Opponents Agree: Mary Magdalene a Priestess

Gospel of John Second Edition

What follows is a addition to the Second Edition of 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.

A book by the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus gives his logical arguments against the Christian religion. One thing he wrote was that we cannot take seriously the witness of a frenzed female that Jesus rose from the dead; she may have only had a wish-fulfillment fantasy or deliberately pretended to a vision. His contemporary, the Christian apologist Origen, wrote a book countering Celsus’s; he pointed out, fairly, that there were other witnesses besides Mary, and that there is nothing in the gospels to suggest that she was frenzied.

Nevertheless, I think Celsus makes a good point. Of course the grieving wife was highly emotional, whether or not that obvious point is mentioned in the gospels, because she believed her husband dead. Celsus further is right that in that age, when the logical cogitative abilities of women were considered limited, it would have been foolish to persuade the public to believe the story of a man coming back from death by citing a woman or women as the witnesses, and especially not a woman who must have been nearly raving with her grief. The rational conclusion – which both Celsus and Origen missed – was best enunciated by Tertullian: … resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile (“…he rose; this is certain, because [it is] impossible”).

But let us take a closer look at Celsus’s comments. His book is lost to us today, but Origen, almost certainly faithfully, copied Celsus’s remarks into his own book. Celsus says she was:

γυνη παροιστρος, ώς φατε, και εί τις άλλος των έκ της αύτης γοητειας, ήτοι κατα τινα διαθεσιν όνειρωξας και κατα την αύτου βουλησιν δοξη πεπλανημενη φαντασιωθεις, όπερ ήδη μυριοις σθμβεβηκεν, ή, όπερ μαλλον άπο γε τουτων, οίς άπαγορευει πειθεσθαι Μωωσης ή Μωυσεα εξ ών έτεροθς περι σημειων και τερατων διεβαλε…

A frenzied woman, as you state, and (she was) perhaps one of those engaged in that kind of magic, who had either undergone a dream of this, having been willing to let her mind wander causing images to form in it, as many people have done; or, most likely, one who desired to impress others with this sign, and by such a falsehood to furnish an occasion to impostors like herself.

Celsus hints at rumors that Mary may have been a priestess (of the Samaritan Temple, and his literary opponent Origen unwontedly lets the allegation stand, confirming it in fact, as discussed below. And Celsus hints she was adept at invoking the presence of deity as were the Greek oracles, such as the most famous one at Delphi. His comments are made to argue against blind acceptance of the Christian claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but they actually work to confirm it, adding to evidence in the Gospel of John suggesting that Mary was indeed a priestess.

Origen comments in his own works that the “five husbands” Jesus mentions are the so-called “five gods” of Samaria (II Kings 17:24-34). A careful reading of that text reveals a slight error on Jesus’s (or the amanuensis’s) and Origen’s part; the text refers to the gods of the five nations that were originally settled in Samaria, but their gods, as listed, were actually seven in number. And these seven are almost certainly the “seven demons” which Jesus cast out of Mary according to Luke 8:2.

These deities, known best in their Babylonian versions, are:

a: Succoth-Benoth (“tabernacles/booths of girls” in Hebrew), also known as “the seed-creating one”; she has been identified with Sarpanitu, the consort of Marduk, god of Babylon.

b: Nergal, the god of pestilence, disease, and other calamities; he was venerated together with his consort Ereshkigal.

c: Ashima, probably a variation of Semiramis. Her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, is believed to be a derivation of Summat (“Dove”), signifying “The Dove Goddess Loves Her”. She was protected during her life by doves, and at its close she was turned into a dove, taking flight to heaven in that form. Throughout the eastern Mediterranean the dove is closely associated with love, and also symbolizes innocence, gentleness, and holiness. This is most likely the deity to whom Mary was dedicated as a priestess.

d: Nibhaz, perhaps an ass deity; his name may refer to a “deified altar”.

e: Tartak, a version of Atargatis, a goddess venerated in Mesopotamia.

f: Adrammelech (“Adar is King”) is probably a variation of the god Athtar-Milki. “Milki” refers to the planet Venus, and melech may have been added as a suffix in the Hebrew version of the name because it is a loose homonym.

g: Anammelech (“Anu is King”) was the Babylonian sky-god. These last two deities were Syrian or Canaanite in origin, and their veneration included the immolation of children as burnt offerings (cf. II Kings 17:31, and bear in mind Abraham offering preparing to do the same (Genesis 22) and Ahaz, the king accosted by Isaiah in Isaiah 7, who burned his own sons.

We may have a hint of these seven gods in that ancient Samaritan synagogues found in Galilee have in them seven-branched menorahs, a number avoided then and since in Jewish menorahs, probably because of the antipathy toward all things Samaritan. Rod Borghese suggests that “The seven-branched menorah is related to Asherah (the Tree of Life), and the word ‘Israel’ comes from ישראל (‘Isra-EL’) and the אל אשרת (‘Ashera-EL’).” The Promised Land, in other words, is understood as the Consort of YHWH, a concept that is also found in early Christian writing, the Revelation (written by the amanuensis of this gospel), which refers to the Bride of the Lamb as Jerusalem.

