The Feminine Spirit, the Masculine Truth

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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. This excerpt discusses what Jesus means by saying to Mary Magdalene that God is Spirit (John 4:24)

The opening phrase, πνευμα ο θεος, lacks a verb in Greek, meaning literally “Spirit/Breath/Wind the God”. (Note that it is customary in Greek to use the definite article with θεος, “God”.) Translators usually transpose the words and put in a verb that isn’t there, rendering the phrase as “God is a spirit” or “God is Spirit”. It can just as well be read as “Spirit is God”, or, of course, “Breath is God” or “Wind is God”, since all can be meant by the word πνευμα. The ambiguity here may be an early scribal mistake, or it may be Jesus or the gospel writer saying both at the same time.

The Aramaic, ܪܽܘܚܳܐ ܗܽܘ ܓ݁ܶܝܪ ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ, makes much more sense, meaning literally “For God is Spirit/Breath/Wind”. We cannot know if this version predates the Greek, if it is closer to the original manuscript of the gospel, but still in my mind it settles the above ambiguity just barely enough for me to render the phrase as “God is Spirit/Breath/Wind”.

It may well be that, on this hot day in Samaria a breath of wind came momentarily to cool and refresh this man and woman as they spoke, and Jesus used this analogy from nature as he will use another one in a few moments (4:35).

It may also be that Jesus, by identifying spirit/breath/wind as God, was invoking the Name of God, YHWH, which is an exhalation, the Name which was breathed into us to give us life (Genesis 2:7), and which we say every time we exhale (see page 30). But much more is going on here.

Since Jesus was in actuality speaking Aramaic here, the Greek version of this verse is inevitably a translation, so it merely has the Greek word for God, θεος. Since the Peshitta is in Aramaic, it is far likelier to relate exactly what Jesus actually said. The name for God in this Aramaic version quoted two paragraphs above is not, as one would expect from the foregoing paragraph, some variation on YHWH. It is not even ܐܠܘܗܝܡ, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew “Elohim”, the familiar to most readers from the creation story at Genesis 1:2, wherin God’s spirit/wind/breath hovers over or moves across the waters (see page 265). Rather, it is ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ, “Alaha”, which is related to the Hebrew אלוהּ (“Eloah”). Both are a feminine word (literally, “Goddess”); both suggest the feminine aspect of God, united with the masculine in Elohim (see pages 309-10), the familiar name of God known from Genesis 1.

One clue to comprehension is in the context: Jesus says twice (verses 23-24) that true/steadfast (ܫܪܝܪܐ means both in Aramaic) worshippers are to worship God “in spirit and in truth”, as it is usually translated; again the word for “truth”, ܘܒܫܪܪܐ, carries the connotation of “steadfastness” or “firmness”. The phrase brings to mind Joshua’s oration at Shechem – the man for whom Jesus was named, speaking as Jesus would be very aware at Shechem, this very place! – in which he calls on the forebears of both Jews and Samaritans to worship God in בְּתָמִ֣ים וּבֶֽאֱמֶ֑ת, “sincerity and truth” (Joshua 24:14), concluding that the Israelites had to choose whether to worship YHWH or the gods of the Amorites, whose land they were entering. By this reference to Joshua’s speech Jesus is underlining his point that Jews and Samaritans both, as one, have a choice to worship the true God or the gods of others – in this case, the Greeks and Romans. (For the author of this gospel, surely aware of Paul’s repackaging of Jesus as a Græco-Roman deity [see the Introduction], this would have been a significant message in opposition.)

But Alaha (Aramaic), Eloah (Hebrew) is specifically the feminine aspect of God (“Goddess”), and Jesus associates this aspect with spirit/breath/wind. Jesus associates the Jewish aspect of God in verse 22 with the Jews knowing God better than the Samaritans – hence, he is suggesting, the time is coming when sectarian differences between Jew (the masculine “truth”) and Samaritan (the feminine “spirit”) will be put aside, when God will be worshipped neither on the Jewish holy mountain nor the Samaritan holy mountain (4:21). And Jesus is further suggesting that by union in marriage Jesus the Jew and Mary the Samaritan can point out the way toward this union.

