When hard facts of history become personal symbols of initiation:
My hunch is that the figure of Mary Magdalene and her life story plays a much bigger part in the gospel according to ‘John’ than is immediately apparent, and the same applies to the author, the mysterious Beloved Disciple. If we can grasp the cohesive nature of their biographies retold in the gospel, then the allegorical or symbolic meaning of this initiatory document can be disclosed as a map of our own inner journey. Symbolism is born out of factual happenings and to discover these facts we need to go to contemporary sources. But are there any?
The four canonical gospels are commonly used as a source of information. Each was written and held in a community of dedicated followers of ‘the Way’, and later became known more widely, with the authors then named as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Complete originals have not survived. There are only copies, the earliest from three centuries after the events they describe around 30−33 CE. So were any of the original works by eyewitnesses?
Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and its people murdered, enslaved or exiled. The same fate happened to many other cities in Palestine. After those tumultuous years, the land that Jesus knew was dramatically changed. Three of these gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are most likely the work of second generation Christians, by this time dispersed around the empire. They tell similar stories and are known as the synoptics (looked at together) but they do not claim to have witnessed the events of Jesus’ life and death.
Then we have John, the fourth gospel of the canon. The author probably led a community in Ephesus on the coast of present-day Turkey. Unlike the synoptics the gospel of John does claim to be the work of an eyewitness, named only as the disciple whom Jesus loved (the Beloved Disciple). It is generally acknowledged that someone close to the author added a final chapter to affirm the truth of that claim.
This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24)
Archaeological discoveries indicate that the author knew pre-destruction Jerusalem better than the other gospel writers. For example, his detailed description of the pool at Bethesda with five porticos, located north of the sheep gate, matches what has been excavated by archaeologists. Likewise, with the Siloam pool south of the Temple. He describes the location and topography of other places since rediscovered. Evident too is an accurate understanding of Jewish customs in that city. Such factual information lends credence to this person being an eyewitness. Remarkably, the gospel called ‘the spiritual gospel’ by church father Clement of Alexandria, is also the most factual.
John’s inner landscape of initiation is deepened when read as allegory
Marc Chagall, Song of Songs IV, 1958 – a biblical allegory of love both earthly and spiritual
My first post in this series The Enigma of Mary Magdalene describes how the early Christian writings, including the later gnostic interpretations, were guidebooks describing paths of initiation into the Christ mystery. That’s why it was originally known as the Way. As in all mysteries, the outer was given first and the deeper teaching was available to those who had been tested and well prepared. The fourth gospel’s cosmic vision tells of the divine Logos coming into the earthly realm. It is a multi-layered work, however, unfolding on several levels.
One of the things this gospel does is to set out the inward transformational path based on specific events, and also the people who inhabit the story. Some characters appear in the other gospels. Others only appear in this one. An anonymous disciple is mentioned often but is never named. And there is the disciple whom Jesus loved, outed as the eyewitness and author.
The work shows an affinity with Greek Platonic philosophy, especially in its use of dialogue and allegorical meaning – the most famous example of the latter is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. When John’s gospel is read as an allegory, that is, as an extended metaphor, the physical events of the first century can be mapped into an inner psychological landscape related to what Carl Jung called individuation. And the symbolic meanings of names serve as guidelines for our own inner development. In a name lies the essence of a person.
In all good stories characters help the drama to progress. In an initiatory work characters have deeper roles that reveal the mystical nature of transformation. At significant points this author hides or disguises the actual identity of people and gives them names that draw attention to their function in the allegory. At other times the people remain anonymous to universalise what is taking place.
Jesus was inclusive. Contrary to the Judaism of the day, the fullness of the Way that he revealed was available to all, including women. ‘There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, says Paul in his letter to the Galatians (3:28). The idea that men and women could be equally involved was central for people who had grasped the essence of Christian initiation.
