Christ Carrying the Cross and Mary Magdalene in Penitence
(El Greco 1585 – 1590)
Subvert: To destabilize, unsettle, overthrow, overturn the existing state of affairs.
For this section on “Jesus the Subversive,” I chose these unsettling and destabilizing paintings by El Greco because – just like Jesus and Mary Magdalene – El Greco intentionally chose to “subvert” the status quo of his time and place.
“El Greco attempted to express religious emotion with exaggerated traits. The strong spiritual emotion transfers from the painting directly to the audience. The anatomy of the human body becomes even more otherworldly in El Greco’s mature works. Another characteristic of El Greco’s mature style is the use of light – each figure seems to carry its own light within or reflects the light that emanates from an unseen source.” (From Wikipedia: El Greco)
Over the course of the semester, we have seen that Jesus did not submit to any authority other than the authority of God inside him. We have also seen that for Jesus the spirit and the humanity of God’s law is more important than the letter of religious law. In this final section of our semester together, we will be looking at the way in which Jesus subverted the letter of Jewish Law in order to serve the spirit of the law by engaging in meaningful teaching relationships with women, a practice that was absolutely contrary to Jewish Law:
“Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.” (Rabbi Eliezer; Mishnah, Sotah 3:4; 1st century C.E.)
Objectives for this section
In this section, you will gain a better understanding of the following aspects of Jesus’ shocking interactions with women:
The Rabbinic laws controlling women
Jesus’ followers included married and unmarried women
Women supported Jesus’ ministry
Jesus taught women and he had theological discussions with women
Jesus treated women like equals – even though the Church has not always chosen to follow Jesus’ example.
Steps for achieving the objectives
Read/watch the following resources:
Read The Status of Women in the Christian Gospels
“Women’s status and freedoms were severely limited by Jewish law and customs in ancient Israel, as they were in essentially all other cultures at the time.” This article will give you some idea of the marginalized status women endured in first-century Palestine.
Watch Gnosis, Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library (15 minutes) This video will give you an overview of the 1945 discovery of extraordinary ancient texts in Nag Hammadi, Egypt – and it will introduce you to the idea of Mary Magdalene’s prominent status in some of these texts.
In Complete Gospels, Read The Gospel of Mary (pg. 333 – 342).
Read Mary Magdalene Was an Apostle, Not a Prostitute. Despite over 1500 years of untruthful propaganda, the Church has finally admitted Magdalene was not a whore but rather one of the first apostles!
Jesus the Subversive: Treating Women With Equality
Over the past 15 weeks, I have invited you into seeing Jesus from many different perspectives. Those of you who have strong religious beliefs may not have appreciated my approach, but I am OK with that because my hope all along has been for you to move into a place where you feel free to question what you think you know, or what you have been told – in order to simply consider other possibilities.
One of the things that we have seen this semester is that Jesus did not conform to any kind of formal institution or sect – and yet, that is exactly what Jesus has been turned into: an institution, with many different sects arguing over which sect is correct! We have also seen that Jesus was a servant of the moment, meaning that he would say one thing in one moment and something completely different in the next – all according to the moment and the context within which he was teaching. As an example, compare these two very contradictory passages:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
But, just a few chapters later – in the very same gospel – Jesus states that following him is not easy or light at all:
If any of you wants to come after me you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me! Remember, if you try to save your life you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it. (Matthew 16: 24-25)
We have also seen that Jesus was not at all concerned about what others thought about him; his only concern was being faithful to his God and to his own soul.
I have also tried to get you to see that the church that was constructed in Jesus’ name does not always conform to the life and teachings of this extraordinary man. As I pointed out at the beginning of the semester, how can the church justify its condemnation and exclusion of LGBTQ people – or ANY people, for that matter – when Jesus explicitly said “love your neighbor as yourself!” He does not give any exceptions for this commandment. Further, how can churches justify excluding women from the priesthood and other positions of leadership when it is clear that Jesus did not treat women any differently than he treated men! I simply want you to pay close attention to what the texts actually tell us about Jesus and to not disregard verses that are difficult to understand. Instead, please spend some time studying and doing your own research so that you can arrive at your own conclusions about what Jesus might have been teaching. I am pretty sure he would expect nothing less from any of his followers.
Instructions for Final Assignment
1. Please go through each of the resources very carefully!
2. Answer every one of the following questions. It will take you a little while to find the answers to these questions – so please allow yourself enough time to listen and read carefully!
