Calling a Mary a Mary

This blog discusses John 20:16. Does Mary embrace Jesus? Does she call him a mary, Aramaic for “lord” or “master”? This comes from my commentaries to the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb by name in 11:43, but here, in a dramatic reversal, he the resurrected one calls Mary by name, the one who has come to his tomb. The implication is that Mary has, in a sense, died, and he is calling her back to life and faith, hence that this is a resurrection for both of them, in one way or the other.
Someone, probably the amanuensis, has inserted here and at 1:38 the statement that “rabbi” means “teacher”. That is true only in a very loose sense. The root meaning is “great”, and the word was early used as a title denoting reverence. In the Second Temple period the word came to mean “my master”, and was commonly used not just to refer to religious authorities but anyone whom the speaker respected as authoritative in any subject, religious or not. The Aramaic word in this verse of the Peshitta is ܪܒܘܠܝ (rab’uwliy), which comes from the root ܪܒܢ (raban), meaning “great” or “master”.

But could Mary have called Jesus something else entirely? Mary, in verses 2, 13, and 18 calls Jesus κυριε/κυριος, meaning “master”. Only here does she appear to say something different; could she have said the same thing she does in those other verses?

To answer this question we can turn to the Peshitta, the very early Aramaic version of the New Testament. The Eastern, Syriac Church claims the Peshitta is the original New Testament, and that the Greek version on which the Western Church (including Roman Catholic and Protestant) bases its modern translations is itself a translation! Determining which of the two is the original is beyond the scope of this book. Still, the fact of the matter is that Jesus and Mary in this conversation (as is the case with every conversation in this gospel, except perhaps that between Jesus and Pontius Pilate) were certainly speaking Aramaic, and not Greek. Therefore, unavoidably, the Greek in this resurrection scene is a translation – and so, whether or not the Peshitta is the original New Testament, it nevertheless is far more likely to tell us exactly what the two of them actually said.

The Aramaic word in this passage of the Peshitta for “lord” or “master” is ܡܳܪܝ (mary); elsewhere in classical Aramaic texts it is ܡܪܐ (mara). The root apparently means “to lift” or “to raise up”, which might have Messianic implications. Her name, “Mary”, is either ܡܪܝܡ (Maryam) or, more likely on the lips of her husband, in a more intimate form, ܡܰܪܺܝܰܐ (Marya), or even in its original version from Ruth 1:13,20, ܡܪܐ (Mara); the root of this name means “bitter”. The two words, though from different roots, are spelled and pronounced identically. Therefore, if this was what Mary said, then these verses contain a kind of sacred pun: she is looking for her mary, her master, and he calls her his Mary. Very possibly, then, in the original verse 16, or in Lazarus’s recollection of what his mother later told him of this event, Jesus said “Mara!”, ܡܪܐ (Mara), and Mary replied with not ܪܒܢ (raban), but “Mara!”, ܡܪܐ (mara).

This double entendre or pun, like others in this gospel, is of course not meant to be taken as comical, as are puns in the modern Western civilization – though the author of the gospel no doubt intended the “Mary!” “Mary!” exchange to elicit a smile from readers: it is amusing, and the gospel is laced with a good deal of this kind of gentle humor. But here and always in this gospel it would primarily be intended to deliver a sacred message; in this case, to make very clear to us the closeness of this man and this woman, indeed their unity as a couple, as “one flesh”, as each a κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort) to the other, to cite the term the Gospel of Philip uses in reference to them.

