Diana Butler Bass preached a sermon in July that was widely circulated and listened to. The title is simply ‘Mary the Tower’, but the subtitle is more indicative of the thrust of her argument: ‘What would Christianity be like if Mary Magdalene hadn’t been hidden from view?’ This points to two main claims that she proposes: first, the Mary Magdalene was edited out of John 11, where she makes a key Christological claim; and that, if we ‘recover’ this true text, then it puts the Christian faith standing on the two ‘pillars’ of Mary and Peter, the two who rightly identified who Jesus was, and so makes the Christian movement rightly ‘egalitarian’ in its attitude to men and women.
The detailed argument takes a little more teasing out, and rests on some very technical debates in the area of textual criticism, which is the study of manuscripts and their differences in relation to what we think the writers of the New Testament actually wrote. The argument goes like this:
a. Readers of the New Testament have consistently identified the Mary and Martha of Luke 10.38–42 with the Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, in John 11.
b. However, Luke does not mention their home as Bethany, and Bethany would be in the wrong location within Luke’s central ‘travelogue’ of Jesus’ ministry (from Luke 9.52 to Luke 19), so this identification is problematic.
c. The text of John 11 is ‘confused’, and there are quite a number of manuscript variations around the names of Mary and Martha, which in Greek differ in only one letter in the genitive form Μαρίας καὶ Μάρθας (they also differ by only one letter in the nominative too; note that the early manuscripts were also all written in capital letters).
d. P66, one of the oldest NT manuscripts, and the oldest nearly complete copy of the Fourth Gospel, at first writes this verse as ‘Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary’, that is, with the name Mary repeated. It has then been corrected. Here Butler Bass is dependant on the work of scholar Elizabeth Schrader, who is doing PhD work in this area, and has had her theories published in peer-reviewed journals.
e. The writer of the gospel had emphasised that Mary was Lazarus’ sister, but a later editor had changed this to create two sisters, Mary and Martha, in order to harmonise with the story in Luke 10.
f. The ‘Martha’ in the story makes a vital Christological confession: ‘Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah. The one who’s come into the world’ (John 11.27).
g. The only other character in the Fourth Gospel who comes close to saying such a thing is Mary Magdalene in John 20.18 when she says ‘I have seen the Lord!’
h. Therefore, the Mary in John 11 is Mary Magdalene. Her name is not a reference to the place Magdala (which didn’t exist in the first century) but an appellation meaning ‘Towering One’ since, migdal in Hebrew and Aramaic means ‘tower’.
So she concludes:
Mary is indeed the tower of faith. That our faith is the faith of that woman who would become the first person to announce the resurrection. Mary the Witness, Mary the Tower, Mary the Great, and she has been obscured from us. She has been hidden from us and she been taken away from us for nearly 2,000 years. This is not a Dan Brown novel. This is the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee of the Greek New Testament. This is the Harvard Theological Review. This is some of the best, most cutting edge historical research in the world. And we are living in the moment of most radical transformation in the understanding of the Gospel accounts, of who Jesus Christ is, and who holds authority.
What are we to make of all this? The argument appears to hinge on two quite technical discussions, mostly beyond the reach of ordinary readers or listeners: whether P66 records this name in the way that Butler Bass and Shrader claim; and whether Mary Magdalene is named after a place or because of her character. But it turns out there are plenty of common sense objections to this argument, which anyone who reads the New Testament reasonably carefully can spot.
First, let’s deal with the technical argument about P66. You can in fact read Schrader’s own case in a series of guest blog posts Evangelical Textual Criticism, here, here, and here. Although there has been a lot of discussion about this theory, it suffers from some serious problems.
First, if we have two texts, one of which says Μαρίας καὶ Μάρθας and another which says Μαρίας καὶ Μαρίας, and this second one does not actually make grammatical sense (as even Butler Bass acknowledges) then the most obvious explanation is that the scribe of the second made an error called ‘dittography‘, by which he repeats the same thing twice by mistake.
Secondly, the text of P66 at this point has been corrected—not by a later hand some 200 years later, but by the scribe of P66 himself. In other words, it appears as though the scribe has made an error, and then very quickly realised this error and corrected it.
