Mary Magdalene and Jesus Naked at the Tomb


What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. You will find ordering information here.

We know Jesus is naked since his entombment linens are still in the tomb (20:5-7) – they would in any case be much too soiled with blood and bodily fluids to serve as makeshift garments – and he cannot have gone somewhere to pick up a fresh suit. If he has gone anywhere, it would only be nearby, to one of the abundant springs and streams in this garden, to wash himself clean. As for Mary, by the time she arrived at the tomb in 20:1 she would have already torn her clothes asunder, as was then the tradition for those in mourning; as noted above, one reason she separated from the other women may be, as noted above, that she was by now close to quite nude. In any case, the text here, by vividly evoking the naked couple in the garden of Eden and in the Song of Songs, clearly signals Mary’s nakedness to match Jesus’s. She almost certainly took off what shreds remained of her robes while inside the tomb; the removal of clothing in many cultures, including the first-century Jewish (and the Native American, which refers to death as “the dropping of the robe”) signified death and mourning of death, so this act indicated her unwillingness to live without her husband and master.

First to note, their nakedness represents birth and death; as in Job 1:21, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.” The “mother” here is the Earth herself, and Jesus returned into her, specifically the tomb, and now has come forth from her womb. This is a second birth for Jesus, just as he “preenacted” it with John (1:32-33) and discussed it with Nicodemus (3:3-7) and so this scene forms an inclusio with the beginning of the gospel. Moreover, in terms of Plato’s allegory (see page 528), we are born owning none of the things of this world, which are just shadows cast by the more real world, the Æon, and at death we release all property, including the body. Clothing, and property in general, proclaims our social status and wealth; it divides us from others. Without clothes we are united in our common heritage, the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Thus Jesus’s and Mary’s nakedness here implies that in the Æon we are one, unencumbered by worldly things and their shadows.

Second, their nakedness in a garden brings to mind Adam and Eve naked in the garden of Eden, but it reverses that story: in Genesis Adam and Eve’s guilt and shame over their sin of disobedience, for which God punishes them with mortality, is associated by Genesis with the primordial couple clothing their naked bodies; here, Jesus and Mary unclothing their bodies represents for them (and us if we follow them spiritually) a return to the human condition before the primordial couple ate of the fruit. Modern readers, reading Genesis through their own cultural lenses, often think that Adam and Eve 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 God’s omnipotent wrath in the face of their vulnerability, especially following their disobedience of God, and so they sewed leaves together to disguise themselves as trees in this garden of trees. Thus the nakedness of Jesus and Mary is to say 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 emphasize, 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 this sense, this nakedness is not just to bring Adam and Eve to mind; this is 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 the next chapter, Simon the Rock is fishing naked, but puts on his clothes before swimming ashore where Jesus is; he has not yet “understood the scripture” [20:9].)

In logion 36 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “Do not worry from dawn to dusk, or from dusk to dawn, about what you shall wear” (cf. Matthew 6:25-30). In the following logion 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 has Jesus reply similarly, but adds a further thought: “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.” This is an eschatology in which the two genders become one, in which they become again the image and likeness of their Creator, Elohim, in which male and female are one.

This eschatology is found also in the Gospel of Thomas, particularly in the last logion in the book (114), which, unfortunately, is widely misunderstood:

Simon the Rock said this to them: “Let Mariam [Mary] go away from us, for women are not worthy of the [Æonian] life.”

Jesus said this: “Look, I will draw her into myself so I may make her male, so she may also be a living spirit resembling you males: for any woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This verse is often put down as an example of first-century misogyny, as Jesus insisting that only males are welcome in the Æon, the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus is actually referring to the Hebrew myth of the creation of male and female. In the first creation story God creates by separating complementary opposites: day from night, above from below, land from sea; finally, God takes the androgynous human who was made male-and-female in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and separates it into two humans, the primordial couple. The second creation story likewise has womankind, in the person of Eve, drawn forth from the side of the prototypical androgynous human, Adam. Jesus thus is saying in the above logion that women, in order to enter into the Æon, the Kingdom of Heaven, must again become one with the male. Mary, as is made clear in this resurrection scene, is reborn to a new life along with her husband Jesus: they experience in this scene a hierogamy, a spiritual marriage, which renders them truly one, hence truly reflecting the image and likeness of Elohim, and fully capable of entering into the Æon.

