peter apostle readings

Peter Apostle

What’s on this page?Peter's story

  • Key points about Peter Apostle, from books on Jesus

Who’s in the gospel story of Peter?

  • Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples Peter, James and John

In the Gospels, Peter’s character appears to be at variance with the nick-name of the ‘Rock’, given to him by Jesus. Whether his name was to describe his physique or his temperament, that name was prophetically confirmed by Jesus at Caesarea Philippi and amply justified by his granite-like leadership of the apostles from Pentecost onwards.

He was always a man of action, but from his calling by Jesus to his denial of Jesus he was a man of impulse and aggressive energy, of childlike simplicity and daring, alternating with a weak and cowardly instability.

From Pentecost onwards Peter was the true and undoubted leader of the Church, facing without fear the consequent persecution and punishment, and doing so with an inspiring courage and humility.

This humility is strikingly illustrated in the Gospel of Mark, which shows him in a far less favourable light than do the other three Gospels! This is particularly striking when it is remembered that Mark’s Gospel has been said by Irenaeus, as early as the year 185, to have been based on the reminiscences of Peter, the ‘mind behind’ the Second Gospel. (p.61)

From then onwards, Peter’s house at Capernaum became the head- quarters of Jesus’s lakeside ministry, and Peter’s boat was always at his disposal. The selection of the team of twelve disciples was completed, and Peter was always included at the head of the list. Perhaps this was not so much because he was acknowledged as leader by the other disciples, as the result of the fact that his household was the headquarters of the group and that he and Andrew were its first members. (p.62)

Peter may well have spoken colloquial Greek, but his native language would have been Aramaic; thus his Galilean brogue would have been all too obvious to the bystanders at the trial… (p.69)

(The Twelve Apostles, Ronald Brownrigg, Macmillan, London, 1974)

‘The awful scene inside the palace is matched by this one outside, where Peter has been sitting with the guards warming himself by the fire. Now he faces a crisis. One of the servant girls of the high priest has recognized him as a companion of Jesus. She tells Peter, ‘You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus. ‘Then she tells the guards, ‘This fellow is one of them.‘

Finally, the guards recognize Peter’s northern accent and say to him, ‘Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’

Three times Peter is accused and three times he denies knowing Jesus. In Gethsemene, he had fallen asleep three times instead of praying. Now, that threefold sleeping is matched by this threefold denial, though he had said he would stand by Jesus, regardless what others might do (14:31). The spirit was willing, but the flesh has indeed proved weak (14:38).

Though Jesus would prophesy nothing to his tormentors (14:65), he had prophesied this to the Twelve (14:30).

No sooner had Peter denied knowing Jesus than the rooster crowed the second time, bringing immediately to mind the words Jesus had spoken. (Studies in the crowing habits of roosters suggest that the time would have been between 2am and 3am.)

Why does Mark include this sorry story? He wants his readers to understand that Jesus the Teacher, the man inside the house, is steadfastly faithful to God in contrast with the morally weak follower outside. Jesus is utterly alone as the faithful servant of God.

An absolute qualitative difference exists between him and his disciples. With the passing of the years the disciples will become famous as Christian leaders, but no one is to forget that Jesus is uniquely obedient to God, prepared to suffer the baptism and drink the cup (see 10:38).

The disciples are men with grievous flaws, with feet of clay; but Jesus is the heroic Son of Man. Only he is worthy to die for others.’

Mark, the Servant King, Paul Barnett ed., Aquila Press, Anglican Press Australia, 1991, p.259-260.

‘Upon meeting Simon, Jesus takes charge, giving him a new name, Cephas, which means ‘rock’. ‘Peter’ is the masculine variation of the Greek word for ‘rock’ (petra/petros) while Cephas is the equivalent in Aramaic).

The exchange serves to underscore how a person who becomes engaged with Jesus takes on a fresh identity in him. The scene emphasizes the impact of Jesus and his insight as the one who is the anticipated Messiah.