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.

Love and Gods at Jacob’s Well

This blog entry discusses the identities of the amanuensis of the Gospel of John (that is, the “ghostwriter” who took down the oral recollections of Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, who was the eyewitness behind the gospel, and drafted the gospel’s original version), and the redactor of the final version (who made it conform to the later organized Christian religion’s dogma and creed). This is a revision of a section of the introduction to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text. You will find ordering information here.

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4:11-16 – Except for verse 11, this water source is exclusively referred to in Greek as a πηγη (pele) and in Aramaic as a ܐܢܝܥܡ (miyna). Both words suggest a “spring” or “fountain” from which water is bubbling or gushing forth. Such a water source, obviously, is not “deep”, and hence does not require a bucket, despite what the woman says here. She also switches to another noun here, calling the water source a φρεαρ (phrear) in Greek, or a ܐܪܒܘ (wbəira) in Aramaic, which is specifically a well, an underground cistern, into which one collects water by descending with a bucket or paying out a rope with a bucket tied to it. And besides, as a spring or fountain, this water source provides “living water” (יִׁי ח םִׁי מ (mayim hayyim).

Clearly, the woman is not speaking of this water source in front of them, as all commentators on this passage have assumed. They both can see it in front of them; it has not suddenly changed its nature. Therefore, something else is surely going on here.

What is more, the woman notes that Jesus doesn’t have a bucket, so she asks how he can draw forth living water from the well (whatever well she is referring to, which clearly not this spring in front of them). This is a strange question to ask, as living water (or, as we say in modern English, running water) flows forth of its own accord, would not have to be laboriously drawn out in a bucket; also, if living water is put in a bucket, it is not living water (running water) any longer! It also loses its potency, in both Jewish and Samaritan practice, for spiritual cleansing.

She asks this question in response to Jesus’s declaration that, if she knew who he was, she would have asked him and he would have given her living water. He is referring not to water for quenching thirst (which water in a bucket would do), but living water, which, as in the baptism of John, washes away sins. Taken together, Jesus’s statement followed by the woman’s question are about living water, the water of mikvah and baptism. They both seem to be strongly implying their first encounter at the Jordan River, at the baptism of John.

Jesus goes on (4:13) to say that ordinary water, even “living water”, will leave one thirsty again – he is hinting that she washed away her sins at the baptism of John, but here she is again in Samaria, back at serving as a Temple priestess, and back at needing baptism to be ritually purified again. She is still thirsting for a different life, a better life. Thus he tells her (4:14) that if she takes his “living water”, which is spiritual in nature, she will never thirst again for a better life because she will have it! She will in fact not need to go to the Jordan River, or to Jacob’s Well, because she will have become herself a πηγη, a ܐܢܝܥܡ, a fountain gushing forth living water, giving her life in the Æon. Put another way, she won’t need a ritual, at the hands of John or anyone; by accepting what Jesus is offering, and becoming herself a source of living water, she will be able to keep herself spiritually pure!

To this offer she replies in a manner that is humorous, practical, and flirtatious. She asks with a smile for Jesus to give her this water, so she won’t have to come here every day and take a bucket of water home with her for her daily needs. And she hints not in the empirical content of her statement but in its bantering delivery that she finds Jesus romantically interesting, in effect hinting that she would like to be united with him in marriage.

But she is also saying something subtler that her smile does not entirely hide: I thirst for love, to give and receive real love, to be loved as I want to be loved. But this well, the well of my heart, has been betrayed and wounded many times by men, and its waters have withdrawn deep within, no longer bubbling over to flow freely like this spring before us. So how are you going to reach the waters far down inside this heart when you have no bucket?

And she is also saying: Water that will satisfy all my longings forever? Give me this water so I can leave this place, Samaria, so I won’t have to draw water from this spring ever again! Give me this water so I don’t keep getting drawn back to working as a priestess by my desperate circumstances as a single mother who cannot go back to her father because he has disowned me! Give me this water so I can hold my head up high again, as a woman of Judæa, as a respected wife; give me this water so I can go back home again and stay home!

