Sunday, April 28, 2024

Women as witnesses

“Noli me tangere” – fresco from Museo Nazionale di San Marco (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Why did the women go to the tomb on their own, when – as Matthew writes – the tomb guards were most likely placed there? And why were they going to anoint the body, since Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus already did this, right after Jesus was taken down from the cross?

Paweł Lisicki

When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, “everyone deserted him and fled.” (Mark 14:50). Jesus dies on the cross and is placed in the tomb. But Mary Magdalene is with Him everywhere. This is the moment when her presence clearly makes itself felt.

The Evangelists write that Mary was among those who followed Jesus to the Passover in Jerusalem. Later, when all was over, they went to His tomb. “The purpose, which was the anointing the corpse, also points to a different intention of the women: they wanted to mourn their master in the tomb. In the case of convicted criminals, private lamentation was permissible”, writes Craig A. Evans. “Various fragrances were used to anoint the corpse in order mask the unpleasant odor.” The women probably expected to find a guard who would ensure that the corpse was not transported from the place of dishonor to the place of worship and ensured that the prohibition of public mourning of the executed convict was observed. Skeletal studies show that the average woman was 150 cm tall and often weighed less than 45 kg, the average man weighed 60 kg and was 160 cm tall. The stones placed at the entrance of the grave weighed about 200 kg and it was very difficult to remove them – adds the American researcher.

Why did the women go to the tomb on their own, when – as Matthew writes – the tomb guards were most likely placed there? And why were they going to anoint the body, since Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus already did this, right after Jesus was taken down from the cross? I tried to answer the first question in an earlier book. According to Matthew’s account, the guard was installed after the women had left the tomb, so they did not have to know what obstacle they would encounter. As for Nicodemus, who “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds” and then with Joseph “Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs” (John 19:39-40). It was most likely the women who knew nothing of his relationship with Jesus. Like Joseph, he was, if ever, a secret student.

Shock and surprise

Mary Magdalene and the other women observing the tomb must have believed that Jesus’ body had not been anointed properly. The funeral was brief, it was dusk, there was no time for the lamentations prescribed by law, washing the eyes, and anointing them carefully. There is also no indication that the women would assume that they were in for a surprise. Although they had witnessed the announcements of the resurrection while still in Galilee, they probably treated Jesus’ words as did the other disciples: they saw them as a metaphor. They thought as Martha, who, speaking of her brother Lazarus, said: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).

The discovery of the empty tomb must have shocked women, especially Mary, the mother of Jesus, when news of this reached her. It meant that Jesus’ body had been moved,” Evans notes. “Since Jesus died on Friday, Sunday was the third day after death, and according to Jewish tradition, the face of a dead man was not recognizable on the fourth day. Therefore, the women knew that if Jesus’ body was not found on that day, it would probably be impossible to establish His identity and it would not be possible to recover Him and transfer Him to the family grave at a specified time in the future” (p. 137). Certainly, the evangelists accurately capture the emotions of the women when they noticed the empty tomb. They were “trembling and bewildered” (Mark 16:8). It was these emotions that filled Mary Magdalene when on Sunday morning – whether it was at dawn or when it was still dark – she set out to give the Lord the last offices.

The one from which Jesus had previously expelled the seven devils was probably the first to reach the tomb. This is the moment when a new Magdalene is born. A witness of the resurrection, and as some people want – the true founder of Christianity. “The whole identity of Mary of Magdala lies in the fact that at the end of her double journey she makes a discovery in an empty tomb,” writes Burnet (p. 57). And he adds: “Without Mary Magdalene, there is no Christianity: she is the first link in the chain of conveying the message of the resurrection.”


A meeting with the gardener

What does Mary Magdalene do after she discovers the empty tomb with other women? Most likely, she did not go there alone at dawn, even John, who writes only about Mary Magdalene, reports that, having come to Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, he says: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” (John 20:2). “We don’t know”, which probably meant there was a larger group of women. They are scared, helpless and surprised. They don’t know what is the meaning of what they have witnessed. They guarded the burial place, because they wanted to anoint the body, worship it, and probably make private lamentations there as well. Then they wanted to leave the body wrapped in a shroud and bandages, filled with fragrances, to undergo the usual process of decay, and to return to the same place in a year and move the bones of Jesus to another, family grave. The mother of the Nazarene was not with them – a mystery that many attempted to solve since the earliest era of Christianity. Was she unable to go to her son’s tomb? Was she shattered and powerless? Or was she supposed to join the women later, after they had washed the body that was already covered with dried blood?

Posthumous disgrace

It should be remembered that in ancient times the punishment imposed on the convict that was to be crucified did not end with his death. As a result of Pilate’s graciousness, Jesus’ body was placed just outside the city gates, in a new tomb carved into the rock. The Gospels say nothing about what happened to the bodies of two other condemned men. If the version, even promoted by Brown, were true, that at the time of the burial Joseph of Arimathea was not yet a disciple of Jesus, but only a pious member of the Sanhedrin, who wanted to adhere to the law and therefore buried Jesus’ body, he should have also dealt with the other two bodies. There is, however, no reference to this. It seems, therefore, that, contrary to many modern commentators, Pilate did in fact treat Jesus differently from the others, and the consent for his burial was a sign of grace and a privilege that the rest of the crucified did not receive. Therefore, Mary Magdalene’s first thought might have been this: the body was stolen by the enemies of Jesus, who could not come to terms with the fact that the body of the cursed Galilean, instead of being shamed in a common tomb, was found elsewhere. They didn’t have to do it alone, it was enough to hire a few Syrian ruffians.