Jesus according to Scripture, Darrell L. Bock, 2002, p.420

Peter exercises much trust in Jesus when the initial request comes to ‘let down your nets.’ Peter, an experienced fisherman, replies that they had tried to make a catch all last evening, when conditions would have been more favorable, but had failed. Nonetheless, Peter gives the order, showing an element of trust in Jesus.

When the catch is overwhelmingly successful, Peter stops what he is doing, falls down before Jesus out of respect, and asks him to leave, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Peter’s view was that a sinner never could be so close to someone through whom God obviously was working.

This very humility is what Jesus affirms when he tells Peter not to fear, that “from now on” he will be catching people. It is precisely those who understand their position and who respond in trust whom God can and does use.

Jesus according to Scripture, Darrell L. Bock, 2002, p.107

‘It must be understood that life in the first century was short. It wasn’t unusual if a Jewish man died before he reached the age of thirty. People entered into adulthood at puberty. Jewish females married around thirteen or fourteen years of age, males a little older. In the Greek world, vocational training began in the midteens.

Bible scholar Craig Keener surmises that most of Jesus’ disciples were in their mid-teens. Peter, having a family, may have been older—perhaps eighteen.’


Interestingly not all of Jesus’ disciples left their homes. For instance, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (who were among Jesus’ closest friends) stayed in Bethany and made their home His home.

Jesus also appeared to have different circles among His disciples. Peter, James, and John enjoyed a more intimate relationship with Jesus. John seems to have been the closest to Him.

Even though Peter is always named first among the Twelve, Jesus was tough on him. The breaking of God is proportionate to the quality of ministry one will have later in life.

This principle emerges in bold relief in the way Jesus trained Peter. Despite the fact that Peter was repeatedly exposed and failed his Lord many times, he was the object of Jesus’ unending love. Even after he denied Jesus three times,” Jesus never mentioned the tragedy after His resurrection. Instead, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to express his love for Him the same number of times that he denied Him. Then He commissioned him to feed His sheep.

On the day of Pentecost the same man who denied his Lord three times preached the gospel and opened the door of salvation to thousands of Jews. And as he preached, the other disciples stood faithfully by his side.“

In times of failure keep two words in mind: Remember Peter.

Jesus, a Theography, Leonard Sweet, Frank Viola, 2012, p.137, 147.

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Food in ancient times

Research a Bible event or person

Research a Bible event or person

Instructions for Bible study groups

  • Jot down what you already know about the event or person.
  • Locate the Bible/gospel passages for the story/ person you are researching.
  • Read the passages carefully. If they are from the gospels, make sure you read the different accounts of the event in each gospel.
  • Divide the story into segments. Each segment should represent one event, speech or idea in the story.
  • What questions do you have about each segment? Jot them down.
  • What questions do you have about each character or event in the story? Jot them down.

Now do some research on the topic: work from the general to the specific.

1. What are some key words and ideas that come to mind? Jot them down. Put keywords in a computer web search like the one below.

Take notes. Record each source of information for your bibliography, if you need one.

2.  Locate general and specific texts in your library (commentaries, encyclopaedias, reference texts). Take notes. Record each source of information for your bibliography, if you need one


3. Put the notes in order under each of the sub-headings you made earlier.

4. Sequence the notes so that they gradually tell or explain the story.

5. At the top of each sub-section, write one important question that you think might interest your reader/teacher.

6. Write your answers to the questions.

7. Leave for a day. Rewrite. Run a spell-check on your work. Edit.

8. Attach your bibliography.

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Jesus Christ

Modern images of Jesus and Mary

Birth of Jesus

How to teach a Bible topic

How to teach a Bible topic

Step-by-step instructions on what to do

Students and teacher have a clear, simple objective for the lesson, for example

  • Learn about this person/event in the Bible
  • Ask questions about the meaning of the story

TorahScrollHow do you prepare?