Thirdly, this is actually characteristic of this scribe and his manuscript. It is well known that P66 is full of errors, some leading to nonsense, some involving harmonisation across the different gospels, and some being omissions, either by accident or design. Some of these are clearly corrected by his own hand, whilst there is evidence of two other people also making corrections.
The original scribe was quite free in his interaction with the text. He produced several singular readings that reveal his independent interpretation of the text. While the numerous scribal mistakes would seem to indicate that the scribe was inattentive, many of the singular readings—prior to correction—reveal that he was not detached from the narrative of the text. Rather, he became so absorbed in his reading that he often forgot the exact words he was copying. His task as a copyist was to duplicate the exemplar word for word, but this was frustrated by the fact that he was reading the text in logical semantic chunks. As a result, he continually had to stop his reading and make many in-process corrections. But he left several places uncorrected, which were later corrected by the diorthōtēs…
It seems relatively certain that the manuscript was produced in three stages.
a. The original scribe copied the entire text of John, making corrections as he wrote—primarily to emend any transcriptional mistakes he noticed. Most of these corrections involved fixing nonsense readings.
b. The paginator of the first part of the manuscript (pages 1–99) made many corrections, both grammatical and substantive. These corrections often brought the manuscript into line with an Alexandrian-type text. Most likely, this corrector used a different exemplar for his emendations. This corrector can properly be called the diorthōtēs.
c. Another corrector, probably the same person as the second paginator, made a few changes, especially in chapter 13, for the purpose of preparing the text for a lectionary reading. This scribe or lector marked up this portion with extensive breathing marks and punctuation in preparation for oral reading.
All this suggests that the manuscript was produced in a scriptorium, with corrections being made at the time of first copying.
There is a good, detailed exploration of the textual issues by Margaret Mowczko here, looking at all the evidence. She concludes:
There’s no doubt that there are anomalies in several early and Byzantine, and even medieval, manuscripts of John 11, as well as in early quotations from John 11. But I can’t see a significance behind these anomalies other than there was at least one corrupted(?) early version of John 11 that may have influenced other versions, and that some church fathers got a few of the women in the Gospels mixed up.
But there is a fourth, major, problem with this whole theory, which neither Schrader or Butler Bass appear to have spotted or dealt with: both Mary and Martha continue to appear as the chapter unfolds, and even have a conversation! I am not aware of P66 making any changes to these later mentions of Martha! I thought I was the first person to note this, but in fact someone does raise the question in the third of Schrader’s posts on ETC.
Elizabeth, doesn’t your theory require much more drastic changes to verses 17-36? It seems to me that what you’ve done with vv. 1-5 is the easy part.
There is indeed textual and patristic instability around the sisters in verses 11:20, 11:21, 11:24, 11:27, and 11:32 (if you wish to request access to my data table to see for yourself, the link is in the first post). Egeria’s fourth-century journal says at 5.1: “And as they go from Jerusalem to the Lazarium, there is, about five hundred paces from the latter place, a church in the street on that spot where Mary the sister of Lazarus met with the Lord…” However at this point I am not able to reconstruct that portion of John 11 with the data I’ve examined. That said, I’ve only looked at about 200 manuscripts, and there are thousands out there. Perhaps some manuscript has preserved a one-sister text in those verses? It’s a pipe dream of mine to look at EVERY extant Greek manuscript of John 11….
The idea that we will find a new manuscript which omits the narrative interaction between Mary and Martha is, well, a pipe-dream! And this is a very obvious objection to the whole theory.
The problems with this reading don’t stop there. Butler Bass begins her exploration by noting that Bethany is not in the right place in Luke’s travelogue. True—but neither is any place! That is why Luke repeatedly uses the phrase ‘in a certain town’ or ‘on certain day’. The travelogue is about the meaning of discipleship, and he appears to have organised his material with this concern in mind, and is clearly not setting things out in chronological or geographical order.
