Behold Your Mothers: Adopted at the Crucifixion

GOJ-front 2vol Ib From the recently published complete edition of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II, as published by Editores Volcán Barú, available here.

This essay, taken from The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volume II, first discusses who the Gospel of John names as witnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus, and second considers the nature of the Beloved Disciple’s adoption by Jesus. Analysis will begin with verse 26, which tells us who were the witnesses to the crucifixion. The Gospel of John gives us a very limited number, and these will be discussed shortly.

First, however, we must discuss which witnesses the Synoptic gospels say were present. (Luke only tells us that “his friends”, including “the women who had followed him from Galilee” were there, so the women present must be more or less those in the lists given in Luke 8:1-3 and Luke 24:10, and the following is based on that assumption.) All three Synoptics put Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, as does John. They also all place Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses on the scene; in my opinion this is one way that Jesus’s mother was designated following her remarriage (see the essay on page 371); hence, though there is no specific reference to “Jesus’s mother” in the Synoptics, they still cohere with John, which specifically says his mother was there. Matthew says the mother of the sons of Zebedee was there, but the earlier Gospel of Mark, based on Simon’s eyewitness accounts, lists instead Salome (a garbled Greek version of the Hebrew/Aramaic word for “peace”), who I believe was the mother of Mary Magdalene (see pages 452-53). In sum, there is a reasonable coherence among the three Synoptic gospels that present were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and either Salome mother of the Magdalene or the wife of Zebedee too.

It is not immediately clear who the women are who are mentioned in the Gospel of John as witnesses to the crucifixion. Depending on how the text is read, either four, three, or two women are mentioned in 19:25.

Four women – Depending on how it is punctuated, this would be either a: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene; or b: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. It is unlikely that two sisters would be both named Mary, and so the second alternative is rejected. The main problem with the four-women hypothesis is that the word και (“and”) appears inconveniently between the first two and second two, and not as would be grammatically correct, either only before the last (Mary Magdalene) or between all four. Also, this alternative would conflict with the Synoptic accounts.

Three women – This would be either a: a kind of acrostic involving all elements except Mary Magdalene: Jesus’s mother Mary, his mother’s sister the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene; or b: Jesus’s mother, his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Again, the second is eliminated because two sisters would not be named Mary. The first is possible, but the two-women reading that follows is much more satisfying grammatically, factually, and poetically. This option, too, would conflict with the Synoptic account.

Two women – I agree with James Tabor that this list comprises an acrostic involving all elements in the verse, including Mary Magdalene, and that therefore Jesus’s mother is here named as Mary wife of Clopas. This would cohere with the Synoptic accounts, which agree that Jesus’s mother and the Magdalene were present. (If Mark is right that the Magdalene’s mother Salome [see pages 452-53] also was there, then she went unmentioned in the Gospel of John, since the author does not include anything extraneous, and she is uninvolved in Jesus’s final command in 19:26-27.) What is more, in this reading, the two instances in the verse of και (“and”) set up a fine division of the names into a couplet of semipoetic lines:

His mother and his mother’s sister,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.

This seems typical Hebrew poetry, saying the same thing or a parallel thing twice but with different wording the second time. The problem is that Mary Magdalene was certainly not Jesus’s aunt! This glaring mismatch is undeniable proof that the redactor of the original text was as usual removing any reference to Jesus’s marital status. It seems logical to conclude that he may have changed the text at the end of the first line from νυξς (“daughter-in-law”) to αδελφη (“sister”), and removed the obvious missing parallel to “the wife of Clopas”, which would make this a perfect acrostic: “the wife of Jesus”. The redactor would then have replaced the offending phrase with her Synoptic cognomen “Magdalene”, lest it be unclear who this Mary might be.

This Clopas in verse 25 was probably known in Aramaic as Hilphai; Joseph Henry Thayer suggests in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament that κλωπας (Klōpas) is a transliteration of חילפ ( אי Hilphai), but that, since there is no letter for “H” in Greek, the initial ח in the name was rendered into Greek with a κ, “K”; the “p” sound, more euphonious to Greeks than the “ph”, was substituted; and a Greek-style suffix was added. Early Christian writers Papias and Hegesippus both declare Clopas to be the brother of Jesus’s father, Joseph. James Tabor is right to say that Hilphai (Clopas) almost certainly married Mary after his brother Joseph’s death, and so Mary the wife of Clopas here is Jesus’s mother, and Clopas (Hilphai) his stepfather. Since in this scene Jesus is concerned for his mother’s care, she must be widowed for the second time: Hilphai must be now dead like his brother Joseph before him.