  1. Click on the Home Page link above.
  2. Select someone or some event on the Home Page that you want to know about. Click on the icon for the page you have selected.
  3. Read the material on this page. Visualize yourself telling a brief version of this story to the class. What points would you emphasize? What would interest your students?
  4. Use the Search Icon (a little red circle in the top right-hand corner of the page) to find additional material on this topic.
  5. Read through the steps in the Lesson Outline below. Will you be using computers, or lesson sheets?

What do you do in the classroom?

  1. Briefly tell the story of the person/event you have researched.
  2. Ask students to think of some questions they want to ask about this person or event. Jot them down where students can see them.
  3. Go to the page you wish to study (a printed page from this website, or computer web page). Drop to the bottom of this page, to ‘What the gospels say’. Read the Bible text for this story or event. Does this answer any of their questions? Or raise others?
  4. Ask students to think of some more questions they want to ask about this subject. They should share these questions with a learning partner, and develop a new list of questions.
  5. Read the text of the webpage: does it answer the students’ questions? Do they need to do further research to find out the answers?

If so

  • tell students they are on an answer-finding quest
  • ask students to go back to the Home Page for this site and look at the icons. Are there any related pages there that might help with their questions?
  • or click on the Search box and type in a keyword or phrase for each question.
  • assess the responses.

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Jesus Christ

Modern images of Jesus and Mary

Birth of Jesus

Da Vinci Code: True or false?

The Da Vinci Code – it’s rubbish!

Rachel Kohn interviews Elizabeth Fletcher

Transcript of interview on ‘The Spirit of Things’, ABC Radio National, 21 May, 2006
How did a pulp fiction bestseller become a headache for the Vatican and a fascinating alternative for a public that has little connection to the Church?

Elizabeth_FletcherRachael Kohn: One thing people are agreed on is that The Da Vinci Code is making history, but what kind of history? Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn and this is The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National.
Is it the history of Hollywood blockbusters, or the history of pulp fiction, or is it the history of Christianity? There’s no doubt that some of the 40-million people reading the book were hoping to find out the truth about the origins of the Church that no one had revealed before.
Well that’s what the author, Dan Brown, would have you believe. But it seems that there is not much about the book that’s new, and not much about the book that’s true. Why let that stand in the way of a good story, where Mary Magdalene marries Jerusalem’s most available bachelor?
Elizabeth Fletcher is an author and specialist in Biblical women. She’ll tell us what she thinks of The Da Vinci Code.

Apart from anything else, The Da Vinci Code, which is now a film, has the effect of bringing people out of their corners, putting up their arguments in defense of the Bible and promoting their historical knowledge of the ancient world.
Elizabeth Fletcher is a Catholic educator, and decided she was going to do more than argue with friends, she’d put up a website called to help teachers and others who might be inclined to believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were really married.
They were companions, after all, in the gospels. Is it likely that they had a sexual relationship?

Elizabeth Fletcher: I’d like to say Yes, but I’ve got to say No.
I’d be very surprised if it was as Dan Brown said, for a number of reasons. First of all, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, not a Christian, and Jewish rabbis are expected to behave almost perfectly by the people who admire and listen to them.

Rachael Kohn: But wouldn’t they have expected him to be married?

Elizabeth Fletcher: Yes, they would. Or at least not necessarily expect him to be married, but certainly accept it if he’d been married, because the first commandment in the whole Bible is to be fruitful and multiply, and Jews take that very seriously.

And in fact they’ve always endorsed marriage and sexuality, much more so than the Christian religion has done because of that first commandment. It was expected that a young man would marry, and in fact he wouldn’t have seen himself as fulfilling God’s plan for himself and for humanity if he had not married.

There were exceptions to this rule, if you devoted your life to study, particularly the study of the Torah, then an exception could be made for you, although people would hope that eventually you would marry and they’d certainly push their eligible daughters towards you in the hope that you would accept one of them.

