Over the last few weeks, I’ve had discussions with various friends about three women who appear in the Biblical narratives, which came into focus in the last days of Holy Week. The swirl of liturgy, Bible reading, theological papers, prayer and chats over post-sermon pints threw up a few thoughts which seem suitable for the celebratory mood of Easter Sunday. All of these ideas developed other people’s insights and – as ever – I’m grateful to have had them shared with me.
It began with an idea I first came across in Amy-Jill Levine’s work: that Eve can be read as the first rabbi in Jewish tradition. Levine describes a rabbinical approach to Genesis which takes a drastically different attitude to Eve’s speech than Western Christianity has often taken. She emphasizes the way in which our assumptions about the text and its accepted meanings shape our reading of individual moments, focusing on Eve’s reply to the serpent in Genesis 3.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, ‘Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
As she points out, this has been contrasted with the passage in the previous chapter, where God’s instructions are phrased slightly differently:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
The addition that Eve makes to the commandment (“neither shall ye touch it”) has been read as a tiny but vital departing from God’s word; the stepping aside from truth which creates the potential for sin, even before the eating of the fruit. In one of the most fraught passages of the Bible, which has had enormous significance for understandings of sin and guilt, verbal details like this spring into relief.
Levine demonstrates that this can be read differently, however, if we do not assume that Eve is the source of the Fall in Genesis. Rather than seeing her addition to the verse as a lie or a corruption, we can see it as interpretation. Having received the commandment, Eve reflects upon what this will mean when it is applied to their everyday lives, and seeks to order that life in a way which will keep them walking in God’s way. “Neither shall ye touch it” is a rabbinic expansion, or a scholarly gloss, or a practical guide to holy living. Eve emerges from this reading not as a weak character led astray by her own desires, but as a religious teacher who reflects upon God’s word and seeks to interpret it meaningfully within the community. In the tradition that Levine recounts, she is the first rabbi in history.
We can extend the insight of this particular tradition to thinking about another scene of response to God’s revelation, when Mary and Elizabeth meet whilst they are both pregnant. The story as recounted in Luke 1 describes Elizabeth as
filled with the Holy Spirit: And she spake out with a loud voice and said, Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
When Mary speaks next, it is to utter the remarkable song of worship known in the Latin Church as the “Magnificat”, in the characteristic parallel poetic phrases familiar from the Psalms (and which will sound oddly familiar to anyone used to Anglo-Saxon verse)
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord: And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his servant: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things: and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: from generation to generation
He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their thrones: and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away
He hath helped his servant Israel: in remembrance of his mercy
As he promised to our ancestors: to Abraham and his descendents forever.
There’s another reason why this particular poem might sound familiar, since it picks up on motifs from a song in a similar context from the Old Testament. After having been unable to have children for many years, when Hannah gave birth to a healthy child, the First Book of Samuel described her speaking this poem:
My heart rejoiceth in the Lord: mine horn is exalted in the Lord:
My mouth is enlarged over mine enemies: because I rejoice in thy salvation.
There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
Talk no more so exceeding proudly: let not arrogancy come out of your mouth
For the Lord is a God of knowledge: and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty men are broken: and they that stumbled are girded with strength.
They that were full have hired out themselves for bread: and they that were hungry ceased
So that the barren hath born seven: and she that hath many children is waxed feeble.
The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.
The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust: and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill,
To set them among princes: and to make them inherit the throne of glory.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s: and he hath set the world upon them.
He will keep the feet of his saints: and the wicked shall be silent in darkness: for by strength shall no man prevail.
The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces: out of heaven shall he thunder upon them
The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth: and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.
The themes and parallels are not simply a matter of borrowing material from a previous episode – or a theological reading can go much further than noting them in this way. It is worth pausing to think what Mary is enacting by the Magnificat: in response to the greeting of Elizabeth (and already having been visited by Gabriel at the Annunciation) her song picks up on another unexpected (even miraculous) birth from amongst the sacred histories of Israel. She does not simply repeat some motifs and alter them for her own situation, she poetically asserts a crucial continuity in the activity of God. The “Lord” to whom Elizabeth refers must be understood in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, Mary’s song implies. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God into with mysterious life and historical activity they are being dramatically caught up.