3. Use a few quotes and references to the resources to support your writing. (Do not respond from your personal beliefs or you will not do well on this assignment)
4. You are not required to respond to your classmates for this assignment – unless you wish to!
5. That’s it – nothing more! How easy is that?
Questions for Final Assignment
From The Status of Women in the Christian Gospel
1. Briefly describe how the Jewish laws governing women made it nearly impossible for a woman to participate in spiritual life.
2. Briefly describe how Jesus completely disregarded these laws and how he treated women.
3. What do you think about the quote by author Ben Witherington III (who is quoting H. Flender)? Do you think Jesus would have agreed with this quote? Why or why not?
4. What do you think about the idea that it was one or two women who were actually the first apostles: “The two Marys were thus the first apostles.”
From Gnosis, Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library
5. Why do you think the bishops and leaders of the early church renounced the idea that salvation could be achieved outside of the church?
6. What do you think about these words by the influential church father Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 C.E.): “People are always asking questions. It’s questions that make people heretics!” (the literal definition of the word “heretic” is from the Greek hairetikos meaning “to choose.” Shouldn’t we be able to choose what we believe? In fact, isn’t it our responsibility to carefully choose what we believe?)
7. What do some of the gnostic texts suggest about the place of Mary Magdalene in the Jesus Movement?
8. What does Professor Elaine Pagels say about the Catholic Church’s position regarding ordination of women into the priesthood? Is the Church’s position consistent with Jesus’ life and teachings? Why or why not?
Be sure to read this Church proclamation before answering: https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html
9. While I am mostly focused on the unfolding scholarship regarding the spiritual relationship between Jesus and Mary, I ask you to consider this question: Is it really so unbelievable that Jesus might have actually had a human relationship with Mary as well? What do you think about what Dan Burstein says about this?
10. What does this documentary say “the Orthodox Church has lost?” Do you think it matters that this has been lost from the Church? Why or why not? (Note: the word “orthodox” is from the Greek meaning “right opinion.” But who gets to choose which opinion is right?)
11. What does Professor Jean-Pierre Ruiz say about the role that Mary Magdalene plays?
From The Complete Gospels
12. Read Luke 8: 1-3. What does this passage tell us about the gender of Jesus’ “many” followers? Doesn’t it seem possible – given Jesus’ consistentlyequal treatment of women and the fact he traveled extensively with women followers – that he would surely have considered some of these women to be his disciples (meaning “follower” in Greek)? Why or why not?
13. Read Luke 10:38 – 42. What does Jesus say is “the better choice” even for a woman? How does this compare with the Jewish scripture that says it is a waste of time to teach a woman the Torah, or with churches that have excluded women from spiritual learning and leadership?
14. Read Mark 7:24-30. This passage is remarkable for so many reasons! Keep in mind that Jesus is debating theological principles with a woman – and not just any woman, but a pagan woman whose ethnic identity was looked down upon by the Jews! Why does Jesus change his mind? What does this passage tell you about Jesus’ openness to actually learning from a woman?
15. Read John 20:11-17. What do you think about the degree of spiritual intimacy that is revealed in this encounter between Jesus and Mary? (Notice that she said, “My Teacher” – not my lord or my master or my savior. He has clearly been her spiritual teacher.) Why would Mary have attempted to touch Jesus or hold on to him if they did not have an exceedingly close relationship?
From The Gospel of Mary (page 333 in Complete Gospels)
16. What does the Introduction say about how a person achieves salvation according to The Gospel of Mary?
17. According to the Introduction, why are the male disciples unable to comprehend the truth of Mary’s teachings? (We actually see this same attitude by the male disciples in the New Testament gospels when they ask Jesus who will be the greatest among them after Jesus is gone: Luke 9:46).
18. In the section, “The role of women” (in the Introduction), what does it say regarding the rightful place of women in the Jesus Movement? Why are we asked to “rethink the basis for church authority?”
From Mary Magdalene Was An Apostle, Not a Prostitute
19. Please summarize the points that are being made in this document. What do you think about what the Church did to the reputation of Mary Magdalene?
Conclusion Our Semester Together
20. Please help me improve the class by answering the following questions:
a. What did you like about this class? What did you dislike about this class?
b. Which resources did you like, and which ones did you dislike?
c. How can I re-structure the class to make it more accessible and more enjoyable?