June, 2004

Brock, Ann Graham

Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle and the Struggle for Authority


Harvard Theological Studies 51, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. xviii + 235. Paper. $25.00. ISBN 0674009665.

This review was published by RBL .2004 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.  

This is a book whose time has come. Popular books and television documentaries concerning Mary .the Great. (a dubious reconstruction of Magdalene) and her intimacy, even marriage, with Jesus have put this New Testament figure in the spotlight. This is not to say, however, that Ann Graham Brock addresses her subject in a trendy manner. Indeed, her thorough study is informed by recent scholarship, while it also acknowledges that Mary Magdalene has been of importance in the Christian tradition, East and West, for centuries. Called “equal to the apostles” or even “apostle to the apostles,” Mary has fired the imagination of penitent, liturgist, egalitarian, and misogynist.

The author goes about her task with clarity and with a generous spirit toward those whom she would seek to correct. She inquires into .the struggle for authority. in the early church, through an examination of texts concerned about the meaning(s) of the term apostle, and the specific figures of Mary Magdalene and Peter. Adopting a method that is at once literary-rhetorical and historical critical, she first treats Luke, John, and the Pauline writings and then moves on to consider noncanonical texts, some that are fairly well known (Gospel of Peter, Nag Hammadi texts, Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul) and others that are less often read (Acts of Philip, especially in its Coptic version, and other Coptic and Syriac texts). These texts are read with an eye to detail, with a specific focus upon the various valuations of Mary and Peter, and with a concern to trace historical trajectories. For the latter task, Brock builds both on the hypotheses and ‘substantial evidence. (14) of the Tübingen school and on the foundations of those who have more lately engaged in gender analysis of ancient biblical texts, especially Pesch, Pagels, Schüssler Fiorenza, Schaberg, and Karen King.

The author’s close readings disclose intriguing details, particularly when she joins literary analysis to redactional questions. However, as is often the case with projects that link minute observations to a larger quest, it is not always clear that the analysis inevitably issues in the final reconstruction. Instead, her conclusion (that the respective prominences of Peter and Mary are inversely proportional in the traditions) appears prematurely as premise from time to time, obscuring certain details of the text that might mitigate the effects of her reconstruction. This is hardly avoidable, given her initial premise that .New Testament scholarship has uncovered aspects of many patriarchal tendencies within certain branches of early Christianity and their attempts to suppress the significance of women’s leadership roles, especially that of Mary Magdalene. (13).

This reviewer, while appreciative of Brock’s persuasive power in the chapter on Luke's Gospel, also found this section problematic. Luke is seen as air-brushing and exalting the key apostle Peter to the detriment of Mary Magdalene; detailed evidence is mustered to demonstrate these two (seemingly related) actions. However, there are points at which the analyst forces the evidence or oversteps the constraints of the text. Given the detailed nature of Brock’s argument, I must give particulars.

Her departure point seems to be Luke’s omission of Jesus. rebuke when Peter rejects the coming passion (Matt 16:22//Mark 8:33). Must we conclude, however, that Luke's motive for this lacuna is to put Peter in a better light? It is, after all, Matthew (where the rebuff remains) that establishes Peter’s status in a manner not found in Luke (Matt 16:17ff.) Again, Brock’s contention that Luke ‘subtly softens. (28) Peter's ignorance at the transfiguration is hardly demonstrable. Luke bluntly states that .Peter did not know what he said, . while Mark offers an excuse (.Peter did not know what to say, for they were afraid .) and Matthew seems not to consider Peter's .booth. proposal a blunder.

Thus, among the transfiguration narratives, Matthew, not Luke, rehabilitates Peter! Furthermore, it is Matthew who describes Peter as .first. (Matt 10:2) when the disciples are listed, a title not replicated in Luke 6:14. (Matthean Petrine priority, however, is useless to Brock’s thesis, since in Matthew we do not find the concomitant diminution of Mary Magdalene.) Brock’s thesis is further mitigated by omitted or downplayed evidence. By special pleading, Luke's unique .call. narrative is seen as complimentary to the apostle, even

though he is there self-described as .a sinful man. (5:8).hardly a promising beginning for a hierarch! Again, Brock passes over Peter’s cheeky dismissal of Jesus. Prophetic acumen (only in Luke 8:45). Moreover, some of the parallelisms that Brock establishes are only seemingly probative. At one point, Brock suggests that Luke’s Peter alone does misspeak regarding his own future denial. A closer look at the parallels shows that Luke rather  emphasizes Peter’s overconfidence and impending denial at 22:31.34: he connects it with a dispute over greatness, extends it by Jesus. introductory comments, and highlights Peter, whereas in the other Gospels all the disciples make similar protestations (Matt 26:35b//Mark 14:31b). Brock further argues that in Luke Jesus does not especially indict Peter for his Gethsemane nap (Matt 26:40//Mark 14:37//Luke 22:45).but in fact Luke has not established the inner disciples as the cast in this vignette, in contrast to the other two Gospels. Peter thus is neither privileged to .watch. with Jesus nor singled out for disapprobation. Finally, she asserts that during the trial the Lukan Peter does not explicitly deny Jesus, in contrast to the parallels (Matt 14:71a//Mark 26:74a versus Luke 22:60a.) How is it possible that Brock misses Luke 22:57, where in response to the first accusation, Peter responds in denial, “Woman, I do not know him?”