It is one of the basic insights of Christian theology, but one which has been regularly threatened and ignored over the last twenty centuries: that the God of the Gospels is the God of Hannah’s song as well as the God of Eve’s commandments. Some of the most awful passages of Christian violence, and the most striking failures to account for the meaning and hope of Christian doctrine, have coincided with Christians ignoring what Mary insists upon here. We might, I suggest, call her the first theologian, if Eve is the first rabbi. Because her response does not just reframe her situation in terms of what it means for her, but opens up quickly in a vision of God’s activity and salvation for the entire community.
Mary’s reflections are not simply personal and private, but historical and political. She connects what is happening to her with what is known of God, God’s nature and God’s activity, looking to the words of one of her foremothers to articulate this. Her disadvantaged social status becomes the basis for a restatement of a particular set of themes from the prophets: God’s love for the poor and outcast, the radical and disruptive reordering of social priorities which knowledge of God demands. It is curious enough to note that both of Mary’s recorded speeches at this point in her life are responses to people addressing her in unexpected ways: when (earlier in the chapter) Gabriel calls her “thou that art highly favoured…blessed art thou among women”, the narratives notes “she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be”. Likewise, the Magnificat is triggered by Elizabeth’s calling her “blessed art thou among women…the Mother of my Lord”. Here again we see Mary wrestling with one of the most central issues of Christian theology: the meaning of names. The entire message of the New Testament has been summed up as “Jesus Christ is Lord”, and the entire task of theology has been characterised as an attempt to explore and articulate what it means to address Jesus as “Lord”. Mary’s words can perhaps be read as the very beginning of the Christian theological project. Eve the first rabbi, Mary the first theologian.
Mary of Magdala – known as Mary Magdalene – is the centre of another of the central moments of God’s revelation in the Christian tradition. In the garden, after the death of Jesus, she stood weeping at the empty tomb, in the account of John 20:
she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father, but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God.
Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.
This brief scene has – like the others – given rise to an astonishing variety of theological reflection. Here it’s probably worth picking out just a few details amidst the narrative, which can be unbearably poignant when it appears as part of a service or in personal devotion. Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, a man with a practical, working-class occupation, like the humble people the previous Mary described has God as exalting. But it’s also a job which sets him in a garden, the location where Eve made her first attempts to interpreting the word of God and living in harmony with it. When he addresses her as “woman”, she does not recognise him, but when he calls her quietly by her own name she suddenly and shatteringly understands who has just spoken. Her reaction takes the form of “turning”, the verb which corresponds to “repent” in the Old Testament, and was used by the son Elizabeth was carrying when she greeted Mary as “mother of my Lord”, when he grew up and called the people to “turn and believe” because “the Kingdom of God is near”. It is at once an incredibly intimate, personal moment of loving recognition between two people who had been separated by death, and a radical moment of God’s unfolding salvation.
From this overpoweringly meaningful moment, Mary Magdalen is sent out of the garden to tell what she knows. She has called him “Rabboni”, the form of address used by a religious student to their tutor (equivalent to “rabbi”), which reminds us that the Gospel narratives show Jesus accepting women and men equally into the life of following him and learning from him. Yet another “Mary”, whose sister Martha objected when she didn’t help with the hospitality duties, is described as “sitting at his feet” and “hearing his words”, the traditional posture of a Jewish student under instruction from a rabbi. The scene positions Mary Magdalen as someone who has studied the Scriptures, followed Jesus, and had an overwhelming experience of meeting the risen Lord in the most despairing moment of her life. She does not – she cannot – stay in the garden with him, but accepts the duty to leave and try to tell others what has happened. She has to explain not only what has happened to her, but what it means on the same theological and cosmological scale which the Virgin Mary sketched in the Magnificat. Mary Magdalen is often honoured in the church where I worship as the “Apostle to the Apostles”, and this narrative might allow us to give her a slightly different title. Eve, Mary, Mary Magdalen. The first rabbi, the first theologian, the first evangelist.