Or maybe, it cannot be ruled out, Mary Magdalene felt remorse? After all, she told herself, if I had been faithful to the grave all the time, the body would not have been taken. She must have been wondering who could have removed it. If not the Jews, then perhaps the Roman – or more specifically the Syrian – soldiers, who made up the Jerusalem garrison, were mocking Jesus in this way? John’s words fit perfectly well with the descriptions of other evangelists. In Luke’s version, the women enter the tomb, find no body there and stand helpless. This helplessness corresponds exactly with John’s account: “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him”.

Mark shortens the story. The women enter the tomb, surprised by the slightly moved stone. Before they noticed the absence of a corpse, they saw a young man in a white robe who informs them that the body of Jesus is not there, announcing that Jesus is risen and that He is going to Galilee where they can meet Him. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). Why were they afraid if the young man told them about everything? Fear, amazement, running away, silence out of fear – these are the women’s reactions in Mark’s account after hearing about the resurrection, but not yet meeting Jesus himself. Only Matthew does not show the helplessness of women. As in Mark’s version, they hear from an angel, not a young man, that Jesus is risen and is going to Galilee.

According to Matthew, however, they leave the tomb quickly and fearfully, and with great joy they run to deliver the news to his disciples (Matthew 28:1-9). Fear, helplessness, uncertainty – these are the feelings that must have also gripped Mary Magdalene. Until she encountered the Lord. Matthew and John describe them in two different ways – the other evangelists do not write about the appearance of the Lord to women, apart from the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark. First, Matthew. The women run to the students to convey the message from the angel. “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” – with these words the women disappear from the stories of Matthew (28: 9-11). Again, everything about this story is surprising, unexpected. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are moved by the news from the angel, and then Jesus stands in their way. There are two of them, and therefore there is no subjective, private experience.

Do not hold on to me

The apparently opposite information is conveyed by John’s story. “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’. ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’. Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him’. Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’). Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, «I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God»’. So, Mary Magdalene went and told the disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord’ and repeated what he had told her” (John 20:11-18).

This is perhaps the most touching story of Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene. It begins with her crying. She cries when she stands in front of the grave, cries when she looks at it. As in Mark’s account, the words of the young man, so in John’s, the words of angels do not calm Mary down. According to Mark, it is one young man, but he fails to lift the spirits of women, John has two angels, but their question does not change anything. Mary replies, but instead of asking the angels where they came from, what happened to the body, why Jesus is not there, she just turns back. She sees someone she perceives to be a gardener. Mary, instead of talking to the angels, prefers to ask a stranger.

He, like the angels, asks her why she is crying, which implies that the sight of the angels in white robes did not change anything in Mary’s attitude. She’s in tears. She doesn’t know why the body disappeared. The angels did not seem to have built trust in her. She thinks the secret gardener has moved Jesus’ body. Why would he do this? How was this possible when Jesus was condemned for high treason and his body could not have been freely moved? But Mary obviously doesn’t ask herself these questions. As if in a dream, she asks about the location where the stranger has moved Jesus’ body. And only when He says her name, the scales fall from her eyes, the dream is over, she knows that Jesus is there before her. Next are the words of the Nazarene, which became the inspiration for nearly infinite pieces of artistic works. How many artists tried to capture this extraordinary moment, when Mary Magdalene sees in the stranger the living Jesus, whom she so longed to find, and who does not allow her to touch Him! This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the history of literature.

A tearful Mary looks around for the body of Jesus. She’s sure someone stole it. She came to anoint the body, to give her teacher His last offices. She was surprised by the removed stone and the presence of angels. Did she recognize them? Or did the thought that they were angels only arose later when she was telling the story to the disciples? She must have done this an infinite number of times. Probably then, in that one and only moment, she did not realize that she was dealing with angels. Otherwise, would she seek answers from a stranger gardener? So she sighs in tears, wanting only one thing: to find the dead body of the master…And now, quite unexpectedly and by surprise, she notices that the one who is asked about the dead Jesus is the living Jesus himself. So she wants to touch Him, she wants to feel that it is not a dream, not an illusion, but she hears: “Do not hold on to me.”

Mary Magdalene learns that it is only after death, after all that is of the mind and body disappears, that Jesus becomes truly present to her. Only now does she stop crying. She knows that from that moment on, no one and nothing will separate her from the Lord. “Do not hold on to me” means that she should not try to see Jesus only with her senses. It is another expression of the same truth that Thomas hears after he insists on touching Jesus. First, he said: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Only when Jesus fulfills his request does he answer, “My Lord and my God.” And he hears: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”(John 20:29). It is the same with Mary Magdalene, who, unlike Thomas, does not set any conditions, but simply wants to enjoy the recovered teacher spontaneously. “Do not hold on to me” is the most profound teaching possible. Jesus tells her that yes, it is He, the same one who died, but at the same time He can no longer be seen through touch and the body.

This is an excerpt of the second, extended edition of the non-fiction novel “The Secret of Mary Magdalene. Women surrounding Jesus”, which has just been released by the Fronda publishing house.

An English version of the novel is not available at this time.

This article was published in April 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.