The Resurrection Code : Mary Magdalene and the Easter Enigma Mark Stibbe Authentic Media, Milton Keynes, 2008 154pages, paperback
The author starts by stating his boyhood fascination with Sherlock Holmes and his desire to be a detective or criminal lawyer, and then noting how the same characteristics of uncovering secrets apply to his work as a bible scholar and theologian. His speciality is John’s gospel, and he says that you definitely need a detective’s nose to unearth its divine secrets. He quotes his academic hero, Father Brown (not the fictional detective – a real Johannine scholar!) who also noted that many biblical scholars were avid detective story readers. Stibbe says that the motto for studying John’s gospel should be ‘Mind the gap’, and that when you go deeper than the basic level of story and start asking questions, gaps that are clues to take as further appear. John 2.1-18, the story of Mary Magdalene, is one such passage where there are lots of unanswered questions to explore.
Chapter 1, The Scarlet Woman, surveys Mary Magdalene in modern culture, various church and artistic traditions, and in the early church, along the way debunking the idea that she was a prostitute, held by many in the Western branch of the church, although not in the Eastern church, who hold her as a disciple on a par with the apostles. Stibbe also notes that John’s gospel is remarkable for its depicting female disciples very positively, in contrast to most male disciples.
Chapter 2, Weeping in the Cemetery, looks at the story of Mary at Jesus’ tomb in more detail, covering something of the significance of the grave clothes being left (grave robbers would steal corpse and clothes entire, and they hadn’t been unwound, as with Lazarus, implying supernatural happenings), the theme of seeing versus hearing (‘My sheep hear my voice, and I call them by name’ and Mary understanding only when she heard her name, not when she saw) as well as asking why Jesus tells her to stop clinging to him as he has not yet ascended to the Father, but later told Thomas to come and touch him to see that it really was him. He also notes that the structure is similar to an ancient standard romance plot, that the story is very carefully constructed, not artlessly told, and that here is the climax of woman’s testimony to Jesus in John’s gospel. Also Mary Magdalene was not just an ‘apostle to the apostles’ over the resurrection, but also over the ascension. But the big question is why could she not cling to him?
Chapter 3, A Tomb with a View, starts to answer that question. Stibbe starts by citing a seemingly simple Wordsworth poem that becomes more mysterious, the more you think about its meaning. ‘The power is in the gaps’ he says, and the gaps are what drive the story and entice the reader into considering the deeper meaning. John 20.1-18 is all about gaps, starting with the now mysteriously empty cave-tomb which is a gap in the rock. There are deliberate gaps without explanation; firstly that John’s gospel, which usually gives general description, goes into vivid and precise detail about the grave-clothes , far more than the other gospels. Why does John’s gospel focus on them so? Stibbe surveys several suggestions, including an intriguing one from a Jerusalem rabbi. Secondly, why does John go into detail about the angels, specifically stating that they sat at each end of where the body had lain? The most likely explanation is that this is a symbolic reference to the cherubim on either side of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, in the Holy of Holies. Finally, why did Jesus tell Mary to stop touching him? After all, a little later in the chapter, he exhorts Thomas to touch him. He suggests that if we find some understanding that explains all three of these mysteries, we are likely to have hit the correct answer. He suggests that the key is the angels, and the fact that John’s gospel has an intense interest in the Jewish Temple feasts and their significance.
Chapter 4, Into the Holy of Holies, Stibbe gives his understanding of the hidden features of John 20.1-18. He starts with the silent angels (in the other gospels they announce the resurrection, in John Jesus does this himself). The important thing seems to be what they do, not what they say – a message without words. For answers, Stibbe turns to the tabernacle of Moses, the holiest place in Israel, where there were strict rules to protect its holiness, because it was where the presence of God dwelt with his people. Right from the start of John, there is a cryptic references to the Tabernacle, in which Jesus is implied to be a living tabernacle (John 1.14), and indeed Moses is the most referred to Old Testament character in John, usually where Jesus is compared to Moses, implying that Jesus is the promised ‘prophet like Moses’ through whom God will speak. Not only that, but the progression a high priest would make through the tabernacle is mirrored in the themes of John’s gospel and their order, the lamb-sacrifice at the altar, washing at the laver, bread at the show-bread table, light from the lamp-stand, intercession at the incense altar and so on. Another clue is the seamless garment Jesus wore to the cross – similar to the seamless garment the high priest wore on the day of atonement. If this is so, where is the mercy seat in John’s gospel? The angels give the clue – it’s the resurrection tomb of Jesus. But the high priest could only come to the mercy seat on the day of atonement. John also pictures Jesus as the fulfilment of the Temple feasts – for instance he is the ultimate Passover lamb sacrifice – just like the lambs, none of his bones were broken. On the day of atonement, the high priest would make the necessary sacrifices in a holy set of garments, then leave them at the tabernacle, change into another set of clothes and make a final sacrifice. So, if Jesus left his grave-clothes in a tabernacle between two angels it rather suggests that he is the fulfilment of Yom Kippur. That would then explain why Mary was not allowed to touch Jesus, because it was forbidden for anyone to touch the High Priest on the day of atonement, nor to touch the tabernacle while the High Priest was making atonement. Jesus says Mary cannot touch him because he is ascending to his Father – in other words he is still in the process of atoning for the world and presenting his atoning sacrifice to the Father. (Interestingly ‘ascending’ is often used in the Old Testament and in John to mean worshipping or going up to make a sacrifice – it’s priestly language. Also, John’s gospel views the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as one whole – all part of his being ‘lifted up’ to save the world). Finally, how do we reconcile John’s ascension with that in Acts 1? Simple, says Stibbe: John’s resurrection was for the Father’s benefit and Luke’s ascension is for the disciples benefit.
For the final revolutionary chapter, read Part Deux