John the Presbyter, Author of the Gospel of John

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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.

John the Presbyter (also known as “John the Elder”, the latter being a loose translation of the cognomen Πρεσβύτερος), as amanuensis to Lazarus, was the formal author of the Gospel of John. According to early accounts John had actually seen and heard Jesus teach. Of course many people had done without it changing their lives one whit, but moreover he had accepted Jesus as his spiritual master, and he dedicated the rest of his life to passing on the wisdom of his master. Therefore, he is also described as a “disciple of the Lord”, albeit not one of the inner circle that comprised Simon (Peter), Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and certainly Lazarus. These disciple-eyewitnesses, when they had the talent to instruct and exhort, were authorized by the movement’s leaders as rabbis, in effect, teachers who imparted the genuine message of Jesus to communities here and there in the Roman Empire.

Little is known of John the Presbyter’s early life, other than that he was apparently a priest in one or another Jewish temple. Eusebius quotes or paraphrases from a letter written by Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus to Victor, Bishop of Rome, written toward the end of the second century. The salient sentence reads as follows:

ἔτι δὲ καὶ Ἰωάννης ὁ ἐπὶ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ κυρίου ἀναπεσών, ὃς ἐγενήθη ἱερεὺς τὸ πέταλον πεφορεκὼς καὶ μάρτυς καὶ διδάσκαλος: οὗτος ἐν Ἐφέσῳ κεκοίμηται.

And moreover John, who reclined on the Lord’s bosom, and who became a priest and wore the petalon, and a witness and a teacher: he sleeps at Ephesus.

Before discussing what this sentence does tell us, one phrase in it must first be dismissed as not original to it. A couple of centuries after Jesus, Christian apologists often conflated John the Presbyter with John the Apostle the son of Zebedee, in a process Richard Bauckham rather kindly calls “exegetical procedure”, but which I call confusion, not always unintentional. It is all but certain that Eusebius added the phrase about reclining on the Lord’s bosom (referring to John 13:23) surely trying to be helpful to his readers in identifying just who this John was. For Polycrates, as bishop in Ephesus, where memories of his august predecessor John the Presbyter would have been fresh, who was a disciple of Polycarp, Irenæus, and perhaps even Papias in his last days, men who were themselves disciples of the Presbyter, would never have confused him with the son of Zebedee. Papias, in fact, is quoted as saying in his masterwork introduced below that James and John the two Zebedee brothers ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἀνῃρέθησαν (“were killed by the Jewish authorities”), which would effectively rule out the old age, death, and burial at Ephesus that he ascribes to the Presbyter. Besides, there is nothing in the early Christian writings to suggest that John Zebedee’s son, a fisherman, was a Temple priest. What is more, the bosom reference is out of chronological order with the the rest of the sentence, which comprises a brief summary of John’s life: it first mentions John being a priest, which would have been before John’s discipleship to Jesus, followed by his time as a witness to Jesus, then later in life as a teacher about Jesus, and closing with his death at Ephesus.

That highly doubtful phrase laid aside, this quotation tells us that John was a priest, and that at least briefly he was high priest. In the salient Jewish literature no John is listed as serving as high priest in the first century, and attempts to identify him as High Priest Jonathan fail especially in view of Acts 4:6, which names that son of the notorious Annas (Ananus) who tried Jesus as among those standing in judgement of Peter and John – John the Presbyter. Yet it was not uncommon for ordinary priests, especially those likely to advance in the sacerdotal ranks, to temporarily be permitted to put on the petalon (the medallion that the high priest wore) and fill in if the actual high priest were sick or travelling or otherwise unavailable.

It must have been while he was still a priest that John the Presbyter saw and heard Jesus – for he was a witness to Jesus, as Polycrates, and others who will be quoted below, confirms. Very likely he took part in some of the Gospel of John’s extended debates with Temple priests, especially those in Acts Two and Three, and his own memories joined with those of the Beloved Disciple Lazarus in reconstructing those conversations. He may indeed have been present at the deliberations of the Sanhedrin that started the process of sentencing Jesus to death, though the description in the gospel (11:47-53) may have come, instead or also, from Nicodemus and/or Joseph of Arimathæa, who were friends and supporters of Jesus. And clearly John must have left the priesthood, no doubt persuaded to do so in part by the persuasive power of Jesus’s teachings, and ultimately by his resurrection, which would have been more than ample proof that he was Messiah. After Jesus was gone, among his followers, he would have surely been respected as a former priest who had defected to their cause; he became part of the central leadership of the Jerusalemite community of Jesus followers, along with Simon the Rock (Peter) and James the Just, a brother of Jesus.

As a priest, John would have received a superlative education. It was common in those days for Jewish religious leaders to be well instructed not only in the Torah but also in the Hellenic classical culture that was by then universal. Josephus and Philo come immediately to mind as near-contemporaries who were masters of both branches of learning. The Saduccee priests display knowledge of Roman law in John 18:31b and 19:12,15. Paul, too, who as a Pharisee studied with the legendary Rabbi Gamaliel I, also showed off his familiarity with the great Greek literature; for instance, the playwright Menander in I Corinthians 15:33, a paradox composed by the poet Epimenides in Titus 1:12-13, and probably Epimenides again as well as another poet, Aratus, in Acts 17:28. Paul also refers to the spectacles presented in the coliseums – theatrical plays, footraces, and the like – suggesting he often enjoyed these very Roman events. (Thus, by the way, it strikes one as hypocritical that Paul accuses Simon Peter of living like a gentile, in Galatians 2:14.)

