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The Women in Jesus’ Life #3.

By Rev. Bob Thompson


John 11: 17-27


The way Kim read the lesson this morning, from John 11: 17-27, is not the way you will find it in any Bible translation that you may have. And that is where we begin the story.


About eight to ten years ago, Libby Schrader was doing a dissertation for her master’s degree at General Theological College, the Episcopal seminary in New York City. Her dissertation was on Mary Magdalene, and her supervisor suggested she find something new to say about Mary Magdalene. Most of the oldest Biblical manuscripts that have long been kept locked up and difficult to study, in libraries all over the middle east and Europe, can now be accessed digitally, so Libby decided to begin her study online, in some of these old manuscripts, and that is where she found something startling.


She was reading a couple of Codexes on John’s Gospel, which were dated around 200 CE, and are the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel in Greek. In John 11, she read, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and his sister Mary.” Hey! Wait a minute! That isn’t what my Bible says. My Bible says, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” What was going on here? So, Libby started searching through other old manuscripts, and found that around 400 CE, someone had changed the text. In Greek, the word for Mary is Maria, and in that manuscript, someone had written the letter for ‘th’ over the letter for ‘i’, turning Mary into Martha. They had also changed the adjective from ‘his sister’ to ‘her sister’. So that, now Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha, and the interchange, which was our scripture lesson this morning, is with Martha, instead of Mary. After that change in the text in 400, both renditions existed for a while in various copies of the passage, but the version with Martha soon became the dominant one, even though it was not in the oldest manuscripts.


The last time I talked with you, I suggested that how we read the text depends on our experiences, and the questions we bring to the text as we read it. That is interesting here, because shortly before Libby made her discoveries, a biblical scholar, a man, had noted the same issues, but he didn’t pursue them. But Libby made it her obsession, and through the discoveries that she and several other scholars made, it becomes fairly certain that Lazarus had one sister, Mary. And it is also fairly certain that the sister is Mary Magdalene.


Which now creates another problem. We thought that Mary’s ‘Magdala’ was the name of the town she came from – Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. But this discovery of Libby’s says she came from Bethany! Recent studies suggest that Magdalene is not a place name – it is a title. Magdala in the Aramaic, means ‘tower’, and that her name is Mary the Tower. It is suggested that the name comes out of this passage which was our scripture lesson this morning, where Mary is the second one, alongside Peter, to confess Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. When Peter makes that confession in the three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus named Peter “the Rock”. Did he name Mary “the Tower”? 


Whatever took place, Mary was certainly at the centre of the kin-dom community at that time. She was amongst the women who were there to witness the Crucifixion. She was one of the women at the tomb on Easter morning – John’s story said she was the only woman who was there. She was the one who announced the resurrection to the disciples on Easter Sunday morning – and I’ll have more to say about that when I preside at the Easter service in March.           


And then Mary disappears. No more is made of her in the New Testament. So, what about those corrections made in the text in 400 BCE. Were they made by someone who found the original text confusing because there were two Marys present? Or were they made by someone, unhappy that Mary seemed to have the same stature in Jesus’ eyes as Peter had? We have no answers for those questions. We just don’t know.


Diana Butler Bass who I have quoted before, wonders “What does the Christianity of Mary the Tower look like?” I believe we already have some clues about that. These are not facts about the earliest kin-dom community – we don’t have hard facts so much as we have clues. And I can’t attribute these clues to Mary Magdalene’s leadership in the community. But in the Gospel of Philip, an early writing that didn’t make it into the canon, Mary Magdalene was called, “more than all other apostles, called Apostle to the Apostles”. Not to make too much of that, it still shows the esteem with which Mary was held.


I want to offer what I think are three clues into what that early kin-dom community might have been like. It was not like other communities that existed around it, and I believe that it showed a commitment to try and establish the kind of community that Jesus had encouraged. And I have to say that I think a lot of the history and theology we see in the New Testament books, chronicles the attempts – the successful attempts to re-establish the orthodox belief, the hierarchy and the patriarchy that was the standard in the communities around it. Those attempts became successful in 325, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and took on the attributes of the Imperial Religion. But let me offer those three clues about the early kin-dom community.


To my mind, the first clue comes from Adam’s November talk about the ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel, and the fact that in that story, the separation of the sheep from the goats was based on their ethical activities, and nothing else. Those who were invited into the kingdom received their blessing based on how they behaved, and not what they believed about Jesus. It makes sense to me, that that was a reality of the early community, because ‘orthodoxy’ based on belief had not yet developed, and we know there were many groups within the community, that held many different ideas about what to believe about Jesus. It was not a utopian community. There were many struggles between those many groups, and yet the community flourished.  It seems that what drew people to the community was – the community – and how people lived with each other in community!


The next clue is, that we know how women played a very prominent leadership role in the early community. Karen King, a Professor of the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard Divinity School points to much in Paul’s letters, that talk about the central role women played in the early church. She says it is natural, given that the early church had no buildings, and met in houses. In many of his letters, Paul sends greetings to the women of these houses, and I have to make a confession that, when I read these letters, I assumed that the women made their houses available for the meetings and made the coffee! But Dr. King points out that Paul greets these women as prominent Apostles, and fellow workers in the gospel.


That offers some other clues for me. John Dominic Crossan, a prominent New Testament scholar, has written about how the Roman Empire dealt with dissent or challenges to its authority. He said that if the challenge was a physical one – a group of terrorists or a group that tried to mount a rebellion, then the Romans would execute everyone in that group – men, women, and children. If the challenge was a spiritual, religious, or philosophical one, then they would execute the leaders, with the assumption that if the leadership was gone, the challenge would collapse. He goes on to say that that was what they tried to do with the kin-dom community – they killed off the leaders, like the disciples, but the movement didn’t collapse, and by the time they became aware of that, it was too large and too far-flung for them to destroy it. And why was that? I believe that it was because of the women — their leadership flourished, and in that hierarchical, paternalistic Roman society that I have mentioned before, the Romans overlooked the women, who they believed were not capable of such leadership.


And the final clue for me is that the early kin-dom community grew so quickly and spread so rapidly, because it was inclusive. Nothing of that sort had ever been experienced before. I recently read a book called “The Forgotten Creed”, by Stephen Patterson, a historian of religion specializing in the origins of Christianity. In it, Patterson talks about a statement by Paul in his letter to Galatians, which is dated about 55 CE, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified. Paul reminds the Galatians that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.”    Patterson notes, that Paul is talking to people who were already baptized, and he believes that Paul is reminding them of the vows that were made during their baptism. In other words, this is a baptism creed, already in use 20 years after Jesus died. It talks about an inclusion that would have been unimaginable in the Roman world. It talks about a community that would have been unheard of in the Roman world. Perhaps that is why the community grew so quickly and became so widespread. Is it possible to imagine this?


I’ve already gone on too long, but I want to leave you with a conversation from Holy Conversations last Wednesday, where I had been sharing some of this. Sharon Hartwick said something that I had also been thinking. A community which attracted us and others on the basis of how we acted and related to each other, rather than having the same beliefs. A community where everyone is welcome to share their gifts regardless of who they were, or what stage they were on in their faith journey. A community which is inclusive of all, and invites everyone into the community, bringing what they have to share with the rest of us, and excluded by nothing. Isn’t that the kind of community we say we are about creating, here at Winfield United Church? Perhaps we already have our model for that church, in the earliest form of the kin-dom community!

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