Poetry Beneath the Cross

The following are commentaries on John 19:24-27 from my translation-in-progress of the Gospel of John. The original text is being restored, by taking out accidental displacements and the redactions imposed on it by the post-Pauline church leaders intent on conforming the gospel to their dogma. The translation is a new one from the Greek.

Although in the list of witnesses to the crucifixion in verse 25 the Beloved Disciple is not mentioned, clearly Mary Magdalene has brought him along, since he is mentioned in the subsequent two verses. That Mary has brought Lazarus along adds to the body of evidence that he is her son.

Let us begin this analysis with verse 26, which tells us who was present as witnesses to Jesus’s crucifixion. The Gospel of John gives us a very limited number, and these will be discussed shortly.

First, however, a summary of what the Synoptic gospels tell us. Luke only tells us that “his friends”, including “the women who had followed him from Galilee” were there, but the women present must be more or less the lists given in Luke 8:1-3 and Luke 24:10, and the following is based on that assumption. All three Synoptics put Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion. They also all place Mary the mother of James the Younger and Joses on the scene; in my opinion this is how Jesus’s mother was designated following her remarriage (see the essay “On the Brothers of Jesus”); hence, though there is no specific reference to “Jesus’s mother” in the Synoptics, they still cohere with John, which specifically says his mother was there. Mark also says Salome was there; she is probably the mother of James and John the sons of Zebedee, who Matthew puts at the cross; I also believe her to be the sister of Jesus’s mother. So there is a reasonable agreement among the four gospels on Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and probably Salome wife of Zebedee too.

Exactly who are the women mentioned in the Gospel of John as witnesses to the crucifixion? Either four, three, or two women are mentioned in 19:25.

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

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

Two women – I agree with James Daniel Tabor that this verse includes an acrostic involving all elements in the verse, including Mary Magdalene, an acrostic that names Jesus’s mother as Mary the wife of Clopas. This would cohere with the Synoptic accounts, which agree that Jesus’s mother and the Magdalene were there (if Mark and Matthew are right that Salome the wife of Zebedee also was there, then that fact was suppressed in this gospel because it is irrelevant to Jesus’s final command in 19:26-27). What is more, in this reading, the two instances in the verse of και (“and”) set up a beautiful division of the names into a couplet of semipoetic lines:

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

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

The cognomen “Magdalene” obviously did not come from the author of the original text: Mary has been heretofore named in this gospel only as Mary, and, other than here and 20:1, she is never once called “Magdalene”; this is the Synoptic cognomen for her. The nickname is only used here to fill the obvious gap in the phrase “Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary.” (Indeed, I am certain that “Magdalene” was inserted by the redactor into 20:1 as well. In both places I think the redactor used the cognomen to help him bring this gospel into closer coherence with the Synoptics.)

Thus the text here may have originally read:

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

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

Here in verse 25, as elsewhere in the gospel, we see the Beloved Disciple’s modest reluctance to mention himself unless absolutely necessary, and also how overall he includes no detail that doesn’t further the story and message of the gospel. Therefore, in this verse, he remains intent on this poetic couplet about the two mothers named Mary, and so he does not mention himself. He lists the two mothers because of what Jesus is about to say, but what Jesus is about to say involves the Beloved Disciple too, and yet he is only mentioned as present in verse 26. Clearly his mother Mary Magdalene has brought him along, which points toward his being her son.

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

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

The text only clearly says “his mother” in verse 25. In this couplet and in the prose between the two couplets (verse 26a), the text says in Greek “the mother”, though translators routinely put this into English as “his mother”. This will be discussed later.

The construction of the first line of this couplet, in which Jesus appears to address his mother as “woman” (see discussion of this form of address in the commentary to 2:4), requires a similar kind of salutation of the Beloved Disciple, but it is glaringly absent. The lacuna is best filled in with either a relationship word (for instance, “son” or “brother-in-law”) or the disciple’s name; clearly something has been suppressed here by the final redactor of the text to hide the identity of the disciple. Surely, and especially in his dying moments, Jesus is going to hand off that responsibility to a close family member. It is not likely a brother of Jesus, since the wording strongly suggests Jesus is designating with his words a new mother-son relationship, while such a brother would already have the same mother.

But involved in this scene are two mother-son pairs: Jesus and his mother, and Lazarus and his mother. Both mothers are named Mary, and both have known the intense anguish a mother feels as she watches her son die. Both of their offspring have been called the Son of the Father (Jesus says frequently in this gospel that he is Son of the Father, and Lazarus was only an hour or two before the crucifixion released by Pontius Pilate under the name Barabbas, which means the same thing).

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

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

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

It is universally believed that Jesus is speaking to his mother when he says, “Woman, behold your son.” I believe that he is speaking to both mothers, affirming to each of the two Marys that Lazarus is her son. That is why he does not say, “Mother, behold your son,” or, for that matter, “Wife, behold your son.” By saying γυνη, “woman”, he encompasses both of these Marys with so much in common.

It is universally believed that Jesus is referring to his own mother when he says to the Beloved Disciple, “Behold your mother”: he is requiring Lazarus to take on the duty of filial responsibility for his step-grandmother, his stepfather’s mother. I believe that he is referring to both mothers, asking Lazarus to take care of both of them when he, Jesus, is dead.

