How Bible Scholar Elizabeth Schrader is Trying to Form a New Understanding of Mary Magdalene

Artist Alexander Ivanov’s 1835 painting “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection”. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

On Monday (July 22), the feast day of Mary Magdalene, Elizabeth Schrader will hike up a mountain in the south of France to the cave where, legend has it, the saint lived out her remaining days after the crucifixion of Jesus.

It will be Schrader’s fourth trek to the cave, in the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, an hour’s drive from Marseille, but her first on the actual feast day. decreed by Pope Francis in 2016. Even before the decree, the day had long drawn pilgrims who process through the streets of Saint-Maximin with the purported skull of Mary Magdalene in a golden reliquary.

Schrader, a doctoral student at Duke University, has her own way of honoring the woman who witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection. Schrader’s academic work, like that of others, attempts to liberate Magdalene from the patriarchal overlays of ancient Christian scribes who recorded the New Testament’s four Gospels.

For Schrader, the impulse to recover the scope and stature of Mary Magdalene came nine years ago, when she was Libbie Schrader, a singer-songwriter in the the New York pop scene. A cradle Episcopalian, she had wandered into a church garden in Brooklyn to pray to the Virgin Mary and heard a voice telling her to seek out Mary Magdalene.

Elizabeth Schrader is a Duke University doctoral student in religion. Photo by Megan Mendenhall, Duke University

Three days later, Schrader wrote a song, “Magdalene,” that later become the title of her 2011 album. That, in turn, sent her to the Brooklyn Public Library in search of scholarly articles about the Jesus follower, sometimes portrayed as a prostitute though the Gospels never say so.

“It’s not my choice to be working on this,” said Schrader, 39, who left her music career to pursue scholarship. “It happened to me.”

Schrader’s central discovery, which she wrote about in a paper published by the Harvard Theological Review three years ago, is that Mary Magdalene’s role was deliberately downplayed by biblical scribes to minimize her importance.

Specifically, Schrader looks at the story of the raising of Lazarus told in the Gospel of John. In today’s Bibles, Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. But poring over hundreds of hand-copied early Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Gospel, Schrader found the name Martha had been altered. The scribes scratched out one Greek letter and replaced it with another, thereby changing the original name “Mary” to read “Martha.” They then split one woman into two.

Schrader argues that the Mary of the original text is Mary Magdalene, not Martha or Martha’s sister, Mary. The two sisters belong to another story, in the Gospel of Luke, that is not repeated in John’s Gospel.

The reason for the change, Schrader said, was that later scribes did not want to give Mary Magdalene too big a role in the events of Jesus’ life. Already Mary Magdalene is at the crucifixion and the empty tomb, and in the Gospel of Luke she is exorcized of seven demons and then travels with Jesus and supplies him the funds needed for his ministry.

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Source: Religion News Service