This weekend Christians mark the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, the follower and patron of Jesus of Nazareth. Though an important Biblical figure, the twenty-first century has seen Mary evolve into the unofficial patron saint of the spiritually marginalized and excluded.
Fifteen years ago Dan Brown published his bestselling novel The Da Vinici Code. Ever since, people have been under the impression that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children and that the truth of their relationship was suppressed by the Catholic Church ever since. There’s no good evidence to suggest that Mary and Jesus were married, but new scholarly research suggests that there was a conspiracy to diminish her status and memory.
In a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Harvard Theological Review, Duke doctoral student and text critic Elizabeth Schrader argues that Mary Magdalene’s role in the Jesus story was deliberately obscured by those who copied out the Bible in order to dilute the importance of Mary Magdalene.
To make her case, Schrader turned to the earliest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament and initially looked at the story of the raising of Lazarus told in the Gospel of John 11:1-44. According to the version in our Bibles, Lazarus had two sisters named Mary (Maria) and Martha and, throughout the centuries it has been debated whether this Mary is the same Mary as Mary Magdalene.
When Schrader looked at P66, a papyrus codex (book) traditionally dated to the second century which is also the oldest existing manuscript of the story, she noticed something odd. In John 11:1, someone had scratched out the Greek iota (the “I” in Mary) and replaced it with a “th” changing the name of a second Mary to read “Martha.” Then, two verses later, Schrader told me, “the copyist actually splits a woman in two—one woman's name has been scratched out and corrected to say ‘the sisters,’ and the verbs describing the woman are changed from singular to plural.”
It’s not just this manuscript. Schrader argues that “for virtually every verse where Martha is mentioned in the Gospel of John, there are manuscripts where Mary is mentioned instead.
Her study shows that in John roughly one in five ancient Greek manuscripts and one in three Old Latin manuscripts have “something strange happening around Martha.” All of this suggests, she says, that Martha was added to the Lazarus story by later editors and copyists of the New Testament.
There’s some evidence in the writings of Early Church clerics and theologians that support Schrader’s argument. Several commentators on the Gospel of John seem to think that Mary did things that our modern Bibles attribute to Martha. Schrader points out that Tertullian of Carthage, who wrote around the turn of the third century, thinks that it was Mary who tells Jesus “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27).
There is even some artistic and archaeological evidence that furthers this argument. Dr. Ally Kateusz, a friend of Schrader’s, catalogued a dozen ancient carved sarcophagi from the early church that show only one woman present at the Lazarus story. The artistic tradition that only one woman was present at the raising of Lazarus is also found on reliquaries (boxes that contained the remains of saints) in the fifth century.
Of course none of this proves that Mary the sister of Lazarus is actually Mary Magdalene. But Schrader notes many “striking similarities” between Lazarus’s sister and the more famous Mary. Both women weep at a tomb and witness the resurrection of a loved one. “There are so many textual parallels between these two stories that we can gather that this is not an accident: the Fourth Evangelist wanted to portray these two Marys as being very similar,” she said.
In the Bible there are two different stories that refer to Mary and Martha. There is a story in the Gospel of Luke about a pair of sisters one of whom (Mary) listens attentively to Jesus and the other of whom (Martha) does all of the domestic labor. There’s no mention of Lazarus at all. In John there is the story about the raising of Lazarus that, as discussed, mentions Mary and Martha. Schrader argues that these are two different families, but that “at a very early stage, there was an editorial decision made to ‘copy’ Martha from Luke and ‘paste’ her into John.”
The purpose of this conflation is to distract the reader away from the parallels between Mary Magdalene who witnesses the resurrection in John 20 and Mary at the tomb of Lazarus in Chapter 11. As Schrader puts it “With Martha in the Gospel of John, Lazarus' sister Mary isn't Mary Magdalene anymore—instead she is the lady who sat quietly at Jesus' feet in Luke 10:38-42.”
What all of this means is that very early in the history of Christianity someone was trying to minimize the importance of Mary Magdalene. Schrader said, “Imagine if in the Gospel of John, the same woman gives the central Christological confession of the Gospel (John 11:27), then anoints Jesus (John 12:3), then stands at the foot of the cross (John 19:25), and then becomes the first person to see Jesus rise from the dead (John 20:16). That kind of prominence afforded to one woman may simply have been too much for the emerging church to handle.” And thus, she hypothesizes, Mary Magdalene’s role was divided between three women.
Schrader’s argument has a number of strengths that other recent news items about Mary Magdalene have lacked. The sensational so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, for example, was revealed to be a forgery. Schrader’s argument, by contrast, is based on P66, a fragment of papyrus that all scholars agree is authentic. Moreover, her argument does not rely upon reconstructions of the text in which a scholar tries to guess what a damaged manuscript originally said. She examined about two hundred manuscripts of the Lazarus story and consulted with fellow academics like Hugh Houghton and David Parker, the preparers of an online critical edition of the manuscript tradition of the Gospel of John. Houghton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, UK, told me that “it was exciting for us to have someone using these resources to undertake new research while the edition was still in preparation.”
Critics of Schrader’s might note that, in both Greek and Latin, Martha and Maria are very similar and could easily confuse scribes. (Although this confusion does not occur in the manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke’s story about Mary and Martha.) Moreover, there’s no ancient manuscript of John in which either of them is completely omitted. There might, therefore, be other, more mundane explanations for the problems Schrader identifies.
While this kind of discovery might be what is colloquially known as a “faith-killer,” for Schrader it has been quite the reverse. Rather than leading her to abandon her religious beliefs, she told me, “This research has brought me very close to the Gospel of John. I was very active in church growing up, but it is my work with the manuscripts of John that has led me to clearly self-identify as a Christian.”
It remains to be seen if Schrader’s argument finds favor among the scholarly community, but in the meantime and for the first time there is a plausible scholarly argument for the idea that Mary Magdalene was written out of the Bible and the history books.