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Discipleship in the Gospels

Modern biblical scholarship has increasingly come to recognize the degree to which reactions of Jesus' disciples towards him have been molded in the Gospels to make theological points about discipleship. So, for instance, it has been suggested that the strength of the contrast between the behavior of Jesus' disciples in the first and in the second half of Mark's Gospel has a deliberate narrative purpose: the reader is led initially to identify with them, only to experience all the more powerfully the critique of inadequate discipleship which then follows. (Collins 1993) If that is so in Mark, the case would seem even stronger for John, with his introduction of the mysterious 'beloved disciple'.

Attempts continue to be made to give him a definite historic identity. Apart from the most popular candidate, the apostle John, suggestions have included Lazarus and, most recently, doubting Thomas. (Neyrey 1988) The absence of any obviously equivalent figure in the Synoptics, however, argues against historicity, but even if he were historical, we miss the point of his introduction unless we acknowledge how he functions in John's narrative which is to represent 'the ideal follower of Jesus'. It is his seeing and believing at the empty tomb without needing to await a personal appearance of Christ which is intended as paradigmatic for our own discipleship. (Collins 1993)

By contrast, therefore, Mary Magdalene's encounter is intended to be read as less than perfect. Like the beloved disciple, Mary shows the eagerness of love to continue in some sort of relationship with Christ, but Christ has to come further towards her before she can believe, and even then she misunderstands the nature of his presence. She tries to cling to him as though his presence were still a purely earthly one. Jesus has therefore to reprimand her (in much the same way as later he chides Thomas): 'Touch me not' or, more accurately, 'Do not keep clinging'. (Collins 1993) There was thus a good catechetical reason why the evangelist should have placed this resurrection story first: it sets the context for the further accounts that are to follow by indicating how they are not to be appropriated. But there is also a further reason in the logic of the narrative.

The natural development of the story as a whole requires the experience of Christ as ascended to follow more intimate and material resurrection experiences even if the historical order had been quite different. Similarly, in this particular case it would have made little narrative sense, even if appearances at the tomb had occurred later than those in Galilee, to return to the tomb for descriptions of them, since the entire narrative structure requires us to move away from the tomb and towards heaven. If we compare John with the Synoptics, we find him elsewhere making major changes in chronology for symbolic purposes, as with the cleansing of the Temple or the precise time when Jesus was crucified (John 2: 13-23, cf. Mark 11: 15-18; John 19: 4, cf. Mark 14: 12); so it would not be out of character to find a similar change here.

In raising such doubts the scholars stress that concern is not to deny a resurrection appearance to Mary; only to question whether we can be quite so confident, as so many modern writers apparently are, of when precisely it occurred. (Neyrey 1988) It could have been simultaneous with other experiences, or even subsequent to them. Where we can be more confident is that she was the first t report the empty tomb, but even then we need to note that what interested John more was her ability to say something about our discipleship in the here and now. In contemporary society individual identity is an ultimate value, but for most of history this has not been so, and therefore we ought not to judge such adaptation of historical fact to teach theological truth by modern standards.

Aas a result of the reprimand, she is enabled to see Christ in a new light. No longer simply 'Rabboni' (Master), it is as 'Lord' that she reports the new form of his existence to the disciples. Though the harder- won understanding, it corresponds much more closely to the experience of the great mass of Christians than the ideal pattern proposed by John in his 'beloved disciple'. He is too perfect, his love too unqualified, his perceptions too easily achieved.

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The nature of discipleship is seen as the main point of the resurrection narrative, the linkage with the various anointing passages then begins to become comprehensible, even if still altogether lacking in historical justification. For what they do at least share with John 20 is a similarity of theme, in this question of discipleship. To see why such a concern might be sufficient to override the issue of historicity, in conveying some more fundamental truth, we need to look with some care at each of the incidents. Since Matthew follows Mark closely, in effect there are only three anointings that need our attention: the one in Luke (7: 36-50) which takes place in the house of Simon the Pharisee, where the washing of feet with tears is quickly followed by anointing, all done by an anonymous sinner; the one in Mark (14: 3-9) this time in the house of Simon the leper, and performed on Jesus' head by an anonymous woman from Bethany; and, finally, John's version (12: 1-8) where we move once more to the feet and the use of the woman's hair, though this time the woman is named as Mary of Bethany.

