I don’t usually much care for theology — but two articles I’ve read lately caught my attention. In today’s NY Times there is a review of a new book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, in which it is pointed out that:
…nowhere does the Bible say that [Mary Magdalene] was a prostitute
… The Gospels of Luke and Mark describe Mary Magdalene as possessed by “seven devils,” which are driven out of her. In Luke, she and other similarly afflicted rich women “minister” to him and probably give him financial support. This Mary is sometimes conflated with another, nameless, woman in Luke, “a sinner” who washes Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair, and with Mary of Bethany, mentioned in the Gospel of John, who also washes Jesus’ feet.
It was only in the sixteenth century that she became a “fallen woman”:
At the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I officially made these Marys into one. “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” he said in a sermon. “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?”
Mary Magdalene became the patron saint of fallen women. In 1969, the Catholic Church decreed that the biblical Marys were actually different people. But the image of Mary Magdalene as a symbol of repentant female sexuality persisted.
The other article of interest is Avishai Margalit’s review of a book on the biblical profits (article will only be free for a limited time). He argues that there was an essential tension between two forms of morality:
There are roughly two competing answers. The first is that the prophets advocated a higher form of morality. The second is that they were principally concerned to fight for the rejection of idolatry by the people of Israel. These two themes recur in the written prophecies we have and they are not to be found anywhere else in Near Eastern ancient practices. Morality is, roughly, what human beings owe to one another. Idolatry is a violation of what human beings owe to God. Podhoretz deplores the use of the word “tension,” but we find a tension in the Bible between morality in the restricted sense of what the people of Israel owe to one another and morality in the unrestricted sense of what human beings owe to one another. The same tension occurs between what the people of Israel owe to their god, and what people in general owe to God. What blurs the distinction between morality and religion in the Bible is, of course, the idea that what we owe to one another is grounded in what we owe to God. It is expressed by the famous words “Love thy neighbors as thyself. I am the Lord” in Leviticus 19:18.
It is hard to summarize this excellent article, but here is one excerpt which I found particularly interesting:
The prohibition of idolatry has a clear purpose: to maintain the uniqueness, the exclusivity of the one God. The primary way of expressing such exclusivity is through worshiping only God, making sacrifices only to Him. The second way is to avoid ascribing to other forces in the world attributes that belong to God alone. The prophets, for example, condemned Israel’s defense treaties with Egypt and Assyria, both superpowers at the time, by which the Jews, in effect, bought defense in return for accepting political subjugation and paying taxes. For the prophets, such treaties sinfully violated the true exclusivity of God, who must be the sole source of providing protection to Israel. They believed that in making such treaties the Israelite leaders were worshiping a wrong god. “Ha! Those who go down to Egypt for help and rely upon horses! They have put their trust in the abundance of chariots, in vast numbers of riders, and they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, they have not sought the Lord” (Isaiah 31:1).
Makes you think of certain ideologues who refuse to seek aid from our allies…