Rachael Kohn: So did Jesus fall into the category of the one devoted to study?

Elizabeth Fletcher: I would say so, yes. He wasn’t a rabbi who stayed in one place, he had a mission, and was an itinerant rabbi. Just the practicality of it, how could you provide for a wife and children (and there would be children) if you were traveling around all the time?

Rachael Kohn: And of course the gospels do not describe him as married. So people who think he was married are obviously suggesting it was kept secret, or that he had a secret relationship with Mary Magdalene.

Elizabeth Fletcher: Yes. You can fantasies about that sort of thing, but given the situation in which people in the ancient world lived, it was extremely difficult to keep anything secret, because they lived so closely together. Their living quarters were much smaller than ours. There were so many people crowded into a room that you could not have an affair without people being aware of it.

Rachael Kohn: Well the gospels certainly describe things about Jesus’ behaviour that did arouse some anger in the community, some concerns in the community. How do the gospels deal with those sorts of allegations about Jesus?

Elizabeth Fletcher: Now that’s one of the reasons that I think it’s impossible that Mary Magdalene and Jesus did have some sort of intimate personal relationship, because if he had, his enemies after his death would have accused him of it, and they never said a word.
They did accuse him of two things, and the first was illegitimacy. They said there was something amiss in the circumstances of his birth, and this was much more serious then because a religious teacher had to have an impeccable family background and come from parents who were respected by the whole community. So that was a big problem.

The other thing they accused him of was of being too fond of eating and drinking with the wrong sort of people.
So the first two gospels, Luke and Matthew, go to a great deal of trouble to explain the circumstances of his birth, so it becomes respectable.
To get around the second accusation, that he ate and drank with the wrong sort of people, the gospels emphasise his enjoyment of people and place the meals in the context of a ministry towards the disadvantaged in society. So again it becomes respectable. But they never say a word about any sort of sexual misbehaviour, which they would have done if there was the slightest chance that they were going to be believed.

Rachael Kohn: Now speaking of misbehaviour, Mary Magdalene herself doesn’t escape these kinds of allegations. People have presented her as a prostitute because Jesus healed her from the seven demons, or delivered her from the seven demons. Was she in fact a prostitute?

Elizabeth Fletcher: No, she wasn’t. There’s no historical evidence at all to say that she was a prostitute. It’s part of popular mythology, but if you actually read the gospels, which is a very unfashionable thing to be these days, you find that she’s the leader of a group of women who follow Jesus around, that she is a financial patron, in the tradition of Judaism, where if you’ve done well in business you become the patron of somebody who’s doing some good work.

And she’s been seriously ill, we know that about her. We don’t actually know what sort of illness it was, but we know it’s serious because the word ‘seven’ is used to describe the demons. People in those days thought that illness was something that came from outside, in the form of a spirit that entered o your body and could be exorcised. But none of this suggests that she was a prostitute.

Rachael Kohn: How did people come around to that view? How were they reading the gospels that made them think she was a salacious woman?

Elizabeth Fletcher: First of all, if you read the gospel of Luke, just after Mary Magdalene is mentioned, there’s a story of the woman with the alabaster jar, and she has all the characteristics that were later transferred on to Mary Magdalene. She’s got long flowing hair, she weeps with tears of repentance, and she’s a woman with a past. And those two stories got coalesced into one story, and poor Mary becomes the woman in the following story.

She’s also confused with the woman who committed adultery and is about to be stoned.

But there’s no connection between these women and Mary. It happens in a completely different part of the country, at a completely different time in Jesus’ life. But there’s also the point that in the ancient world at that time there was something called Platonic Dualism, a popular philosophy where everything in the cosmos was supposed to have an opposite. So you would have good, bad; man, woman; light, dark, that sort of thing, and Mary Magdalene becomes the perfect foil for the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin Mary was presented as completely blemish-free. Mary as an ex-prostitute is the other end of the spectrum. And the idea takes off. I think it particularly takes off in the minds of the celibate male clergy. There are a few fantasies going on there, about Mary the repentant prostitute.

