From Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene
To begin with, what do we know about what it meant to be a Jewish woman in first-century Palestine? This is one of the many topics that scholars have long been interested in and have devoted entire books to. One of the interesting features of the study of first-century Jewish women is that it has largely been carried out by twentieth-century Christian men. And why would such people be interested in knowing about women in first-century Judaism? For many of these modern scholars, as authority Ross Kraemer has noted, there is a personal agenda involved: they have wanted to show the vast superiority of Christianity over Judaism in the treatment of women.
According to the standard stereotype, Jewish women were especially oppressed during the first century, forced to be silent and stay in the home, unable to enter into the public sphere, expected to devote themselves to cooking, cleaning, making and mending clothes, and raising children. Jesus, however, came to liberate women and so accepted them as his followers and set them free from the constraints of the overbearing Jewish law.
This portrayal, as Kraemer and others have noted, is not a disinterested description of life in the first century. It is a theologically motivated reconstruction meant to celebrate the salvation that Jesus brings, not just for the afterlife but also for life in the present among all people, men and women.
As with most stereotypes, there are some things that are probably right about this portrayal. But the picture is seriously skewed in some ways. For one thing, it is a big mistake to separate Jewish women in the ancient world from non-Jewish women, as if only the former faced strictures on their public (and private) behavior. For most androcentric cultures – that is, for most cultures – women have had to play second fiddle to men, especially to the men closest to them: their fathers, brothers, and husbands. That was true of pagans as well as Jews in the first century. And all cultures, even the most open and liberated, place restrictions, either official or practical, on genders. When was the last time you saw a female pope in Rome or a woman president in the United States?
It is true that Jewish men in the first century often did not place a high premium on the independent thought and judgment of their female counterparts. Consider the sayings connected with a Jewish rabbi of first-century Jerusalem, a man named Yose ben Yochanan, who indicated that men should not talk extensively with women (the following account also indicates how his words were sometimes interpreted, by yet other male leaders among Jews):
Yose ben Yochanan of Jerusalem says “don’t talk too much with women.” He spoke of a man’s wife; all the more so is the rule to be applied to the wife of one’s fellow. In this regard did the sages say, “So long as a man talks too much with a woman, he (1) brings trouble on himself, (2) wastes time better spent on studying Torah, and (3) ends up an heir of Gehenna.”
Comparable is another passage from ancient Jewish writings, which indicates the conditions under which a woman would not be allowed to receive the payment due to her from her marriage contract, should she be divorced. These include is she (1) goes out with her hair flowing loose, (2) spins in the marketplace, or (3) talks with just anybody. Scholars of this literature have concluded that this ruling indicates that there was to be a difference between a woman’s behavior in private (where she can let down her hair, spin, and talk) and in public. But it is not at all clear that these passages indicate the actual social experience of women in first-century Jewish Palestine. They may instead represent what certain men wanted women’s behavior to be like. Certainly it is the case that women of the upper classes could, and often did, have greater freedom of movement and speech than women among the masses. And wealthy women were in a different camp from the poor.
One of the most surprising archaeological finds of modern times is a set of inscriptions on a Jewish synagogue in the city of Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor. The inscriptions list the names of the major donors to the synagogue and the names of the synagogue leaders. What is striking is that a number of the names are women. The idea that women could not be actively involved in Jewish life and worship in antiquity has been blown apart by this find. Women in some sections of society were oppressed, just as they are now. But in others they could be leaders. Presumably women who wanted to have more freedom of expression and movement would have gravitated, if it was within their means to do so, to those aspects of their culture and to those leaders of their society that could make such freedom possible.
Jesus was not the only one to bring liberation to women of the first century. But it is clear that his particular preaching would have been attractive to some kinds of women. Mary Magdalene was one of the women who followed him. I should stress that she is presented as following Jesus in the company of other women – many other women, according to both Mark and Luke. Several of these other women are named, for example, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, and someone else named Mary. This suggests that Mary Magdalene was not Jesus’s special companion and trusted friend, at least not according to the records we have. These records are, after all, the only things historians have to go on, unless they want to invent historical claims out of thin air to support their points-of-view (for example, that Mary and Jesus made love and had babies).
