Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mary Magdalene as the 'Beloved Disciple?" - an article review

Christ Appearing To Magdalene: Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov

The identity of the “beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel has been a point of fascination and intrigue for centuries in the church.  The beloved disciple is the one who reclines at Jesus’ side during the Last Supper and who witnesses the crucifixion with mother Mary.  He is the disciple “bearing witness about these things,” and “whose testimony is true” (21:24).  Concerning the dialogue between Peter and Jesus at the end of the Gospel it is clear that this “beloved disciple” gives even Peter a run for his money concerning intimacy and proximity with Jesus.      

Church tradition holds that the beloved disciple is the fourth evangelist and none other than John son of Zebedee.  These days most biblical scholars find that tradition troubling and believe John’s Gospel is written in too elegant of Greek with deep theological concepts too lofty for a Galilean fisherman – a mere proletariat.  As to the identity of the beloved disciple, besides the traditional perspective of John, modern exegetes have suggested Thomas, Andrew, Lazarus, or an unknown priest in Jerusalem (given admittance to interrogations of Jesus).  It is also common to bring hearers of John’s Gospel into the narrative itself and to proclaim to them that they indeed are the beloved disciple of Jesus.    

Among the myriad of possible “beloved disciples,” another follower of Jesus has gained increasing attention.  Ester A. De Boer writing in Lectio Difficilior presents an article titled “Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved.”[1]  To be sure, this is not another encore to the Da Vinci code that posits that Mary M married Jesus or that she bore children with him.  For that we can be thankful.  De Boer however, does make a compelling case that there is a special relationship between Jesus and Mary M that cannot be glossed over in the synoptics and especially in the Gospel of John.  As the title of her article suggests it is her aim to throw Mary’s name in the ring as one to be seriously considered as a possible answer to the mystery of the beloved disciples’ identity.

De Boer proceeds to make her case from John 19:25-27 where Jesus sees two persons: his mother and the disciple he loved.  The scene is set with the three Mary’s, the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  This unit in the text as well as other passages that mention the beloved disciple, notably 21:24 grammatically set forth a male disciple.  De Boer makes the point that if anonymity was important to the author of John, what better way to secure that anonymity than to make use of a masculine gender. 

Why then, the veil of anonymity over this very important disciple of whom the author writes “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24).  If truthfulness and testimony is emphasized, why stop short of disclosing the name of the disciple that we might be doubly sure? De Boer highlights the point of irony in John’s Gospel that the redactor has more precision regarding the careful and detailed identification of names and geographical places than the synoptics, yet leaves such ambiguity and mystery surrounding the unknown beloved follower of Jesus.  From the Scriptures we are not given a clear answer.  De Boer however, suggests there is a valid reason for letting the anonymity ride out for a couple thousand years: if the disciple were a women her testimony would have been anything but certain in both the Mediterranean world as well as the more cloistered Johannine community.  De Boer cites Paul (1st Cor. 14:34-36), Origen, and Clemens of Alexandria, whom collectively reveal an attitude toward women that makes little allowance for trust, testimony, and authority.  She goes further to present the Gospel of John itself as a unit that grants no authority to the witness of a woman, “The repressive attitude toward women claiming authority, not only from outside, but also from within the Johannine community, shows that especially the testimony of a woman could have been easily doubted or rejected.”

The crucial point for De Boer is that Mary M is the only one to whom Jesus revealed the precise meaning of his resurrection.  Mary M is at the cross to witness the death of Jesus and beats Peter in a foot race to the empty tomb (De Boer conjectures the long shot that Mary M and the beloved disciple even in their exchange in chap. 20:1-10 are the same person!).  Therefore, Mary M outdoes all the other disciples insofar as her eye-witness encounter with Jesus in his death and resurrection along with the historical, theological, and creedal implications that come with it.  In the synoptics it is clear that there is no disciple closer to Jesus than Peter and even in John the transfer of apostolic authority is clear (21:15-19).  De Boer however, holds that in John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple (aka Mary M), is the recipient of the crucial message of the Gospel (20:17, 1:12).           

De Boer’s analysis has too many grammatical and exegetical gaps to count.  The main thesis however, lies in the assumption that the redactor sought to be highly sensitive to the gender social mores of the time and therefore moves to great lengths to conceal the beloved disciples’ identity.  Any investigation into the synoptics however, and especially John over and above all the Gospel writers,  reveals that little effort is given to cover up or gloss over other instances where more conservative factions might be offended by the major roles of women in the text and in the narrative of Jesus Christ Himself.  The redactors of the four Gospels are neither politically correct nor debonair in there winsomeness over conservatives, liberals, Jews, or pagans.  De Boer nevertheless, wants the reader to consider the possibility of Mary M’s primacy in the death and resurrection narrative of Christ under the “repressive environment of the Johannine community.”  It is a compelling mystery to be sure, however, I for one will enjoy the mystery within the tradition of mother church who believes that John, son of Zebedee, was witness to the death and resurrection of Christ and wrote the fourth Gospel.   

[1] Ester A. De Boer, “Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved.”  Lectio Difficilior: European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegesis (2000).

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