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Who is “the woman”

She came in while the men were eating and sat down quietly behind Jesus. She paid no attention to the stares and grumbling all around her. She simply opened her jar of expensive oil and smiled as the men breathed in the soft, sensual scent of the Himalayan spikenard when she began to pour it in his hair and smooth it with her fingers. Who was this woman?

Well, that depends on which gospel we’re reading. Let’s start with Mark, our first gospel written. He places the scene at the house of a man called Simon the Leper. It’s the day before Jesus gets arrested and Mark calls her “the woman” (Mark 14:3). Matthew repeats this whole story word for word (Matt. 26:6).

John’s gospel, however, changes the scene completely. Now we’re in the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 12:1). And “the woman” becomes Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus. Switch over to Luke (Luke 7:36). We’re in Simon’s house again but it’s not Simon the leper; it’s Simon the Pharisee. And this unnamed woman is not Mary and not “the woman,” but a “female sinner.”

Are these three entirely different happenings? Or are they three different memories of the same event but changed to fit different circumstances? Probably.

We know the illiterate followers of Jesus, both men and women, told and re-told their memories repeatedly until finally men, not women, wrote them down. The male conclusion in all four gospels moves the focus away from the woman (whoever she was) to focus on either the imminent death of Jesus (in Matt., Mark and John) or the forgiveness of sin (in Luke). But these are the “serious” memories passed on to us by four men. What if a woman had written this story?

A woman would have stayed with the girl. She would have asked, “Why did this girl do such a thing? Why would a Galilean girl break into an all-male meeting uninvited and begin to take over? What was she thinking?” She was not there to prepare Jesus for burial; that morbid thought had to be inserted by a man. And it wasn’t to have her sins forgiven; she could have asked for that without spending money on the alabaster jar of expensive oil. What made her think she could get away with this stunt? Only one thing.

She loved him. That’s why she did it. She loved him; what’s so hard to understand?

But the four men who wrote the final story didn’t consider this possibility; they needed a more “serious” reason. We know many women followed Jesus and many women loved him. Women do that, you know. But when we read through all four chauvinistic gospels, we seldom see it. Except occasionally.

I’m reminded of John’s description of the resurrection scene. Mary Magdalene has center stage. Everyone has left her alone in the empty tomb. The lights rise slowly and the image of a resurrected Jesus appears behind her. She turns, jumps up, and throws her arms around his neck and hugs him. Hugs him (Me mou aptou). Where do we see this in any of the other gospels?

Of course, John has Jesus pull back from Mary’s embrace (John 20:17), but the lingering memory of Mary hugging Jesus’ neck stayed with Christians for centuries. No matter how many men wanted to drop it, women kept it alive as we read in many ancient manuscripts, like the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. I think women are also the ones who kept alive the story of “the woman” as well.

“The woman” is a story which weaves itself down through many oral traditions to land in all four gospels. The details, as well as the moral, are changed by the men who wrote it down, but the woman herself and the love she showed, are preserved intact. Women do that, you know.

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.