To enter imaginatively into the events of John’s gospel and their profound symbolism is to encounter the story as spiritual psychology with the masculine symbolising the mind and the feminine denoting the soul and the experience of the heart. On a deeper level this is about integrating polarities and harmonising opposition within self so the spiritual ‘I’ can be born. I will be exploring this in future posts. Right now I want to keep to the task of meeting the real Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple. So I would like to draw back a veil from the men and women who inhabit this story, especially those who are unique to this gospel.
In John 1:35-51, two disciples want to follow Jesus. One is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, the other is the anonymous disciple in his first appearance. Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and he in turn seeks out Nathanael, a new character to a gospel story in which names are significant. His name means ‘gift of God’. Through him a gift is offered. Jesus prophecies that he will see heaven opened. So with that promise the scene is set.
There’s a marriage at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-11). This is unique to John but we don’t know who the bride and groom are. Jesus is there with his mother. The wine runs out and he helpfully turns water into wine. This is the beginning sign that sets everything in motion. The bride and groom experience water becoming wine, a transformation of an ordinary liquid into one that can ‘raise the spirits’ − plenty of symbolism there.
Traditional icon of the Cana wedding – bride and groom are wide-eyed with amazement that water is now wine
More new characters: Nicodemus is a learned Pharisee, and as his name signifies, a Judean ruler and member of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. John 3:1-15 tells how he is intrigued enough to visit Jesus at night but is confused because he’s caught in literalistic understanding when Jesus tells him that he has to be born again from above. ‘How can anyone go back into the womb?’ he says, not recognising that spiritual rebirth is intended. The closed intellect can limit a person.
Jesus meets a woman of Samaria by a well (John 4). His discussion with her is exceptional. A woman’s place was in the home not chatting in public with strange men (if he is a stranger to her). And she is a Samaritan, a member of a ‘deviant’ religious code. She has also had five husbands, plus one now who is not her true husband. These ‘husbands’ are not literal, but relationship is involved; this woman is not the most consistent person. Yet here is Jesus declaring for the first time who he is. She responds with open-hearted longing. That’s the difference when the mind doesn’t get in the way. And she becomes the first person to spread the news about him.
There is an enduring tradition – based on no real evidence − that Mary Magdalene is from a town called Magdala. We don’t know whether this Magdala even existed in Jesus’ time because it isn’t named in any first century records. Even a mention in Matthew 15:39 has been corrected to ‘Magadan’. In the gospels, written in Greek, she is not referred to as Mary ‘of’ a town but the Magdalene – Maria hé Magdalené. In those days there was a limited repertoire of names to choose from, so often people were given distinguishing nicknames or titles. In Aramaic magdal means ‘tower’. Magdal is the probable source of Mary’s apostolic title. Incidentally Samaria was famous for its high towers. This draws one’s thoughts back to the Samaritan woman, surely the Magdalene in disguise.
To test his commitment to the Law, scribes and Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus (John 8:1-11). The punishment was stoning, a horrible death. He writes on the sand (the implication is that what he writes lets them know he is aware of their sins and sees through them). Then he says that the man without sin should cast the first stone. Of course no one dares and the accusers skulk away. Jesus doesn’t condemn her either. ‘Adultery’, like the Samaritan woman’s ‘husbands’, has a symbolic meaning in the allegory. We can make a link to Luke’s gospel where the Magdalene is cured of ‘seven demons’, at that time a way of describing some kind of psychological imbalance. But in the path Jesus offers there is no condemnation. Wayward emotions can be transformed to become agapé, all-embracing spiritual love.
Eventually we arrive at John, chapter 11. Extraordinary events take place at the home in Bethany of sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus – or in Hebrew Eleazar – a name that means ‘God has helped’. The women appear briefly in Luke, but Lazarus is a new character. The writer says specifically that Jesus loves the three of them. Jesus offers universal love to all; that’s a given. A more nuanced and personal loving relationship is involved here, and in a work about the soul’s journey, this denotes spiritual connection. But Jesus must have met them before. Did they meet for the first time at the wedding of Lazarus and his bride at Cana?