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

Both of these duties are the duty of a son, not a stepson, and so it becomes clear, in this Jesus’s dying instruction, that his words incorporate his formal recognition of his stepson Lazarus as his own son. Such a final command as this was in that age not merely taken seriously, but was binding on the dying person’s family; it was as formal as a legal will today – and the carefully worded recounting of this statement by Lazarus the Beloved Disciple and eyewitness, in poetry no less, tells us just how serious it was. With his final breath of life – his final inhalations and exhalations of the Spirit of God – Jesus was arranging for his mother and his wife to be cared for, and at the same time but he was acknowledging his stepson as his own son. This would have been a highly emotional and memorable moment for the two Marys and Lazarus standing between them. And the text tells us that after this event the disciple took αυτην – a pronoun that can mean either “her” (one mother) or “them” (both mothers) – into his home.

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

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

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

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

If this second couplet refers so clearly to sons and mothers, then the strong possibility follows that the original version of the couplet in verse 25 also exactly specified the relationships involved:

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

This would have perfectly set up the dual change in relationship that Jesus specifies to Lazarus and his mother: his stepson becomes his son, and his mother becomes his son’s mother. But this would have been far too much of an affront to the dogma the new religion was developing, driving the redactor to change the “disciple’s mother” to “mother’s sister” and “the wife of Jesus” to “Magdalene”.

The two couplets read perfectly together:

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

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

which in Greek would be:

η μητηρ αυτου και η μητηρ της μαθητην
μαρια η του κλωπα και μαρια η του ιεσους.

λεγει τας μητρας γυναι ιδε ο υιος σου
ειτα λεγει τω μαθητη ιδε αι μητηρες σου

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

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

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

This Clopas to whom verse 25 says Jesus’s mother was married was probably known in Aramaic, as Hilfai or Halfai; Joseph Henry Thayer suggests in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament that κλωπας (Clopas) is a transliteration of חילפאי (Hilfai or Halfai), but that, since there is no letter for “H” in Greek, the initial ח in the name was rendered into Greek with a κ, “K”, and a Greek-style suffix was added.

Early Christian writers Papias and Hegesippus both declare Clopas to be the brother of Jesus’s father, Joseph. Again I concur with James Daniel Tabor that Hilfai (Clopas) married Mary after his brother Joseph’s death, and so Mary the wife of Clopas is Jesus’s mother, and Clopas (Hilfai) his stepfather.

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

More about Clopas and Jesus’s brothers and half-brothers may be read in the essay in this volume titled “On the Brothers of Jesus”.

Poetry in a Nuclear Age

The following is the beginning of an essay written today that will eventually be included in my forthcoming collection of essays, Ranting the Truth, to be published later this year.

If one of the main poetic themes is the juxtaposition of evanescence and eternality, then we must recognize how quickly the one vanishes, to be swallowed up by the other.

All things pass, and most of them pass into oblivion, nonexistence so complete that they are not even remembered. But a few, thanks to poets, pass into a different kind of eternality: the immortality bestowed by art. The parting day that Gray eulogized and the daffodil that Keats described, for example, are no more, but they have been literally immortalized in poems.

This world, so bent on destroying itself, is the ultimate example of that theme. This mortal life was always evanescent and the world seemingly eternal; now not even the planet we walk about on for our day of existence can be expected to last very long. In every moment it is at risk of being destroyed by powerful madmen.

Many would think the poetic craft to be irrelevant, an absurd anachronism in an age in which communication is founded on accruing the capital of attention, power, and money. However, it is the work, indeed the sacred duty, of the poet today to immortalize not merely the ephemeral beauty of evenings or daffodils in this world, but the fragile and very mortal world itself.

Τhis poetic burden is intensified by the poet’s awareness that everything will be destroyed when the world is destroyed: including every poem mourning the imminent destruction of the world – along with every other poem, from the most brilliant to the humblest doggerel, and every poet and every reader, too.

Yet (as the Tree in my novel Rats Live on no Evil Star puts it) we must hope and believe and trust and keep faith that perhaps in some other world some other trees will be cut down in sacrifice and ripped apart into pulp and flattened into winding sheets and marked with the symbols that record the poem that mourns the world, and perhaps some other people in some other world or time or dimension will read it and memorize it and recite it to their listeners, and like that of the evening and the daffodil, the beauty of this our world will remain alive.

If it is our duty to leave this earth a little bit better, a little more beautiful, than when we first entered it, then this is not by our person that we shall do so, for our individuality is of very little account, but by the things that we say and do that are memorable, hence remembered, that we improve it: the things that have a benign effect on this world. No one has changed this world by who he or she was, but many have changed it, and all can potentially do so, through what they say and do.

This is what the poet accomplishes. In every moment the poet consciously seeks to observe the beauty, the wisdom, around him or her, and then to give it through beautiful words that memorability, that eternality. Gray and Keats succeeded. So too did Shakespeare and Neruda, Han-shan and Borges, Baudelaire and Basho, and countless others. These poets are not remembered for the persons they were or the lives they led, though these things may interest us, but because they succeeded in leaving beauty behind when they left this world, in observing eloquently the evanescence and bestowing upon it eternality.

Faced with its potential destruction at the hands of lunatics, the poet writes upon the world its own epitaph – and thus, though it may be destroyed in a hellfire of radiation, taking with it into oblivion all the evenings and daffodils, our little fragile world will yet exist in the greater universe of beauty and truth.

From the forthcoming book Ranting the Truth. Copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All rights reserved.