Luke Chapter 7:36-39

At the end of the last section, we left Jesus talking about the children of wisdom, or perhaps of Sophia. One thing I neglected to mention is that Sophia wasn’t exclusively, or wasn’t originally, a Gnostic concept. It had roots in Judaism as well as Greek thought. So many of the ideas and concepts of a religious  nature kept floating around in the eastern Mediterranean in particular, combining and recombining and mutating that it gets to be very difficult to untangle the skein and figure out who thought of it first, who influenced whom, etc.

In any case, we’re coming into the story of the woman with the perfume who anointed Jesus. This is part of the Triple Tradition, so it shows up in all three Synoptic gospels. I made this point in the discussion of the story when we came across it in Matthew, but it bears repeating: in none of the three versions is the woman ever identified by name. In particular, she is never identified as Mary Magdalene. And yet, tradition has come to identify the anointing woman with the Magdalene. This is a very, very strong cautionary tale about the value of tradition. Pappias said this, Eusebios said that, Mark the Evangelist was John Mark of Acts who was the associate of Peter…all these things get asserted without any real–or even tenuous–evidence. We have the bald word of the later writer, and sometimes the assertions are only preserved because it was quoted by an even later author. I read a bunch of Eusebios, and I was not at all impressed. He was a contemporary of Constantine, who set about creating more or less the Official History of the Church. This was the Authorized Version, published after Christianity had come out from the shadows and become the religion of the Emperor. I don’t find such a chain of evidence terribly convincing.

So there is absolutely no reason to  assume this woman is Mary Magdalene. But wait, there’s more. At the end of the passage, we are told that the woman was a “sinner”…On second thought, let’s leave that for the commentary at the end. For now, let’s get into the

Text

36 Ἠρώτα δέ τις αὐτὸν τῶν Φαρισαίων ἵνα φάγῃ μετ’ αὐτοῦ: καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸν οἶκον τοῦ Φαρισαίου κατεκλίθη.

Some one of the Pharisees asked in order that he (Jesus) might eat with him (the Pharisee). And coming into the house of the Pharisee, he reclined.

Quick note: “reclined” became synonymous with “eating”, since one reclined on couches to eat.

36 Rogabat autem illum quidam de pharisaeis, ut manducaret cum illo; et ingressus domum pharisaei discubuit.

37 καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἁμαρτωλός, καὶ ἐπιγνοῦσα ὅτι κατάκειται ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Φαρισαίου, κομίσασα ἀλάβαστρον μύρου

38 καὶ στᾶσα ὀπίσω παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ κλαίουσα, τοῖς δάκρυσιν ἤρξατο βρέχειν τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῖς θριξὶν τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς ἐξέμασσεν, καὶ κατεφίλει τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ἤλειφεν τῷ μύρῳ.

39 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Φαρισαῖος ὁ καλέσας αὐτὸν εἶπεν ἐν ἑαυτῷ λέγων, Οὗτος εἰ ἦν προφήτης, ἐγίνωσκεν ἂν τίς καὶ ποταπὴ ἡ γυνὴ ἥτις ἅπτεται αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἁμαρτωλός ἐστιν.

And look, some woman, a sinner in the city, and knowing that he reclined in the house of the Pharisee, having carried an alabaster jar of ointment (38) and standing behind by his feet weeping, her tears began to wash his feet and with the hair of her head wiped, and kissed his feet and anointed with the ointment. (39) Seeing the Pharisee calling him said to himself, “This is (as) if he were a prophet, he knew (would have known) of what sort this woman (is who) touches him, that she is a sinner.”

We are told twice that she is a “sinner”. We are, I suppose, to infer from this that she was a special kind of sinner, which implies, I suppose, a prostitute. At least, I suppose that is what we are supposed to suppose. The later tradition has not only identified the Magdalene with this woman, and that Mary M has become a prostitute in the same tradition. This passage is the only possible biblical basis for this later tradition. And it conflates prostitution, the Magdalene, and the anointing of Jesus, when in fact there is no reason to believe this woman was Mary Magdalene. And Luke is the only version that emphasizes that she was a “sinner”, just as Luke is the only one to tell us that Jesus cured Mary M of seven demons. 

