Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.

The First Witnesses of the Resurrection

According to John 20:1, the first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene, who visited the tomb very early on Sunday morning. Who is this Mary?

The name “Magdalene” indicates she was from a town in Galilee, Magdal about a mile north of Tiberias. The name means “tower” and is called “fish tower” in the Talmud, perhaps indicating that it was associated with exporting fish from Galilee. The town may have been as large as 40,000 in the first century and predominantly Gentile (ABD, 4:579).

According to Luke 8:2 Jesus healed Mary “from seven evil spirits,” otherwise she only appears in the resurrection stories in Matthew and Mark. Luke only says that demons went out of her, but it safe to assume that Jesus was the exorcist.

According to a sixth century tradition, Mary was the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 (and Mary of Bethany, John 11:1-12:8, Luke 10:38-42). This is possibly due to the fact that Magdal had a reputation for as a sinful town in Midr. Lam 2:2. It is possible that a Jewish woman living in a Gentile town was there to work as a prostitute, although there is no reason to assume that is the case. There is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that she was a prostitute or adulterous, only that she had been demon possessed.

Mary has become popular in contemporary culture as a female disciple of Jesus on the same level as Peter and the Twelve. The real problem for this view is that the New Testament does not present her as part of the inner circle. These popular readings of Mary are based on Gnostic literature, include the Gospel of Peter and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (both date to about A.D. 200) and the Gospel of Philip (third century A.D.), which describes Mary as the disciple whom Christ loved more than all the others.

There is a longstanding Gnostic tradition that Jesus and Mary had a romantic relationship and that they were secretly married and had a child. This child begins a kind of “Jesus dynasty,” a secret line of Jesus which existed for centuries. This sort of thing turns up in the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-mined entertainment. There is little evidence for this, what evidence does exist is strained at best.

Still it is remarkable that this woman is the first to visit the empty tomb in John’s gospel. Since it is still early in the morning, Mary cannot see into the tomb, only that the stone has been moved away from the entrance. She assumes that the body has been disturbed, perhaps that the tomb has been robbed. She returns to the place where Peter and the others are staying, presumably the upper room) and reports that the tomb has been opened.

If one were to invent the story of the resurrection, Mary would be a poor choice for first witness to the empty tomb. As a woman her testimony would be questioned, and even in the story as we read it in John, she misunderstands what has happened and assumes (as most people would) that someone has moved the body of Jesus, likely to prevent the disciples from venerating the tomb of their prophet.

What are the ramifications of the “first witness” being a woman with a potentially tarnished reputation?

 

Matthew 1:19 – Joseph, a Righteous Man

In Matthew 1, Joseph and Mary are described as “betrothed,” a legally binding contract which was something like a “pre-marriage”  arrangement.  Since Mary is found to be pregnant, she must have been unfaithful.  This sad situation almost requires a breaking of the marriage contract, so Joseph decides to divorce her “quietly.”

Joseph and the AngelJoseph does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery. It appears in John 8:2 with this sense, and in Dio Chryssostom 47 there is a reference “a Cyprian law, according to which an adulteress had to cut her hair and was subjected to contempt by the community” (BDAG).

This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. There is little difference in meaning, TDNT 2:31. In Heb 6:6 the compound form is used for shaming Christ by publicly recanting one’s faith. In Col 2:15 uses the verb for the shaming of the “authorities” after when Jesus triumphed over them in the resurrection. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).

The divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.

Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary. (John Nolland makes this suggestion and he offers a number of mishnaic sources which indicate that the situation described here may require a divorce. Nolland, Matthew, 95) Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming.

While I am not sure that it is correct to connect the “righteousness” of Joseph to keeping a legal tradition requiring the divorce of an adulteress wife, I do think that it is important to read righteousness in a Matthean context rather than importing the Pauline idea into this text. Matthew is not saying that Joseph was “justified” before God, but rather that he was a Jew who was keeping the Law as best that he could. It is possible to read this Greek word as reflecting the same idea as the Hebrew צַדִּיק, “conforming to the laws of God and people” (BDAG).

It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public.

Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace and potential execution for adultery.

John 20:17 – “Do not Cling to Me”?

One of the more difficult lines in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ reaction to Mary: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (verse 17). What does Jesus mean?

It may be the case that he has only just resurrected, and cannot be touched until he ascends. The KJV makes the problem more difficult by translating the verb as “touch,” rather than “cling.” But the ascension takes place forty days later, and later in this chapter Jesus tells Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. Unless we assume that there is an ascension sometime during that day which “completed” the resurrection, this cannot be what Jesus means here.

“Noli me tangere”

A more likely explanation is that Mary is not just touching Jesus, but “clinging” to him. The verb ἅπτω is not uncommon in the New Testament, but is used by John only here (and 1 John 5:18, the evil one cannot touch the believer). It is likely that Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and was clinging to him in a way we might expect since she thought he was dead! Mary is holding on to Jesus so tightly that she does not want to let him go ever again!

Coupled with the allusion to the ascension, this line probably means something like, “Mary, you do not have to cling to me, I have not yet ascended to heaven! I’ll be here for a little while longer.”

It is possible that Mary’s emotional response to seeing Jesus is a hint that she has not fully understood the resurrection, perhaps thinking that Jesus had not actually died. Mary returns to the disciples, who are likely discussing where the body of Jesus might have gone. When she arrives, she announces that she has seen the Lord and that he is alive. At this point, she does not say “he has risen from the dead.” It is only after he appeared to his disciples that they begin to understand what has happened.