In that time, students did not study Greek as they do now, by memorizing verb charts and vocabulary, but by memorizing particularly eloquent passages from the Greek (and often Latin) classic writings. The Gospel of John is especially replete with paraphrases of Plato, Homer, and Euripides – and this particular set of literary giants strongly suggests John received his classical education in Alexandria, Egypt. With about one million Jewish residents, the city had more members of the faith than any other city in the world, including even Jerusalem. They worshipped not only at a major synagogue in Alexandria but also at the only Temple outside the Levant, in nearby Leontopolis, where professional priests were ready to help local Jews make the sacrifices required in the Torah. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint was translated, the famous Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures; that is, the Tanakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Though its extensive library had been largely destroyed in a fire in 48 B.C.E., the collection was largely restored by the time John would have studied there. This edifice was one of the major institutes of learning in the empire, particularly renowned for its high-level textual analyses of Homer and Plato – the two literati most prominent in the Gospel of John.

John certainly would have studied with Philo of Alexandria, a Jew who wrote and taught about Plato and the Torah. Certainly the Gospel of John’s focus on the Λογος, the Logos, and such concepts as “circumcision of the heart”, which appears in the gospel at 7:22, show strong signs of Philo’s philosophy. John may have begun as a priest in the Leontopolis Temple, but must have continued his upward career after returning to Jerusalem.

It was after that return that he saw and heard Jesus teach, and committed himself to this new Jewish sect for whom Jesus was the mary, the master. He became close with Simon Peter (Acts 1:13; 3:1,3,4,11; 4:13,19; and 8:14), and inevitably also James – these three are often mentioned together in the New Testament as the leaders in Jerusalem of the sect. These passages in Acts, as well as Galatians 2:9, begin the confusion of John the former priest, who will be called the Presbyter, and John the son of Zebedee. That this is the former priest is suggested by his entry into the Second Temple and and of course by how he and Simon are quickly recognized. But John son of Zebedee is referred to only once, at 12:2, well after the former priest has faded from the story told in the book.

And John would quickly have become acquainted with Simon’s dear young friend Lazarus (Eliezer). Probably still at most hardly more than a teenager, Lazarus was not one of the leaders, but he was loved for being Jesus’s adopted son (as will be explained in the Commentaries). The rumor was swirling around then that the young man was never going to die again, because Jesus had raised him from death – not only among the apostles (John 21:23), but among the public at large (12:9-11). Soon John undertook to help Lazarus with a writing project, composing a letter to be circulated among the spiritual community, aimed at dispelling that false assumption. Posthumously, this letter was grafted onto the Gospel of John as a kind of appendix (chapter 21), probably by Polycarp, the redactor.

That first effort clearly led the two men to commence the larger undertaking, the writing of the gospel itself. By several accounts, this work was done in Ephesus, away from the dangerous place that Jerusalem had become; this is borne out by the way John is simply not mentioned again after Acts 8:14; if he had been martyred, as were the sons of Zebedee, that would have been noted. It is self-evident that John and Lazarus, and no doubt other members of this Jerusalemite community, got out of the city, which was in a constant frightened expectation of obliteration by Rome, which eventually came about in 70 C.E.

John likely lived in one of the upscale condominiums on what is called Curetes Street, found by taking walkways between the stores and restaurants that faced the streets under an attractive colonnade – a first-century “strip mall”. Each unit was of more than one story, with several rooms decorated with frescoes or mosaics, surrounding an interior patio or courtyard that provided the rooms with abundant light and fresh air. These living quarters were provided with water from a citywide system, and they even had ceramic heating pipes within the walls. The nights were illuminated by streetlights, a convenience and safety feature otherwise found at the time only in Rome and Antioch.

On a plaza at the end of Curetes Street was a public library that John would have found delightfully reminiscent of the gigantic library in Alexandria where he had studied. In 110 a gorgeous new edifice would be built to house it, the famous Library of Celsus, but it was already in John’s time one of the largest in the Roman Empire, with some twelve thousand books. Adjacent to the library was the Mithridates Gate, whose dedicatory superscription in Latin would have been striking to John and Lazarus as they wrote about Jesus son of God; it began: “From the Emperor Cæsar Augustus, son of the god, greatest of the priests…”.

The spiritual community in Ephesus was first led, beginning around 52-53 C.E., by Apollos, a Jewish follower of John the Immerser (Acts 18:24), though soon a husband-wife pair of Jesus evangelists, Aquila and Prisca, drew him into Jesus’s theology (Acts 18:26). But Apollos moved on to evangelize in the city of Corinth before Paul arrived in the city, around the year 55. I surmise that John the Presbyter took over the leadership of the church from Apollos, though no text gives us this detail. Certainly the two men would have gravitated to each other; they were both Jews well learned in classical Greek studies. Apollos in fact was originally from Alexandria, where John had no doubt received his secular education. The two men may even have remembered each other from when they were students back in Egypt; if not, they had enough in common to have quickly become friends in Ephesus. Apollos was likely a secondary source for the Gospel of John’s narrative sequences about the Immerser.

Upon arriving, Paul barged his way into the local spiritual community in his usual way, preaching his message of not the faith of Jesus but faith in Christ, as he preferred to call Jesus, as if the Greek translation for “Messiah” (Anointed One) were his surname. However, his rather heavy-handed evangelism method, which recast the rabbi as a Roman-style godling (Acts 19:2-7), aroused such resistance that he was forced out of the synagogue, and thereafter for about two years he gave his daily lectures in a school auditorium (Acts 19:8-10). That Paul and his followers were the ones to move out of the synagogue suggests that the “orthodox” group that still met in the synagogue thought of themselves as Jewish, simply as a new and somewhat amorphous sect of the faith that adhered to the very Jewish teachings of Jesus – and that Paul’s “heterodox” group and its like in other cities was well on the way toward being a separate religion, Christianity. Paul was at the time (cf. I Corinthians 1:2, Romans 16:1) starting to call his congregations εκκλησια (ekklesia), literally “called out of and into” – that is, literally called out of the synagogues and into Paul’s new, non-Jewish religion – the root of “ecclesiastical” in English and of the words for “church” in the Romance languages, such as eglise in French and iglesia in Spanish. As the leader of the synagogal community, John was then without doubt instrumental in booting Paul out. John’s theology, as evidenced by his writings, is extremely different from Paul’s. John saw Jesus not as God incarnate, upon whom we are to place our faith, but as a messenger from God, God’s messiah, adopted as God’s son, who teaches us how to follow the will of God.