Rachael Kohn: So it seems the Church itself may be responsible for some of this imagining of Mary Magdalene.

Elizabeth Fletcher: Yes, it was Pope Gregory I, and I hate to speak badly about him, because he was responsible for Gregorian chant, but he’s the one who muddied the waters about Mary Magdalene.

Rachael Kohn: Now there is a remnant of a text which is called the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Is that an important source for present-day speculations?

Elizabeth Fletcher: It’s one of the Gnostic gospels, and this is a point Dan Brown makes. He said the gospels portraying Jesus as being very human were rubbed out, erased from Christian consciousness, and that the gospels that portrayed Jesus as divine were kept. In fact it’s the reverse. The Gnostic gospels portray Jesus as some sort of super man who is non-human. I’ll give you an example.
There’s a story about him as a little boy, and another little boy bumps into him and knocks him and Jesus turns around and kills him, just strikes him dead, like that. It’s Jesus as a magician – the Gnostic gospels show him much more as a magician. But when they mention Mary Magdalene, they’re writing about 200 to 300 years after the events, and if you put that in our context, it would be like writing about the First Fleet arriving in Australia in 1788 and saying, Well I know exactly what it was like on the First Fleet. Well you don’t. You’re just imagining it.

Rachael Kohn: Well Elizabeth, you’re an educator, and particularly interested in women in the Bible. You’ve written a book about women in the Bible. What’s your gut reaction to The Da Vinci Code?

Elizabeth Fletcher: At first I laughed when I read it because the research was so poor, there were so many mistakes.
For example, he’s saying that the emperor Constantine imposed the belief that Jesus was divine on the Christian church, or at least was in cahoots with the Church and imposed that belief on people. But that’s so obviously wrong because all the early martyrs who are there right from the very start, just think of that old film Quo Vadis for example, all those early martyrs died because they refused to say that Jesus was not God. That’s why they died. So obviously they believed that Jesus was God and were saying it right from the start of the Church.

Now Dan Brown blithely says a whole lot of things that you can see quite easily are not true. And I read it, and I thought is this man’s research just bad, or is he in fact very clever, and he’s deliberately inserted a whole lot of mistakes so that people will argue back and give him publicity? And I’m inclined to think that it’s a bit of both. I think he’s researched at a very shallow level from books that are a bit shonky to start with, and then in an almost teasing way he’s put deliberate mistakes just like bait on a hook.

Rachael Kohn: So you don’t think he’s out to deliberately sabotage Christianity?

Elizabeth Fletcher: Not deliberately. I think that he’s sabotaging it, but he’s also tapping in to people’s needs. They wouldn’t read the book if it wasn’t answering their own needs, and it is a very exciting read and it’s a good detective story, but it’s just full of historical mistakes. But he’s also addressing I think, the feeling in Christianity especially in Christianity in the last 50 years or so, where there is no major feminine presence. Up until about 50 years ago, the Virgin Mary was very big, certainly in Catholicism, but in all of Christianity. Now she’s been erased, air-brushed out of Christianity, and you think, Well, hang on, half the world’s population are women, where’s the focus for their religious beliefs. If you don’t have some sort of feminine presence, you’re left hanging up in the air.

Rachael Kohn: So you think in some ways this could be a genuine attempt to put Mary Magdalene or woman back into the story?

Elizabeth Fletcher: I don’t know if I’d dignify it with that much praise. It might almost be accidental. Maybe he’s working at a subconscious level and he realises that people yearn for something feminine in their religious practice and beliefs.

Rachael Kohn: What do you think about religious educators who assign this book as required reading, or as even optional reading?

Elizabeth Fletcher: I think very few of them would be aware of all the mistakes that are in it, and even if they were, a lot of their students would just take it in as fact, even if they were told, ‘This is a mistake’. A lot of the students would believe what they read. So I would not ever assign it to a Religious Studies class. I think few people are well enough versed in ancient history to see all the pitfalls that there are there.

