downside, we should not be surprised in our faith communities that we are governed and companioned by people who frustrate and confound us. The heartbreaking and sometimes horrifying ways that the church has subscribed to every version of racism, misogyny and abusive behaviour is part and parcel of this vulnerability for which God willingly signed up. The editing of John arguably reveals a misogynistic impulse by the men of the church threatened and disturbed by the power of a woman leader. The church has been entrusted to the worse sorts of insecure, broken and blind sinners ever since. There is an immorality that runs as a raw, gaping wound throughout our history, and it is understandable that there would be those who would choose to jump ship and navigate their relationship with God in a different way.
And at the same time, God isn’t finished with us yet. This means that while we might understand the reasons for the church’s more rancid witness, we don’t have to embrace or condone them. We can look, hope and act for better.
Even Scripture is no golden calf, frozen in time and cast into its final and permanent shape. It is a living document, and the both gentle and fierce breath of God keeps blowing through it to speak to us in ways that we haven’t yet been able to hear.
Schrader speaks not just of vulnerability, but also of healing. We are living in a moment where God is actively “healing” the church’s witness. Mary Magdalene was a woman who was at the centre of Jesus’ circle and who was ultimately considered too dangerous to be fully seen. The church has been quick to misrepresent her as a prostitute, and popular Christian culture has, for centuries, diminished her as a romantic temptress to Jesus or a woman hopelessly besotted with a Saviour not available for that kind of love.
Mary Magdalene’s witness as a central leader in the group of disciples would be preserved by God in these earliest manuscripts, eventually to shine in the darkness. And although the faithful have been eager to reduce her to the female tropes with which patriarchy is most comfortable, perhaps ultimately what these impulses reveal is the feeble vision of the church—and the truth about the Magdalene is only just at the beginning of its power to bless us. Mary’s story, both in Scripture and in the millennia beyond, stands as an encouragement to keep seeking and choosing a faith that boldly and courageously challenges cultural and institutional norms, assured that in God’s faithfulness, those little glimmers of light will ultimately not be extinguished.
I don’t like being part of a church that I feel has been so unable to support the witness of women. But I am grateful that God has stuck it out with us, to invite us now to see and be changed. I am also grateful that God sticks it out with me through my various missteps and willful blind spots. I may rail against a church that can be so disappointing. But I am both liberated and empowered by God’s vulnerability and persistence. God’s vulnerability commissions me to hope that I, too, could add my own feeble voice in witnessing to the light as I see it shining in all of our lives. God’s persistence promises that when I (or we) don’t yet see, the story isn’t yet done.