Paul, for his part, did not take the ouster blithely. Evidently he was infuriated by John’s teaching that at death we will go to live in the Æon, the heavenly realm; Paul found it no different from just being dead as are nonbelievers when they die; Paul, rather, promised his followers that, if they died putting their faith in Christ they would be resurrected back into their physical bodies, miraculously restored to health and youth, at some point in the future.

The New Testament retains to this day each man’s summary opinion of the other. In the following, Paul is not content with calling John a wild animal, and someone who knows nothing about God; he goes so far as to burlesque the Epicurean philosophy that he thinks John espouses, and to quote the Greek playwright Menander – deliberately mocking John’s highly literary style of preaching and writing (I Corinthians 15:32-34, 16:8-9):

ει κατα ανθρωπον εθηριομαχησα εν εφεσω τι μοι το οφελος ει νεκροι ουκ εγειρονται φαγωμεν και πιωμεν αυριον γαρ αποθνησκομεν μη πλανασθε φθειρουσιν ηθη χρηστα ομιλιαι κακαι εκνηψατε δικαιως και μη αμαρτανετε αγνωσιαν γαρ θεου τινες εχουσιν προς εντροπην υμιν λαλω … επιμενω δε εν εφεσω εως της πεντηκοστης θυρα γαρ μοι ανεωγεν μεγαλη και ενεργης και αντικειμενοι πολλοι

If in human terms I fought with wild beasts in Ephesus, of what benefit is it to me if the dead are not to be raised up? “We may as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be misled! “Bad friends corrupt a good character.” Get yourselves legally sober and do not make an error! For indeed certain people know nothing about God! I am speaking to your shame! … But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a big, useful door has been opened to me, and there are many enemies.

And, about a decade later (in 68), John shot back with these words. They are found in a letter to the principals of the synagogue he led in Ephesus before and after his exile to Patmos, a letter that Jesus dictated to him in a vision (Revelation 2:2). Here, John touches Paul at his most vulnerable point: that he claimed to be an apostle of Jesus, to the intense irritation of James and Simon Peter and the other Jerusalemite leaders who had been Jesus’s closest friends and family, Paul was usurping a term normally reserved for that innermost circle of Jesus’s disciples, those who had been with him through his entire ministry – even though Paul had never even met Jesus.

οιδα τα εργα σου και τον κοπον και την υπομονην σου και οτι ου δυνη βαστασαι κακους και επειρασας τους λεγοντας εαυτους αποστολους και ουκ εισιν και ευρες αυτους ψευδεις

I know your works and your labor and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evildoers, and that you tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and that you found them to be liars.

Yet the local schism caused by Paul, unpleasant though it obviously was, did not have a lasting impact on John or even the Ephesian community. On the other hand, John’s arrest several years later by Roman authorities did. In his own words in Revelation 1:9, John was convicted δια τον λογον του θεου και την μαρτυριαν Ιησου, “because of the Word of God and the witness to Jesus.” This is without doubt a reference to the Gospel of John, which is described in two ways. The gospel focuses from its very first verse on the Logos – a Greek term that no English word, including “Word”, fully conveys; it means God’s beautiful and natural plan for the entire universe, which, if we act in accordance with it, leads us to the Æon, the heavenly realm; but, if we oppose it, our deeds eventually come to naught, and we risk the same annihilation. And the gospel speaks of itself as the Paraclete (Παρακλητος), the Advocate, “the Spirit/Wind/Breath of truth … that will bear witness concerning me” (15:26): as a witness to Jesus equivalent to the men and women who were his disciples, but not dead already or soon to die as mortals are, especially in times of persecution.

Why he should be arrested in connection with a gospel that was in draft only, not yet finished (nor would it ever be) and far from published, is not at all clear. (In passing, we can note that Revelation 1:9 confirms that John wrote the gospel, or as much of it as he was to complete, before being sent to Patmos, not after his return to Ephesus, as some aver.) The possibility that seems most likely to me is that John took someone into his confidence, reading passages from the manuscript to that individual or allowing him to read it himself, maybe a new acquaintance at the public library on Curetes Street. And perhaps that someone read in the gospel a number of lines, of which the following at 12:31-32, in which Jesus is speaking to his followers, are an example:

νυν κρισις εστιν του κοσμου τουτου νυν ο αρχων του κοσμου τουτου εκβληθησεται εξω καγω εαν υψωθω εκ της γης παντας ελκυσω προς εμαυτον

Now is the judgement of this cosmos: Now the ruler of this cosmos will be banished. And I, should I be lifted up over the earth, shall draw everything to myself.

and surmised, correctly, that this was a prophecy of the fall of imperial power, and moreover a warning that Jesus, and/or his followers, meant to take control of the cosmos, which was often used as a synonym for the Roman Empire.

It was very possibly deemed a fitting sentence that John was banished in the emperor’s name for writing that the emperor would be banished! And John certainly thought of the reference he had written into the gospel, not far from the above verse (in 13:18), to David’s turncoat advisor Ahithophel, part of the passage about Judas turning Jesus in to the authorities. John likely drew strength from knowing his master Jesus had been turned in by a friend too.

Indeed, ironies abound; in time the Christian religion did exactly what the verse predicts, banishing the Roman Empire and taking over power as the new Christian empire, lifting the cross up over the entire earth and taking over the “cosmos”, the entire Western world, and enslaving and exploiting the rest of the world, “drawing everything to itself”. John, could he have seen the future, wuld have objected to a religion in Jesus’s name controlled by merchants in mitres – this world conquest was the work of the movement descended from Paul’s teachings of domination of the world, not John’s of living by the Λογος and entering into another, better world, the Æon.