F. F. Bruce (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament) is the only scholar who to my knowledge interprets this logion correctly; he nicely summarizes Jesus’s point thus: “Jesus’s promise that she will become a man, so as to gain admittance to the kingdom of heaven, envisages the reintegration of the original order, when Adam was created male and female (Genesis 1.27). Adam was ‘the man’ as much before the removal of Eve from his side as after (Genesis 2.18-25). Therefore, when the primal unity is restored and death is abolished, man will still be man (albeit more perfectly so), but woman will no longer be woman; she will be reabsorbed into man.”

This interpretation of logion 114 is supported by logion 22, in which Jesus says in part, “When you make the two one … when you make the male and the female a single one, such that the male is not male nor the female female … then you shall enter into [the Kingdom of Heaven].” Likewise he says in logion 75, “There are many standing at the door, but the united/whole/single ones (are) the ones who will go in to the bridal chamber.”

We find the exact same theology in the Gospel of Philip, for instance in logion 76:

In the days (when) Eve was within Adam, death did not exist. (When) she was separated from him, death came into being. If again she goes into (him), and he takes her into himself, death shall not exist.

Third, while the sexual element is not clearly prominent in the garden of Eden story, it certainly is in the Song of Songs, 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; see below) 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. The eroticism is further discussed below.

This sexual element is related to the previous point that their Edenic nakedness has spiritual meaning. In the act of coïtus the couple become physically one, and their conscious minds are set aside, allowing them a moment of sheer ecstasy, which is a harbinger of the joy of living in the Æon. (This wakan aspect to lovemaking is explored in detail in The Circle of Life.) Further, the act of coïtus can result in the creation of new life, in the form of a child. Thus, Elohim appears in Genesis as a Creator, as Father-Mother to all life, and the man and woman, when they are truly one (including physically, during coïtus), are in the image and likeness of Elohim also creating life. This points to the deep meanings of the “bridal chamber” theology found in several early gospels, especially that of Philip. Logion 86, quoted on page 586, says that when male and female are mated together again in the bridal chamber they gain eternal life; death is overcome for them.

In sum, this resurrection 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 her fear and exhaustion, she finds 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.

Fourth, nakedness represents departure from the physical body in behalf of life in the Æon. As the Gospel of Philip has it (logion 24):

There are those made afraid lest they arise and find themselves naked. Because of this, they wish to arise in the flesh, but they do not understand that those made to wear the flesh are the naked ones. Those who are made of light strip themselves naked for they indeed are not naked. [or: Those who are unafraid to strip themselves naked are not really naked.]

Jesus speaks in a very similar way in the last dialogic section (probably late first century) of the Johannine-in-style Dialogue of the Savior, saying the “governors and administrators” of this world have garments (of flesh) which will not last, but his disciples will be blessed when they strip themselves of such garments.

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; I believe this moment was in the Presbyter’s mind as he described “the woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1; the next verse confirms she was pregnant, as does John 16:21. They embrace and kiss, naked as they are, in a garden; they are the eternal archetypal lovers, and their wedding that began 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 wrongdoing of humanity trying to separate itself from God now forgiven and undone, and the entire universe is reborn. “This was their thousandth meeting,” as Charles Williams put it in All Hallows Eve, “but yet more than their first, a new first, and yet the only one.”

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 is less likely a cut by the redactor, since publication did not take place before he had completed his work. More likely the sentence was taken out by an early copyist for theological reasons – his Christian community, with its emphasis on Jesus as God incarnate and its typically Roman misogyny clearly frowned on the idea that Jesus would allow a woman to embrace him, especially at such an august moment as his resurrection – and the majority of later copies retained this excision. It is in any case essential: it confirms that she was inside the tomb, with some distance intervening between her and Jesus; it dramatically informs the reader of her sudden change from the depths of deepest despair to cerulean euphoria; and it sets up Jesus’s asking her to cease embracing him. Thus it is included in this translation.