It has often been suggested that Clopas and the Cleopas who appears in Luke 24:13-35 are the same man. If that is so, if Mary still has a husband, then why does the Gospel of John specify that after Jesus’s death the Beloved Disciple took Mary “for his own [mother]” (19:27)? Either a: Clopas and Cleopas are different men with similar names, and bear in mind that these are clumsy transliterations into Greek, so the original Aramaic names could be almost anything; or b: Clopas/Cleopas and Mary have separated; or c: the Lukan episode tells of a son of Clopas, possibly the Levi (ben Clopas) discussed in the essay beginning on page 371. I think the first and third alternatives are the most likely. More about Clopas and Jesus’s brothers and half-brothers may be read in the essay on the same page.

The cognomen “Magdalene” obviously did not come from the author of the original text: Mary has been heretofore named in this gospel only as Mary, and, other than here and 20:1, she is never once called “Magdalene”; that is exclusively the Synoptic cognomen for her. The author of this gospel must have known her, since she had to be a primary source for chapters 4 and 20, and was besides the mother of his main eyewitness, Lazarus. The redactor inserted this nickname here to fill the obvious gap in the phrase “Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the [__]” after he had excised what the text originally said. Indeed, I am certain that the redactor inserted “Magdalene” into 20:1 as well. In both places I think he used the cognomen to help bring this gospel into closer coherence with the Synoptics.

Thus the text here may have originally read:

His mother and his mother’s daughter-in-law,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.

This couplet bears the classic earmark of Hebrew verse, being a pair of lines that says the same thing twice, but wording it differently the second time. And it succinctly describes all the relationships. However, the wording is rather clumsy, especially for poetry, so let us remain open to other possibilities.

Here in verse 25, as elsewhere in the gospel, we see the Beloved Disciple’s modest reluctance to mention himself unless utterly necessary, and also how the amanuensis adds no detail that doesn’t further the story and message of the gospel. So, in this verse, the focus is intent on this couplet about the two mothers Mary, and the eyewitness does not yet mention himself. He lists the two mothers because of what Jesus is about to say, but what Jesus is about to say involves the Beloved Disciple too, and so he is finally mentioned as present in verse 26.

The conclusion that these two lines are verse is supported by the presence of another very similar couplet at verses 26-27. Jesus’s dying instruction to his relatives also comes in the form of Hebrew poetic parallelism, though as we have it it appears incomplete:

He says to the mother, “Woman, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “[___], behold your mother.”

The construction of the first line of this couplet, in which Jesus appears to address his mother as “woman” (see discussion of this form of address in the commentary to 2:4), requires a similar kind of salutation of the Beloved Disciple, but it is glaringly absent. The lacuna is best filled in with either a relationship word (for instance, “son” or “brother-in-law”) or else the disciple’s name; clearly something has been suppressed here by the final redactor of the text to hide the identity of the disciple. Certainly the original did not clumsily read, “Then he says to the disciple, ‘Disciple, behold your mother.’” Surely, and especially in his dying moments, Jesus is going to hand off that responsibility to a very close family member. It is not likely a brother of Jesus, since the wording strongly suggests Jesus is designating with his words a new mother-son relationship, while such a brother would already have the same mother. This handing-off, actually, was traditionally to a dying father’s son, no one else.

Involved in this scene are two mother-son pairs: Jesus and his mother, and Lazarus and his mother. Both mothers are named Mary; both have known the intense anguish a mother feels mother feels as she helplessly watches her son die. Both of their sons have been called son of the father (Jesus says frequently in this gospel that he is son of the father, and Lazarus was only an hour or two before the crucifixion released by Pontius Pilate under the name Barabbas, which means the same thing). Further, according to Mark 15:40, a third mother-child pair was there: Salome and Mary Magdalene (see pages 452-53 on Salome as Mary’s mother), adding to the poignancy of this scene.

All of these connections between the two mothers were certainly clear to Jesus long before he was hung on the cross. Thus quickly to Jesus’s mind would come the idea of charging his stepson Lazarus with this filial responsibility for his own mother. He may indeed have already decided that he would do this at his last moment, since a dying person’s final request would decisively oblige the survivors to carry it out.