At the time John was close to finishing the gospel, in the sixth decade of the first century, widespread public fear was prevalent, like that in any country ruled by a mad, willful dictator; I think of the Noriega years here in this country of Panamá, so terrible that several people I know continue to suffer from various symptoms of serious post-traumatic stress. The fear is, in brief, a debilitating, dehumanizing, unceasing fear of inadvertently doing the “wrong thing” or failing to do the “right thing”, for what is wrong and what is right is constantly changing and one never can be sure, and being suddenly arrested and executed without trial. In John’s case, someone became so afraid after reading certain lines in the gospel that th individua erred on the side of caution and turned John in – or else it was someone who betrayed him hoping to curry favor with the emperor’s minions.

Nero – the mad emperor through the years that the gospel was being drafted (from 13 October 54 to 9 June 68) – was especially sensitive to anyone who prophesied against him. He was fascinated by magic and astrology and the like, but only when it foretold what he wanted to hear, though he at least tolerated those that were well entrenched and could not be shut down without risking a major uprising, such as the famous Delphic Oracle discussed in the essay on page ###. But he often took angry action when what might be called unauthorized fortune-telling said things that he found discomforting or threatening. However, bear in mind that many reasonable Roman citizens would have agreed with him; even a dangerous emperor had a genius that must be protected for the sake of peace and plenty for the people, and many people would have considered such prophecies an offense against Nero’s genius, and hence a threat to their financial and physical security, and the security of the empire as a whole against unrest within and invasion from without. (The Latin term genius refers to an emperor’s right to rule, as ordained by the gods and fate [cf. John 19:11]; in other words, to the pervading spirit that emanated from the emperor into all parts of the realm and maintained the status quo throughout.) Moreover, this manuscript was written by a Jew about another Jew, and Nero knew well that Judæa was constantly turbulent, and a locus of possible insurrection. As a result his distrust of and dislike for Judaism, there was during Nero’s reign more persecution of Jews and those who would become known as Christians than any other; what is more, Nero was the ruler who ordered the destruction of Jerusalem, though it actually took place after his assassination, in 70.

There is more reason to conclude that John’s banishment resulted from something written in the draft copy of the Gospel of John: the manuscript disappeared around this very time. It was only after John’s death, well past the horrible Neronic years, that the monograph, plus a number of his letters, turned up again in the Pontus, in what is now Turkey. This peaceful town, far from the madness of Nero and the tensions that engulfed the entire Roman Empire, was a pretty place on the shores of the Black Sea, surrounded by mountains and forests of tall pines mentioned in the odes of Horace. The nature of this location strongly suggests that, when John was arrested, trusted allies in Ephesus spirited his gospel and other writings there, to be kept safe by the large community of Jesus followers in that peaceful, distant city.

John was sentenced to exile on Patmos, a small island well out to sea southwest of Ephesus. Tacitus (Annals, 3:68, 4:30, 15:71) makes passing reference to the use of these Ægean islands for the banishment of those who had lost imperial favor. Still, John was clearly not confined to a cell but had the freedom to roam the shores and low hills – and one day he was vouchsafed a vision which he wrote down in Aramaic; this is the work known today as the Revelation or the Apocalypse.

John lived on the island for roughly a year, after which his sentence was commuted. Clement of Alexandria writes (On the Salvation of the Rich Man, 42):

επειδη γαρ του τυραννου τελευτησαντος, απο της Πατμου της νησου μετηλθεν επι την Εφεσον, απηει παρακαλουμενος και επι τα πλησιοχωρα των εθνων, οπου μεν επισκοπους καταστησων, οπου δε ολας Εκκλησιας απμοσων, οπου δε κληρον, ενα τε τινα κληρωσων υπο του Πνευματος σημαινομενων.

When, on the tyrant’s death, he returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.

Clement does not specify which emperor following Nero allowed John’s return from exile. It was surely neither Galba nor Vitellius, both cruel, but rather Otho, whose reign of only three months at least at least began well. Plutarch (Life of Otho 1:1-3) says among his first royal acts was the abrogation of a considerable number of like sentences, so John no doubt benefited too.

Remaining in Ephesus for the rest of his life, John took on an elder statesman role, writing letters to the faithful in various communities as did Paul, Simon Peter, Jesus’s brothers James and Judas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and others. John’s letters (like those of Jesus’s brothers and unlike Paul’s) are clearly directed to Jewish followers of Jesus’s teachings. Of his death, Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3:1) tells us only that Ἰωάννης τὴν Ἀσίαν, πρὸς οὓς καὶ διατρίψας ἐν Ἐφέσῳ τελευτᾷ (“John was in Asia, and after much time living there, died in Ephesus.” Polycrates adds, οὗτος ἐν Ἐφέσῳ κεκοίμηται (“He sleeps in Ephesus”), which hints that his tomb was not infrequently visited by faithful pilgrims.

Let us close this summary of John’s life with how his devoted disciple Polycarp describes the way a presbyter should comport himself – for these words not only summarize the teachings of Polycarp’s beloved master, but no doubt are an accurate assessment of the life and example of John the Presbyter himself, and a fitting eulogy to this spiritual leader:

Και οι πρεσβυτεροι δε ευσπλαγχνοι εισ παντας ελεημονεσ, εποστρεφοντες τα αποπεπλανημενα, επισκεπτομενοι παντας ασθενεις, μη αμελουντες χηρασ η οπφανου η πενητος αλλα προνοουτες αει του καλου ενωπιον θεου και ανθρωπων, απεχομενοι πασης, προσωποληψιας, μυ ταχεως πισευοντες κατα τινος, μη αποτομοι εν κρισει, ειδοτες οτι παντες οφειλεται εσμεν αμαρτιας.

And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those who wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always “providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man”; abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from. all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against anyone, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.

Mary Magdalene: What’s in a Name?