Nor is the story in Luke 10 ‘A lovely, charming tale about Jesus and his encounter with two sisters: busy Martha and contemplative Mary’ as Butler Bass claims, even though that is the popular appropriation of it. Rather (as I have explored more than once by reading the text carefully):
The contrast is commonly inferred between Mary’s listening and Martha’s activity in offering practical hospitality, but that is not really the contrast that Luke is pointing us to. After all, in the preceding parable, Jesus has emphasised the importance of practical care as the test of love of God and neighbour. And in the text, the issue is not the activity so much as the focus. Luke tells us that Martha is ‘distracted’ and Jesus observes that she is ‘anxious and troubled’, and we can begin to see why in her request. Her concern is with ‘me’—’Mary has left me…tell her to help me‘—rather than her focus being in attending to her guest, Jesus. The real contrast here is between distraction caused by the ‘many’ rather than focus on the ‘one’.
I don’t think there is particular significance in the mention of Martha and Mary without Lazarus, though it is a question worth raising; in John 11 Mary is mentioned before Martha, even though Martha’s name means ‘chief one’ (related to the Aramaic ‘Mar’ meaning ‘Lord’).
And, as Richard Bauckham has demonstrated, the very way that Mary and Martha are introduced, with the parenthetical aside about the anointing of Jesus, indicates that the writer of the Fourth Gospel expects his readers to be familiar with the Synoptic mentions of Mary and Martha. So we are following the clues of the Fourth Gospel itself in linking John 11 with Luke 10.
Moreover, if the Fourth Gospel is coy about mentioning Mary Magdalene by her name here in John 11, why is there no coyness in John 20? Claiming that the situation has changed nine chapters on isn’t very convincing.
And Mary Magdalene does not in fact make the kind of Christological confession that we find on Martha’s lips as Butler Bass claims; she has confused two texts (ironically!). To Jesus, she simply addresses him as ‘Rabbouni’, ‘my teacher’, and only later does she refer to him as Lord, when speaking to the disciples.
And in being the ‘apostle to the apostles’, the first witness to the resurrection, she is indeed foundational. If the later commentators have missed this or ignored it, that is not because it was buried in some manuscript variant; it is right there in the text. We don’t need any more conspiracy theories about John 11 in order to put her in the place of honour that she deserves.
So the question then arises: why has Butler Bass’ sermon gained such interest? And why the interest in Schrader’s unlikely hypothesis which, even were it true, adds little to the important role of women in the early Jesus movement?
It is rather ironic that Butler Bass claims ‘This is not a Dan Brown novel’, because that is precisely what it resembles. She introduces Schrader as someone who has a word from God, and after many years of digging and exploration, unearths a secret that the powerful enclave of male scholars has kept hidden all this time! In case we missed it, she helps us by describing the initially sceptical text committee as ‘the guardians of the Greek New Testament. They are as stuffy as you can imagine. They are basically a whole bunch of very old German men…’ and this young woman comes along and surprises them with something that, despite all their learning, they had never spotted before!
Now, don’t get me wrong; it is possible to spot things that other people have not seen before. I have done it myself. And it is important to critique our traditions of interpretation against what the text actually says. I have also done this before—pointing out, for example, that Jesus was not born in a stable as most people suppose.
But critiquing the tradition of interpretation in the light of the text is very different from critiquing the text as we have it in the light of the text as someone, through an unconvincing theory, tries to tell us that text is really saying, if only there had not been a grand conspiracy to cover it up!
What is strange here is Butler Bass’ relationship to the text of the Bible. She sits in the ‘progressive’ tradition of those who have left the evangelical tradition, and this leads to a paradox: she is uncomfortable with reading the text as it is; but unlike those who are dyed-in-the-wool liberals, she cannot quite let go of the text, and won’t simply say ‘the text is wrong’. So she seems to have to find a way of redeeming the text from what it actually says.
And in doing so, she sets herself up as the person with the inside knowledge which, if we will only believe her, will allow us to have the text say what we really want it to. She is in a position of power, exercising the priesthood of the interpreter, who deigns to ‘let us in on’ her scholarly secrets. And most hearers will not have the knowledge to question her claims.
The final irony is that this simply isn’t necessary. The text as we have it already places women in a distinctively prominent position—and in fact Luke goes out of his way to pair women and men in the story so that we get the point.
The net result is an unconvincing argument, a poor use of power, and a distorted reading of the text of Scripture. We can do a lot better by reading carefully what the text itself says!