In the most ancient strata from which emerged the Samaritan and Jewish religions, God was a single deity comprising male and female aspects. In Genesis 1:27, for instance, Elohim created male and female human beings in the image and likeness of Elohim. “The word Elohim is a plural formed from the feminine singular ALH (‘Eloh’), by adding IM to the word,” writes Rod Borghese; the word “Eloah” appears to mean “Power”. Borghese continues: “But inasmuch as IM is usually the termination of the masculine plural, and is here added to a feminine noun, it gives to the word Elohim the sense of a female potency united to a masculine idea, and thereby capable of producing an offspring. Now we hear much of the Father and the Son, but we hear nothing of the Mother in the ordinary religions of the day. But in the Kabbalah we find that the Ancient of Days conforms himself simultaneously into the Father and the Mother, and thus begets the Son. Now this Mother is Elohim.”

John J. Parsons (www.hebrew4christians.com) makes a similar point about “El Shaddai”, a common term for God in the Tanakh, which modern translators usually render as “the Almighty”, following the lead of the scholars who created the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh), who believed that it was derived from shadad, which means “to vanquish” or “to destroy”. However, Parsons points out that the blessing Jacob gives in Genesis 49:25 includes both masculine and feminine imagery, the latter being the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (בִּרְכת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם), a phrase that suggests “El Shaddai” may come from shadaim (“breasts”), as an indication of God’s all-sufficiency and ability to nourish, to care for, all creation.

Thus there is a double entendre: the woman at the well understands Jesus to mean she should call her husband, and she answers truthfully that she is unmarried. But in his rejoinder, by using the same word to say “you have had five baalim” (and Bible commentators never seem to see how utterly unlikely it is that a young woman – for she is certainly a young woman – could have already had five husbands!), he makes it clear that he is asking her to summon her God, not her husband, and he is confirming to her that he knows her to be a Temple priestess. She in turn confirms his implication with her response, calling him a prophet (4:19).

Jesus’s “five husbands” response again makes it perfectly clear that the woman at the well is a Temple priestess of the sect centered on Mount Gerizim, the shoulder of which (“Shechem” means “shoulder”) rose over the village of Shechem. Therefore his command could well be an implication that she should go to the nearby Samaritan Temple and “call her God/husband” – that is, serve as Temple priestess. He may well be implying that she should enter with him into the sexual rite. Or he may be saying that he wants to marry her so she can be his κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort; a word that carries erotic and sexual implications), to use the term that the Gospel of Philip applies to their relationship, priestess to Jesus as Messiah. Or, in my view, all of the above.

And now, in retrospect, her response “I don’t have a husband” has been given a new level of meaning. Since these Temple priests and priestesses were married to God, she now looks back and realizes she has told Jesus, “I don’t any longer have the God I served as priestess as my husband/master/Lord”. By accepting Jesus, the emissary from God whose presence (as with all royal ambassadors) is to be treated as if it were the very presence of God Him/Herself, by accepting Jesus as not only her husband but her spiritual master, she is freed; she is no longer a Samaritan Temple priestess married to her God and forsworn from marrying any mortal man, but a wife and a consort and a dévotée of this man whom she now recognizes is a prophet (4:19), an emissary of God who is to be treated like the presence of God; she is in effect about to switch allegiance from the Samaritan perception of God to the Judæan one. And, in an inclusio, in a year’s time she will indeed “go call for her husband”, just as Jesus has told her to do. In chapter 20 she will look for, and call out for her baal, her mary, when she goes looking for him after finding the tomb empty, and will call him her mary in 20:16, when her resurrected husband reveals himself to her.

After saying “you have had five baalim”, Jesus adds, “and he whom you have now is not your husband.” He is not insinuating (as commentators always assume) that she is living with a man to whom she is not married. Jesus is speaking rather of the man she has before her now, in this moment and, if she accepts his proposal of marriage, for indeed she “has” him now in a deeper sense, and will have forevermore if she accepts him. The sense of this is much clearer in the Aramaic of the Peshitta, which reads: ܠܶܟ݂ܝ ܘܗܳܢܳܐ ܕ݁ܺܐܝܬ݂ ܠܶܟ݂ܝ ܗܳܫܳܐ ܠܳܐ ܗܘܳܐ ܒ݁ܰܥܠܶܟ݂ܝ (literally, “…for this (person) is for the present moment not yet being your husband/master/God”). The word “this” (ܘܗܢܐ) is a demonstrative pronoun; Jesus means by it “the person in front of you”; i.e., himself. Thus Jesus is with the same words asking her to accept him as both husband and spiritual master; moreover, he is assuming and predicting her inevitable acceptance, implying: “At this present moment I am not your baal, but I am going to be.” The phraseology in this verse, in both the Greek and the Aramaic, is similar to that in verse 26, when he confirms to her that he is Messiah. She takes his statement here, that “this one is, for now, not your husband/master/God”, as she should, as a prophecy of her future, and her reply, a mixture of utmost seriousness and shy coquetry, is “I understand that you are a prophet.”

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.

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