Both the romantic and desperate aspects of her statement are clear in the fact that she is referring to what would have been, for both of them, a familiar tale in the Torah. Moses, avoiding the power of Pharaoh, goes into a foreign land, Midian, just as Jesus is avoiding the authorities in Jerusalem by entering Samaria (John 4:1-3). Moses sits down by a well (Exodus 2:15) as does Jesus (John 4:6). The seven daughters of Reuel the priest of Midian come to the well, including Moses’s future wife Zipporah (Exodus 2:16), just as does Mary, daughter of the Pharisee-priest Simon ben Nathanael (also known as Simon the Leper) (John 4:7). Moses helps Zipporah and her sisters to draw water – and here the parallel breaks down, or does it not? The answer lies in the Hebrew of Exodus 2:16. The verb דלה (dalah, “to draw” [water]) which appears therein is closely related to the noun דְּלִי (deli, “bucket”); in fact, דלה is doubled, which suggests a better translation would be “they came and drew with a bucket”. Thus we have Moses meeting his future wife as he helps her to draw water with a bucket, and Mary teases Jesus that, unlike Moses (to whom this gospel often compares Jesus), he doesn’t have a bucket to help her draw water! Thus Mary’s otherwise incomprehensible references to this bubbling spring as a deep well and to a bucket come clear.

The parallels continue: Zipporah and her sisters hurry back home exclaiming about the amazing man at the well, but leaving him there to do so (Exodus 2:18-19), like Mary (John 4:28-29); and then Reuel, and presumably his entire family and even the servants, come to the well to meet Moses (Exodus 2:20), as do the Samaritans in John 4:30.

Jesus’s reply in the next verse, 4:16, appears to the casual reader to be a sudden shift in subject, telling her to go call her husband. But it is in every way a response to her hint of romantic interest and her deeper message to Jesus that she wants to escape this life. By saying “Call your husband” Jesus is obviously stating two things:

First, he is subtly referring to her marital status. No doubt thanks to her son his disciple Lazarus he already knows what it is, as further conversation will make clear. But by referring to her nonexistent husband he is giving her an opening for saying she is unmarried (which indeed she does say), which in turn gives him the opportunity to ask her to marry him.

Second, the Greek has Jesus telling her “Call your ανδρα” (ανδρος [andros], literally means “man”, but depending on context it can carry the sense of “husband”, and it does in the Greek here).

But there is a third implication in Jesus’s words. The Aramaic of the Peshitta has him telling her to “Call your ܝܟܠܥܒܠ ;”(ܠܐܥܒ [baal], which can literally mean “lord” or “master” or “husband”, but in this case must also be taken as Jesus literally saying, “Call your god! Call your Baal!” This is a reference to her work as priestess in the Samaritan Temple; she would invoke the presence of Baal by calling upon him. His command also brings strongly to mind the challenge Elijah offered to the priests of the same Baal, priests who were the acolytes of another priestess of Baal, Queen Jezebel. He repeatedly urged them to call on Baal to light a sacrificial fire atop Mount Carmel, another sacred mountain to the north of Gerizim, mockingly saying perhaps their god doesn’t respond because he is busy, or taking a nap, or in the privy. But in reply “there was no voice and no one answering” (I Kings 18:26). Then Elijah soaked with water the altar dedicated to his God, the God of Judah, called on that God, and fire came from heaven to light the sacrifice. By referring to this event Jesus is in effect telling her that there is nothing for her here, nothing but a god who isn’t there. “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know,” he will say in verse 22, for there is nothing here to know, let alone worship. The Temple is empty now for her, forlorn and bereft; in Shakespeare’s words, it is but “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

Thus, in this conversation, Jesus is offering the woman, Mary, an entirely new life: she will no longer be forced by economic circumstances to work as a priestess, for she will have her own life back in Judæa, her own God back, and a husband. It is out of this graciousness that we see Mary as continuingly grateful to Jesus (John 12:3 and Luke 7:38), and no doubt why she felt she should go back home and make peace with her family, which is why she is living in Bethany again by chapter 11. He is at the same time calling her to believe in him as Messiah and asking her to accept his hand in marriage.