We do not know whether the Beloved Disciple described his memories to his amanuensis in Aramaic or Greek; we do not even know whether the amanuensis (probably John the Presbyter), whose first language clearly was Greek, was even slightly familiar with Aramaic; probably not, since his Hebrew was so weak that his inserted quotations from the Tanakh come from the Septuagint, the classical translation of the Jewish scriptures into Greek. Yet certainly our eyewitness’s memory of these vivid experiences were carried in the vessel of Aramaic. And we know that the actual conversations Jesus engaged in (certainly with those closest to him, Mary and his disciples) were in Aramaic, excepting probably only those with foreigners, such as Pontius Pilate. It is absolutely inconceivable that Mary and the disciples would have interjected Greek into their Aramaic, calling Jesus κυριη; that foreign word, from the language of the imperial oppressor (at least in the eastern part of the Roman Empire), would have been uncomfortable on their lips. There can be no question but that they variously called Jesus by any or all of these synonyms, ܪܒܘܠܝ (rab’uwliy, “rabbi”, but with the significance of “master”) or ܠܒ݂ܰܥܠܶܟ݂ܝ (ba’al, “lord” or “master”) or ܡܪܝܐ, (mary, “lord” or “master”). The first was not yet common as a term of respect for religious leaders; thus, the possibility that Mary said mary in 20:16 is very strong. Not only is it her form of address for Jesus everywhere else in the chapter (verses 2, 13, and 18), but the double entendre it would present in this critical moment, emphasizing the closeness between Jesus and Mary, would be clear (and is doubtlessly why the redactor would have replaced the word with rabbouni. Besides, similar doubles entendres are frequently encountered in the gospel, including in this very scene, with isha/isha. What is more, the complex inclusio of this entire conversation with that in 1:38-42, raises the question whether the word in 1:38 was originally mary as well. It seems extremely likely therefore, that at 4:25,29 and at 20:16) the original text had mary, as the Peshitta does at 20:2,13,18.

Again, as with isha/isha, this sacred pun would be to emphasize how Jesus and Mary, as portrayed in this gospel (as in the Gospel of Philip), were each the other’s κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort). And again, this may have simply been too incomprehensible or romantic for the redactor, seeking at a late stage in the devolution of the original gospel to conform it to the dogma of the new Christian religion, who would have quickly changed mary (“lord”) for rabbouni. and even incorrectly adding that this is a word in Hebrew and further adding his not-quite-correct translation “teacher”.

After much consideration I do not see the Talpiot “Mariamenou” ossuary as shedding light on this matter. See the essay on that subject [posted as the blog beneath this one].

Another possibility to mention in passing is that in chapter 20 Mary may also have called Jesus ܠܒ݂ܰܥܠܶܟ݂ܝ (ba’al), as she did at the well in Sychar (John 4:16-18); if she did, this would be another inclusio. In both Hebrew (בָּעַל) and Aramaic the word ba’al, like mary, means “husband”, “lord”, “master”, and also “God”. Still, because the Peshitta has Mary call Jesus mary throughout the chapter (except in verse 16, but I conclude that the original version also had this title), I reject this possibility.

It is at about this moment, as Jesus says “Mary!” and Mary says “Mary!”, that the light dawns, both literally and figuratively. Mary now understands. And, in the new light of day, the first thing they see is each other.

Jesus is naked, since his entombment shrouds are said (20:5-7) to be still in the tomb, and Mary is pretty close to naked herself, since the tradition was for those in mourning to tear their clothes asunder. This is different from Lazarus, who came out still bound in his grave clothes, hence clearly the portrayal of a man and a woman naked and alone in a garden is intentional.

Their nakedness first represents birth and death; as Job puts it (Job 1:21), “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.” This is, of course, a second birth for Jesus, just as he enacted it with John (1:32-33) and discussed it with Nicodemus (3:3-7) and so an inclusio with the beginning of the gospel.

Second, their nakedness brings to mind Adam and Eve naked in the Garden of Eden, hence a return to the condition of humanity before that primordial couple ate of the fruit. Modern readers, reading Genesis through their own cultural lenses, often think that they clothed themselves out of a kind of sexually fueled embarrassment for being “naked in public”. But a careful reading of the text reveals that, no, they were afraid of their vulnerability in the face of God’s omnipotence, especially following their disobedience of God, and so they sewed leaves together to disguise themselves as trees in this garden of trees. So the nakedness of Jesus and Mary is to say that no person need feel any longer afraid of God, as needing to hide her- or himself from God or ignore God, that “all is forgiven”, as the classic prophets often put it, as long as the individual accepts the Λογος, the truth and wisdom of the plan of God. Spiritually speaking, true trust is true nakedness, with no need to hide oneself, or to make of oneself something other than naturally human. In that sense, this is not just a recalling of Adam and Eve, but an eschatological nakedness: Jesus and Mary are the “Adam and Eve” of the people of the future who are completely integrated into the Λογος, who trust God completely, and do not put clothes on out of fear or misrepresentation of their true selves. In Logion 37 of the Gospel of Thomas the disciples ask Jesus, “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?”, and he replies, “When you can take off your clothes without feeling ashamed, and you take your clothes and throw them beneath your feet like little children and trample them; then you will see the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.” The (Greek) Gospel of the Egyptians similarly has Jesus reply, “When you have trampled on the garment of shame, and when the two become one, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.” So here Jesus appears, his and his bride’s clothes removed and unashamed thereof. (Ironically, in the next chapter, Simon the Rock is fishing naked, but puts on his clothes before swimming ashore where Jesus is.)

