Bold and beautiful women in the Gospels

K X M John

Mary Magdalene, Image from Google (11.10.2010)

Opening the family unit meeting, Fr. Zachariah said: “Some women associated with Jesus’ ministry have fascinated generations through their daringly innovative acts of devotion”. And he suggested that the main item on the agenda for this meeting be to identify some of these women.

Fr Zachariah added that apocryphal books such as the gospels of Mary, Philip and Thomas contain references to women devotees of Jesus, but our discussion would be based exclusively on the canonical New Testament books.

Beauty misunderstood
Politician Rosaline expressed her strong objection to the title. American television serials with similar titles have so much captured our young and old minds alike that the term “beautiful” in the context of our holy women would be in foul taste. More fundamentally, men should give up their bad habit of treating women as mere objects of beauty.

Sr. Ann said, a better theme for discussion could be the treatment that women suffered at the hands of the gospel writers.

Fr Zachariah reassured them that we were discussing spiritual beauty of women in the gospels. In fact, nowhere in the gospels is there any kind of allusion to the physical beauty of any woman.

“But Mother Mary was the most beautiful woman on earth”, exclaimed the octogenarian Prof Peter. Fr Zachariah corrected him by observing that the gospels do not contain any reference to Mary’s physical attributes. Prof Peter was shocked. He said his parents and teachers had all taught him to believe that Mary was world’s most beautiful woman. His uncle, a priest with a Doctorate in Canon Law from Rome, had brought with him a picture of Mary as an extremely beautiful, queenly woman, attired in the purest of silk and wearing a most beautiful, jewel-studded crown, with a most beautiful child in her arms. And, that image of Mary and child had got etched in his mind. So, this statement of Fr Zachariah had come to him as of blasphemous proportions!

Prof Stephen said he would not blame Prof Peter for his belief, because people had been fed on such false notions. Physical beauty is all in the human mind, and is of no worth in the eyes of God. In fact, He chose poor circumstances for his son to be born and to grow up. He did not choose wealthy parents for him. He did not choose the imperial palace in Rome, but a manger in an unimportant town, for his birth. His disciples were illiterate fishermen. He moved among the poor and the sinners. His so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem was on the back of an ass. And he died a meanest and most gruesome death. However, strangely, right from the beginning of Christianity, Church Fathers had endeavoured to adorn Jesus and his mother Mary with earthly beauty and earthly power. Why?  Obviously, they could not digest the idea that Christ could be an ordinary carpenter born and brought up in poor circumstances. Apparently they had an earthly mind, and could not internalise Christ’s life and his divine message. Yet, they didn’t also have any scruples in giving sermons on the virtues of poverty and about the Kingdom of Heaven. Gold, riches and beauty were an essential part of greatness for them. They were lost in pompous show and ceremonies.

President James endorsed Prof Stephen’s stand. He quoted Revelation 1:12, in which the author mentions about seven golden lamp stands representing the seven churches of the time. Had he internalised Christ’s message, St John would not have seen gold in his vision. Instead, he might have seen stone-cut lamp stands there. That means, even the Apostles and the Elders had held on to gold, riches and beauty as important things in life.

Prof Matilda quoted from the famous American Archbishop Fulton Sheen of the 20th century. The Archbishop wrote that Mother Mary was spiritually the most beautiful woman. However, there is also an allusion in his writing about her personal beauty –     “… so far as human beauty goes, the most beautiful woman in the world”.

“Yes, that is my point”, continued Prof Stephen. Even today, Christians are unable to accept Christ as one who came from poor circumstances; so also his mother without earthly beauty. “The other day, I commented to my wife that Mother Mary might have appeared like the graceful woman who used to distribute milk from house to house in our neighbourhood. This woman Mabel was very graceful, although not physically attractive. My wife was aghast and is yet to forgive my sinful comparison of Mother Mary with that lowly milkmaid! The fact is that I am more comfortable with a woman of ordinary looks in ordinary dress than with a royal woman clad in silk, as the mother of Christ”.

Fr Zachariah was amused, but had also become somewhat restive with this unanticipated digression and reminded the gathering that it was time the subject of female beauty was laid aside and the discussion proceeded to the stellar female characters in the gospels.