“I, I, Speak I With”: Commentary on John 4:26

This blog entry discusses the conversation between Jesus and Mary at a well in Samaria, specifically in John 4:26. This is a revision of a section of my commentaries to The Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The book is available in hardcover and paperback; you will find ordering information here.

GJohn-Mockup1

Here for the first time in the gospel Jesus reveals his being Messiah. That he does so to this woman tells us she is significant, and not merely a minor, nameless character who does not appear again. It forms an inclusio with chapter 20, where he reveals himself at his resurrection to the same woman, Mary, not just saying he is Messiah, but being fully realized as Messiah.

This verse is another deliberate double entendre. It is usually, and not incorrectly, translated as Jesus confirming her guess that he is Messiah, rendered in this translation as “I am (he), the one who is speaking to you.” In this sense he is referring to himself, at least as a vehicle for the message, for in this gospel his role as Messiah is as the chosen spokesperson (prophet, נְבִיא in Hebrew, προφητης in Greek) for God.

However, Jesus will use this odd syntactical construction many times in this gospel, which means (given an author for whom every detail is carefully chosen) it is significant. Jesus is instead, or also, saying to her the phrase ΈΓΩ ΈΙΜΙ, “I AM”. This is the Greek rendering of one of the seven most sacred names for God in the Torah, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, which is often translated “I Am What I Am”, but literally means “I Shall Be What I Shall Be”, though the Hebrew implies the past and present tenses too. In this sense, Jesus is referring not to himself but to God, except insofar as God communicates through him. He here speaks like the prophets of centuries past, who often spoke for God, in the first person, to give the sense that God was talking through the prophet. This sense is rendered in the translation as “I AM (is) the one who is speaking to you.” This gospel presents Jesus as Messiah in the Jewish sense, as an emissary from God, who as was traditional in classical cultures, is treated by those who receive him not as an emissary but as, in effect, the presence of the sending potentate – in this case, God. It is not to say Jesus equals God, as Christian dogma was later to claim, since the gospel sees him as wholly human, but rather that the presence and words of Jesus were and are to be taken as the presence and words of God who sent him as an emissary.

As discussed above [see the book], there are a lot of inclusio connections between this passage and 20:1-18. There is another that must be considered.

In chapter 20 in the Peshitta (the very early Aramaic version of the New Testament), Mary refers to Jesus thrice as ܡܳܪܝ (mary; “master”, “lord”, “husband”, “God”), in verses 2, 13, and 15; in these verses she doesn’t recognize Jesus standing before her. In the same passage Jesus refers to her once, at verse 15, as ܐܰܢ݈ܬ݁ܬ݂ܳܐ in Aramaic (“woman” or, especially, “wife”; the word in the Greek text is γυνη), and in verse 16 by her name. After that she almost certainly calls him mary again in verse 16, but that appears changed by the redactor (see the commentary to that verse), and she does speak of him as mary in verse 18.

In chapter 4 in the Peshitta, Mary refers to Jesus thrice as ܡܳܪܝ (mary), in verses 11, 15, and 19; in these verses she doesn’t recognize Jesus standing before her as Messiah. In the same passage Jesus refers to her once, at verse 21, as ܐܰܢ݈ܬ݁ܬ݂ܳܐ in Aramaic (“woman” or, especially, “wife”). But, in the standard text in neither Greek nor Aramaic, Jesus does not address her by her name. In this encounter by the well Jesus certainly knew her name, having learned it after the baptism from either Lazarus or John, and having come here to the well specifically to meet her again, because he wants her for his wife. Yet the close similarities in how the two conversations are structured force us to consider the possibility.

The redactor clearly has gone to some lengths to remove any hint that the marriage at Cana is Jesus’s own marriage to Mary. As discussed elsewhere, this scene at the well is separated from the wedding, and any clues as to the identity of the bridal couple are removed from the latter. Here also, I believe, the name “Mary” is removed, leaving the female character nameless and (apparently) never to reappear in the gospel, something very odd in a gospel where every detail is carefully managed.

If indeed in the original version Jesus did call her by name, it would be – as in chapter 20 – in the culminating moment of the conversation; that is, in this verse 26. In this moment when Jesus reveals himself as Messiah, it would be a finer moment if at the same time he reveals that he knows her name; he has already made it clear he knows she is a Temple priestess.

The Greek for what Jesus says in this verse, Εγω ειμι ο λαλων σοι, is reasonably clear in meaning, as discussed above. The Aramaic, ܐܶܢܳܐ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܠ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܥܰܡܶܟ݂ܝ, is not quite so clear. Literally, it translates as: “I I speak I with.” By adding a few words in parentheses to clarify the meaning implicit in the Aramaic, it is somewhat more readable: “I, I (who) speak with (you); (it is) I.” Still, this is not only confusing in English; even in Aramaic the grammatical structure of this sentence is rather unfocused, mainly because of the repeated personal pronoun at the beginning. However, if Mary’s name is added, it grows much clearer: ܐܶܢܳܐ ܡܳܪܝ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܕ݁ܰܡܡܰܠܶܠ ܐ݈ܢܳܐ ܥܰܡܶܟ݂ܝ (“I, Mary, I [who] speak with [you], [it is] I.”) That suggests in turn that the Greek might have originally read, Εγω ειμι Μαριαμ ο λαλων σοι (“I AM, Mary, who is speaking to you”).

Neither Aramaic nor Greek in the first century used punctuation; what punctuation you see in all of the translations herein, including the phrase above, was added because it is necessary in modern English. The lack of punctuation in the original can cause some ambiguity in meaning, and that ambiguity may well have been intentional. Adding to the ambiguity, the word ܡܳܪܝ could be understood as her name “Mary”, and also as mary, meaning “lord”, “master”, “teacher”, “husband”, and even “God”. With these factors in mind, Jesus in this sentence could be understood as saying:

a: “I am (your) lord/master (mary) (who) is speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus confirming himself to her as Messiah;

b: “I am (your) husband (mary), I (who) am speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus confirming the aspect of their conversation in which they subtly explore the possibility of marriage and agree to it;

c: “I AM, Mary, is speaking with (you).” This would be God speaking through Jesus to say Jesus is Messiah and that God, I AM, is speaking to Mary through him;

d: “I am (Messiah), Mary, I (who) am speaking with (you).” This would be Jesus answering personally (i.e., not God speaking through Jesus, but Jesus on his own) Mary’s comment about expectation of a Messiah; and even

e: “I AM / I am Mary, I speaking with (you). This would be God and/or Jesus speaking as Mary on Jesus’s lips stating that, since in God all humanity is one (John 17:23), then Jesus and Mary are not only one flesh in marriage but they are also one with each other and all humanity in God. Far from affirming opposition between Jew and Samaritan, this is Jesus affirming a perfect unity of all Creation.

Or, as I believe, not one but all of the above are implicit. Jesus here with one word, “Mary”, expresses his entire theology – just as he will again at 20:16 with the same name.







Mary, Mary, Quite Samaritan

This blog about the origin of Mary Magdalene’s name is taken from my commentaries on the Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of the original text. The gospel as generally known, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The forthcoming book will also include a fresh translation of the gospel from the original Greek. This is a work in progress; feedback is most welcome, and people are encouraged to get the book when it comes available, by the end of this year.

Mary’s cognomen “Magdalene” is to be associated with the Synoptics. Other than two highly doubtful references, it never appears in the Gospel of John. Nevertheless, it is so commonly associated with her still today that its origin and meaning must be considered. One of the following explanations are usually offered:

a: Saying she came originally from Magdala, certainly likely since the village is on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a prominently featured area in this gospel.

b: Coming from the Hebrew מגדל (migdal, “tower”, related to μαγδωλος in Greek, “watchtower”.

c: Coming from the related word in Aramaic, the language more commonly spoken at the time by Jews and Samaritans, ܡܓܕܠܗ or ܡܲܓ݂ܕܿܠܵܐ (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. 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: Coming from megaddelá, an Aramaic word for a woman with 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: Coming from Mahanaim (הַֽמַּחֲנָֽיִם in Hebrew, ܡܰܗܰܢܰܺܡ in Aramaic), 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 there is no “h” in Greek) 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 in the biographical notes about Mary on page ___, and also below).

f: Coming from Song of Songs 4:15, the same verse discussed above, where the Hebrew for the “wellspring of water” in the garden is גַּנִּ֔ים מַעְיַ֣ (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 shifted 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: Coming from ܩܕܳܠܳܐ (’qda:la), “neck” in Aramaic, should Mary have had a long, beautiful neck. This is a near-homonym with ܡܲܓ݂ܕܿܠܵܐ (magdala, “tower”), lacking only the initial ܡܰ (ma-), and also with ܡܰܓ݂ܕ݁ܠܳܝܬ݁ܳܐ (magdalayta, Magdalene), lacking the ma– and the suffix –ta. But the final “m” (ܡ) in her Aramaic name, ܡܰܪܝܰܡ (Maryam), could very well have ellided over onto ܩܕܳܠܳܐ (’qda:la), creating ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (Magdalay). 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 (ܨܘܪܟܝ, sawara) is used there.

h: Coming from the Tower of Eder (מִגְדַּל־ עֵ֗דֶר, 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). 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 in 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 hometown.

i: Coming 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: Coming from the Aramaic ܡܰܩܕ݁ ܐܰܠܳܗܬ݁ܳܐ (maqd’ alaht’a; “sacred of/to the goddess”), which is very close to the Aramaic original of the cognomen “Magdalene” ܡܰܓ݂ܕ݁ܠܳܝܬ݁ܳܐ (magdalayta, “Magdalene”).

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 from Ramathaim (Arimathea) in Kohath, northern Judæa just south of Samaria, and she herself had lived in Samaria itself. Therefore option a is to be rejected.

The pronunciation of the Aramaic word magdala is closer to the Greek original of Mary’s cognomen than the Hebrew migdal, so option b is rejected.

Option d is also rejected; the textual evidence is flimsy, and there is no reason to assume that the Talmud writers were merely recalling in a subsequent generation how this word was used in the first century: these comments may have been merely 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 also rejected as lacking a strong rationale for adopting it.

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, to whom the gospel often implicitly associates Jesus and Mary. Options c, e, and h 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 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, especially 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 tears.

That leaves either c, g, or j as the reason that her friends called her “Magdalene”. Some combination of c and g would be a sensible if cautious conclusion, especially if Mary had a beautiful neck or breasts. Option j is the risky conclusion and has to prove itself through time and scholarly debate, but the ground has long been prepared for it by such scholars as Raphael Patai (The Hebrew Goddess) and Merlin Stone (When God was a Woman). I myself lean toward it as the best solution. It would succinctly denote what fact about this Mary most stood out to those who knew, what they would have considered the most significant fact about her: her having been a Samaritan Temple priestess.

All this said, the cognomen “Magdalene” only appears in the crucifixion and resurrection episodes. This has led 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.

Bear in mind, too, that her given name, Μαριαμ (“Maria” or “Mary” in English), refers to tears. The original Hebrew name is מרה (Mara, “bitter”); 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 word has a deeper root meaning in מַר (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 a component in ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, according to the Tanakh and Talmud – and it would recently have been 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 “crown”, very possibly from the myrrh tree, was placed on his head (19:2), and that he was wounded like the tree and his blood came forth as does the liquid myrrh (19:32). 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, who was 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 his death and to come 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). And Elijah raises her son from death (verse 22). Again, the similarities to Mary Magdalene 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.