Third, while the sexual element may or may not have been prominent in the Garden of Eden story, it is in the Song of Songs story, and very much so here as well. There had to be some sexual energy in their embrace (and no doubt a kiss, as the implications of the Odyssey suggest) in the next verse; most emphatically, Jerome’s Noli me tangere (“Do not touch me”) is repugnant as a translation. This is Jesus’s and Mary’s hierogamy, their spiritual (re)marriage, and so it has to be erotic.

This scene is frighteningly beautiful, joyfully fearsome. Mary encounters a dead body that speaks to her: in her culture he is a ghost or an angel, perhaps, or Death Incarnate even, and it is impossible for her not to be afraid. And yet, when she comes close to him, and looks through the bruises and wounds, she sees a familiar face. She smells the comfortable scent of his skin. She feels the warmth of his body against hers, the wonderful strength of his arms. She is scared and ecstatic at once. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, if an angel

… gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

put itself before me and pulled
me suddenly against its heart, I would be overwhelmed by its
prodigious existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can barely endure,
and we admire it so, because it serenely scorns
to destroy us. Even a single angel is terrifying.

And so: “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). The first rays of dawn reveal to Mary the face of her beloved husband. They embrace and kiss, naked as they are, in a garden, they are the eternal lovers, beginning with Adam and Eve, and their wedding at the beginning of the gospel is now confirmed and made holy, and the celestial clock is set back to the moment of Creation, εν αρχη ην ο λογος, with the first sin of humanity trying to separate itself from God now forgiven, and the entire universe is reborn.

Only a few manuscripts, most importantly the Codex Sinaiticus (01C2a), have the critical phrase at the end of this verse, “And she runs to embrace him.” This may be one cut by the redactor which some early copies of the gospel managed to retain. It is, in any case essential, setting up Jesus’s saying “Do not keep clinging to me.” That she ran dramatically informs the reader as to her sudden change from the depths of deepest despair to cerulean euphoria. It also adds confirmation that she was inside the tomb, with some distance intervening between her and Jesus.

Without doubt the gospel writer had in mind these lines from the Song of Songs: ἕως οὗ διαπνεύσῃ ἡ ἡμέρα καὶ κινηθῶσιν αἱ σκιαί. ἀπόστρεψον (“Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn around, my beloved”) and ἐκράτησα αὐτὸν καὶ οὐκ ἀφῆκα αὐτόν (“I took hold of him and did not let (him) go”), Song 2:17a and 3:4b.

But in these brief but mighty phrases of verse 16 we find not only an echo of the Song of Songs; the Odyssey too is very clearly in the author’s mind. Consider these lines (205, 207-208, 231-232, 241, 247-250), from when Odysseus reveals himself to his longsuffering wife Penelope:

τῆς δ’ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ …
δακρύσασα δ’ ἔπειτ’ ἰθὺς κίεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
δειρῇ βάλλ’ Ὀδυσῆϊ, κάρη δ’ ἔκυσ …
τῷ δ’ ἔτι μᾶλλον ὑφ’ ἵμερον ὦρσε γόοιο:
κλαῖε δ’ ἔχων ἄλοχον θυμαρέα, κέδν’ εἰδυῖαν. …
καί νύ κ’ ὀδυρομένοισι φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς …
καὶ τότ’ ἄρ’ ἣν ἄλοχον προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς
ὦ γύναι, οὐ γάρ πω πάντων ἐπὶ πείρατ’ ἀέθλων
ἤλθομεν, ἀλλ’ ἔτ’ ὄπισθεν ἀμέτρητος πόνος ἔσται,
πολλὸς καὶ χαλεπός, τὸν ἐμὲ χρὴ πάντα τελέσσαι.

And then her knees and precious heart gave way …
Then in tears she ran to him, to throw her arms
Around Odysseus’s neck, to kiss his face …
And she elicited in him even more the desire to weep;
He held his wife, beloved and loyal, and shed his tears.
Rosy-fingered Dawn would have risen upon them as they wept …
And then resourceful Odysseus said to his wife,
“Woman, we haven’t finished yet with all our trials
For I must yet undertake, in the future, a great work,
Long and difficult, before I have completely finished. …”

Like Penelope, Mary is tottering on her legs, exhausted by considerable stress, and is weeping copious tears (20:11). Like Penelope, Mary runs to Jesus and embraces him (20:16). As in the Odyssey, this moving moment comes at dawn (20:1). And like Odysseus, Jesus says there are things that they both yet must accomplish, especially he himself (20:17).