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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.

Mary’s cognomen “Magdalene” is only associated with the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Other than two highly doubtful references, it never appears in the Gospel of John. Its author must have known her, since she had to be a primary source for chapters 4 and 20, and was besides the mother of his eyewitness, Lazarus. And Mary clearly wished to distance herself from her priestess life, which “Magdalene” implies. Nevertheless, it is so commonly associated with her still today that its origin and meaning must be considered. One of the following explanations is usually offered, that the cognomen:

a: Says she came originally from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

b: Comes from the Hebrew לדגמ (migdal, “tower”, related to μαγδωλος in Greek, “watchtower”).

c: Comes from the related word in Aramaic, the language then commonly spoken by Jews and Samaritans, ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magdala, “tower” but also suggesting “elegant” or “great”, likewise related to μαγδωλος). This could be simply a reference to the Samaritan Temple high on Mount Gerizim, where as the “woman at the well” Mary served as a priestess. Coins minted in Nablus (Shechem) portray an architectural complex that appears to include a tower. Or it could refer to Song of Songs 4:4, and other similar verses; this one compares the Shulammite’s neck to the Tower of David (cf. Nehemiah 3:25). Similarly, her breasts are likened to towers at 8:10. Her “dance of Mahanaim” (Song 6:13; see option e) is an indirect reference to a tower as well.

d: Comes from megaddelá, an Aramaic word for a woman with ܓܕܠܐ (g’dalw; plaited or braided hair), and later, by extension, a word for a hairdresser. The term carried, later in time, an aroma of “harlot” about it, and some passages in the Talmud appear to associate it with Temple priestesses.

Before evaluating the four above, I also propose:

e: Comes from Mahanaim (מַחֲנָ֫יִם in Hebrew), literally meaning “Two Camps”, a place so called by Jacob because he and God both camped there. The “h” would have shifted in the Greek transliteration into a “g” (since the “h” does not appear in Greek words except at the beginning) and a Greek-style suffix added. At this place Jacob erected a watchtower (Genesis 31:48-52; see b, c, and h). The “dance of Mahanaim” is mentioned at Song of Songs 6:13 in reference to the Shulammite (who is discussed in relation to the Magdalene below).

f: Comes from Song of Songs 4:15, the same verse discussed on page 614, where the Hebrew for the “spring of water” in the garden is מעין גנים (mayan gannim). This could have gotten garbled by Greek ears into “Magdalene” the same way pretty much all of the proper names in the New Testament mutated when shifting from Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek. Through this verse she would be associated with living waters, mentioned in the same verse of the Song, of which Jesus spoke to her in their first conversation (John 4:10); also, the waters of spiritual purification, as in the mikvah, and in John’s baptism.

g: Comes from ܩܕܠܐ (’qda:la), “neck” in Aramaic, should Mary have had a long, beautiful neck. This is a near-homonym with ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magdala, “tower”), lacking only the initial ܡܰ (ma-), and also with ܡܓܕܠܝܬܐ (magdalayta, Magdalene), lacking the ma- and the suffix -ta. But the final “m” (ܡ) in her Aramaic name, ܡܪܝܡ (Maryam), could very well have elided over onto ܩܕܠܐ (’qda:la), creating ܡܩܕܠܐ (Maqdala). This could possibly a reference to, or for the amanuensis reminiscent of, several references in the Song of Songs, especially at 4:4, to the Shulammite’s neck, though a different word for neck (ܝܟܪܘܨ; sawara) is used there.

h: Comes from the Tower of Eder (מִגְדַּל־עֵ֫דֶר, Migdal Eder, literally “the Tower of the Flock [of Sheep]”) beyond which Jacob (then renamed “Israel”) pitched his tent after the death of his wife Rachel (Genesis 35:21). Jesus and Mary are implicitly associated with Jacob and Rachel at Jacob’s Spring in chapter 4 of John. The only other Tanakh reference to this tower is at Micah 4:8, where it is mentioned in a messianic prophecy that the greatness of Judah and Jerusalem will return, a very meaningful reference should this be the cognomen of Jesus’s consort. Rachel died on the way to Ephrath (Bethlehem); Josephus writes that the tower site was about a Roman mile (4,860 feet) beyond Bethlehem. But in which direction Israel was going is unclear. The original Hebrew text has him going south, toward Hebron, but the Septuagint transposes Genesis 35:16 and 21, likely correcting a mistake, which would have him going north, toward Bethel; this would put the Tower very close to Bethany, which was Mary’s home town.

i: Comes from the Greek μαγδαλια, a late contraction of the classical word απομαγδαλια, which appears in Aristophanes and Plutarch as a term for the inside of a loaf of bread, used by Greeks as a kind of napkin for their hands, which they then threw to the dogs; hence, “dog’s meat”.

j: Comes from the Aramaic ܡܓܕܐ ܐܠܗܬܐ (maqd’ alaht’a; “precious to the Goddess” or “gift of/to the Goddess”), which is very close to the Aramaic original of the cognomen “Magdalene”, ܡܓܕܠܝܬܐ (magdalayta).

k: Comes originally from μάγος δαλος (a magic torch or lamp or thunderbolt), which would have been contracted to μάγα-δαλος and then to μαγδαλος. Many oil lamps from the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim and Samaritan synagogues in the region have been found. They were probably used ceremonially, perhaps tended by priestesses, and are customarily decorated with spiritual imagery. One common motif is a ladder; this was probably a representation of Jacob’s ladder, since the Samaritans believed and still believe that Bethel, where Jacob had his famous dream (Genesis 28:12-15) was on Mount Gerizim (A Companion to Samaritan Studies, by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, and Abraham Tal).