John’s gospel is a well-constructed piece of theology and it is hard for me to believe that John did not intend a little more here than simply warning Mary that he was not immediately leaving her again.  What might be the theological point John is making in this unusual story?  It is also possible that John is making a pastoral point as well by describing Mary’s emotional response to the resurrection.

John 20:1 – The First Witness to the Resurrection

According to John 20:1, the first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene, who visited the tomb very early on Sunday morning. Who is this Mary?

The name “Magdalene” indicates she was from a town in Galilee, Magdal about a mile north of Tiberias. The name means “tower” and is called “fish tower” in the Talmud, perhaps indicating that it was associated with exporting fish from Galilee. The town may have been as large as 40,000 in the first century and predominantly Gentile (ABD, 4:579).

According to Luke 8:2 Jesus healed Mary “from seven evil spirits,” otherwise she only appears in the resurrection stories in Matthew and Mark. Luke only says that demons went out of her, but it safe to assume that Jesus was the exorcist.

According to a sixth century tradition, Mary was the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 (and Mary of Bethany, John 11:1-12:8, Luke 10:38-42). This is possibly due to the fact that Magdal had a reputation for as a sinful town in Midr. Lam 2:2. It is possible that a Jewish woman living in a Gentile town was there to work as a prostitute, although there is no reason to assume that is the case. There is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that she was a prostitute or adulterous, only that she had been demon possessed.

Mary has become popular in contemporary culture as a female disciple of Jesus on the same level as Peter and the Twelve. The real problem for this view is that the New Testament does not present her as part of the inner circle. These popular readings of Mary are based on Gnostic literature, include the Gospel of Peter and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (both date to about A.D. 200) and the Gospel of Philip (third century A.D.), which describes Mary as the disciple whom Christ loved more than all the others.

There is a longstanding Gnostic tradition that Jesus and Mary had a romantic relationship and that they were secretly married and had a child. This child begins a kind of “Jesus dynasty,” a secret line of Jesus which existed for centuries. This sort of thing turns up in the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-mined entertainment. There is little evidence for this, what evidence does exist is strained at best.

Still it is remarkable that this woman is the first to visit the empty tomb in John’s gospel. Since it is still early in the morning, Mary cannot see into the tomb, only that the stone has been moved away from the entrance. She assumes that the body has been disturbed, perhaps that the tomb has been robbed. She returns to the place where Peter and the others are staying, presumably the upper room) and reports that the tomb has been opened.

If one were to invent the story of the resurrection, Mary would be a poor choice for first witness to the empty tomb. As a woman her testimony would be questioned, and even in the story as we read it in John, she misunderstands what has happened and assumes (as most people would) that someone has moved the body of Jesus, likely to prevent the disciples from venerating the tomb of their prophet.

What are the ramifications of the “first witness” being a woman with a potentially tarnished reputation?

 

John 12:1-11 – The Anointing at Bethany

Jesus stays with Lazarus and his family at Bethany prior to the Passover. During a meal given in his honor, Mary anointed Jesus with an expensive perfume (verses 1-8).  This is a rare story in John since the episode also appears in in Matt 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9, and perhaps Luke 7:39-50.  This is an opportunity to study John’s use of his sources since it would appear that this was a well-known story by the time he wrote his Gospel.

There are a few differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew and Mark we are told that the anointing took place at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman is unidentified.  In Mark she anoints Jesus’ head, while in John she anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. In John she wipes his feet with her hair, as did the woman in Luke 7.

How is this related to a similar incident in Luke 7:39-50? All three synoptic gospels agree a woman came to Jesus with an alabaster jar of myrrh (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου). But other than the perfume used to anoint Jesus, there is little in Luke which is the same as the even described in John 12.

  • The name Simon appears in Luke and Mark/Matt, but the name Simon was extremely common in the first century. In fact, two of Jesus’ disciples are named Simon! There is nothing which requires Simon the Leper of Mark 14:3 to be Simon the Pharisee of Luke 7:40
  • Luke omits the location (Bethany), but the story is placed before the travel narrative (beginning in Luke 9:51). This implies that the meal hosted by Simon is in Galilee, not Bethany (near Jerusalem).
  • In addition, the woman in Luke is described as having a bad reputation, there is nothing in the Synoptic Gospels or John that imply Mary, the sister of Lazarus had a negative reputation.
  • Luke also omits the words of Jesus praising the woman for her actions, saying that her deed will be repeated wherever the gospel is preached. Instead, Jesus responds to Simon’s critical thoughts with a short parable and pronounces the woman’s sins forgiven.

It is possible that John has combined two events (Luke 7 and Matt 26/Mark14), or it is possible that Luke has move the event to an earlier point in Jesus’ ministry.  It seems to me, however, that what Luke records is a different event in the life of Jesus. A notorious sinner encounters Jesus and receives forgiveness and acceptance and responds with lavish worship at Jesus’ feet.  John (Mark and Matthew) record an event just prior to the Passion week in which Mary honors her teacher with a lavish gift which foreshadows his death and burial.

John has repeated key elements of the story verbatim (the words of Jesus), yet added a few details which were omitted in Mark and Matthew.  For example, the name of the woman (Mary) and the disciple who objected to the expensive display of affection (Judas).  In fact, John has re-told the story to highlight the difference between Mary’s devotion to Jesus and Judas’s misunderstanding of Jesus.