Martha and Mary
Those who recalled the previous month’s discussion had no difficulty in identifying two such women, namely, Martha and Mary of Bethany. However, Poet Roy wondered if Martha could qualify as a fascinating female. “A down-to-earth practical woman, Martha might not qualify as the kind of spiritually beautiful woman we are discussing.” About her sister Mary, he had no doubt. After all, she was the one who did the unimaginable: Braving censure, she kissed Jesus’ feet in public, anointed them with expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair.

“Yes, Mary was certainly one of them”, said politician Rosaline. “As for Martha, Fr Zachariah had said during his concluding remarks at the previous meeting that she has been unjustly typecast as a homemaker, a “down-to-earth practical woman” as Roy says. I have since studied her case a little closer as suggested by Rev Fr. And, I have come to the conclusion that she was a robust character, a steady devotee of Christ. The Master understood her. He chose her, and not Mary, to proclaim the mystery: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying’. He would not have chosen a dull homemaker, a sedate character, for delivering such an awesome revelation – a revelation that would resonate in the Christian heart till the end of time. I consider Martha a genuine leadership material in the modern sense. Certainly a fascinating woman was she.”

Fr. Zachariah said: Jesus did not stop there. He made this momentous statement: “…and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus then dropped the bombshell on Martha: “Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

And Fr. Zachariah hurled this question at the group: “Don’t you think that this was a much more mature, a greatly more powerful profession of faith than the one made by the impulsive and unsteady Peter on an earlier occasion?”

No one had the energy to say ‘no’.

Martha as Leader
Advocate Dimmy
had the intuition to grasp what the Rev Fr might have had in his mind. She recalled previous meeting’s unfinished thoughts. Roy had rightly, although on impulse, said that Mary was an explosive character and Martha a stable, reliable person. Mary was charming and beautiful of course, but such characters often spend their emotional energy in a series of sudden explosive bursts and eventually end up psychically exhausted and drained. Nothing great is ever achieved by such turbulent characters. It is such as the emotionally intelligent and steady Martha who would eventually win the race. “I agree with Rosaline that Martha is a natural leader. She even excelled Peter in the profession of her faith as Rev Fr emphasised. Certainly, she would have given a very different kind of leadership and direction to the Church.”

The murmur of incredulous protests and the tongue-in-cheek laughter that followed were drowned in politician Rosaline’s roar. She alleged that men always sidelined their women colleagues by laughing them down and calling them flippant and loose characters. This is what happened to the women of the gospels. Women were most comfortable with Jesus, and Jesus treated them with much respect. Once he was gone, they suffered ridicule at the hands of the disciples. And that tradition is continuing to this day.

Fr Zachariah had to intervene. “To rephrase Advocate Dimmy’s statement, Peter would have been a greatly more effective leader, had he also had the stable attributes of Martha. I myself have often felt that Martha was a most mature follower of Christ. And others, like Peter, John, Philip, Thomas, Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala, had much to learn from her.”

But then, he said, the subject had scope for endless discussion. Hence, we might as well leave it here for now and proceed to identify other bold and beautiful women in the gospels.

Mary of Magdala
Prof Peter thought of Mary Magdalene as the boldest and most beautiful woman in the gospels, next only to Mother Mary. Fr Zachariah was quick to ask, why. The Professor recalled his childhood experience. There was a large painting behind the altar in his native parish church, depicting a post-crucifixion scene. Christ’s body was on his mother’s lap, with his disconsolate friends behind her and a stunningly beautiful young woman with curly golden hair kissing his feet with tears in her eyes. The scene had made a deep impress on his young mind. His mother had explained the context and told him the beautiful woman was Mary Magdalene. And it was this same bold and beautiful woman who stood at the foot of the cross defying the soldiers, assisted in his burial and was the first to witness the risen Christ. She certainly was a most fascinating and loyal friend of Jesus. Everyone agreed.

Politician Rosaline pointed out that Mary Magdalene was once referred to as an apostle of apostles, maybe because it was she who witnessed the risen Christ first and carried the resurrection message to Peter and the other apostles. “But the Church has not been grateful to her. They have not given her the deserving importance. It is a great paradox that this ‘first witness’ does not even get a mention in the context of the Pentecost. How could that happen? The only possibility is that the male apostles who had run away like cowards at the arrest of Jesus were much embarrassed in the presence of this fearless woman, and hence did not welcome her to their midst after Jesus was gone. She doesn’t appear anywhere in the New Testament, ie, after the Resurrection. Of course she appears in apocryphal texts, but we are not discussing them here as Fr Zachariah had suggested.”