The text makes very clear the strong connection between the two mothers, by naming them and them only as witnesses, notwithstanding who else in actuality may have been there, such as Salome. Verse 25 specifically refers to “his mother” (that is, Jesus’s) and also, as we shall see below, originally referred to “the disciple’s mother”. However, this connection between the two Marys, the two mothers of “Sons of the Father” whom they have watched die is emphasized in another, subtler way: the Greek text of verse 26, though it is typically translated “his mother”, instead actually twice says “the mother”. Normally in Greek, after the first reference to Jesus’s mother (η μητηρ αυτου, literally, “the mother of-him”), it wouldn’t be necessary to repeat the word αυτου (“of-him”) in immediately subsequent references to his mother. That is why scholars render the two “the mother” references in verse 26 as “his mother”. But, with two mothers mentioned in verse 25, Jesus’s and Lazarus’s – what is more, two mothers with several significant things in common, as noted – it is not so clearcut. Jesus could be telling Lazarus to behold his own mother, Mary Magdalene, or Jesus’s mother, or (and this is what I think) both mothers.

Quite conceivable is the possibility that the original text had the words “women” and “mothers”, in the plural form, and that the redactor either thought this was a grammatical error or, more likely, he fully understood that this was meant to refer both to Jesus’s mother Mary and to Jesus’s wife Mary and the Beloved Disciple’s mother, and so, wishing as always to emphasize Jesus’s divinity, he reduced the plural to the singular.

It is universally believed that Jesus is speaking to his mother when he says, “Woman, behold your son.” I believe that he is speaking to both mothers, affirming to each of the two Marys that Lazarus is still or henceforth her son. That is why he does not say, “Mother, behold your son,” or, for that matter, “Wife, behold your son.” Indeed, dying on the cross, he doesn’t have the breath to be long-winded! By saying γυνη, “woman”, or better yet the nearly identically pronounced γυναι, “women”, he encompasses both of these Marys with so much in common.

It is also universally believed that Jesus is referring to his own mother when he says to the Beloved Disciple, “Behold your mother”: he is requiring Lazarus to take on the duty of filial responsibility for his step-grandmother, his stepfather’s mother. Again I believe that he is referring to both mothers, asking Lazarus to take care of both of them when he, Jesus, is dead. The two mothers and the son hear this as Jesus realizing that this death may be final, that he may not rise again to take care of his wife and his mother, and their despair and grief is intensified in response.

Keep in mind how much these two Marys have in common, in their names and in their death-facing son-of-the-father sons, a close relationship highlighted by this couplet and by the use of “the mother” in verse 26 to refer to both mothers. What we can draw from this is that, when Jesus says to Lazarus “Behold your mother,” he is speaking not only about his own mother, but Lazarus’s mother, Mary Magdalene, as well. He is saying “Take care of my mother, and your mother my wife, when I am dead.”

Carrying out this final wish is the duty of a son, not a stepson, and so it becomes clear, in this Jesus’s dying instruction, that his words incorporate his formal adoption and recognition of his stepson Lazarus as his own son. Yigal Levin (“Jesus, ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of David’: The ‘Adoption’ of Jesus into the Davidic Line” [JSNT 28.4; 2006]), makes it clear that there was then no adoption under Jewish law. Roman law allowed a more formal adrogatio, which needed several approvals in the Roman courts, and the much more informal adoptio, which was certainly the case here. It was usually between relatives, and was usually not a humanitarian gesture for the adoptee’s sake, but for the father’s, under hereditas nominis pecuniæ sacrorum, a phrase referring to the assurance of stability and continuity of the family honor; in this case, to ensure that Jesus’s responsibilities to his mother and wife were properly discharged. If Jesus was indeed a Roman citizen, as suggested on pages 376, he would likely have known about this means of adoption.

This adoption of Lazarus by Jesus, son of God, Messiah of God, emissary or ambassador of God, is also emblematic of God’s adoption of the people of Israel as his child, during the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, this adoption forms a parallel with the reference to adoption in the Prologue (see the commentary to 1:11-13).

Clearly this declaration at the moment of death was taken by Lazarus and the two Marys as binding (19:27b), and the acutely remembered and carefully transcribed recounting of this statement by Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple and eyewitness, in poetry no less, tells us just how seriously it was taken by them. In ancient times, the most important texts were in poetry, not prose – because poetry, by its nature, is more easily memorized and enunciated later, and thus can outlast such ephemeral documents as bills of lading and shopping lists, which were written precisely because they were unworthy of memorization. With his final breath of life, inhaled with great difficulty by pulling his torso up with his nailed wrists, then sagging down exhaustedly while exhaling, arousing new pain in his wrists, his very last inhalations and exhalations of the Spirit of God, and no moment to waste, Jesus was arranging for his mother and his wife to be cared for, and at the same time was acknowledging his stepson as his own son. This would have been a highly emotional and memorable moment for the two Marys, with Lazarus standing between them, and his other grandmother, Salome, also close by.

