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Antti Marjanen, The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library & Related Documents. Nag Hammadi & Manichaean Studies XL. E.J. Brill. 1996

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

It is sadly typical of the doldrums in which mainstream "guild" New Testament scholarship languishes that a scholar thinks to have advanced the discussion by trying to reduce rather than increase our knowledge on a particular historical question. This book is a dissertation, and part of the structure of a dissertation is the initial reduction of previous research to a gallery of straw men against which one's own contribution will then shine all the brighter. Previous scholars in the field have provided but empty stone jars; by contrast the dissertation writer has filled them with new wine. It is a phenomenon akin to that "anxiety of influence" described so well by Harold Bloom, whereby one poet tries to distance himself from his predecessors by minimizing their influence upon him. As it happens, my own brief article "Mary Magdalene: Gnostic Apostle?" (Grail: An Ecumenical Journal, June 1990) has become grist for Marjanen's mill in the present case. I must admit to feeling much like one of the Gnostic heresiarchs calumnied by Epiphanius, a source Marjanen often cites. My heresy, in Marjanen's eyes, is to have attempted to peel back the numerous early Christian traditions of Mary Magdalene in order to get as close as possible to the hypothetical historical Mary Magdalene.

Marjanen's arguments against my reconstruction form an index of familiar polemical feints. He seems utterly oblivious of my major methodological premise, that one may profitably seek to plot a course backward from well-attested second- and third- century phenomena into canonical New Testament texts, in the process asking whether the New testament texts seem to take on new meaning when viewed hypothetically as seeds from which the later tendencies grew. Of course, this approach is hardly original with me. I rejoice to acknowledge Koester and Robinson (Trajectories Through Early Christianity) as the pioneers in whose striding steps I shuffle. Allied with the "trajectory" approach is the lesson of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza which causes me to listen closely for faint echoes of a once mighty rushing wind of female prophecy and apostleship in the early days of Christian sectarianism. But all this Marjanen discounts with a wave of the harmonizing hand.

For instance, it seems quite clear to me (and to other scholars) that, since in the pericope of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20 Jesus tells Mary to go and relay his farewell to his male disciples, not to go tell them to meet him (as in Mark 16), subsequent Easter appearances were ruled out. Mary would have been, according to this pre-Johannine tradition, the exclusive witness to the resurrection. John has obscured this implication by the simple expedient of adding more appearance stories, drawn from other sources. Marjanen seems not to get the point about the "Tell them goodbye" command and obliviously says that one need not read the text the way I read it; that one may just as easily read Mary's Jesus-epiphany as being confirmed by those following it in John 20. Yes, if one is a hell-bent harmonist of contradictions, I suppose one can. And, as for trajectories, does it not occur to Marjanen that in light of the astonishing prominence accorded Mary Magdalene in the later Gnostic texts (which in general he himself cannot finally avoid admitting, despite constant attempts to whittle away the implications), one might see the John 20 Mary epiphany as the seed from which the later trend grew? Marjanen tips his hat to James M. Robinson for his hospitality at Claremont; too bad he didn't let Robinson's methodology rub off on him while he was there.

I follow the Magdalene trajectory into the canon also to try to sort out the bewildering variety of treatments of Mary vis-a-vis the tomb of Jesus. Does Mary see Jesus himself, or only angels? If Jesus, does he have a message for her, or does he use her as a courier to the men? Does Jesus say something distinctive to her, or does he merely echo the angel's words? Or is she even there in the first place? Where else in the gospels do we find such a degree of diversity? Does this mean nothing, as Marjanen thinks? He thinks to overrule me by using the oldest trick in the apologist's handbook: there wouldn't have been enough time between the historical Mary and the canonization of the appearance list in 1 Corinthians 15 to allow for such a catalogue of polemical versions of the empty tomb story. But Marjanen forgets what he momentarily recalled: that I do not claim that the most extreme anti-Mary reaction (her complete omission in the 1 Corinthians list) is the last to evolve. It is merely last in a typological map. I do not posit a unilinear development, but many parallel growths. For some reason, Marjanen attributes the former to me.

I surveyed most of the second- and third-century sources Marjanen does, though I did not take up space (unavailable to me in a short article) to recap current debates over dating and provenance of individual documents, which amounts to an obscuring of the forest by the trees in this case. And from my survey I inferred a portrait of a historical Mary who earned theological enemies by advocating male-female equality in pneumatic ministry by means of encratic celibacy. While he is dismissing me up front, Marjanen futilely claims that since no one source pictures Mary as possessing just these distinctives, my reconstruction is an artificial composite sketch. How odd that, in the course of his own survey, he comes up with pretty much the same picture of Mary. He is reticent, however, to identify the resultant portrait with the historical Magdalene as I do because he has already found excuses to drive a wedge between canonical books and non-canonical ones.

In general, Marjanen satisfies himself with pointing out the tritely obvious: that mine is not the only possible interpretation of the relevant texts. I would not let an undergraduate student get away with this. Why are alternative readings better? Of course the answer in this case is that Marjanen needs to wipe the slate clean of what I have tried to write upon it if he is to have a tabula rasa to fill by himself. This is, so to speak, his redactional Tendenz.

If this is the way Marjanen treats the work of his colleagues, one wonders how fairly he is able to treat the ancient sources. His occasional attempts to dim the spotlight in which the Nag Hammadi Magdalene glows notwithstanding, Marjanen does a fine job in placing her portrayals within the context of each document as a whole. As Jacob Neusner insists, we have no business merely abstracting prima facie biographical bits from the larger textual entities in which they appear. We must recognize going in that the portrayal of Rabbi Eliezer or Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene in a particular ancient document is first and foremost a function of the compositional interests of that document. And Marjanen admirably listens to the whole document each in turn, synchronically. But that's as far as he goes. Unlike Neusner, Marjanen never gets around to the diachronic dimension. Neusner does think there is a chance that a text compiled for some other reason may yet contain some genuine traditions about earlier figures mentioned in them. But Marjanen is content to remain wading in the shallow end of the pool.


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