Mary Magdalene, Toweress of the Faith

March 26, 2023

I bring you Breaking News from the world of Biblical criticism. When I say “breaking news,” I mean news that’s recent—first published in 2017. When one looks back over nearly 2000 years, a new insight that’s only six years old amounts to breaking news. 

The word “criticism” is not to be taken . . . in the negative sense of attempting to denigrate the Bible . . . .  Biblical criticism refers to the scholarly approach of studying, evaluating and critically assessing the Bible . . . in order to understand it better.[1]

Elizabeth Schrader was a student at the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary in New York City when she wrote her Master’s degree thesis entitled “Was Martha of Bethany added to the Fourth Gospel in the Second Century?” It was published in the Harvard Theological Review in 2017.[2]

Without going too deeply into the weeds of critical research, suffice it to say that there are hundreds of ancient copies of the Gospel of John that contain the text of today’s Gospel, chapter 11, concerning the death and resurrection of Lazarus—which is seen as a precursor, with many parallels, to the death and resurrection of Jesus that supposedly took place just a week or so later. The story is centered on the town of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, and the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary.[3]

What Elizabeth Schrader noticed, and which has shaken the world of Johannine studies, is that in the earliest copy of this text, Papyrus 66, dated from about the year 200 of the Christian Era, and discovered in Egypt in 1956, Martha is not in the original text, but she was added by another hand as a “correction”. There’s only one sister to Lazarus and that is Mary. 

There are two other very early copies of John—one of which was later “corrected” and the other “uncorrected”—that also have only Mary in the original. So Chapter 11, verses 1-5, reads in those texts:

1 There was a certain sick man, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary his sister.

2 Now this was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.

3 Therefore Mary sent to him, saying, “Lord, behold, the one you love is sick.”

4 But when Jesus heard he said to her, “The sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son may be glorified through it.”

5 Now Jesus loved Lazarus and his sister.[4]

In the verses that follow, Martha is left out entirely in the uncorrected versions, and so it’s Mary, not Martha, who is involved in the dialogue beginning in verse 23:

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 

24 Mary said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 

26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

In addition to this textual evidence, St. Jerome (342-420), who wrote the first Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate; St. Tertullian (155-220); and Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) didn’t know about Martha in John’s Gospel. And in the earliest Christian art depicting the Raising of Lazarus, there is only one sister in the scenes.

So, you might ask, what difference does it make that Martha might not have been a sister of Lazarus and only Mary is in the original story? 

The answer is that this Mary may well be Mary Magdalene: both are women, both named Mary, both cry at the tomb of a loved one, both present at a resurrection. There has been debate almost from the beginning of Christian history about “Magalene’—was it a place where Mary was from? Or was it a title, meaning “Tower”? There are no known places called Magdalene from the time of Jesus. 

In John, Chapter 12, Mary of Bethany, “took a pound of costly perfume . . . , anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” (12:3)  When Judas complained about the waste of money, “Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’” (12:7)

In this same Gospel, Mary Magdalene is at the foot of the cross, she is the only person to arrive at the empty tomb to anoint the body of Jesus as he predicted of Mary of Bethany, she is the first to see and talk with the risen Lord, she is the first given the command to go and preach the Gospel, she is the first Apostle (meaning one who is sent). Mary of Bethany could well be Mary Magdalene whose name may mean, “Mary the Toweress” or “Mary, the Tower of Faith.” 

There is only one other person in the Gospels who makes the Christological affirmation: “You are the Christ,” and that’s Peter in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In some of the non-canonical gospels—Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament—Mary Magdalene has a much larger role where she, the Toweress, along with Peter, the Rock, was considered a leader of the Apostles. 

Was this tinkering with the text a way of diminishing her by splitting her into three different women (Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene)? Was it a way, therefore, of reducing the importance and authority of women in the church as it evolved? Was it misogyny at work? In fact, in 591 C.E., Pope Gregory the Great, in a series of sermons on Mary Magdalene claimed that she was a prostitute—thereby relegating her to a lowly status for the next 1400 years.

The motives of those who changed the text may never be known, and subsequent manuscripts copied from those originals have included the “corrections” that added Martha. So it must be emphasized that at this point this is only a theory.

But the other observation that Elizabeth Schrader points out is how well this theory fits with John’s theology. Verse 11:4 reads: “The illness is not unto death, but it is for the glory of God in order to glorify the Son through it.” On a surface level, the illness is Lazarus’ sickness. But on a deeper level, could it be that the illness is in the text? Was it possible that Jesus called it from the start by predicting the text’s own corruption? 

In his first chapter John wrote: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it.” Maybe for this gospel to be accepted into the New Testament, the prominent role of a woman had to be downplayed—Mary’s authority may have been too much. 

We always say that the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, are living texts. They change over time revealing new truth in new ages. Jesus says as much in his final address to his disciples before the crucifixion. 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak what he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (16:12-14)

The text may have had to be vulnerable, wounded, because, before recently, it could not have been comprehended. God waits for us, but perhaps the time has arrived that we can receive the truth about the authority of women and the glory of God can be revealed.

Let me conclude as Elizabeth Schrader does in her scholarly research, with these words from Isaiah 55.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1], accessed on March 25, 2023, 10:27 am

[2] Accessed on March 25, 2023, 3:59 pm

[3] Here’s the text of John 11:1-5 as it currently exists in the New Revised Standard Version:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. . .

[4] Note from Elizabeth Schrader: “This reconstruction comes from readings in Codex Alexandrinus before correction (John 11:1-2), Papyrus 66 before correction (John 11:3-4), and Codex Colbertinus (John 11:5), which is uncorrected.”

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