This very nicely a couple of the points I’ve been making throughout this effort. The first is that stories grow. I’ve made repeated references, allusions, and comparisons to the legend of King Arthur. There is a general consensus that Arthur, in some form, did exist as a living man. There is universal consensus that virtually all the rest is later invention. Hence Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Percival, Gawaine, and all the rest are the creations of later poets. The story grew with time. And so here we have Mary Magdalene. In one of the previous commentaries I speculated that she was a financial supporter of Jesus from Galilee. She arrives in Mark only in the Passion Narrative, and then she is prominent in the Resurrection story. In Matthew, this includes the disciples returning to Galilee, which I would posit indicates the influence of Mary. (As an aside, Wikipedia says that there are two places in Galilee that were named, or could have been named, Magdala; both cites come from the HS, and Matthew mentions a place that has been transliterated as Magdala and as Magadan. The point is, they are all in Galilee.) We are all much too familiar with the way women were excised from the canonical NT; Paul in particular mentions several women who seemed to take leading roles in various communities. As a result, leaving the Magdalene in a role of prominence did not suit the ideas of the patristic fathers, so Mary had to be downgraded. But this tradition of Mary grew in a different way, too, the culmination of which was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code; however, it should be noted that this rumour of Mary’s relationship to Jesus predates Mr Brown by numerous centuries.

The second point this demonstrates is just how unreliable the later tradition can be. And if it can be this unreliable, it probably is unreliable. Bear in mind that Pappias had no evidence that Mark the Evangelist was John Mark of Acts. The way this latter inference was drawn is pretty much identical to the way the inference about this woman and the Magdalene was drawn. This woman is in all three gospels, but is named in none of them. Yet, Jesus says (in Mark and Matthew, anyway), that her deed will be remembered as long as Jesus is remembered. And yet, the performer of the deed has disappeared. But we have Mary Magdalene floating about at loose ends, so let’s connect the dots, whether making this connexion is warranted or not. Just so, we have a gospel attributed to Mark. Who the hell was Mark? Oh wait, there’s a guy who is named–sort of–Mark in Acts; ergo, they must be the same person. This conclusion was made despite the fact that, while Mark supposedly recorded for Peter, the “upon this rock” quote is missing, as is most of what Jesus supposedly taught, plus that Mark’s Peter is a dullard at best. With a friend like Mark, Peter certainly didn’t need any enemies. So we see the danger, the great danger, of relying on anything the later tradition said. Just based on probability, some of the points of the tradition may have gotten some things correct, but which things? Since we have no real way to know which traditions are reliable, we have to look–very carefully–at the internal evidence of the texts to see which traditions can be seen to be internally consistent. Mark = John Mark fails this test of internal consistency, in my opinion, anyway. You have one tenuous connexion of names vs. several points which seem to invalidate that connexion; this implies failure. And we have three versions of this story, and the woman is not named in any of them, and she is only–possibly–identified as a prostitute in one of them. So based on this lack of supporting evidence, plus the fact that Mary does not appear until the Passion, indicates, in my opinion, that this woman was not Mary the Magdalene,

This version of the story is also very interesting from another perspective. Matthew followed Mark’s version very closely, whereas Luke cut out about half of the story, but adds the detail about the woman being a prostitute. What are the implications? I would suggest that Luke did not feel the need to repeat the story in full because there were already two versions of the story that said pretty much the same thing. Why go over such well-trodden ground again? Here we see that Luke was not afraid to change or edit Mark; why do we suppose he would have been reluctant to change or edit Matthew? Yes, this goes back to Q, and all the ridiculous questions of “Why, on earth, would Luke change Matthew?” Why indeed? The answer to this question, which is always posed as some unsolvable conundrum, continues to be very simple: because if Luke simply followed Matthew, he’d simply be re-writing Matthew. And it is said, over and over again, how Luke situates his stories (his pericopae) differently than Matthew. Well, here he’s located it in a very different place from Mark as well. In the other two versions, this event occurs just before the Last Supper, in the final week of Jesus’ life. Here it’s well before that. So if he’s not afraid to mess with Mark’s placement, why the faux puzzlement about messing with Matthew’s placement? This staring askance at Luke’s outrageous behavior is simply a rhetorical dodge, something that the Q proponents resort to because they don’t have a legitimate case to make. And let’s recall that Luke also moved Jesus’ return to his hometown from the middle of Mark (Chapter 6) to the very early days of Jesus’ ministry (Chapter 4). Again, Luke’s not afraid to mess things up a little bit, or even a lot. And again, part of the reason Luke did this–maybe the main reason Luke did this, and many other changes–is to make sure he didn’t just re-create Matthew. the very fact that it is so messed up so consistently makes me see the hand of intent behind this. And that doesn’t mean Luke was a crank or a madman. That whole “only a crank would do this deliberately” really grates on my nerves because, first and foremost, it’s not an argument, but a value judgement.

So yes, Luke deliberately messed with Matthew’s organization. But no, he was not a crank or a madman.

There are other omissions from the story as seen in Mark and Matthew. One is that Jesus said the woman was preparing his body for burial. That omission makes sense since this event occurs close to the time of Jesus’ death in M&M, but not here. Perhaps incidentally, but certainly more puzzling is the question of why Luke changed the physical location of this. In both Mark and Matthew it’s set, we are told, in the house of Simon the (most likely former) leper. Here it’s in the house of a Pharisee. Apologies, but I cannot come up with an explanation that will account for this change that is redactionaly* consistent with all the other changes Luke makes. Of course, suggesting that I need to do this in order to account for no-Q is absurd; I don’t have to prove Q didn’t exist. The people who propose the theory have to prove (or at least present a decent case) that Q did exist. The takeaway from this is that I’m not sure I can imagine a rationale that would make sense, but then, I could just be lacking in imagination.

The most glaring omission, however, is the lack of disciples and the bit about how “the poor will always be with you”. Now, Luke is supposedly more concerned with the poor than either of the other two, a position with which I tend to agree; hence, “blessed are the poor…the hungry…” That being the case, why are the disciples not here to object? Even more than M&M, John puts the story back in, with the added detail that Judas objected because he wanted to embezzle some of the money for himself. Essentially, Luke jettisons all of that in favor of the Pharisee calling her (apparently) a prostitute, and being unsettled and a bit disgusted that Jesus can’t see the woman for what she is. And since Luke made the switch, Luke obviously (well, at least apparently) saw this as the more important message to get across. Why? Part of the reason, of course, is to show how closed-minded and short-sighted the Pharisee is, but that’s a given, and it’s also implicit in the disciples lack of understanding. Or is that it? Luke didn’t want it to be the disciples who missed the point? I’m not positive, but that seems like a possible explanation. After all, John subsequently comes up with a more elegant way to dodge that issue. That sort of just occurred to me, but the idea is growing on me.

Maybe it will stick. Maybe not. I’m open to suggestions.

While we’re at it, let’s tack this on. Matthew began the rehabilitation of the disciples. Here, by substituting the Pharisee as the villain, Luke is continuing on in that tradition. Yes, it could be that Luke was doing this independently of Matthew, but…really? Apologies, but I think this is another marker to put on the side of non-Q.

[* Apparently not a real word, but I swear I came across it in one of the Q proponents. It was likely a different form of the word. Or, perhaps that writer was willing to attempt to coin the neologism. ]

37 Et ecce mulier, quae erat in civitate peccatrix, ut cognovit quod accubuit in domo pharisaei, attulit alabastrum unguenti;

38 et stans retro secus pedes eius flens lacrimis coepit rigare pedes eius et capillis capitis sui tergebat, et osculabatur pedes eius et unguento ungebat.

39 Videns autem pharisaeus, qui vocaverat eum, ait intra se dicens: “ Hic si esset propheta, sciret utique quae et qualis mulier, quae tangit eum, quia peccatrix est ”.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 13, 2017, in Chapter 7, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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