Historical Cultural Context
In this version of an “empty tomb” story that undergirds Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus, it is difficult to miss the special importance John assigns to Mary Magdalene.
While Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that a group of women went to the tomb on Sunday morning, only John reports that Mary Magdalene came alone, unaccompanied by other women.
From a cultural perspective, this is very unusual behavior. A woman alone outdoors is an anomaly. Theologians believe that this is John’s way of highlighting the Magdalene’s special importance.
She is, in his mind, a “typical” figure who represents a special character trait or reflects a certain theological position.
Mary’s initial response to the empty tomb is to suspect theft (see Mt 28:13-15; 27:62-66). This is implied in her report to the disciples: “They have taken the Lord ... we do not know where they have laid him.” (see Jn 20:2, 13, 15)
Twice Mary admits that she “does not know,” a major theme in John’s Gospel. In general, “not knowing” is not a problem in John’s Gospel because Jesus can instruct these “ignorant” ones and bring them to light. This is clearly what he does with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:7-26) and with Thomas (Jn 14:5) Mary is brought by Jesus to a very special knowledge. Jesus tells her “whither” he has gone: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17)
This special knowledge, given by Jesus uniquely to Mary Magdalene, makes her a “typical” or representative character. Just as Nathanael is a typical character who is not misled by those who object to the message about Jesus but comes and sees for himself, so Mary is typical in becoming now an insider, someone definitely “in the know.”
She can even be called a beloved disciple because she receives a special revelation. Mary Magdalene stands out as an “enlightened” person in this Gospel. She does not depend upon the group or any other person for her special knowledge about Jesus, as Simon Peter depended upon his brother Andrew. (Jn 1:35-40) In this, Mary is very different from the ordinary folk in this Gospel.
Mary Magdalene is typical from yet another perspective. In the Mediterranean world, status is ordinarily gained by ascription. This means that people gain their status by birth or inheritance. But Mary’s special status in this Gospel does not derive from an appointment by the earthly Jesus but rather from her experience of the risen Jesus.
In highlighting this aspect of Mary’s experience, John is underscoring a motif that runs through his Gospel: whatever is earthly, material, of the flesh, is of no avail. (Jn 6:65; Jn 8:23) The “spiritual” is important, that which is out of the ordinary.
Mary thus has spiritual status. As a typical figure, she becomes an extraordinary person.
Finally, in this Gospel the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:49); Martha, a “beloved disciple” (Jn 11:5, 25); and now Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:17) all receive special revelations from Jesus.
While the Samaritan woman and Martha went and called others to Jesus, they were not “officially commissioned” to do so in the same way that Jesus formally commanded Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brothers and say to them. ... ”
Despite their different kinds of commissions from Jesus, the three women enjoy rather high status in John’s community. This is all the more significant in Mary Magdalene’s case because her role is unusual and rather controversial.
How did our allegedly patriarchal ancestors ever accept the help of women in making sense out of an empty tomb? How did these Middle Eastern women succeed without quotas and affirmative action laws? Believers will find stimulating help in Jerome H. Neyrey’s insightful booklet, The Resurrection Stories.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University