Archive for December 2014
Sometimes I think my penchant for writing on religious topics stems from my basic irreverence for anything having to do with establishment-type dogma; other times I think it’s a reaction to having been raised Roman Catholic and doing time as an altar boy (more for the perquisites than any deep-seated religious fervor). Still other times I think, being a rational person, I just can’t get my head around what, for me, is an irrational hypothesis. For whatever reason, religion has become my “go-to” topic when I’m stuck for something to write about (and let’s face it, there always something to write about when it comes to religion). Besides, it’s December. Christmas (Saturnalia, Yule, Kwanzaa . . .Festivus?) is coming, so why not write about religion?
In this post I want to talk about Mary Magdalene and, to a lesser degree, her relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. I know what you’re thinking, “He’s not going to rehash the ‘Da Vinci Code, wife of Jesus” thing, is he?” While I may not be able to stop you from making that particular mental connection, the answer to your unasked question is, “No, I’m not. At least not directly.”
What we know of Mary of Magdala comes by way of scriptural accounts. She is described, in the Gospel of Luke (Ch. 8; v 1-3), as one of many women who followed Jesus and the twelve “and ministered unto him from their sustenance (resources)”. She was an early convert, having been exorcised of seven demons early in Jesus’ ministry. As we learn in Luke, Mary, also called Magdalene, was not Jesus’ only sponsor, but she was the most constant. She stayed with him throughout his ministry, until the end. She is identified as one of three women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, along with Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary’s sister. And she was the first to discover his empty tomb. All of this we know from the canonical sources. But there are other sources which shed still more light on the figure of the Magdalene. From the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, one of a number of scrolls uncovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, we have a description of Mary of Magdala as “the one Jesus loved more than all the others, and he used to kiss her on the . . .” (the last part was too corrupted to read).
There can be little doubt Mary of Magdala shared some degree of intimacy with Jesus. There is no evidence their relationship was sexual in nature (and I’m not going to speculate). Whatever their relationship, it resulted in the Magdalene becoming Jesus’ most accomplished disciple, able to comprehend even the most obscure of Jesus’ teachings, and to go “toe-to-toe” with Peter, the pre-eminent apostle, on the finer points of Jesus’ teaching.
It would be no great stretch to imagine Jesus being attracted to the Magdalene. He would have been 27 or 28 years old at this stage of his ministry; a prime age for a man to be thinking of taking a wife and starting a family. Living in close proximity on a daily, or near daily, basis, having shared interests and common goals are attributes all men look for in a prospective mate. Mary of Magdala would seem the perfect choice.
Let us assume Jesus was, indeed, attracted to the Magdalene and, wanting to have her as his wife, proposes marriage. But the Magdalene saw no need of a husband. She was prosperous in her own right and was not willing to submit to a husband’s will as was required by Jewish law. And so she refuses Jesus’ proposal of marriage.
There would have been other reasons to reject a proposal of marriage. A marriage could damage Jesus’ ministry. Mary was already feeling the first twinges of jealousy from some of the apostles, most notably Peter. Some of them were convinced Jesus’ was the Messiah of prophecy; others, like Thomas, were not so certain. If she should be elevated to the status of Jesus’ wife, it could weaken their faith and splinter the group. And what of the authorities?
King Herod was already curious about the preacher some called, “the Baptist reborn”. It would not be long before he set his dogs to the chase. She could not bear to see her husband languishing in Macherus. And the Romans, what of them? If they were to decide Jesus posed a threat, there would be nowhere he could flee that would be beyond their reach; and as his wife, she would have to flee as well and his ministry would come to an end.
I think — no, I believe — the Magdalene felt a deep kinship, perhaps even love, with Jesus of Nazareth (whether for the man or his ministry, I cannot tell), but for all the above stated reasons and for others, no less valid for being unsaid, I believe Mary of Magdala, also called the Magdalene, would have declined Jesus’ offer of marriage.
Does this make her a feminist? Or a realist? Perhaps. I’ll let the reader(s) decide for themselves.