l: Comes from “Magdalu in Egypt”, as it is called in the letters of Šuta in the 1340s B.C.E. On the northeastern frontier of Egypt, this ancient town was near the last encampment of the Israelites before they crossed the Reed Sea during the Exodus. The name probably comes from גָּדַל (gadal), meaning “to increase in size or importance”. Jeremiah 44:1 says Migdol (as he and Ezekiel call it) and other nearby Egyptian communities had significant colonies of Diaspora Jews. These Jews worshipped at a temple in Elephantine built on the same scale as the one in Jerusalem; James D. Purvis and Eric Meyers say scholars generally agree that the cultus at Elephantine was a mix of Yahwistic and Canaanite ways, and (as strongly suggested by the Elephantine Papyrii) heavily influenced by Egyptian religion. Indeed, Jeremiah 44 describes the cultus at Migdol in some detail, including worship of “the Queen of Heaven”. This temple was destroyed by the Egyptians in 410 B.C.E., but another was built by Onias IV in the first century B.C.E. in Leontopolis, near Magdalu, after Judah Maccabee denied him the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Some classical Jewish literature, such as the Yuhasin, associates it with the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. What makes the possibility interesting that Jesus and/or Mary were at one time connected with it is the number of passages in this gospel, especially the resurrection, that suggest they were both more than passingly familiar with the Egyptian language.

m: Comes from the Aramaic ܝܘܢܐ ܡܓܕܠܝ (magdal’ yawna; “dove tower”). Ancient columbaria, also called dovecotes in English, have been found throughout the Levant, and indeed the entire Mediterranean region; they were known in Greek as περιστερεῶνα (peristereōna). For Jews and Samaritans they would provide not only food and crop fertilizer, but Temple sacrifices, as required in the Torah. Sometimes they were made in caves, but, where caves were not available towers were constructed: at the famous Masada site, for instance, three towers served as columbaria. There had to be columbaria in Mary’s day atop Mount Gerizim to provide sacrificial birds as well as to feed the priests, priestesses, and staff. Mary may have had duties associated with the columbaria. This explanation would also amplify the theory outlined that the “dove” at Jesus’s baptism was Mary.

n: Comes from the Aramaic ܢܐ ܕܘܠܐ ܡܓܕܗ (magdh-dawla-na). The first two words mean “to draw-up-to-oneself a-bucket-of-water”, and the imperative/cohortative suffix ܢܐ (na) signifies that this request for a bucket of water is deeply yearning and implored for). This would have contracted to ܕܘܠܐ ܢܐ ܡܓ (mag-dawla-na), and the accent would fall on –la, giving just about exactly the sound of μαγδαληνη (magdalēnē), her cognomen in the Greek text; it is not quite as close to ܡܰܓ݂ܕ݁ܠܳܝܬ݁ܳܐ (magdalata), her cognomen in the Aramaic text of the Peshitta, though that is probably a transliteration of the Greek. The origin of this cognomen would be the event at the Samaritan spring, wherein Mary, in a memorable statement recorded at John 4:11, suddenly refers not to the spring in front of them but to a well, saying the well is deep and Jesus, unfortunately, doesn’t have a bucket. As noted in the commentary to that verse, she is making an oblique reference to Moses’s first encounter with his wife Zipporah by a well (Exodus 2:16), and to the deep, dry well of her heart.

Option a, the most frequent explanation of Mary’s cognomen, is straightforward, and should be adopted if it can be proven that Mary came from Magdala. But, alas, there is nothing connecting her to that village. Her family home is in Bethany, her father probably originally came from Ramathaim (Arimathea) in Kohath (in northern Judæa just south of Samaria), and she herself had lived in Samaria proper. She wasn’t even a Galilean, let alone a resident of Magdala. Therefore option a is to be rejected.

The pronunciation of the Aramaic word magdala is closer to the text’s Greek version of Mary’s cognomen than the Hebrew migdal, and these were Aramaic speakers, so option b is rejected.

Option d is also rejected; the textual evidence is flimsy, and there is no reason to assume that the Talmudic writers were merely recalling in a subsequent generation how this word was used in the first century: these comments may have been no more than unfounded anti-Christian polemical aspersions, of which in subsequent generations there was quite a bit. They may even have been based on the persistent later Christian legend that described Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.

Option i is rejected too, lacking a solid rationale for adoption.

Options e, f, and h, and probably c and g as well, are Biblical in origin. All of these except h could refer to the Song of Songs; e comes indirectly and h directly from the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis, with whom the gospel often implicitly associates Jesus and Mary. Options c, e, h, and m all suggest a watchtower, with c carrying the indirect meaning of “elegant” or “great”, and e referring to the Shulammite’s dance.

Option f is a fascinating but unlikely possibility, and options e and h are logical but abstruse, therefore weak as explanations for why Mary’s friends and family would call her “Magdalene”. Still, the erudite amanuensis could well have had e and h and especially f in his own mind as he composed the gospel, in particular as he sought appropriate imagery for describing the nearly indescribable scene of Jesus’s resurrection. In the process of borrowing Song of Songs 4:15 in his composition of that episode he could well have read mayan gannim, in the same verse, been struck by the phonetic resemblance to Magdalena, and borne in mind a poetic association between the “wellspring of water” (which is what mayan gannim means) and Mary’s overflowing tears.

That leaves either c, g, j, k, l, m, or n as the reason that she was generally known as “Magdalene”. Either c or g or some combination would be a sensible if cautious conclusion, especially if Mary had a beautiful neck or breasts; certainly we learn from 20:17 that she was sexually attractive. Options j, k, l, m, and n are risky conclusions and would have to prove themselves through time and scholarly debate, but the ground has long been prepared for them by such scholars as Raphael Patai (The Hebrew Goddess) and Merlin Stone (When God was a Woman).

I myself lean toward j, m, or n as the best solution. The first two would succinctly denote the fact about Mary that most stood out to those who knew her: her having been a Temple priestess. The third, which is the one that by a hair’s breadth I favor most of all, would directly relate her cognomen to her first encounter with Jesus, amply explaining why it caught on in the Christian community and is well remembered to this day.