When we carefully compare the three, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Luke's and John's tellings have been affected by that of Mark. Historical reconstructions have been attempted, which argue that the primary point had once been a prophetic declaration of Jesus' messiahship. (Collins 1993) If so, Mark has suborned the extravagant use of the perfume to other purposes. The anonymous woman is found to be anointing Jesus 'for burial' (v. 8). (Collins 1993) More importantly for the long-term use of the passage, he also seems concerned to say something about love, that our love should be reckless in its giving, totally uncalculating, like this woman's. (Neyrey 1988) Presumably implicit is the idea that God in Christ gave his all for us, and so should we in turn as his disciples. If so, it is a theme which Luke will make explicit.

Though in his case what were once two distinct incidents may have been combined, as his version stands, it has clearly been influenced by Mark, if only because it is inherently unlikely that such an expensive gesture could have occurred twice in Jesus' lifetime. (Collins 1993) However, it is the issue of discipleship that now dominates, as Luke seeks to illustrate how our love of Christ functions in response to Christ's own. Significantly, in expounding this idea he highlights love as the yearning, not as in the Marcan version to give, but to receive, for Jesus observes: 'He who is forgiven little, loves little' (Collins 1993). It is precisely because this woman has yearned to be accepted, longed to be forgiven, that she coulld now be forgiven. The foolish lover wants only to give and never to receive, whereas the true lover wants to receive as much as to give, to be dependent as much as dependable. The woman's tears spoke of that longing for dependence on Christ's forgiving love that every true disciple of Christ must also have.

Now turn to John. Though any explicit reference to sin is gone, his account (12: 1-8) appears to combine elements from both Mark and Luke. Parallel with Mark is the sum involved, and the reference to burial, as well as the complaint of the disciples, though this time specifically identified with Judas Iscariot. However, parallel with Luke is the fact that the anointing is of the feet and not of the head, and that she dries Jesus' feet with her hair. The fact that the incident is, as with Mark, once more explicitly set in Bethany and the woman even named (as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus) may seem to stack the cards decisively in favor of Mark, but once again one needs to note carefully the role which theology is playing. (Neyrey 1988)

Mary had just seen her brother, Lazarus, raised from the dead. Has not John borrowed the image of anointing the feet to carry further that theme? Certainly, Jesus is anointed for burial, but her action also says something about discipleship. She desires to be buried with Christ, wholly identified with him in his self-giving, so that she can rise with him to new life, the new life that she had already seen in Christ when her brother was raised by him from the dead. Yet one vital feature of the Lucan narrative is missing. Mary of Bethany in anointing Jesus sheds no tears. But a woman's tears do appear prominently in this Gospel, and at a point indicated by none of the other three. Someone called Mary Magdalene cries profusely at the empty tomb, and as with the penitent sinner of Luke's version of the anointing is plenteously rewarded. This may not be entirely coincidence, since the failure to take advantage of the emotionally charged setting of Luke's anointing did allow freer rein when it came to the incident at the empty tomb. (Collins 1993)

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Indeed, it is not altogether impossible that John explicitly warns us of such a connection, since at 12: 7 Jesus declares: 'Leave her alone; let her keep it till the day when she prepares for my burial.' (Neyrey 1988) But unless Mary of Bethany is there hidden in the text of 19: 40 which provides the context for the appearance to Mary Magdalene, the earlier verse will have been one that lacks all fulfillment. This is not to say that John identified Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene; only that he may have seen them both as exercising primarily an essentially imaginative rather than historical role: they are both there to tell us about discipleship.

Whether John intended such a link or not, it was this imaginative connection that in effect justified the linking of anointings and resurrection appearance. (Collins 1993) For in both instances it was not just discipleship in general that was at stake, but a very specific pattern of growth and development that applies to us all. That was why, despite equating the various figures involved, the tradition still often continued to speak of two anointings, one with tears that spoke of penitence and the reception of forgiveness and the other which spoke of response in a generous, uncalculating love. () The resurrection events then indicated a deepening of that dialectic, where tears this time indicated another level of longing, again transformed through Christ's love.

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