We have often heard sermons on the story of Peter’s three denials followed by Jesus’ three questions to him.1 Somewhere on a gravelly beach of Galilee, Jesus spoke with Peter: “Do you love Me? . . . Feed My sheep.” Nowhere does Scripture explain to us that the disciple’s three admissions, “Lord, You know that I love You,” allowed Peter to be fully restored to fellowship with Jesus. But the idea fits. We can read the message between the lines. We like it, and we use it as one proof text that God forgives and restores those who love him even after failing him.

But how did we come to this interpretation? Where is the explicit connection between Peter’s three denials and Jesus’ forgiveness? I know of no verse to prove the association. It would be more clear if we could read Jesus saying something like this: “Peter, you failed me three times, and Satan has now sifted you, just as I warned. Here, stand up and look at Me. You said, ‘I don’t know Him,’ three times, right? Now I’m going to ask you something three times. Each time you reply correctly, I’m going to restore you from one of your denials. Ready? One: Do you love me?” No! We are never told the story this way. We are only given the facts found in the gospels: there were previous words about Satan’s sifting the disciples’ faith, and Peter being the first to return to faith and strengthen the others (Luke 22:31-33); then in John we read of the three denials, and then the dialogue on the beach, through which Peter the fisherman becomes Peter the shepherd. That is all. It is only the number three that gives us the clue to make the association between Peter’s denials and Jesus’ reconciliation. Our interpretation is sound, for it fits both by the logic of the exchange and by the echo within the prose. Using the idea of repeated themes being intentional, we will find another interpretation that may prove as fitting and instructive as this first one was with Peter.

Mary of Migdal2 is one of the many women who followed Jesus and sat at his feet, a student of the Rabbi.3 Each of the Gospels describes the scene by the empty tomb and each gives some details the others lack.4 Reading the four gospels is like looking at a mosaic—each book adds to the picture, and, together, we better understand the whole. (See Figure 1 on pages 24-25.) We learn that there were at least four women who went to the tomb before dawn: Mary of Migdal, Mary the mother of James5, Salome (the mother of James and John), and Joanna (the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward). Just because in John’s account we do not read of a group of women at the tomb does not discount the reports found in the other gospels. In the first three gospels, there was a group of women stated to be two, three, or more. These women saw angels sitting on the stone that had been rolled away and within the tomb. John’s gospel does not record that the other women were present. Instead, John focuses our attention on the Magdalene, for there is something in her story that John wishes us to see and to remember. This is her story.

It is yom rishon, the first day of the week, and Mary comes to the tomb before sunrise. It is yet dark. She sees the opened tomb and comes close enough to know that the stone chamber is empty. Whether or not she saw the angels whom the others saw, or whether she separated herself from the group to run with the message alone, we are not told. We only read that Mary runs to Peter and John and tells them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Peter and “the other disciple” (commonly accepted as John) hurry to see for themselves. John is the younger and arrives first. He hesitates at the entrance but sees in the dim interior the empty shroud. Peter arrives, steps into the gloom and sees, additionally, the face cloth, lying apart and neatly rolled. John follows the elder man, sees the same, and, we are told, believes.

Believes what? we must ask. One would wish to conclude that John immediately believes in the resurrection. But the context does not allow for this. John believes the upsetting report that they have just heard from Mary, that Jesus’ body has been removed. We know this from the line that follows: “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). This affirms that John believed Mary’s first report, and the cold, empty tomb echoes her lament, “They have taken the Lord…” (20:2). Therefore, “the disciples returned to their own homes” (20:10), for they are downcast. Had they believed the prophecy, that Jesus was alive from the dead, we can be sure they would have gathered all the others together and told them!6

We next read that Mary remains standing nearby. She has followed these two men back to the empty tomb and seen their confirming response. Now she stands there alone and weeping. She bends, looks within, and sees the two angels. They are clad in white, sitting at either end of the stone slab where the empty shroud has been left. The angels ask her why she is weeping, and she repeats the second time, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” The angels silently watch as the next events unroll.

Mary turns away, and, in the slowly increasing light of dawn, sees a figure standing behind her. Perhaps due to her tears, or perhaps because she does not lift her face from grief or shame, Mary does not recognize him. She believes the man must be the gardener of that place. Jesus repeats the angels’ inquiry: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She must be desperate by this time, but replies with her singular plea and with what sounds like resolved self control, “[Lord],7 if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Then Jesus speaks her name with a tone that she recognizes and that wakes her from her sorrow. She looks at him and exclaims, “Teacher!” She drops to her knees and grasps hold of his feet to worship him. Jesus tells her not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended to the Father. I imagine Jesus helping Mary rise from the dew-dampened path as he speaks with her. He gives Mary her own commission: “. . . go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” It is only after this that Mary goes and tells every one of the disciples that she has been with Jesus and relays to them all of his words.