Any of these three would also answer a very good point made by Karen L. King (as quoted in “The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus”, by Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian.com, 18 September 2012). She notes that in the first century “women’s status was determined by the men to whom they were attached,” citing as an example “Mary, Mother of Jesus, Wife of Joseph” (and later, I add, “Wife of Clopas”). If Mary Magdalene had been Jesus’s wife, King insists, she would have been known as that, and the fact that she isn’t King calls the strongest argument against the contention that she was Jesus’s wife. But, if “Magdalene” means “sacred of/to the goddess” or refers to a dove tower on Gerizim, then that was her “marital status” as a priestess in the Samaritan Temple, and she would have been already well known by that cognomen before wedding Jesus. And if her cognomen refers to Jesus going into the well of her spirit and drawing forth water – in short, becoming one with her such that they, together, embody the very image and likeness of Elohim (God understood as comprising male and female as one), returning the state of perfect, androgynous Adam, before the disobedience and before Eve had been removed from his side – then the cognomen does, as King would wish, refer (albeit cryptically) to her marital status. In deed, this gospel strongly suggests that what made Mary so appropriate a spouse to Jesus’s thinking was that she was a κοινωνος, his spiritual equal, and this interpretation of her cognomen emphasizes this central fact about Mary.

All this said, the cognomen “Magdalene” only appears in John twice, in the crucifixion and resurrection episodes. But this is enough to lead many scholars to conclude that she is a different woman from the Mary who lives in Bethany, and whose name is always just Mary, without any cognomen. As discussed in the commentaries to the two episodes where “Magdalene” appears, I believe this cognomen was added therein by the redactor, and that the Beloved Disciple and amanuensis in the original text referred to her as “Mary”, without cognomen. Thus, in this translation, “Magdalene” is excised. My belief is that the eyewitness’s mother told him she wanted no more to be known by a cognomen referring to her time as a priestess.

Her given name, Μαριαμ (Mariam), has two origin explanations: the traditional one and the actual one. Both would have been commonly known to reasonably well-educated Jews in the first century. The actual derivation of her name is from the Egyptian Mari-Amen, “Beloved Amen”, the name of Moses’s elder sister, referring to the Egyptian deity who was so pervasive by the time of the Middle Kingdom, in the last centuries B.C.E., that Egypt was essentially monotheistic. (I reject Madan Mohan Shukla’s idea, in an article published by the Oriental Institute at Baroda in 1979, that the name Mari may go back to Sanskrit मातृ [matri; the “t” is very gently pronounced], meaning “wife” and “mother”, which evolved into that English word, as well as the first half of “matrimony”. Shukla’s reference to an Indian goddess named Mari is likelier since she might be etymologically associated with the Egyptian Mari [Beloved].)

The traditional explanation is that it comes from the Hebrew word הרמ (mara, “bitter”), referring to tears; it is the name that Naomi (which means “sweet” or “pleasant”) gave herself when she was weeping bitter tears for the death of her sons and her husband (Ruth 1:13). The traditional name has a deeper root meaning in מָר (mar, “drop”), as in a teardrop, but going even farther back to מֹר (mor, “myrrh”), which is the resin of a thorny tree, harvested by wounding the tree until it bleeds out, drop by drop, its bitter lifeblood, hence the name. Myrrh was associated with death, being an embalming compound. It was also a component in ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, according to the Tanakh and Talmud – and thus would then have been very much in the nostrils of Mary and the disciples during the commemoration of Passover at the Temple.

How ironic that, before Jesus’s death, a thorny wreath, very possibly from the myrrh tree, was placed on his head (19:2), and that he was whipped and stabbed like the tree until his blood came forth as does the liquid myrrh (19:1,34). How ironic that after his death Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared his body with myrrh and aloes (19:39-40). How ironic it is that Mary Magdalene, with such a name as that, but recently weeping bitter tears for her son (John 11:31,33), now again had drops of tears falling like drops of myrrh from her eyes for her husband (20:11).

How could a woman so clearly central to Jesus’s life, central enough to grieve for him at the very thought of his impending death (Luke 7:38) and to come by night with spices to anoint his body, only be mentioned at the very end? Without a doubt, she does appear previously in the gospel, and my contention is that Mary Magdalene, Mary “of Bethany”, the unnamed woman in Mark 14, and “the woman at the well” are one and the same.

This perspective is underscored in the noncanonical Gospel of Philip, which calls Mary Jesus’s κοινωνος (companion, partner, or consort), and also lifts up the spiritual eroticism between them, saying for instance that “he used to kiss her often on the mouth”, implying not only romance but the sharing of sacred breath, πνευμα. The recently published Gospel of Jesus’s Wife also appears to back this perspective.

What is more, the beautiful woman in the Song of Songs is called (in Song 6:13) the Shulammite. For centuries it has been said that this cognomen deliberately fuses the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) with the cognomen of the Shunammite woman introduced in II Kings 4:8, a wealthy woman who the passages that follow strongly imply was Elisha’s lover despite having a husband, and whose dead son Elisha brought back to life. There are obvious similarities to Mary Magdalene, a wealthy woman (Luke 8:3) who was surely Jesus’s wife, who had previously had “husbands” (John 4:16-18), and who was probably the mother of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life.

This scene with Elisha in its turn bears a strong resemblance to the story (I Kings 17:8-24) of Elijah his teacher. This tale begins with Elijah asking the woman for a drink of water from her water pot (verse 10); she has some shame on her conscience (verse 18). Both of those details mirror the “woman at the well”. And Elijah raises her son from death (verse 22), as Jesus does Mary’s son Lazarus. Again, the similarities between the two lives are striking. Since every detail in this gospel is clearly carefully chosen, these connections to Elijah and Elisha must be taken very seriously, and certainly they draw more sharply the nature of the connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

That They All May Be One

The following is taken from my commentaries on the Gospel of John, which are appended to my restoration of the original text (before it was heavily edited by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling) and translation of that text 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.