Both Mark and Luke indicate that Mary Magdalene was from Galilee. That is the northern part of what is today the land of Israel. It is also the region Jesus himself was from, as he was raised in the small hamlet of Nazareth. Nazareth was so small and insignificant that it is not found on any map from the ancient world and is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It is also not mentioned in the writings of the first-century historian Josephus, who spent a lot of time in Galilee and discusses a lot of its places. Archaeologists who have dug in Nazareth have concluded that it was remote, isolated, and small. Possibly two hundred to three hundred people lived there in the days of Jesus. If he had four brothers, several sisters, a mother, and a father, as the Gospels indicate, then just his immediate nuclear family would have made up a sizable portion of the population.
Some scholars have claimed that the region of Galilee was somehow less Jewish than the southern part of Israel, the region of Judea. In part this is because there were a couple of large Gentile cities in Galilee: Tiberias and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth. And in part it is because the region is sometimes referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Recent studies have demonstrated, however, that outside the two big cities, Jewish customs, culture, and religion dominated the lives of Galilee’s inhabitants. Jesus himself was thoroughly Jewish in every respect. So were his followers, including Jewish women such as Mary Magdalene. They worshiped the Jewish God, kept Jewish customs, observed Jewish law. Everything about them was Jewish.
We don’t know where or how Mary met Jesus, but it is probably safe to assume that she heard him preaching throughout rural Galilee, as he avoided the cities: Sepphoris, for example, is never even mentioned in the New Testament. She herself did not come from tiny Nazareth. Her name, in fact, indicates her home. She is called Magdalene because she came from Magdala.
Magdala was a much larger place than Nazareth. We know about it from the writings of Josephus, who with some exaggeration (Josephus does this a lot) indicates that it was a good-sized city surrounded by a large wall, with two grain markets, a major aqueduct for the water needs of the population, a Greek-style theater, and a hippodrome for public races, large enough to seat ten thousand people. In the archaeological digs undertaken there, none of these structures has been discovered.
The town was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and was best-known for two things: being a major center for the fishing industry – it was especially known for its pickled sardines – and a very large tower. The word for tower in Aramaic (the language of Jesus, Peter, Mary, and other Jews in the region) is in fact magdala, hence the name of the place itself. In some ancient sources it is called Migdal Nunya (Tower of Fish).
Eventually, after the days of Mary and Jesus, Magdala came to be known as a kind of luxury resort. As with most places of that kind, whether Las Vegas today or Corinth in antiquity, this carried with it some connotations of profligate lifestyles and licentious activities. It is hard to know how much Mary’s own later but unfounded reputation as a prostitute relates to the fact that her name, Magdalene, came to have those associations.
I have already indicated that Mary must have been a woman of means. According to both Mark and Luke, she and the other named women “served” Jesus. The Greek term used there can be translated as “ministered” to him (and his disciples), but it often has the connotation of “providing financial support for.” Jesus, of course, abandoned his livelihood as a carpenter/woodworker to engage in his public ministry. His twelve disciples did likewise. As Peter says at one point: “See, we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus replies:
Truly, I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields. . . and in the age that is coming eternal life. (Mark 10:28-30)
But how were Jesus’s followers to receive so much when they had no source of income? Obviously, someone had to supply them with what they needed. The new siblings, parents, and children that the disciples acquired would have come from the larger group of people following Jesus. They would be spiritual family members, united around faithful adherence to Jesus’s teachings. But the other newly acquired possessions – houses, fields, and so on – would have to be provided by others. We don’t know if Jesus and his followers actually begged in order to survive. But since they had no source of income, someone had to give them what they needed, if not to pay the bills (they would have had none), then at least to eat a couple of times a day.
Mary and her female companions were the ones, or were among the ones, who did so. We don’t have any indication where they themselves received an income. Possibly these women just happened to be wealthy, that is, that they came from wealthy families and/or married into money. That appears to be the case with one of the other women named by Luke: Joanna, who was married to Chuza, King Herod’s personal steward, (Luke 8:3). What Chuza thought about his wife giving his money away to an itinerant Jewish prophet and his unemployed followers is anyone’s guess.
This raises a final question about Mary’s background. What she, like Joanna, married? There is nothing to suggest that she was married to Jesus. In only one passage in our canonical Gospels does she even speak with Jesus, and then she calls him “teacher” – rather than “darling,” for example. But it’s not at all implausible that she was married to someone. Most people were – although not everyone. About all we can say is that if she was married, nothing indicates that her husband traveled with her as she accompanied Jesus, with other men and women, throughout Galilee and on to Jerusalem.