Now we are ready to compare this narrative about the Magdalene in the garden with an earlier motif. We will consider a literary device similar to that of Peter’s three denials and Jesus’ three questions to him. Remember that it was the echo of the number three that alerted us to the meaningful association. Calling this repetition a literary device in no way deprecates the authenticity of what occurred; there is no reason to doubt that Jesus really did question Peter those three times. The Bible is literature. It contains biography and history and also wisdom and prophecy. Some historical facts have been proven to be true, and all the wisdom in its pages is proven valid to the one who seeks God. But the Bible is not the kind of history that chronicles every detail of politics and power. The focus in biblical narrative is not on the greatness of world rulers—the focus is on the greatness of God. The Bible records for us redemption history. Although certain factual lists and lineages are chronicled, we need also to watch for literary devices in order to catch the point of any particular episode. For instance, I serve in Bible translation, and often someone will comment, “This has already been said, and it’s boring to hear it twice; we don’t need to repeat it.” To this I must answer, “If it is important for God to write an item more than once, then he wants to tell us something important and to make it unforgettable. We must retain the repetitions” (that is, unless an item can be shown to be idiomatic and then be better translated in some other form). Repetitions are God’s highlighter. Repetitions may be found across books and across centuries. Items in one chapter will be called forth in another, and matters written by Moses are echoed and further developed in the lives of those who knew the Messiah. As King Solomon wrote to us, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2; NASB). Therefore, we are invited to be sleuths and search out the wisdom woven into the whole text of God’s word.

John focuses our attention on what happened to Mary of Migdal, even though she was in the company of other women. There is a particular echo in Mary’s story which I believe John wants his readers to hear in regard to redemption. The message originates in the Torah8 and sheds light on the question of women in ministry today. We will compare and contrast two gardens, two gardeners, and two women.

An Echo From Eden

John was careful to tell us that the unused tomb was situated in a garden close to the site of the crucifixion (19:41). Here, in this garden scene, I believe we hear the echo from the first garden, Eden. Adam and Eve were placed in a garden and given what is in effect a covenant. They and their descendants were to be kings and queens on earth and remain vassals to the King of kings, their Creator. As part of their covenant, he gave the first man and woman a promise—to provide for them; and he required from them certain obligations—to be fruitful and fill the earth (the same as was spoken to all of the animals) and, then, uniquely, to subdue, or be sovereign over, the earth. When God gives a command, he also gives the empowerment to fulfill it. So both man and woman had a God-given authority. As long as Adam and Eve remained in covenant relationship with God, their Head (which is to say, their Source), he would enable them to fulfill their destiny.

God commanded the first couple not to eat from only one of the many fruiting trees in the garden. We know the story. The woman was enticed by the serpent. Because Satan appeared in animal form, the woman had full authority to expel the interloper. But, instead, she allowed herself to be lured into a deadly conversation. She succumbed to his lie and ate the forbidden fruit, gave the fruit to Adam, who was with her and also ate, and so their failure was finalized (Gen. 3:1-7). A meal is one of several signs of a covenant.9 Here, the eating of the forbidden fruit is evidence of a covenant being made with the enemy, the consequences of which are still with us today. Immediately after their covenant meal, they hear the sound of God in the garden. One possible translation of Genesis 3:8 is, “Then they heard the sound of YHWH Elohim storming in the garden as the Spirit (or wind) of the Day” (referring to the day of judgment; my translation).10 Consider their response—they ran and hid from this previously unheard and ominous sound of God’s presence. God’s judgment had broken into the world and the death about which he had warned them had begun. Adam and Eve were immediately cut off from their original covenant with God and from him as their intimate Provider. Nevertheless, God had a plan, and he spoke to them words of a new covenant, the first in a series of covenants that would reinstate man and woman as sovereigns under the King of kings. God promised the two of them (and all humanity that would yet come from them) that the woman would bear a Seed, and that he would crush the head of Satan, even while Satan would inflict a deadly bite on his heel. Here is the promise of the Messiah. Death had entered the world and would not be done away with until the Death-bearer entered onto the stage of earth’s history.