As Peter is exalted, Magdalene should be abased. So Brock finds that there is in Luke no unique resurrection appearance to Mary. However, she is named in first place with the women who heard the news from the mysterious heavenly visitors, and we encounter her early in the Gospel. There she is introduced as one whom Jesus has healed of demon-possession and placed at the head of Luke’s patron-women (8:1.3). Luke’s reference to the ministering women, following the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, implies that Magdalene, along with the other women, were those who .loved much. because they had been healed. In the context of Luke’s pairing technique, they become a parallel cohort to the twelve (8:1) and are integral to the story; in the other Gospels, they are named only toward the end. That the women’s commission to .tell. is omitted in Luke is hardly a slight of their role but rather an indication of Luke’s special concerns. We might also note that Luke gives us no actual narrative concerning Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus either, but only a brief report, of which Brock makes (too?) much. Typically, Luke’s emphasis is upon what God is doing through Jesus, not specifically upon the priority of any group, whether apostles or patron-women.

What then, is Luke’s burden in the resurrection narratives? The message of the heavenly visitors at 24:7 encapsulates the entire salvation story (where it is restricted to the resurrection in the parallels); the ensuing Emmaus narrative concentrates upon salvation history and fulfillment; the climax of the sequence comes when Jesus appears to the entire company, men and women together. En route, Magdalene and the women, the first believers in the resurrection, are celebrated twice, their experience nicely recapitulated in the Emmaus story, where they are implicitly exalted over the couple that is ‘slow to believe. (24:22.24). Luke’s concern for his audience may have led him not to present Mary and the others in a formal manner as apostles. Was he afraid that readers might also dismiss the message as “an idle tale.?” Yet Mary is integral to the narrative and finds her place among other women as one who had been touched by Jesus, who followed and supported him, who did not abandon him during his death, and who was finally vindicated regarding his resurrection. Simon, the ‘sinful man,. and Mary, .from whom the Lord cast seven demons,. both enter into his company and follow him. Both bear news of his resurrection, though no single witness is sufficient. Instead, in Luke’s apologia to Theophilus, a cumulative case for the risen Lord is built. Throughout these events, those who have seen, and their reactions, are subordinated to Luke’s message that the Hebrew Scriptures have been fulfilled in the Messiah, so that .repentance and forgiveness. might be proclaimed to all.

Here, then, is the problem. Brock, seeking clues of struggle and power relations and preoccupied with the question of status, cannot read Luke’s Gospel in its own terms. For Luke is not primarily concerned to establish the apostles as the guarantors of orthodoxy or of church structure but to place Jesus in the central position. Luke, who has a special concern for humility, may not give his womenfolk the roles that we might prefer, but it is clear that they are no mere afterthought. His unnamed woman with the alabaster jar trumps the named dignitary Simon. The ministrations of the women are as important as the blunders of the apprenticing disciples. The piety of Anna is as important as the sword cut of Simeon. Indeed, the entire company of believers is found, at the end of Luke’s first volume, “continually in the temple” an echo the elderly Anna! Only by such waiting will they emerge (male and female), in the Acts, with the piercing prophetic words of Pentecost. And it is another Mary who articulates this dynamic: “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”

Brock goes on, in her ensuing chapters, to show the intriguing dynamic between Magdalene and Peter in later texts and how these may reflect the perplexing conflict regarding women’s ministry in the early church. She also treats the sad fate of Mary, how in (especially Western) Christendom she came to be forgotten, even denigrated. Her work in this regard is engaging and worthwhile as we pursue an obscure period in history.

Considering the flaws noted in analysis of Luke, however, this reader is not entirely satisfied that Magdalene’s fortunes can be neatly traced back to the manipulation of Luke, nor to the revering of Peter, nor to the formalization of church leadership. Nor will a close reading of the Fourth Gospel easily demonstrate a reverse situation (i.e., a concern to diminish Peter, to the benefit of his female counterpart.) History is messy and not easily captured by trajectories, nor by movements toward hardening or synthesis.

Luke/Acts and the Fourth Gospel are highly nuanced narratives that each sets forth a community characterized by leadership and mutuality and a leadership defined (though not always realized) in terms of servanthood. To read the Gospels and the very early Christian documents for insight into power relations may be a contemporary quest that can yield some tentative results, but it is ultimately to read (at least some of) these works against their grain. Even the Fourth Gospel, where Magdalene is featured, is not concerned for this woman’s status but to show that what had been lost in the first garden has now been restored in the garden of the sepulcher. As the Eastern tradition would have it, she is .the woman who cast away the ancestral curse. and so became .one sent. to the disciples. Thus, the Fourth Gospel, in harmony with Luke, shows that Mary, the beloved disciple, Peter, and all the rest of the cast have their proper role: to glorify, in their own manner, the one who tabernacled among humanity and who thus critiques any who are concerned for prominence. What is that to you? Follow me!.