A salient point about sisters – because a woman entered her husband’s family, she became a sister. ‘In-law’ was used in the first century, but sister was a commonly accepted designation. Sister-bride echoes the Hebrew bible’s wonderful and mystical love song, called the Song of Songs:
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes … How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride…
We are not sure about the origin of the name Mary – Hebrew Miryam, Aramaic Mariam − but a likely source is the Egyptian mry which means ‘beloved one’. Love is a prevailing theme in this gospel.
Lazarus dies and is placed in a cave tomb. Some days later Jesus arrives and is distraught but then brings him back to life. Meanwhile he has revealed who he is to Martha. Mary already knows it seems, linking her again with the woman of Samaria.
The Raising of Lazarus by the early fourteenth century Italian painter Duccio
Duccio took a literal view, the raising of a rotting corpse − note the man holding his nose. It would not have been seen as literal in the gospel’s Johannine community. These students of the mystery would refer back to Nicodemus and his questions, connecting this confused Judean ruler with Lazarus, now willing to undergo the inward death and rebirth of initiation. The Johannines would have reflected on Jesus’ statement to some Greeks who question him, drawn from nature but potent with deeper meaning:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12.24)
At a meal, still in Bethany, Mary the sister-wife anoints Jesus’ feet with precious unguents (John 12:1-8). Judas is furious at the waste of money that should have gone to the poor. But Jesus relates her action to his coming death. This is similar to scenes in other gospels although here she is identified. And she is not seen to be a sinful woman as in Luke. Mary has undergone a parallel transformation to Lazarus and now, as a beloved one gifted with prescience, she is preparing Jesus for what is to take place.
Three Marys witness Jesus’ crucifixion – standing by the cross is his mother, his mother’s sister, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (19:25ff). Through love that is now knowledge of the heart they have been prepared for the awakening that fulfils initiation. The male disciples have fled, except for the disciple whom Jesus loves. Here he is explicitly male. This man has undergone a transformative ‘rebirth’ and integrated all he has seen and heard. His head and heart have united. And afterwards, as Nicodemus with the mind no longer shutting out the heart, in a beautiful nurturing act with Joseph of Arimathea he washes Jesus and lays him in a tomb (19:38-42).
Mary Magdalene is given her real name in chapter 20, John’s resurrection story. I think it is to reassert her importance against the voices that were already denigrating her. The account is detailed and rich with feeling as if the writer had absorbed her story so well by hearing it from her own mouth. ‘Let me tell you who she is!’ he declares.
She is alone when she finds the tomb empty. She rushes to tell Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loves. The latter believes (apparently Peter hasn’t ‘got it’ yet), but it is Mary Magdalene who stays weeping by the tomb and encounters the risen Christ. Again she is first to see, and also to know. She becomes the apostle (messenger, delegate) to all the others.
Metaphorically, Mary Magdalene is the bride who experiences the possibility of transformation revealed by Jesus. She is the woman of Samaria with a strong but fickle ability to love that is raised to its most steadfast and pure essence through encounters with Jesus. In Bethany she anoints the feet of her beloved teacher in the role of a ministering priestess. And she has the vision to perceive the heavens opened to reveal the spiritual Christ. We cannot know whether all this describes the historical Mary Magdalene. As an imaginative reconstruction it makes complete sense to me that this is truly who she is.
In this allegorical story the Magdalene figure is usually one step ahead of her male counterpart, as if the heart has to open before the mind can receive. ‘He’ eventually surrenders status and the fixity of old ideas, and so can become the beloved. For him also the heavens open and he writes his ‘spiritual gospel’. So he is the bridegroom, Nicodemus the ruler in Jerusalem, Lazarus the brother-husband of Mary in nearby Bethany, that anonymous disciple who flits quietly through the pages of this gospel witnessing the events, and the one who becomes ‘John’ in Ephesus where he wrote his gospel. After all John also means ‘beloved’.
When combined with historical research, this imaginative reconstruction became the foundation for my novel, Marriages of the Magdalene. I was also inspired by John’s visionary account of the stages of initiation - a profound psychology of the real self, the spiritual ‘I’ that still flows like a river beneath the man-made structures of establishment religion.