And in course of time, Church Fathers stigmatised Mary Magdalene as a prostitute; and she has come down in history with this indelible stigma, although no Gospel evidence links her with prostitution.

Magdalene a harlot?
Poet Roy
wondered: “Who could have created this prostitute image for her, but the old Church Fathers themselves?” Roy said he had seen paintings by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci depicting nude and semi-nude women in seductive postures. And you know, how the paintings are captioned? “Mary Magdalene”!

Engineer Antony read out a passage on Mary Magdalene, which he had accidentally come upon in a website:

“Mary of Magdala is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood figure in early Christianity. In Christian art and hagiography, Mary has been romanticized, allegorized, and mythologized beyond recognition. Since the fourth century, she has been portrayed as a prostitute and public sinner who, after encountering Jesus, repented and spent the rest of her life in private prayer and penitence. Paintings, some little more than pious pornography, reinforce the mistaken belief that sexuality, especially female sexuality, is shameful, sinful, and worthy of repentance. Yet the actual biblical account of Mary of Magdala paints a far different portrait than that of the bare-breasted reformed harlot of Renaissance art.”

Fr Zachariah concurred with the thought that serious injustice had been done to the image of Mary Magdalene, who was the first to see the risen Christ. Whoever was at fault could be another subject for an endless debate. So, let us leave it here, and get on with our present task. And he asked: Could we explore further for any other special women appearing in the gospels?

The “Sinner” in Luke?
Sr. Ann
, who had all along been listening to the discussion with an appreciative smile, permitting others to speak, thought of the unnamed “Sinner” in Luke, who, early on in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair. This she did by trespassing into her neighbour Pharisee’s house when she heard Jesus had arrived as his guest of honour. That was a most daring act of gate-crashing indeed; and it resulted in a most spectacular act of contrition too. Jesus publicly forgave her sins, to the consternation of the Pharisee.

“Much later, inspired by the story of the Sinner, Mary of Bethany performed a similar act of anointment. The two anointments, however, were marked by opposite moods. For the Sinner it was the climactic act of her life, bidding adieu to her sinful ways; for Mary it was jubilant thanksgiving after Lazarus’ resurrection. The onlookers’ reactions and the Master’s responses too were quite different in the two cases”.

Fr Zachariah was quick to react: “Despite these differences, could the Sinner and Mary be the same person?”

Sr. Ann said the only commonality was in the unique act of anointment of the feet and their wiping with hair. Otherwise, the time, the place, the purpose, the moods and the context of the events, apart from the arguments that ensued and Jesus’ reactions, were entirely different. If the Sinner were to be Mary herself, then she had anointed Jesus twice – once in Galilee as a penitent, and much later at Bethany to celebrate her brother’s resurrection. But, why at all should we identify them as one and the same person? Why not let them be different?

Fr Zachariah, although somewhat taken aback, gracefully admitted that this possibility – of Mary herself doing it twice – had not occurred to him. However, he asked if any one had heard of the possibility that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the Sinner were the same person.

Engineer Antony responded. Yes, some legends and traditions say so. But difficult to believe. Jesus had exorcised demons from Magdalene and forgiven the Sinner. These two different acts do not link the beneficiaries. But what about the Marys of Magdala and Bethany? Is there at all any possibility they were one?

Prof Stephen said: All the gospels prominently mention Mary Magdalene in the context of crucifixion and resurrection, while being strangely silent about Jesus’ close friend Mary of Bethany. This had led some idle speculators to wonder if the two Marys were really one and the same person. But the paradox is that no one was bothered about the omission of the name of Mary, Mother of Jesus, from the crucifixion and resurrection scenes in the first three gospels. But, we know from John that Mother Mary was very much present there. And no one even idly speculated about the possibility of Mother Mary’s name being clubbed in the synoptic gospels with some other Mary! Remember, also, that every other woman in the first-century Palestine was a Mary!

We may assume that Magdalene was singled out not merely for her fierce devotion to the Master (as was Mary of Bethany too) but, more probably, because she had the distinction of being the first person to witness the risen Lord.

At this stage, Antony observed that he had heard about Orthodox Churches treating the three women separately, although the Catholic Church identified the three as one.

