The recent #metoo movement, along with young women entering Congress, has pointed to an important question. Why, in this 21st Century, are these achievements remarkable? Why has it taken so long for women to be recognized as capable for these positions? One possible reason is the Christian mythology around women. However, to recreate the way women are viewed, we must re-imagine the women who have been standard-bearers for two thousand years.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
This title comes with an image created in Luke’s Gospel: a young woman, robes bordered in gold, sits in a roses-strewn, arched doorway, head bowed and hands folded at her breast. The Angel Gabriel stands in front of her. It’s a beautiful image and one many Christians treasure.
After the Annunciation, Mary sets out on a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Imagine: a sweet, submissive, newly-pregnant virgin tramps across the hills from Galilee to Judah, sixty to seventy miles, through country containing wild animals, rebels, and robbers. Three months later, she tramps back across the same hostile territory. At nine months pregnant, she rides a donkey to Bethlehem where she gives birth.
We have held onto the myth of a perpetual blue-eyed, blond hair virgin while the real Mary was a Jewish country woman, robust, dark-haired and dark-eyed, who saw the cycle of life and death.
Scholars agree the Gospel of Luke was written by a second or third-generation Christian who probably did not personally know any of the first disciples.
“The Gospel [of Luke] attempts to meet various needs, such as instructing and edifying women converts, appeasing the detractors of Christianity, and controlling women who practice or aspire to practice a prophetic ministry in the church.” Jane Schaberg, author of The Illegitimacy of Jesus
The name “Mary Magdalene” evokes a very particular kind of image: red-haired, voluptuous, the repentant prostitute.
All four gospels have an account of a woman anointing Jesus with a costly ointment: Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12: 1-8. In Matthew and Mark, the woman brings an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment and pours it on the head of Jesus; in John’s Gospel, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, “took a liter of costly perfumed oil…and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair.” Only Luke describes the woman as a “sinner.”
How then, and even why, did the account evolve from a woman anointing Jesus’ head to one of a repentant prostitute named Mary Magdalene wiping his feet with her hair? Who would benefit from such a story?
Mary Magdalene, scholars now say, was probably a cherished disciple of Jesus. From the information on early Christianity gleaned from the fragments of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, she was likely vocal, smart, and a leader in the early community. We know she followed Jesus from town to town, along with “the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” She was also a woman of resources and helped bankroll the ministry of Jesus, says Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School. “Women paid his bills,” Levine writes. If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a poor prostitute, where did she get her money, and why do we have this consummate image of Mary Magdalene, repentant prostitute, washing the feet of Jesus with her hair?
We have that image because Pope Gregory VIII, at the end of the 6th Century, wrote a sermon connecting Chapter 7’s woman with the alabaster jar, a woman called a “sinner,” with the woman Mary Magdalene at the beginning of Chapter 8. Gregory’s sermon effectively revised history. His view held sway for fourteen hundred years and gave artists a rich palette of feminine imagery in contrast to the virginal mother. The Vatican did not rescind that view until 1969. In the intervening centuries, the image of a woman repentant and humble before the Lord became an overriding symbol for the way women ought to act. A woman, in the image of Eve, was the original sinner; now, before the Lord, she was given the chance to be humbly saved.
Mary of Bethany
The most common image of the third Mary and her sister Martha also comes from Luke: Martha, busy with cooking and serving, complains about her sister Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus, listening. Mary does not enter into dialogue, rather she is a passive audience.
Jesus’ reply to Martha is the kindly voice of patriarchy: “Martha, Martha…” in the same way men today might say, “Now, now, dear.” This language reverberates throughout our modern society, patting a woman on the head as one would a loyal dog, not understanding why a woman might feel offended.
Protecting the rights of the patriarchy is a political birthright of Western Culture, and like every birthright, survives past all reasonable divestiture.
The writer of the Gospel of John shows women as active rather than passive actors in the ministry of Jesus when Jesus returns to Bethany and the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Mary takes “a litre of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard,” anoints the feet of Jesus, and dries them with her hair. This woman who anoints the feet of Jesus is neither a prostitute nor a sinful woman, but rather a leader in the community.
These three women’s stories illustrate the political stress placed on early Christianity, while the Roman Empire, followed by Western Civilization’s art and culture, continued to keep women subservient.
Today’s political stresses demand re-imaging women’s roles in early Christianity in order to change the way women are defined. In a world demanding new voices seeking peace, this new woman must be encouraged to speak out – for justice, for an end to discrimination against all peoples, and for an end to all oppression.
It is only by re-imaging what was that we will evolve into what we must become.
Janet Sunderland holds a BFA from Kansas State University, an MA from St. John’s College, and an M.Div. from Sophia Divinity School. She is an ordained priest, the author of published essays and poetry, including the collection, At the Boundary, and serves on the Board of Whispering Prairie Press as Senior Editor. She teaches writing and behavioral workshops, is an experienced speaker and a professional actor/member of SAG/AFTRA. https://www.janetsunderland.com