The death that originated in the first garden has its echo within the second. Within the second garden, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, was laid the corpse of the unique and promised Seed. Hidden from our sight, before the sun had risen on day three,11 in the stillness of a sealed tomb, the judgment of death was accomplished. The resurrection had come. The windstorm theophany that arose within the first garden is contrasted with stillness in the second. The terror of the first pair, seeking a way to hide themselves from judgment, is contrasted with a weeping woman who stands alone and without fear. The cherubim with a whirling sword of fire standing guard at the exit from Eden here is contrasted with the assurance radiating from two angels clothed in white and sitting where the Savior’s body had been laid. These intentionally remembered and written details are all a part of our first echo, that of the garden setting, and they set us on a particular path of redemption history.

A Second, Faithful Gardener

The second echo we note is the gardener. Mary, when she turns and sees the form of a man behind her, assumes it is the gardener standing there. The shadows were likely still stronger than the growing light of dawn, and she was sorrowful. But why did she conclude this was the gardener? Why did she not assume it was another Roman soldier come to relieve those stationed there at the end of their watch? Or why did she not conclude it was one of the other disciples who had heard the news and come also, but hesitated to look inside the tomb and see for himself? I believe that John purposefully records Mary’s error for us in order once more to point us back to Eden.

The first Adam was a gardener, too. He was placed in the midst of Eden, and he and his wife were commissioned by God to watch over it. But Adam failed in his obligation to the covenant at the dawn of human history. Along with his counterpart, he sinned against God and thereby gave up the blessedness of their position. Adam and Eve would no longer be sovereigns on earth, being nurtured and empowered by God’s grace. They were each cut off from their true and eternal Source, their Creator, and made dependent on their secondary and finite sources—Adam became dependent upon the ground, from which he was formed, and the woman was made dependent upon her husband, from whom she was taken.12 This would be the case for all of humanity until the promised Seed was born, and until he began to reign on earth. Adam as the gardener failed in his calling, and, with his failure, weeds and thistles, death and brutality, all were given an entrance to earth. But God, in the fullness of time, “sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). This was the Messiah, the promised Seed—Jesus—whom Paul would identify as the second Adam:

Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. (Rom. 5:14)

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. . . . Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49)

What the first Adam had inflicted on the human race was finished by the victory of the second Adam. Jesus the Messiah established the new covenant, which reinstated both man and woman to their place of being image bearers of “the man of heaven.” Jesus restored man and woman to their original mission with God—“to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with . . . God” (Mic. 6:8). In the future, God will also restore to both man and woman the authority to be judges of both earthly and angelic affairs (Matt. 19:28; 1 Cor. 6:2-3; Rev. 20:4).

Thus, John recorded for us what at first looks like Mary’s error in identifying Jesus. But her very error discloses the hidden relationship between Jesus and Adam. Jesus, as the second gardener, succeeded in his mission. Through his self-given sacrifice, the reign of death and the fear of death were brought to an end and the head of the ancient serpent was crushed.

Free From Demons, Free To Serve

Mary of Migdal is our third parallel. John might have recorded for us the reactions of any of the women who came early to the tomb. The reactions of Jesus’ own mother would be very interesting to know. But John’s quill traced the story of the woman from Migdal. What is it about this Mary he wanted us to know? We remember that this Mary was the person from whom Jesus cast out the seven demons (Mark 16:9). Note that we do not know the names or kinds of demons that were controlling Mary (and we will do well to disregard the tradition that the demons were sexual in nature13). What we do know is that, through Jesus, Mary found release and was delivered into the new, eternal life.

The loss of spiritual protection is one of the outcomes of the Fall. Adam and Eve may not have foreseen this result of their turning away from the one true God. After they were expelled from Eden, protection from Satan’s wiles became a daily, even moment by moment, test of their wills. Would they turn to the God who knew them, or would they again trust the evil one who had deceived? There were those who succeeded and whose names are recorded for us: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah. These were people wise enough to believe the history that their parents handed down and to fear God. (Hebrews 11:13-16 tells us that God prepared an eternal home for such as they.) But for the majority of people, magic, curses, and shamans would be their chosen defense. This was Mary’s world. She had almost certainly collected amulets with little, artificial blessings inscribed on them, and sought out the words of the channelers, all to no avail. Worse, by turning to the spirit world, she was repeating the sin of Eve; that is, she was turning to so-called gods for help (using “Satan to cast out Satan,” Matt. 12:27) instead of the Creator God. Every time that Mary put her hopes in unsanctified seers or spent her money for objects of magic, she would have reinforced her covenant with the serpent and created new avenues for demonic entrance. It was Jesus, and only Jesus, who had the full authority to remove the demons from her.

This is the woman whom John placed on center stage. It is as if we pick up Eve’s story nearly four millennia after the expulsion from Eden. Eve began with a clean slate, was deceived, then sinned against her Lord’s decree regarding the fruit. In just consequence, Eve was condemned to die; many years later, she would know a natural death, but, immediately, she and Adam knew the death of their intimacy with God, as well as, in some degree, with each other (symbolized by their covering themselves). Eve lost her full power as an image-bearer of God and, with it, her God-given authority over Satan and his emissaries. Mary began where Eve left off—with a slate on which was already written the word “condemned” (cf. Rom. 5:16, 18-29; Col. 2:13-14). Through humility born of desperation, Mary found her way back to the Master’s feet. She was set free from seven demons and given a clean slate on which was written “forgiven.” Life was given back to Mary—a blessed life on this earth and life eternal in the world to come.

Now Mary could grow in her stature of being an image bearer of God and in her God-empowered authority over the works of the evil one. Mary was no longer unclean, but she joined the other disciples—men and women who followed Jesus and were taught by him (Luke 8:1-3). She may also have been one of the seventy whom Jesus sent out with the message of the Kingdom and to heal the sick (10:1-11) and to whom Jesus also gave authority over demons (10:17-19).14 Jesus said to the seventy, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (10:16). Whether Mary was among the seventy or not, we do not know. But this brings us to a further point of John’s choice of Mary in the garden scene on the first day of the week.

The first man and woman succumbed to the tempter’s scheme together. But it was the woman who we are told was deceived (1 Tim. 2:14). From this, the folk belief has come down to us that women are more easily deceived and have less cognitive ability than men, and, therefore, they need male guardians to guide them throughout life. This is not a Scriptural mandate, though we read of it in Scripture as part of earth’s history. So what did God do to reverse this part of the curse and to redeem womankind? He did something in line with what he did for Peter when he gave him a new commission to fulfill. The Lord chose Mary, the woman who was the closest echo to Eve in her lost condition. He met her in the second garden, by the entrance to the tomb, death’s door, and gave her her own new commission. He told her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,’” which she went and did (20:17b–18). This commission—this entrusting to Mary of Migdal the announcement of all the hopes of all the Torah, Prophets, and Writings of ancient Israel, this beginning of the restoration of life for all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues—is full witness to God’s restoration made available for all women to live up to their covenant design of keepers, doers, and communicators of God’s Truth.

We may note that the voices of the women in the four accounts are generally not believed. Indeed, the Bible is not an account written through rose-colored lenses, but is a record of the real world. Mark writes of our Mary’s report of the resurrection, “She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (Mark 16:10). Oy vei! The words of women had been thought of as so untrustworthy that those who had heard beforehand of the hope of the resurrection (Matt. 20:19) considered Mary’s announcement pure folly. It took their seeing Jesus for themselves, in the evening of that same day, when he appeared to them in their locked room, for the disciples to believe (Mark 16:14; John 20:19-20, 26-29).

We are still in such a sorry state today wherein women are withheld from preaching and teaching in pulpits of some denominations. The age-old excuses are given, and then the translations of Paul’s words are used to close the case. It is true that we must do what Scripture teaches, even if this goes against our desires. Scripture, not our own personal preferences, is to be formative for our lives. But where a few verses (e.g., Gen. 3:16; 1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:12) seem to contradict other verses (that tell us of Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, Junia, and more), then we must study the history of Bible translation and analyze the difficulties of the original text. We must consider the use of literary devices such as John’s focus on Mary of Migdal. We must honestly seek a satisfying and logical answer to each problem. The Holy Spirit has left us the clues in the text, and people who will put aside their own preconceptions will discover that which is good and acceptable and pure and that which will give God the most honor.

Notes

  1. John 13:37-38, 18:17, 25-27, 21:15-17. All Bible verses are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Mary Magdalene is not a first and last name. This is the Mary, or more properly, Miriam, who was from the small fishing town of Migdal (or in Greek, Magadan), just north of Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The name Migdal in Hebrew means “tower,” and may refer to a tower used to smoke fish, or a tower or fortification built at the important junction of roads where the town was situated.
  3. See Luke 8:2-3.
  4. Matt. 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:1-8.
  5. In Greek, we find the name Jacob, and not James. The introduction of the Anglo-Saxon “James” for the Hebrew “Jacob” came at the request of King James, for he desired to see his own name in the Holy Book.
  6. The Moffat translation of 20:8 helps the reader understand that the disciple believed Mary’s report by substituting the synonymous phrase, “he was convinced.” When we read “believe,” we automatically associate the word with a “faith” and acknowledgement of a miracle. But “convinced” helps the reader understand that the visible facts of the empty tomb caused him to agree with Mary’s depressing assumption.
  7. The NRSV translates “Lord” as “Sir”; this is possible, for kurios is the address of respect. However, the One addressed is Jesus—the Lord, whose title is the old covenant idiom for YHWH, God’s covenantal name. In Greek, the one word may be translated as either Lord or Sir; I prefer the more literal translation of “Lord,” so that readers hear the echo from the old covenant and grasp Jesus’ identity as being YHWH, or God.
  8. The Torah is the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible; the word means “Teaching” and contains all the teachings given to Moses for God’s people. From the Greek language we derive the term Pentateuch, meaning “five-volume.”
  9. As found in the ancient Near East, there are several common attributes of a suzerain-vassal covenant: a meal, a sign, a command and a punishment for breaking the command, witnesses to the making of the covenant (who will bring about the stated punishments), and two repositories for the two copies of the covenant when written. Specific to the covenants between God and humanity, there is also the slaying of a sacrifice, but in this original covenant in the garden of Eden, wherein death was never intended, the sacrifice is absent. (For understanding the Bible as a series of covenants, with parallels found in ancient Near East literature, read Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority [Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 1997].)
  10. The translation that tells us of a quiet stroll in the Garden in “the cool of the day” is probably misleading. The traditional rendering makes it seem as though Adam and Eve had access to their Creator only one time per day. It is far more in keeping with the whole of Scripture that they could have conversation with their Creator anytime they chose. The verb for moving, hithholech (a participle), is the hithpa’el form, which is, in this case, reflexive, “of himself”; God of his own volition and substance is moving in the garden. Other verses that use this form of the verb “to walk, move, go,” with God as the subject, include Lev. 26:12 andDeut. 23:14 (Hebrew 23:15); also in Ezek. 1:13, where we read of God’s throne: “In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. . . .” This last use has particular bearing on our text, as both may refer to God’s day of judgment. In Ezek. 1:4, the approach of God’s Presence is like “a stormy wind . . . a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually.” God’s Presence in judgment is also found elsewhere in association with a “stormy wind” or a “whirlwind” (see Ezek. 1:4; 13:1, 13). Dr. Jeffrey Niehaus translates 3:8: “Then the man and his wife heard the thunder of Yahweh God going back and forth in the garden in the wind of the storm”; he points out that yom, usually translated “day,” may as well be translated “wind” or “storm” (from Akkadian etymology). (Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai, Covenant & Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995] 155-59.)
  11. In the Bible, and still in Jewish thought today, the day begins after sunset. This is because God created earth in the same manner: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (lit. from the Hebrew). Thus, Jesus rose from the dead on (that is, during) the third such day.
  12. Dr. Walter C. Kaiser (referring to Katharine C. Bushnell) points out that the earliest translations of the Bible understood the verse correctly: “. . . 
    and your turning shall be to your husband, and he will be lord over you” (Gen. 3:16; my translation from the Septuagint). Kaiser clarifies the meaning: “Eve ‘turned’ from her Lord and instead placed all her dependency on her husband only to find out that he, too, as a fallen sinner, would take advantage of her and rule over her. Thus, instead of the resulting gender hierarchy being the norm that God had prescribed, it turns out that it displays the curse that has fallen on humanity, and on women in particular, because of the Fall described in Genesis 3:1-13.” (Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Priscilla Papers 19:2 [Spring 2005], 6-7.)
  13. We are never told the nature of Mary of Migdal’s demons, and it is well time to put an end to the myth of her being a rehabilitated whore, even though such a position would be perfectly in keeping with the Lord’s forgiveness. Early in Western art, this Mary was clothed with red, a symbol of a prostitute. The image stays with us today, repeated in books and sermons. There have always been those who blame sexual promiscuity on the assumed moral weakness of women. The religion of Islam generally requires women in public to wear the burqa (the outer garment covering the face as well as the body), and traditional Judaism separates women in the synagogue to a balcony, sometimes with the addition of curtains. The followers of Jesus should have no part in keeping women at a distance and out of leadership roles due to such sexual fears and fantasies.
  14. The verses about the seventy nowhere state that they were all men. We may perhaps argue such from cultural studies, but it cannot be proven, especially since women were among those who followed Jesus everywhere (Luke 8:1-3). Some may point out that the Greek uses only the masculine forms in these verses, but this would be erroneous as proof. In Greek, as in Hebrew (also as in English of thirty years ago), masculine pronouns and verbal forms can be inclusive in the singular and always inclusive in the plural. If a group of women is specified, only then are feminine forms used. If the writer wants to specify males only, then additional information in the context is needed.