Treatment of Women in the Gospels
Sr. Ann
looked at Fr. Zachariah for his nod and said that the discussion had taken the group deep into the subject; but none had yet touched on the basic issue. “It is not merely who was more beautiful or who was more loyal to Jesus. The core issue is this. What kind of justice have the Evangelists done to women in their writings?”

My observation is that the synoptic gospels treat women rather casually. The important women in the life of Jesus get differential, skewed and unfair treatment. Do you know, it is Mother Mary who was the most unjustly treated woman in the gospels? She appears in Mark just once, and that too in an unfavourable light, recalling Jesus from his dangerous mission. Matthew and Luke refer to her role in Jesus’ birth and childhood, but not in the context of his mission. She is not mentioned even once in his passion and crucifixion. John, who wrote his gospel accounts decades later, brings in Mother Mary in a significant way. In the Acts she appears just once, in the context of the Pentecost. Even there, the eleven apostles get precedence over her!

Sr. Ann continued: Martha and Mary do not find any mention in Mark or Matthew. They appear in passing in Luke. However, John brings them into focus.

The tendency of all the gospel writers was to hide women under the general description, ‘the women who came from Galilee’ and the like. Look at the momentous occasion of the Pentecost. In all probability, all the women disciples of Christ, including the Bethany sisters and the Magdala Mary, were present there. However, the names of none of these important women, other than that of Mother Mary, are mentioned in the list of those present. At the same time, the name of each one of the eleven male apostles is specifically mentioned. The women disciples are all casually bracketed under the term ‘women’!

“Now, … Roy, will you do me a favour, by reading Acts 1:13-14, please.” And Roy read out the lines:

“When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

Now, is this the way Jesus’ loyal female devotees were to be treated? Today’s Mariology and Mary cult are not the contributions of the gospel writers.

Women were all sinners and prostitutes!
A visitor from another planet reading the gospels for the first time might be wonderstruck how come most of the women in the first century Palestine were harlots! The woman who had five husbands, the Sinner, the woman who was caught in adultery, etc? And why the gospels are silent about their male accomplices? Could there be female harlots without male counterparts? Again, respectable women like Marys of Bethany and of Magdala being shamelessly dragged over the centuries as ‘harlots’?

“Let me now make some hypothetical allegations – that Peter was a womaniser in his youth. Or, that the tax collector Matthew had a wife at each of his customs centres? Or, that the young John was once a paedophilia victim? You may seek to dismiss these allegations, by asking for evidence. Yes, that is what I am asking of you now. Where is the evidence that the Marys of  Bethany and Magdala were prostitutes?”

Politician Rosaline was rolling high on her momentum, when Fr Zachariah intervened and said that he could not agree more with Sr. Ann. But we should give some space to the Evangelists and the male leaders of the Church, who were weak men, who thought and wrote in the culture of the day. Also, this subject had been widely discussed over the centuries, without any one ever reaching anywhere. But then, we need to conclude our discussion, since we have time constraints.

Rosaline, however, insisted on speaking her bit. She said, “with due respect to Fr Zachariah, these injustices deserve detailed discussion and debate irrespective of whether we arrive at a conclusion. At least, the faithful need to be sensitised over these unjust treatment of the past. Today’s laity cannot be treated as dumb and mute lambs; they are intelligent and rational beings with their own mind. They deserve respect.”

She added: “I must also thank our male participants of this discussion for their intelligent understanding, and for their sensitive interventions. I have found in most discussions involving women’s rights, men taking most obdurate stands, some unyielding forever.”

“Rosaline is mistaken”, Prof Stephen said. “The simple fact is that men can’t stand screaming feminists. But you will find men cooperative and understanding when women present their case with reason.”

Secretary Leelamma said, “The discussion has been enlightening. But we have not yet covered such fascinating women as Veronica, the woman who defied Roman soldiers on the way to Calvary and approached the cross-bearing Jesus to console him and wipe his sweat-and-blood-stained face.”

Sr. Ann added that, probably, Jesus had several other, important female devotees too, even more spectacular than the Bethany sisters, whose names, unfortunately for us, have been swept aside under the one word, ‘women’. And the tragedy is that we have to leave now with unresolved tension in our hearts.”

Fr Zachariah sympathised with Sr. Ann, and expressed satisfaction over the brainstorm session. He thanked every one at the meeting, who had all come prepared for the discussion.

K X M John

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