The text tells us (verse 27b) that after this event the disciple took her or them as his own mother(s). The pronoun αυτην can mean either “her”, in which case it is referring to Jesus’s mother, or “them”, in which case both mothers are meant. The preposition εις has many possible meanings; usually Bible interpreters mistakenly read it as saying “into”, and then they take the phrase εις τα ιδια as “into his own home”, with the word “home”, they say, unwritten but understood. The preposition εις clearly should be taken rather as meaning “as”, and the phrase as saying he takes her/them as his own mother(s). With the word “mother” recently written several times, the author had no need to repeat it again here, except if only to help two millennia of interpreters avoid the mistake just described. This interpretation is much more thematically united: Jesus commands the Beloved Disciple to take the two women as his two mothers, and this sentence, directly from the disciple himself confirms that he obeyed this final request of Jesus.

Also, this poetic “last will” of Jesus is again clearly meant again to establish a parallel between him and the greatest of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Since these parallels are drawn several times in the early chapters of the gospel, this also forms another inclusio. The Torah has Moses, like Jesus, reciting poetry before his death (Deuteronomy 32-33), and the account of Elijah’s death (II Kings 2) has him likewise orating a kind of “last will”, giving Elisha his sacred powers.

As a result of all this, I conclude that this couplet originally read as follows:

He says to the mothers, “Women, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

The following would be absolutely perfect parallelism,

He says to the women, “Mothers, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

but the grammar of Greek and Aramaic would allow Jesus to address only his own mother as “Mother”, not his wife; besides, he calls his mother γυνη (gynē, “woman”), in 2:4, so this must be an inclusio that the narrative calls the two “women” here. What is more, Salome, Lazarus’s maternal grandmother is present too (Mark 15:40), so Jesus’s words could be taken as gracefully including her. Therefore, the first of these two is the one I adopt as the reconstruction.

Clearly here the redactor removed the offending word “son”, without replacing it with anything; the only option he had was “disciple” or “the beloved disciple”, both of which would sound odd if forced here into Jesus’s dying words. And he reduced “women” and “mothers” to their singular forms.

If this second couplet refers so evidently to sons and mothers, then the strong possibility follows that the original version of the couplet in verse 25 also used the same manner to specify the relationships involved:

His mother and the disciple’s mother,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.

This would have perfectly set up the dual change in relationship that Jesus specifies to Lazarus and his mother: his stepson becomes his son, and his mother becomes his son’s mother. And Lazarus, as the eyewitness, confirms this dual change at the end of verse 27: “And from that hour the disciple took [ελαβεν] them [αυτην] as (his) own [τα ιδια].” The same Greek words are found in 1:11, to say that the Λογος “came into its own, but its own did not take it in,” so here, as an inclusio, it suggests that these three, Jesus’s family, have taken not only each other, but the Word as their own. The phrase τα ιδια is often translated “his own home”, with the word “home” understood, and that’s not necessarily wrong, but it is better taken to say that Lazarus took them both as his own mother – both Marys as his mothers, and also Jesus as his own father. At least here, the Word has been taken in by its own.

But all this would have been far too much of an affront to the dogma the new religion was developing, driving the redactor to change the “disciple’s mother” to “mother’s sister” and “the wife of Jesus” to “Magdalene”. The two couplets read perfectly together:

His mother and the disciple’s mother,
Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the wife of Jesus.
He says to the mothers, “Women, behold your son.”
Then he says to the disciple, “Son, behold your mothers.”

which in Greek would be:

η μητηρ αυτου και η μητηρ της μαθητην
μαρια η του κλωπα και μαρια η του ιεσους.
λεγει τας μητρας γυναι ιδε ο υιος σου
ειτα λεγει τω μαθητη ιδε αι μητηρες σου

And, just in case anyone still should fail to see the poetry, the author placed immediately before these two couplets another couplet taken from the Tanakh (Psalm 22:18) of what is universally recognized as poetry:

They divided my garments among themselves,
And for my clothing they cast lots.

And then, in stunning chiaroscuro, immediately following this bouquet of poetry, the author gives us in terse prose the death of Jesus.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

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