Millennia ago, scriptures were shared by scribes who copied the texts by hand and distributed the copies to communities or saved them for other uses. Some of these individuals added their own special touches – comments, clarifications, and ‘corrections’.
Recently, a Duke University scholar looked at a digital image of the oldest copy known to us of the text I just read. In doing so, she discovered evidence of corrections. Through shadows beneath the words, it was revealed that there was no Martha in the original text. Every reference, including to ‘the sisters’, originally said ‘Mary’. The scholar’s hypothesis is that a scribe intentionally made these changes to conflate the story of Mary here with the story of Mary and Martha hosting a dinner party in Luke. Research suggests, however, the Mary (and Martha) in this passage of John, is more likely Mary Magdalene.
We know Mary Magdalene is an important figure. She can be called the apostle to the apostles because she was the first witness of the resurrection, and the first, as revealed in the Gospel of John, to have an actual experience of the risen Jesus. In a patriarchal society, this makes Mary Magdalene a controversial figure. Some men with power and privilege, don’t want that challenged by a woman. Some have even chosen to malign the memory of Mary Magdalene by claiming she was a prostitute who came to Jesus for forgiveness. By painting her in this light, her sinfulness and redemption becomes the focus of her story distracting from her role as the apostle to the apostles.
Imagine how the image of Mary Magdalene changes if she is recognised as the central figure in this story: We are told that Jesus loved her and her brother. It is Mary Magdalene who is familiar enough with Jesus that she challenges him about not being there for her family. Mary’s grief overwhelms Jesus and he cries even though he knows what he is about to do.
Perhaps most importantly, Mary makes a proclamation of faith that is parallel only to the one made by Peter. ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ When Peter proclaims Jesus the Messiah, he is celebrated and identified as the rock on which the church will be built. Mary, or as the text currently says, Martha, doesn’t get any accolades for this early proclamation of faith. Her courageous statement is left in the air and Mary, the sister, comes into the conversation. Thus, a profound voice is minimised.
Imagine what would change if it were proven that Martha is Mary Magdalene. How would that reality change our view of Mary? What new understanding would that bring to the story of Jesus, God with us? Magdalene means ‘Watchful’ in Latin. What if, like Peter, the Mary of Bethany mentioned here is given a name consistent with her role as friend and companion to Jesus throughout his life, death, and resurrection? What if, by going back to the original inscription, we find new evidence that Mary Magdalene had a far greater presence than we understand her to have now? What if, acknowledging a change made by a scribe millennia ago, provides an opportunity to enrich our sense of the radical love of God in Jesus who broke social rules and lifted up women?
How we tell the story is important. Changing Mary to Martha helped to support patriarchal practices for millennia. Reclaiming Mary could likewise help support reclaiming the passion, authority, and persistence of a significant woman in the life of Jesus and the life of the early Church. What we do with that information becomes our choice and possibility.
We believe that God working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. What does it look like to acknowledge the same to be true of Mary Magdalene and so many other women who were transformed by Jesus’ respect and care for them? May we be open to looking with fresh eyes at familiar scriptures so that we might learn something new for our day and beyond. This we pray as we sing: 463 A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar