The Wind and Dove Descend on Jesus

The Wind and the Dove Descend upon Jesus:

Multiple Meanings in John 1:32

James David Audlin

From the new edition to be published in the second week of March 2014 of

The Gospel  of John Restored and Translated, Volume II

as published by Editores Volcán Barú

Nonfiction by James David Audlin

This verse is loaded with multiple meanings. The Greek word πνευμα means “wind”, “breath”, and “spirit” as do the Hebrew and Aramaic words behind it. The verb καταβαινω (“to descend”) appears here significantly for the second of three times in the opening episodes, clearly to bring back to mind the opening Prologue (3:13) and to anticipate Jesus’s concluding statement to Nathanael (1:51). The word ουρανος means both the physical“sky” and “heaven” (in the spiritual sense) as is the case in every language I know except English. Thus John is talking at the same time about a wind out of the sky, God’s breath exhaled down from heaven, and God’s Spirit descending from heaven.

The verb θεαομαι (theaomai) is related to our modern word “theater”; it is more specific than the English verb “to see”, more exactly meaning to observe something intensely but passively, as a spectator watches a performance on stage. In classical literature it GOJ-front 2vol IIcarries the strong suggestion of being deeply affected by what one is observing. This verb anticipates a point introduced in the next paragraph, that in this gospel John never actually administers to Jesus his immersion ceremony. If he had, the text here would say, “As I was immersing him…”, or, “As I was about to immerse him…” One gains the sense from the phrasing here that John was not close to Jesus as this miraculous event occurred; he may not even have been in the Jordan but still on dry land watching this profoundly moving drama with helpless awe.

Unlike the self-administered mikvah,John’s immersion ceremony was one that he had to execute himself. Hints may survive in the ceremony done in John’s name to this day by the Mandæans of southern Iraq (cf. Sabian Mandaean the Secret Root of Christianity, by Salim Berenjie). Rabbi Ben Abrahamson says the Sabian Mandæans were originally Notzrim, a group John and Jesus both appear closely associated with, but changed their designation in the face of rejection by orthodox Christians “to continue to live under the protection Allah SWT gives to the ‘people of the book’”.

John’s declaration does not say he actually performed the immersion ceremony for Jesus. Scholars usually say the author left it understood that it was done. But I ask: How he could have performed it if he felt unworthy even to untie Jesus’s sandals (1:27)? I think it was not done, because a miraculous event superseded it, and John was frozen into immobility.

That event is bound up in a close reading of the verse. The word περιστερα (peristera, “dove”) that we find in the text is virtually identical in pronunciation to another word, πρηστηρ (prēstēr, “whirlwind”), especially as declined in this verse, περιστεραν/πρηστηρον (peristeran/prēstēran) – the consonants are exactly the same, which would jump right out at Lazarus and John the Presbyter, whose first languages were Hebrew and Aramaic, which at the time were written with only consonants. It is possible that this is a scribal error on the part of the amanuensis or else extremely early in the subsequent history of the gospel text, since the words for “dove” and “whirlwind” are quite unlike in Hebrew and Aramaic. But I reject this possibility, and also the possibility that this was a “correction” by the much later redactor to make this gospel conform to the three Synoptic gospels, since as is argued below both words would be very appropriate here.

This verse has always been understood to be saying one thing came down: a wind in the form of a dove. But I believe two things happened at about the same time – that both a whirlwind and a “dove” descended on and remained with Jesus, as I shall now explore. Any first-century Jew reading this text would not need to be reminded of Elijah’s whirlwind as a spiritual father of this event, but the dove connection would not have been quite so clearly evident; I think this is why the Presbyter added a phrase saying that just the wind came down, so also did a dove.

John testifies that he saw the πνευμα come down out of the sky/heaven. The word πνευμα can mean“wind”, “breath”,or “spirit”depending on context, and the context here, that it came down from the sky, tells us the intended main meaning is “wind”. (Still, to remind the reader of these other meanings, the translation retains all three.) We know from experience that a wind out of the sky sometimes does take the form of a whirlwind; the text clearly makes sense with that reading. The usual reading, that a wind came out of the sky/heaven in the form of a dove, makes little sense. A wind can no more take the form of a dove than it can take the form of a barn or a banana or the Beatles. However a wind can take the form of a whirlwind.

Besides being nothing like a mighty gale, a fragile dove would not be able to withstand a whirlwind out of the sky, let alone safely alight on Jesus and manage to stay on his shoulder, without getting blown away. In any case, the very next verse, 33, seals the matter by expressly saying the πνευμα, the wind (and not a dove), descended onto Jesus.

This provisional reconstruction of the author’s original intent also makes contextual sense. Immediately before this episode is the Prologue, which contains significant references to the Breath/Wind/Spirit of God that moved across the surface of the waters in Creation (Genesis 1:2) and that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7). The conversation with Nicodemus, which picks up this theme, comes soon hereafter. And this passage forms an inclusio (that is to say, it is in A-B-A symmetry) with 19:30, in which Jesus breathes out the wind/breath/spirit within him for the last time as he dies, and 20:22, in which Jesus exhales on the disciples and says “Receive the πνευμα άγιον” (the sacred breath/spirit/wind – equivalent in Greek to רוּ חַ [Ruach], the Breath/Soul of Life); by exhaling he proves he is alive, but also with that breath he heals them, he blesses them, and he fills them with the Name and Spirit of God.

I wonder if John the Presbyter’s focus here on the whirlwind, πρηστηρ, led to the Mediæval Prester John legend.

YHWH was clearly conceived of anciently as a storm god, as imaged in Psalm 2l, especially verse 3, in which the roar of YHWH’s voice is over the waters just as was the YHWH’s breath in Genesis 1:2, and as is the whirlwind here. The Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and, on the third day, there is darkness and storm (Exodus 19:16), and Moses comes down the mountain to deliver the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Those three days parallel the three day revolving around John the Immerser in chapter 1, with this day being dark and stormy. Again, obviously, an association is being drawn with Moses.

Any first-century Jew reading this account of a whirlwind hovering about Jesus would instantly think not only of Genesis, Exodus, and the Psalm, but also of Isaiah 11:12, which says the wind/breath/spirit of God will rest upon the expected Messiah. And a whirlwind resting on a prophet at the Jordan River (1:28) would also immediately call to the mind of that reader, as it clearly did the delegation that came to ask John questions (see the commentary above to John 1:20-21), the story of Elijah, also at the Jordan, transferring his prophetic power to Elisha (II Kings 2). Elijah strikes the river with his rolled-up mantle and the waters part, echoing the story of Moses, to whom this gospel often compares Jesus, likewise parting the waters. After Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, a chariot and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is taken into heaven in a whirlwind. Except for the mantle and the chariot and horses of fire, everything matches up. An older prophet (Elijah/John) nearing the close of his ministry ordains the beginning of the ministry of a younger prophet (Elisha/Jesus) who has a double portion of the older one’s spirit; the River Jordan is passed through or entered into; and a whirlwind comes from heaven. One pertinent difference is that the whirlwind takes one waning prophet, Elijah, to heaven, but not John, since he is to die at Herod’s hand; rather, the whirlwind comes down to anoint Jesus, evidently conferring on him something of the nature and spirit of Elijah as it did Elisha. This whirlwind is the presence of God, the voice of God, the breath of God, which Moses only saw after it had passed by and it was safe to leave the cave where he was hidden. This whirlwind is אֶהְֶיֶה אֲֶשֶר אֶהְֶיֶה(“I Am and Will Be What I Am and Will Be”), it is God’s name. Occasionally God confers the rare honor of being “taken up into heaven”; II Kings 2 aside, Genesis 5:24 is also interpreted to say the same of Enoch, and it is generally believed that Moses too was taken up into heaven, though there is nothing to say so in the Torah. This gospel suggests this was going to happen with Jesus too (cf. 6:62 and 20:17); certainly, in the theology of Jesus as presented in this gospel this would further validate his status as Messiah. (Much later, the Ascension of Jesus would become church doctrine, but with an entirely different import; it is fancifully described in Luke-Acts and in a late addition to Mark.) The Talmud often speaks of the spirit/wind/breath descending from the sky/heaven to anoint the Messiah (e.g., Test. Levi 18, Test. Judah 24:2). The storm here returns as an inclusio during the crucifixion, as discussed on page 915. All in all, the gospel is drawing a strong comparison between Jesus and both Elijah and Moses, clearly telling us the gospel is directed at least at a Jewish audience.

As presaged above, there are at least two obvious conclusions. One is that the amanuensis meant to write the Greek word for “whirlwind” as he was taking down the Beloved Disciple’s spoken reminiscences, but accidentally wrote the similar Greek word for “dove”. The other is that this was a deliberate change effected later by the redactor of this gospel, to bring it into conformity with the by-then-published Synoptic gospels. Those three gospels all feature (rightly or wrongly) a dove; since Matthew and Luke based their tellings on the version in Mark, we can conclude – if in reality it was a whirlwind that visited itself upon Jesus at his immersion – that the scribal error occurred in the early stages of composition of Mark’s text, and Matthew and Luke simply repeated the mistake, and then John was edited to conform to the other three.

A third, less obvious conclusion requires us to put aside two thousand years of assumptions about this text and read it afresh. The Greek adverb ως (hōs) has in this text always been taken to mean “like”, to say there is one thing, the wind, which takes on the form of another thing, a dove; but ως, as noted in standard references like Strong’s, can also mean “just as”, “in the same manner as”, which here would say there are two things that have something in common – that the wind and the dove both came down to Jesus and remained on/with him. The Aramaic adverb ܐܝܟ (hayk) in the Curetonian Gospels text, usually translated in this verse as “like” as is ως, also can take this latter sense, as noted in standard dictionaries such as Jastrow’s. The double entendre of πρηστηρ/περιστερα, typical of the Presbyter’s style, is only possible in Greek, since the Aramaic words for “dove” and “wind” are considerably different, but the latter text still can be clearly read as saying both the wind and dove came down toJesus.Since this reading clears up the issue of how wind can take on the totally unlike appearance of a dove, my translation presents these two meanings, such that both the whirlwind and dove come down and remain with him.

This double entendre analogy is well-rooted in the Tanakh, in passages that would have occurred to any first-century Jew. The Talmud and Dead Sea Scrolls both offer an analogy that conjoins both parts of the double entendre, comparing the ruach of God that moved over the surface of the waters in Genesis 1:2 to a female dove: Shimon ben Zoma in the Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 15a, for instance, says that the ruach hovered over the waters in the way a mother bird hovers over her young without touching them (though he was criticized for this analogy, whereupon he was so mortified that he instantly dropped dead). John Milton, who took much of his material from the Talmud, put it thus (Paradise Lost, I, 17-22):

… Thou O Spirit …

… Thou from the first

Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread

Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss

And mad’st it pregnant …

In many other passages the common thread is their portrayal of the dove as seeking out a sanctuary from one’s enemies in the wilderness, a theme common to John, Jesus, and this gospel. In Genesis 8, the dove guides Noah out of the torment of water and wind to dry land, as, so I will suggest below, Mary does here. Psalm 55:6-8 refers to a dove flying away to safety, out of the dangerous whirlwind. Jeremiah 48:28 urges one to imitate the dove, living in safety among the inaccessible crags. Psalm 11:1,3 similarly has the psalmist upbraid his advisors: “How (can you) say to my soul, ‘Flee (as) a bird to your mountain’? … If the foundations are torn down, what do the righteous do?”, which for Jesus would be a salient question: How can Mary flee back to the Samaritan community at Mount Gerizim for safety if that place is in danger? In 2:19 he will speak of the foundations of the Jerusalem Temple being pulled down.

And the most significant reference to a dove: the Shulammite, the beautiful woman in the Song of Songs, which this gospel associates with Mary by way of frequent paraphrases from that work, is often compared in the Song to a dove. In Song 2:14 the man asks the woman, whom he calls his dove, to show herself in the concealed place along the steep way – the landscape described in that verse is one that the eyewitness and amanuensis would have agreed describes accurately this rock-strewn, craggy countryside where John was immersing people, which Gulielmus Tyrius described as also abounding in what the locals called dragons, which he defined as “hidden passages and windings underground”. Visitors to the region today will find it continues to be full of concealed places along steep ways.

This verse in the Song of Songs suggests the possibility that the whirlwind and the dove could both have been present at the immersion – that would be the case if the dove, the beloved, “showed herself in the concealed place” in the form of Mary, called the Magdalene in the Synoptics. This famous cognomen may indeed refer to doves, as is discussed in the essay on page 406. Every time she appears in this gospel the text includes references to the beloved woman, the “dove” of the Song of Songs.

The whirlwind could literally have come down from heaven and remained on Jesus, and the “dove”, Mary, could also have come down from the shore and helped Jesus, likely a bit disoriented by the frigid currents and fierce wind, out of the water, and “remained” with him – remained forever, as his wife. This helping Jesus from the death waters is an inclusio-reversal of Jesus guiding Mary out of the darkness of his tomb into the dawn light at the resurrection. As at the resurrection, Simon and Lazarus, at present John’s disciples, are here but ineffective. Everyone else watches helplessly as the whirlwind descends on Jesus in the frigid turbulent current, thinking that they about to see a man swept away to his death.But she knows what to do; she enters the water – and the whirlwind ceases and she guides him to shore, just as the wind ceases when Jesus enters the boat in 6:21 and he guides the disciples to shore. In her first appearance in this gospel Mary is portrayed as a κοινωνος, a co-Messiah with Jesus.

The presence of the Breath/Wind/Spirit tells us that God is in this scene in the aspect called in the Tanakh YHWH (the proper pronunciation of this name being an exhalation). The Prologue, as we have seen, evokes from its first words the creation stories that begin Genesis, and that theme continues here. Where Elohim created the first human in Elohim’s own image, as a hermaphrodite, comprising as one both masculine and feminine (Genesis 1:27), it was YHWH who then split this first human into two, a man and a woman (Genesis 2:21-22). Here, however, the whirlwind-presence of YHWH begins the process of reversing that separation, driving together this new Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, such that, by the end of this gospel they will be again completely one flesh (Genesis 2:24) in Elohim’s image.

Strengthening the view that Mary is present in this scene is the clear inclusio between John, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah after his symbolic death-and-resurrection in the Jordan (1:43), and Mary, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah during his ministry (4:29; John only discusses Jesus as Messiah with certain religious officials, and the disciples only privately, in chapter 1); she is also the first to declare him Messiah after his literal death-and-resurrection (20:18). Moreover, there is an inclusio inasmuch as here Mary watches while Jesus enters the water, and again when he dies on the cross (19:25), and as here she runs to help him from the river waters, and again runs to him at the resurrection. There is another inclusio: Jesus is reunited with Mary in a garden after arising from the dead in chapter 20, just as he will be reunited soon after this immersion scene with this woman, at a gardenlike spring in chapter 4. And the whirlwind here is mirrored by suggestions discussed below of a wind and storm at the time of the crucifixion. With so many clear correspondences being drawn between John and Mary, the possibility that Mary was present at Jesus’s immersion must be considered.

It will be established below that Lazarus was Mary’s son and at this time a disciple of John.If so, then Mary could have come from Shechem to visit her son, who at the time of the immersion would have been there to witness it. Mary may even have come to be herself immersed by John, to recollect her Jewish heritage after serving as a Samaritan priestess, to make herself Jewish-kosher, to have her past “washed away” through the immersion. If so, then not only Jesus but Mary too would have been naked for the immersion, as was customary. Logion 107 in the Gospel of Philip says we are to undress before we “go down into the water” such that we may be “clothed with the Living Water”). So too does the Diataxis [Ordinances] of the Holy Apostles (more commonly called “The Apostolic Tradition” or the Anaphora of Hippolytus of Rome), at 21:1-5, which in recording the baptism rite of the early 300s in the Eastern Church, very likely the practice in John’s Asian churches as well:

At the hour when the cock crows, they shall make prayer over the water. The water shall be flowing through the baptismal enclosure, or pour into it from above where there is abundant water; if water is not abundant, use whatever water is available. They shall then remove all of their clothing. The children shall be immersed first. If they can speak for themselves, they should do so; otherwise, their parents or other relatives should speak for them. Then the men are immersed and, last, the women, after they have first unbound their hair and put aside their gold and silver ornaments that they are wearing. Let no one take any foreign object with him down into the water.

And, needless to say, this is also still today the practice in the mikvah. The mikvah, like this early Christian baptism, was intentionally celebrated as a birth ritual and we are all born naked (Job 1:21).

Jesus’s nakedness in this scene forms an inclusio with his being nearly so to wash the disciples’ feet (13:3-12a), and his complete nakedness on the cross (19:23-24) and at the resurrection (20:6-7), when he was spiritually reborn and spiritually remarried to Mary. She would probably have been nigh naked herself at the crucifixion, and certainly at the resurrection, since the tradition then was for a grieving person to rend his or her clothes into pieces. That increases the sense of an implicit eroticism to this scene of a man and a woman naked together in the water, which parallels the implicit eroticism at the spring in Samaria and forms an inclusio with the clear eroticism at the resurrection(see the references under “eroticism” in the final index).

It is possible that Mary was assisting John in the immersion rites; as a former Temple priestess this would be a familiar role for her, and John would be known to her if, as I think, her sister Martha was the wife of his son Simon the Rock. Thus, she may have helped Jesus and others there for the ritual to undress, and to untie his sandals, the very act that John felt he could not do himself (1:27), and to throw around him a fresh white linen robe afterwards. Thus too she was quick to respond, going to Jesus in the wild current and wind to rescue him when everyone else was frozen. If, as suggested above, John’s immersion ritual was preëmpted by a miracle, a whirlwind descending on Jesus, then John may never even have entered the Jordan to do the rite! – and a second miracle, a dove, Mary, descended on Jesus in the Jordan to bring him to shore. If Mary undressed and reclothed him in this scene, there is an inclusio with her coming to the tomb (20:1) to undertake the wifely responsibility of tohorah, the ritual purification of a body by undressing it, washing it (equivalent to the immersion here), and then reclothing it in a fresh white takhrikhin (linen wrapping). And if the great preacher John felt unworthy of unlacing Jesus’s sandals and helping him to undress, and these tasks fell instead to Mary, then Mary must already have been in a very special capacity on behalf of John.

The Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim had had a dove image for veneration, and though the Temple was destroyed it or a replacement may still have been on display in Mary’s time, as suggested by the Talmud (Hul. 6a) – in fact, the dove image originally worshipped there was reportedly the idol buried by Jacob under the oak here at Shechem (Genesis 35:4; Tosafot Ḥul. 6a); it could be that it was found and put back on display.

Also, while as noted above the Aramaic words for “dove” and “wind” are quite unlike, the Aramaic word for “dove”, ܝܘܢܐ (yawna), is so similar to John’s name in Aramaic, ܝܘܚܢܢ (yawhnn) that it could have been as a feminine variant of the name; though no such variant has been found in early writings, that does not exclude the possibility. The two words are not quite as close in Hebrew, in which “dove” is יוָֺנָה (yonah; also the name “Jonah”; no surprise, the tale of Jonah is yet another dove-resurrection connection) and John is יוֹחָָנָן (yochanan). The meaning of John’s name, “God has been gracious”, has nothing to do with doves, though note that the etymology of yawna is unknown, so the possibility of its being related to yawhnn cannot be firmly ruled out. Still, Lazarus and/or John the Presbyter could have noted the phonetic similarity as they worked out the double entendre they adopted in their original Greek text – or, possibly, Mary was called yawna because of her putative role as John’s assistant; indeed, this might be the root of her Synoptic cognomen “Magdalene”; cf. pages 409-10.Doves were often used as government, commercial, or military messengers, and, writes Rabbi Ben Abrahamson, as a means of divination of the “word from heaven” for the Notzrim, a religious sect embracing the Essenes, with whom John and Jesus may have been aligned.

The Gospel of Philip may provide support for this possible involved presence of Mary at Jesus’s immersion. This noncanonical gospel, more of a reflection on Jesus’s life and teaching than a narrative gospel, was apparently written by Philip the Evangelist, not to be confused with the apostle; he was known to John the Presbyter, and like him one of the larger group of disciples who followed Jesus. Often wrongly labelled Gnostic, the gospel is theologically and imagistically not far from the Gospel of John. At logion 82 it closely associates immersion, resurrection, and marriage in terms of the reconciliation of male with female in the image of Elohim – a theme that will come up several times in this work:

The immersion has the resurrection [with] the reconciliation coming into the bridal chamber; yet, the bridal chamber is more exalted than these.… One will never find its like.

And it may be speaking of John (as the friend of the bridegroom; cf. John 3:29) and the disciples (as the sons of the bridegroom; Jesus often addresses them as his children; at least some were in their actual childhood) when it says of the nakedness of the bride (logion 131). Note also that Mary’s mother Salome was among the women at the tomb according to Mark 16:1.

Let her [the bride] come forth and be revealed only to her father and mother with her, before the friend of the bridegroom, [and] before the sons of the bridegroom.

In the much-debated fragment from the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Jesus not only calls Mary “my wife” (tahime), but says “Asforme, I dwell/exist/live with her in order to […] an image […]”. The verb suggests “I live with her” in three senses: the ordinary sense of cohabitation, the higher sense of spiritual union, and the highest sense, of the vitality in all things that vivifies life. Thus, Jesus is probably saying his marriage to Mary is part of the Messianic image he hopes to convey; applied to the immersion, their meeting at his symbolic death-and-resurrection in the river is perfectly matched by their meeting anew after his very real death and resurrection.

Doves in this part of the world are not white, as in European paintings. More properly called turtledoves, they are buff on the breast, with gold-grey-brown wings. They are migratory, coming to this land from Africa in early spring (Song of Songs 2:11-12) and returning thither in August; curiously, Mary only appears in this gospel in Acts One and Four, which take place in the spring, and not in Acts Two or Three, which take place in October and December. Their coming from Africa is also reminiscent of the possibility

(discussed on pages 408-09 and elsewhere) that Mary may have been a priestess in Egypt. The turtledove’s arrival coincides with the fierce spring wind best known in the West by its Arabic name, خمسين (khamsin, written as חמסין in modern Hebrew), which in Biblical times was called רוחַַקדים (ruach qadīm, “east wind”). This dual arrival of the dove and the wind could in fact have suggested the metaphor of πρηστηρ (wind) and περιστερα (dove) at the immersion.

Why the dove imagery? Because it tells the informed reader that Mary is there with Jesus: in this first episode of the gospel this is the first appearance of the divine couple, the Messiah and the Priestess, the whirlwind and the dove, the Spirit and the Bride (Revelation 22:17). Dove imagery was at the time universal in the spiritual traditions of the eastern Mediterranean, and it vividly supports the identification of Mary with a dove. James A. Montgomery (in The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect)discusses the oft-cited belief that the then considerably eclectic Samaritans worshipped a dove on Mount Gerizim, where Mary was a priestess. He eventually dismisses it, mistakenly, since indeed John Hyrcanus’s stated pretext for destroying the Samaritan Temple in 110 B.C.E. was its dove imagery, but yet he speaks approvingly of other scholars (Selden and Ronzevalle) who associate the dove cult with the goddess Semiramis and the Ashima mentioned in II Kings 17:30. Donald A. MacKenzie (in Myths of Babylonia and Assyria) discusses the close connections between Semiramis and doves in the myths about her. Her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, derived from Summat (“Dove”), signifies “The Dove Goddess Loves Her”. In the most ancient form of the myth, says MacKenzie, she was turned into a dove and took flight into heaven in that form. He adds that Robertson Smith demonstrated that the dove was of great sanctity among the Semitic nations, often closely associated with love, also symbolizing innocence, gentleness, and holiness. The Greek Aphrodite was also associated with doves, signifying love.

Like περιστερα (“dove”) and πρηστηρ (“whirlwind”) in Greek, amenu, “dove” in Egyptian and , Amen, the Egyptian god of wind, are near homonyms. And the dove Mary’s name comes from Mari-Amen, “Beloved Amen”, the original name ofvMoses’s sister Miriam, who watched as he was drawn, sacredly reborn, out of the Nile by the pharaoh’s daughter as she ritually bathed, no doubt naked: as Mary, also surely naked, here draws Jesus sacredly reborn from the Jordan. The mother of this pharaoh’s daughter was Ahmes (“Daughter of Amon”). In being reborn from the river, Moses is renamed as a god’s son and Jesus is anointed as God’s son/Messiah.

So ultimately in the doubles entendres of πρηστηρ and περιστερα, amenu and Amen, we have as one the two aspects of Elohim, God and Goddess, arriving to anoint this the first encounter of Jesus and Mary. The episodes at the Samaritan well, in Cana, and of the resurrection will continue this theme of joining together humanity, originally severed into male and female in Eden, to create the united male-female being, Jesus and Mary, that reflects the image and likeness of Elohim. The meticulously constructed inclusio nature of this gospel just about requires the presence of Mary at the immersion: symbolic spiritual rebirth was for Jesus (at least as presented in this gospel) was all about undoing the sin of our first forebears in Eden, such that male and female can be rejoined. This major theme of the gospel, discussed at length in the commentaries on the resurrection, forms an inclusio with this symbolic spiritual rebirth, though that one is not symbolic but literally a rebirth from death; Mary was present at his death and resurrection, and so for literary reasons the author must want us to conclude that she was present at this immersion too: his spiritual rebirth in both places is the rejoining of Eve with Adam, so Mary can be joined with him in both places.

If the theory that Mary was actively present at the immersion is true, then why was it not clearly stated in the gospel? It may be the redactor found it unacceptable (for the clear suggestion that Jesus was involved with this woman) and excised it; I reject this possibility because the redactor let stand other similarly “romantic” passages with but minimal changes. It may be that the amanuensis meant to make her presence more specific in the telling of the immersion, but never got to it; we know that the original version of the gospel was never completed. The compositional problem might have been that the author put the description of the immersion in the mouth of John (even though Lazarus the eyewitness was certainly there), and either an expansion would have to be still in the first person or else a new narrative strand based on Lazarus’s memories would need to be inserted. And it may simply be that the gospel author decided what he had written was clue enough for the intelligent reader to recognize and interpret correctly what transpired – and it is only we modern gentiles who miss the clue that would have been instantly clear to any reasonably literate first-century Jew, since we do not share the necessary symbolic Weltansicht, and since the lenses of our comprehension are clouded by two thousand years of errant dogma.

Should this hypothesis of Mary at the immersion be correct, it is not hard to theorize how it would have been recounted in this gospel. As discussed in the Introduction, many scenes in the gospel appear to be sketches that were going to be expanded later, but, alas, there was no opportunity to do so probably because of the Roman decimation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. John’s narration of what happened (1:31-33) is complete as it stands, but it could have been slightly extended, to say that after the whirlwind churned up the water in a miniature inundating storm of water (a parallel to the Flood [Genesis 7:17-23], in which everything died, just as this immersion was a symbol of death, and after which a wind descended from heaven [Genesis 8:1, the Hebrew wording of which is close to Genesis 1:2]), the dove came down to the waters in the person of Mary, to guide Jesus to dry land (Genesis 8:8-12), to draw him forth from the waters (Exodus 2:5).

If Mary was there to be immersed herself, and/or to assist John, then likely Jesus took notice of Mary, whom Lazarus would have told his new teacher was his mother, and/or whom Simon the Rock (Peter) said was the sister of his wife Martha. This would have led to the arranging of their meeting at the spring in Shechem, the next episode. This is of course speculative, but it would connect this scene closely with the next, at Jacob’s Spring, and explain why this scene is followed immediately by that one, and then the wedding. It would also help explain the disciples’ surprise in 4:27; she is not entirely unfamiliar to them!

Les Petites Heures de Jean de Berry, a late 1300s “book of hours” illuminated manuscript, provides a fascinating footnote discussed by Ariadne Green in her book Jesus Mary Joseph. It includes two very similar depictions of this immersion scene, however in one there is no descending dove overhead, but rather a lamb putting its forepaws on John’s arm. This may be a reference to John calling Jesus “the lamb of God” (1:36/29), and it may record an old tradition that Mary was at the immersion: the Aramaic word for “lamb”, ܵamara, is close to her name in Aramaic, Mara.

The Feminine Spirit, the Masculine Truth


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?


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,, 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.

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.