Mary Magdalena as Eye Witness

One of the difficult things about our Messianic faith is that the key event which transformed our Judaism into Messianic Judaism happened two thousand years ago. I say it is one of the difficulties because there are certainly others (e.g., our Messiah has not done most the the Messiah things yet, leaving us open to the common criticism of our Jewish peers that we have placed our bet on a failed Messiah). I don’t have any anxiety over these difficulties. I welcome them. As for critics, they should be aware of the difficulties of their own positions (e.g., Judaism prays daily for a Messiah and an age of redemption that hasn’t come yet and secularism is avoiding the obvious problem of complete and utter meaninglessness).

Concerning the problem of our faith being two thousand years old, we really should think about how we know. And the following story is all about that. One of the key figures, I would argue one of the top few figures, in the transmission of our hope was a woman.

We first meet Mary as part of a group of women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities by Yeshua: “Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others who provided for him out of their means” (Luke 8:2).

Later in Luke 24:10 we read, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

To better understand why Luke mentions Mary (and others) in both Luke 8 and 24, let’s consider a few facts about the Gospels as historiography (writing about historical events):

  • Some or the most important eyewitnesses of Yeshua’s life, deeds, death, and raising from the dead were women
  • Luke writes like a Greek historian citing his sources
  • Luke’s sources were eyewitnesses whose testimony was known to him personally (though likely not firsthand)
  • Luke probably wrote more than forty years after the events and may not have spoken personally to these eyewitnesses but a chain of tradition existed in which people who had heard the eyewitnesses retold what they said
  • The Gospels were formed from things known to the earliest congregations from eyewitnesses
  • The stories of the eyewitnesses were told and retold and passed down for decades before they were written down
  • Luke uses a Greek literary method when it comes to Mary Magdalene, listing his sources with a method called inclusio

What do I mean by inclusio? You could call them literary bookends. The writer names the source of his/her account at the beginning and end of a section. So in Luke 8:2, the evangelist names the women who accompanied Yeshua and supported him out of their means. At the end, the evangelist lists two of the same women as having been the very ones who saw the crucifixion, resurrection, and the angels at the tomb.

Luke not try to hide that the women’s story was not at first believed. This too was probably part of his method. He included features that were well-known by those who heard the eyewitnesses. These individuals who had encountered Yeshua personally spoke about being perplexed, about not comprehending, and about people not believing what they saw.

I contend that the most important name in the eyewitness traditions about Yeshua is Mary Magdalene. Some might argue for Peter or the Beloved Disciple. But consider that Mary Magdalene is in all four Gospels. She was present for much of Yeshua’s life, was at the crucifixion while the men were hiding, was at the burial again as the men were hiding, came to the tomb first on that Sunday morning, and she reported what she saw to Peter and the others. Peter was not at the cross or burial. And there are other things that make Mary’s testimony stand above Peter’s.

Now Luke only knew some things well enough to report them. Another Gospel writer came along and added to what we know. This Gospel writer was the only one of the four who was an eyewitness. Please realize that Mark, whoever wrote the Gospel we call Matthew, and Luke were not eyewitnesses. But the Fourth Gospel (John) is written by an eyewitness who said, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe” (John 19:35).

Richard Bauckham, in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, argues that this was a different John than the fisherman from Galilee. It was the one known as the Elder John in the writings of Papias. He refers to himself in the Fourth Gospel as “the disciple Yeshua loved.” And he lived in Judea.

Perhaps Luke cold not verify some things about the resurrection story and did not include them. But the author of John was there. He and Peter played a key role as eyewitnesses. And John adds to our knowledge of what happened.

Not only did Mary of Magdala see the empty tomb, but she also saw Yeshua himself, raised after having been crucified. While Peter and this Elder John were looking in the tomb, Mary saw a gardener.

The gardener said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”

She said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

He said to her, “Mary.”

And then, hearing him say her name, she knew this was no gardener. He had veiled his appearance to her at first. She turned to him and said, “Rabboni.” I imagine her there, wide-eyed, welling up, overflowing.

But he did not allow her to think for long that things would be as they were before. He was not going to be her teacher anymore. The circle Mary belonged to would not travel together or be a circle of students with him anymore. Things had to be different.

He said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

We don’t know what other words may have passed between Yeshua and Mary then. It is doubtful that she would tell all when she spoke to circles of Yeshua-believers in the early days. What we know next is that she went to the disciples saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

Yeshua did not appear to the leading men among his disciples until that night. We could say that in some things Peter was the leading disciple. In other ways we could say that John, the disciple whom Yeshua loved, was the leading disciple. John outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter entered first. Peter entered first, but John was the first of the two to believe. Peter was the disciple of action. John was the disciple of contemplation (as Bauckham says in his exploration of the eyewitnesses).

But in some ways, greater than them both, was Mary of Magdala. She is the only one mentioned in all four Gospels as having been present for all that happened in the final few days of Yeshua. She was at the death, burial, empty tomb, and she was the first person Yeshua spoke to after rising from the dead. She was among a group of women Yeshua had healed. And she was healed of much, seven demons according to her story about all that Yeshua had done for her.

You might think, “But Mary Magdalene did not write anything, unlike Peter or John.” But you would be somewhat wrong.

How do you think we know about the things that happened along the way as Yeshua proceeded to a hill in a rock quarry, was nailed up and raised for all to see his shame, the things he said as he was dying, what happened as he was taken down, how a leading Pharisee undertook his burial, how they sealed the tomb, how it was found open and empty on Sunday morning, how the disciples did not at first believe the reports, and how Yeshua was the same and yet different after he was raised to new life?

The eyewitness most named at these events is our Mary. Others eventually wrote what she had to say. But for quite some time, maybe twenty or thirty years, maybe more, Mary was one who people came to hear. She was one who had seen him, heard him, touched him, who bore witness of him, whose testimony was true.

Having been raised he said to her, “Mary.”

She said, “Rabboni.”

And after he was raised, who did Yeshua appear to first? Mary Magdalene.

Our faith is based largely on people like Mary of Magdala. They saw things they did not exactly understand, just like we don’t completely understand them. But they told us what they saw even if they did not at the time understand it all.

Consider one aspect of Mary’s testimony in particular, the part where Yeshua said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Think of all the things they did not know at the time Mary stood there, hurting but happy to see Yeshua again.

She was grateful to see him, but he said, in essence, “Don’t think you can keep me here or that things will be the same. I won’t be among you anymore as it was before.” She had no idea as yet who Yeshua really was.

Soon he would ascend to the right hand of God and would appear from heaven to people, having his own divine glory. A woman who loved Yeshua — maybe with friendship, maybe with more as people have often speculated since — wanted him to stay and be with them as before. But it was not Yeshua’s role to remain the teacher and healer walking on earth.

His true identity was about to be revealed. His identity was included in the unique identity of God. He was God alongside God, the one whose relationship to God could only mysteriously be referred to as the Son. He had always been more than Mary knew.

And now she faced the painful reality that he would be taken from her. He had been her friend, healer, and teacher. Now he would be her Lord, her glorious, omnipotent, all-present, timeless, Infinite Lord.

Things that had seemed human were now revealed to be divine. The life of the world to come had begun, in Yeshua.

And Mary would agree, I am sure, with the Beloved Disciple John, who said, “These things are written that you might believe that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his Name.”