This embrace was more than romantic and erotic, though it was that too; this embrace is what Jung calls the coincidentia oppositorum, the union of complementary opposites. As it is put in The Circle of Life:

The embrace is a sign of love that symbolizes the Sacred Hoop: both persons are within the circle. When we embrace, first we open our arms, becoming vulnerable in a sense, exposing our hearts both literally and figuratively, to create space in ourselves to welcome the other into us. Then we close our arms around each other, one with each other within the Sacred Hoop. (Sexuality is an extension of the embrace, of course – an even closer joining in which we each enter even more deeply into the other, body and soul.) Then, when the ceremony of embrace ends, we open again, and return to our separate identities, but enriched by the moment in which we were one together. Now and forever after, we are connected, and carry a little bit of the other in us.

And likewise the kiss is more than “just a kiss”; it is the eternal man and woman exchanging their sacred breath/spirit (ר֖וּחַ [ruach] in Hebrew and πνευμα [pneuma] in Greek). As Plotinus would later put it (in his Enneads, II.7), “All things depend on each other; as has been said, ‘Everything breathes together.’” And as the noncanonical Gospel of Philip would put it in years to come (35, 59):

[Grace comes] from him, from the mouth, the place from which the Word came forth, to be nourished from the mouth and to become perfected. The perfect conceive and give birth by a kiss. This is why we also kiss each other, to receive conception from the grace that is in each other.
And the companion of the [Anointed One] is Mariam the Magdalene. [The Lord] loved her more than the other disciples, and would kiss her often on her mouth. The other [women saw how much he loved Mariam], and say to him, “Why do you love her more than us?” The Savior answered and says to them, “Why do I not love you (as I do) her?”

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.


9 thoughts on “Calling a Mary a Mary

  1. Will all of this commentary appear in the book, as well? It certainly is thought-provoking and adds new dimensions to the story. I’m enjoying these glimpses into the translator’s thought processes and history as much as the retelling of the Gospel. Of course, I’ve always thought history would be more compelling if it were told with more warmth and depth of character (not to mention accuracy).
    Holly Jahangiri recently posted The Lady Lifts Her Lamp.My Profile

    • Yes! These blogs are actually snippets from commentaries that will be part of a forthcoming book, which will be published by the end of this year, and available through this website (as well as the usual perpetrators, such as Amazon).

      The book in question will be titled “The Gospel of John”, and will include a restoration (as far as can be done from the available clues) of the ORIGINAL version of the gospel, before early Christian leaders doctored it to make it conform to their new dogma and creed, and before some accidents resulted in misplaced chapters and the like.

      The translation will be a fresh one, with the Greek on facing pages for those who can read the language.

      There will also be biographies of major figures in the gospel, essays on significant topics, and an introduction that discusses authorship, date of composition, and the like.

      I am striving for that accuracy – indeed, I’m not afraid to leave behind familiar phraseology that the text simply doesn’t say. The Jesus that emerges in the restored gospel is astonishingly different from the mold into which the later redactors forced him. I don’t mean to shock anyone (sarcasm alert) by revealing that he comes off as, wow! who wooda thought, a very Jewish rabbi.
      James David Audlin recently posted Finding Jesus Guilty in Roman Law.My Profile

        • Holly, good questions! I’m sure you realize that the “grail”, the original manuscript of the Gospel of John, or any other New Testament text, does not exist. We have to work from early copies thereof, often minuscule fragments with just parts of words. Needless to say, I don’t have a manila folder full of first-century manuscripts. The gold standard is the so-called Nestle-Aland, a specialist’s reference that meticulously provides every variation among the manuscripts for every verse. Most often these are just little spelling mistakes, but Nestle-Aland still carefully notes them. However, sometimes they are very important (whether or not you accept it as “gospel”), such as ONE manuscript adding in John 20:26 that Mary ran to Jesus and embraced him. My own copy of Nestle-Aland has been well-thumbed since seminary days in the early ’70s. But the Deutsche Biblegesellschaft and the University of Muenster (Germany) have very kindly given me permission to use their on-line version, which has all the latest additions and corrections, and to use this to establish my baseline Greek text for publication. I also sometimes go to photocopies of the manuscripts themselves (available through the internet) and blow them up and pore over them myself until my eyes ache from the strain.