In Jesus’s pastoral prayer following the Last Supper (Gospel of John chapter 17), he says (in my translation from the Greek): “And I made your name known to them and I will (continue to) make it known … that they all may be one (just) as we are one: (just) as you, Father, (are) in me and I in you, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one…

For Jesus, and Jews of his time (and indeed many classical cultures worldwide), to refer to someone’s name was not merely to the vocalization which is semiotically associated with them, but to the person’s teaching and example; thus to give even a cup of cold water in Jesus’s name (Matthew 10:42) or Kṛṣṇa’s name (Bhagavad-Gita 9:26) is to do it as that person’s disciple.

More than that, names in all traditional (non-Western) cultures are powerful, magic spells in a sense that evoke their spiritual presence. In this gospel, the Name of God (as mentioned in these three verses) is the πνευμα, the Divine Breath that is also the Divine Wind and the Divine Spirit that blew in Creation (Genesis 1:2) and many times upon the prophets. Josephus calls it the “four vowels” of the Name of God, יהוה, the exhalation. Since all other names can only be spoken by exhaling, the Name of God is hidden inside every other name. This, as it is put in The Circle of Life, “Those who keep the traditional ways know that spoken words can carry a little glint of moonlight – a tiny sliver of the silent Word, the exhaled breath, the divine Name of G-d spoken in the beginning that echoes still in everything that exists.” And our sacred names, known only to God, are, as the same book says, “ultimately one name, and point to the same Spirit that is in us all.” Therefore, Jesus would agree with this Apache proverb: “It makes no difference as to the name of the God, since love is the real God of all the world.”

In the decades after Jesus, those who claimed to be his followers took the path of separating from Judaism and establishing a strong central authority, and imposing from above on their followers a you-must-believe-it-or-else dogma. This dogma would have us believe that Jesus is God, the second person in the Trinity. Many passages in the New Testament (which, with the exception of Pauline and post-Pauline texts, was written free of this dogma) were then either interpreted or even edited to conform to this doctrine.

These verses serve as an example. They clearly state that Jesus believed not merely that he and God were one (the phraseology that these dogmaticians insisted supported their Jesus-equals-God creed), but that he and all humanity were one in God. This view is perfectly in line with other passages in the gospel, including especially 1:12. What Jesus believed was unique about himself was not that he was God incarnate, but that he had been appointed by God as God’s Messenger (αγγελος, “angel”) and Prophet προφητης (“prophet”, literally meaning “speaker on behalf of”), hence as Messiah. This was, in his view, far from an exclusive relationship; Jesus repeatedly stresses in this gospel that he wishes those who have heard the Word (Λογος) that he brings, those who believe “in my name” (meaning in his teaching and example), to go out themselves doing the same as he did: urging people to accept the Λογος of God and thereby recognize their universal oneness in God.

Therefore, far from what the Church was going to start dictating in a generation or two, this is the central statement of the central theological theme in the gospel. Today, the theology that Jesus states here is known by the terms “immanence” and “monism”.

Immanence is the belief that the divine manifests itself and and through the physical universe. It is not to be confused with pantheism, the belief that God equals all things, but panentheism, in which the sacred realm permeates the mundane. In this sense, all things, including you and me – even a turd in the road, as in the famous example of Chuang-tse – are imbued with the presence of holiness. This is a concept found frequently in Jewish philosophy, and therefore it would not at all be unlikely for Jesus to voice it. It is also found in the East, in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism especially, and these verses are often taken as support of the theory that Jesus travelled to India and Tibet in his early adult years.

Monism is the belief that all things only appear to be discrete, and that beneath such outer appearances of separateness all things are ultimately one. This view is not frequently found in Jewish thinking, but it is also a mainstay of Eastern philosophy.

Both of these perspectives are prominent in these verses, as they are in another very early text containing Jesus’s teachings, the Gospel of Thomas. Logion 77 in the latter reads: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light over all things. I am all; all came forth from me, and all have attained to me. Split a piece of wood, I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.’” Very likely, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus is here talking in I AM language, not so much speaking for himself as a man but speaking for God, as God’s messenger (αγγελος, “angel”) or prophet (προφητης, literally, someone who speaks on behalf of a king or God), saying directly and exactly the words of God. That there is light in all things is part of Kabbalistic Jewish thought, the Shviras Hekeilim (“Shattering of the Vessels”): God concentrated part of Godself into vessels of light in order to create the universe. But these vessels shattered, and their shards became sparks of light which became trapped, one within each thing in creation. Prayer charges and reveals these hidden sparks, reuniting them with God.

As noted in the commentaries to 14:2, this was also the philosophy of Martin Buber, who saw God as playing “hide and go seek” with us, hiding in every leaf and stone and flower and begging us to come and look for the Almighty in even the humblest of things around us. And once we see that Presence, like finding the face hidden in a puzzle drawing of a landscape, we can never “unsee” it again, and we wonder how we could ever have possibly not seen it before. Thus it is, as noted above, that all ordinary names, including yours and mine, have the Name of God hidden in them, in the very Breath (πνευμα) with which we pronounce them.

Referring to Thomas 77 and these verses in John, Rod Borghese says Jesus taught that: “You too are one with the All – a part of the tree, a part of the stone. And that the light exists even within a branch and even beneath a rock and within a rock. When you study science you see this is so. We all come from one source of light, one tiny speck of Light.” He adds this profound observation: “The only thing that sets Jesus apart [from other spiritual masters] is that he was crucified for saying ‘Ì am one with God. … He had followers – netzarim – who recorded his sayings, and some of those followers thought he was saying ‘Ònly I am one with God,’ when he actually said that anybody could realize the oneness of God, and therefore do greater things than Jesus.” Yet, “if you walk around today saying you are the All, you are God, or even you are one with God, you would probably also be crucified.”