There is currently an ongoing debate, in and out of religious circles, as to whether or not Jesus was a conservative or liberal. Actually, the debate has been ongoing since shortly after his execution, when the first oral versions of the gospel stories began circulating. Relax. I’m not going to rehash the entire debate here. What I’m going to do is comment on the two most recent entries into the debate; one by Frank Schaefer entitled, “Conservative Christians would have hated Jesus”, which appeared originally in AlterNet (and reprinted in Salon) and one by Trent Horn entitled, “Jesus is not the property of Liberal Commentators”, which appeared in Catholic Answers. (Both of these articles have been posted on Facebook and you can, if you wish, read them at your leisure).
While both commentators present ample examples from scripture to support their particular point-of-view, neither of them seem to grasp the crux of their disagreement. Why must Jesus be all this or all that? It seems to me Mr. Horn and Mr. Schaefer are determined to “deconstruct” Jesus and, from the remains, reassemble him into two different (and opposite) men, each one capable of representing their conflicting perspectives. The problem with this approach is, it doesn’t work like that. I doubt, in spite of how they present themselves (and their arguments), neither Mr. Horn nor Mr. Schaefer is totally liberal or totally conservative in every single aspect of their lives. Neither was Jesus. Neither are any of us. (If you are, you need to stop watching Fox News).
In any event, that’s not the main reason I was incited to write this post. What prompted my keyboard was something Mr. Horn wrote in his response to Mr. Schaefer. He wrote:
“The only way we can know anything about Jesus or what he wants us to do is by reading the Scripture God gave us and listening to the teachings of the Church Christ founded.”
There are two things that irritate me about the above statement; one is minor, the other not so much.
I get really peeved when people use the word, “Christ”, as if it were Jesus’ last name. It’s not. Jesus’ full name was Jesus ben Joseph (or Yeshua ben Yosef, if you prefer). Christ ,”cristos” in Greek, means “anointed”, an appellation bestowed on the “messiah” by the High Priest and was bestowed on every king of Israel as a sign of his legitimacy, a sign that he was chosen by God to lead the people.
The other point of contention I have with Mr. Horn’s statement has to do with Jesus founding a church. He didn’t. The idea of a church, Christian or otherwise, was as foreign to Jesus as monotheism was to a Roman. Jesus was a Jew preaching to Jews, and only Jews. The truth is, Jesus was more than a little xenophobic when it came to preaching. When he sent his disciples out to preach the coming of the kingdom of God, he purposely told them, “. . .Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But rather go to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” (Matthew, Chap. 10; v. 5,6). Kind of strange, considering how Jews have been treated by “Christians” ever since.
What became the Roman Catholic Church was founded by another Jew, Saul of Tarsus (later to be known as “Paul” of Tarsus. Given his early reputation as a persecutor of Christians – for heresy, no doubt – it’s not surprising he changed his name). Until Paul came on the scene, “those who followed the Christ” were a small Jewish sect presided over by James, the brother of Jesus, and Simon Peter, Jesus’ foremost apostle. After his “conversion”, Paul approached James and Simon Peter with the idea of preaching the “word of Jesus” to the Gentiles. James and Simon Peter agreed the idea had merit, but there were certain conditions that had to be met; namely, that prospective converts had to convert to Judaism before joining the sect. There were other conditions, as well, but, suffice it to say, the three men disagreed and Paul left Jerusalem intent on spreading the word of Jesus to anyone who would listen. There’s a lot more to the story, but Paul has enough to answer for, so I won’t dump a lot more on his plate.
Anyway, that’s how the Church was begun. Now I realize Mr. Horn, a convert to Catholicism and a conservative commentator writing in a Catholic publication, has to tow the “company line”, but there’s a limit (or there should be).
I realize, in today’s climate of conservative ascendancy, with right-wing “Christian” conservatives and TeaParty wingnuts leading the charge, it’s necessary to present one’s religion as non-threatening as possible. After all the gospel writers did the same thing to escape persecution by the Romans. But lately all this “Jesus was a Conservative” talk has begun to sound as though Mr. Horn and his conservative co-commentators are apologizing for Pope Francis’ recent decidedly non-conservative behavior.