          The establishment of that baseline is fraught with difficulty, and therein lies a great deal of (friendly) discussion amongst the experts. I’m right now engaged in such a friendly discussion with the well-known New Testament scholar James Daniel Tabor over the word και, which usually means “and”, but says Tabor can also mean “aka” (“also known as”), with me demurring.

          Not always is the oldest manuscript better. Since manuscripts are copied from earlier manuscripts, a later manuscript might have been copied from an earlier manuscript that we don’t have any more, and thus might be better than an earlier manuscript that we do have, but which was copied incorrectly.

          My criteria are complex; it’s not democratic; as noted, one manuscript might be right and a hundred others wrong. I look for style (the original author of John had a certain style of writing), consistency of theology, and inclusio: the gospel is structured on an A-B-A symmetry framework, and thus we find elements from the early chapters coming up again in the last chapters.

          Your question about Greek-Aramaic is complex, too. Jesus and his friends spoke Aramaic amongst each other. Thus, as these events were happening, they took place “in Aramaic”. Thus the earliest gospels, written in Greek, are in effect “translations” even if they are the first written records of Jesus’s ministry and teachings. Western Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant, etc.) generally believes the Greek New Testament to be “the original” and the Peshitta, the Aramaic New Testament, to be an early translation thereof. Eastern Christianity (especially the Syriac Orthodox Church) believes exactly the other way around. It is beyond the scope of my project to take sides in that debate. Suffice it to say that, whether or not the Peshitta is the original it is in Aramaic, and hence may give us valuable clues as to what was actually said in this or that event. Given my (not particularly unusual) working theory that there was the “eyewitness”, the “Beloved Disciple” (whom I believe was Lazarus, son of Mary Magdalene from before her marriage to Jesus), who would have been primarily an Aramaic speaker, and an amanuensis (kinda like a modern ghostwriter) (whom I believe to have been John the Presbyter, author of the Letters of John and probably the Revelation) who would have been primarily a Greek speaker, I think the eyewitness reminisced aloud in Aramaic, and the amanuensis wrote down these reminiscences in rough notes in Greek – hence the Peshitta might give us clues as to what the eyewitness actually said in Aramaic!
          James David Audlin recently posted Finding Jesus Guilty in Roman Law.My Profile

          • I knew none of this! Really fascinating stuff, James. I’ve always felt that history – all history, not just Biblical – would be more appealing and engaging if we had a more accurate sense of the flesh and blood people involved in the making of it. I don’t think that it in any way “lessens” Jesus to think that he had a love life or was married. In fact, if Jesus was in any sense “God incarnate” in order to experience the human experience, it would have been a very necessary component OF that experience, I should think. (In fact, I should hope He’s tried it as a woman, at some point – but I think things might be very different… 🙂

          • Holly, faith not anchored in fact is “blind faith”. It is allowing organized religion, a social institution more interested in amassing power and money than in genuine spirituality, to brainwash you into an obedient serf.

            I know of only one woman among the “Great Founders of the World’s Religions”, and that is the Pte Skan Winyan, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, whom I discuss at length in “The Circle of Life”.
            James David Audlin recently posted Finding Jesus Guilty in Roman Law.My Profile

  2. Your appreciation, John, is itself appreciated. Personally, I feel like I’m just strapped in for the ride (with you and everyone else), and someone else is guiding us on the way. Unlike writing a novel (you just make it up as you go!), I’m merely following the threads of clues in the text and seeing where they lead. And the places they take me (us) to are fascinating indeed! I am actually feeling rather sad as I get within sight of the end of this project, and am thinking horrid, unwholesome thoughts like, “Hmm, perhaps I should translate the Book of Revelation!”
    James David Audlin recently posted Calling a Mary a Mary.My Profile

  3. Amazing grace! Again, James, I’m amazed at your erudition in this piece! It’s stunning! I’m learning so much about all the cast of characters in and around Jesus through your work on the GoJ! Much of it is beyond anything I’ve exposed myself to in the gospels. Thanks again for your offerings here for one and all to learn from. It’s all feels like you’re shedding so much well-researched plus intuitive light on the subjects. Blessed Be on Samhain, amigo! Gracias por tu amistad{;~}>

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