Without doubt the gospel writer had in mind these lines from the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Song of Songs:

First, Song 2:17a, ἕως οὗ διαπνεύσῃ ἡ ἡμέρα καὶ κινηθῶσιν αἱ σκιαί ἀπόστρεψον ὁμοιώθητι σύ ἀδελφιδέ μου τῷ δόρκωνι ἢ νεβρῷ ἐλάφων ἐπὶ ὄρη κοιλωμάτων (“Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn around, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young deer on the spice-laden mountains”). This dawn breathes new life not only into Jesus but Mary too. Their shadows on the far wall of the tomb flee away, for Mary has turned away from them, probably throwing down the embalming spices in her arms, to flee the tomb like a gazelle to her beloved.

Second, from Song 3:4b, ἐκράτησα αὐτὸν καὶ οὐκ ἀφῆκα αὐτόν (“I took hold of him and did not let [him] go”). Mary embraces Jesus and will not let him go, as 20:17 makes clear; Jesus must ask her to do so.

Third, from Song 1:2, the very beginning of that glorious poem, φιλησατω με απο φιληματων στοματος αυτου οτι αγαθοι μαστοι σου υπερ οινον (“Would that he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine”). The amanuensis, always conscious of inclusios between the beginning and end of the gospel, certainly had in mind not only the miracle of the wine and no doubt the traditional kiss of the bride and groom at Jesus’s wedding (2:1-11), but also the implied kiss when they met at the spring in Samaria (see the commentary to 4:13-14) and here in the form of the kisses of his mouth Mary has the everflowing living waters of eternal life again, and the miraculously appearing wedding wine again, and this time it is not merely “the best wine” (2:10), but “better than wine” (Song 1:2)!

And last, Song 8:6, κραταια ως θανατος αγαπη σκληρος ως αδης ζηλος, “As strong as death is love, as fierce as Hades is passionate desire.” Their love has survived death itself.

It is not only the Song of Songs that echoes in this passage; the well-read amanuensis might well again have had the incomparable Sappho in mind as he wrote:

Αρτίωσ μ᾽ ἀ χρυσοπέδιλλοσ Ἀύωσ. …
Στᾶθι κἄντα φίλοσ, καὶ τὰν ἔπ᾽ ὄσσοισ ἀμπέτασον χάριν.

And in this moment golden-sandalled Dawn [has spoken]. …
Turn and face me, my beloved, and unveil for me the grace in your eyes.

Moreover, it is without question that we hear in the brief but mighty phrases of verse 16 the voice of Homer. Consider these lines from the Odyssey (205, 207-208, 231-232, 241, 247-250), in which 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 weeping copious tears (20:11). As Odysseus does Penelope, Jesus addresses Mary as γυναι (“woman”). Like Penelope, Mary runs to Jesus and embraces him (20:16). In both works, this poignant 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 is more than romantic and erotic, though it is 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, רוּחַ (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 (ca. 150 C.E.) would put it in years to come (logia 35, 59-60):

[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?

“Someone blind with someone who sees: if they are in darkness together, their differences do not matter. When the light is made to come, then the seeing one will see the light, and the blinded one shall remain in the darkness.”

The last is probably Jesus answering his own question (there are, of course, no quotation marks in the original): he loves Mary because she sees him, knows and understands him, where the other disciples are still blinded by their ignorance, represented by the darkness of night (John 20:9). Thus their kiss at the resurrection is an exchange of holy breath, of grace, of the living water that comes out of them both (John 4:14). For Philip, Jesus and Mary sharing a kiss is more than merely romantic. Jesus has said that those who believe in him must drink the Word that proceeds from his mouth, an image that brings to mind the “holy kiss” – a sacred exchange of breaths, hence of the πνευμα άγιον (the sacred breath/spirit), that was at that time central to several spiritual communities, including the Mystery Religions, the Gnostics, and probably the Essenes. Logion 112 in the Gospel of Thomas reads: “Jesus said: ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me. And I too will become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.’” That is to say, those who accept the Word that proceeds from Jesus’s mouth will become like him, speaking the same word. That person and Jesus will become one, a concept that Jesus explores in 17:21-23, no doubt in the sense that all individuals will realize they are a part of the All. Jesus and Mary become truly one in this scene, even more one than the disciples in the next few verses, when he breathes on them.

James David Audlin (91 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.