Rachael Kohn: And I guess that’s how your website might be a good resource for teachers.

fertilityElizabeth Fletcher: Yes, I hope it would be.
There’s this other mistake in The Da Vinci Code that annoys me, and that is that the fertility rites that are described in it involve a post-menopausal woman and her elderly husband. The whole point of ancient fertility rites was procreation, it wasn’t sexuality. The rites were about fertility in either crops or people or animals, and a post-menopausal woman would simply never have taken part in a fertility rite. It doesn’t make sense.

Rachael Kohn: I guess it’s fertility rite 2006 which becomes a sex rite.

Elizabeth Fletcher: Yes, yes.

Rachael Kohn: If Jesus had been married and did have children, just like he had siblings, would it make any difference to the point of Christianity, the message? That is, has Dan Brown and all the people who support or promote the version of events that he has which is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene went off and had children, have they sort of cottoned on to something that is ultimately irrelevant in the Christian story?

Elizabeth Fletcher: I don’t know what you mean by irrelevant?

Rachael Kohn: Well Jesus had siblings.

Elizabeth Fletcher: Yes.

Rachael Kohn: So what if he had children? Would that have changed anything about the Christian message?

Elizabeth Fletcher: No, I don’t think so. It might have changed later church practice, there mightn’t have been the focus on celibacy that there was. But the two core teachings of Jesus are ‘Love God’, and ‘Love the people around you’. They wouldn’t have changed. That’s a universal teaching, and I can’t see that that would have been affected by his having children.
I was reading John’s gospel yesterday, and I came across something that convinced me that Jesus could not have been married to Mary Magdalene. There’s a scene after Jesus’ death, he’s died, he’s been put inside the tomb, Mary Magdalene and the other women come back to the tomb, look inside, the body is gone, and they’re distraught. They know he’s dead because they’ve put his dead body into that very tomb, so they know that he’s dead. Yet they can’t find him, and they’re absolutely beside themselves. They’re inside this garden area outside the tomb, and somebody comes towards Mary. She doesn’t look at this person, she’s too distraught. She says, ‘Where have they taken the body? It’s gone.’ and the person just says ‘Mary’, and as that person speaks, she realises it’s Jesus.
Now if they had had a personal, intimate relationship, she would have responded at that moment with the name she used all the time for that person. She was past thinking logically. And the word she uses is rabbouni which is Aramaic for rabbi. Now you don’t call a person that you have had an affair with, or whose child you’re carrying, rabbi. You use their personal name. And when I read that I thought, ‘Ah, that’s the clincher. You don’t use a title to a person who you’ve had an affair with.’

Rachael Kohn: Sounds pretty convincing to me. Elizabeth, thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.

Elizabeth Fletcher: It’s been a pleasure.

Rachael Kohn: Elizabeth Fletcher is an author in Sydney and a specialist in women in the bible, and that’s the name of her website where you can look up all of them.

Find Out More

Jesus Christ

Modern images of Jesus and Mary

Birth of Jesus

Did Jesus marry Mary Magdalene?

Magdalene and Jesus married? Lovers?

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What sort of woman was the real Mary Magdalene?
  2. What were contemporary criticisms of Jesus?
  3. Was Mary Magdalene an ex-prostitute?
  4. What would have been the reaction to Jesus’ wife, if he had been married?


Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married? Lovers? In a word, No.

We know this mainly because Jesus’ enemies never accused him of sexual misbehavior, which they certainly would have done if there was any likelihood of it being believed.

In the years after his death, Jesus was attacked on two points:

    • his apparent illegitimacy; this was a serious charge, more so then than now, since a religious teacher had to have an impeccable family background and have parents who were esteemed in their community
    • his fondness for eating and drinking, especially with the wrong kind of people.
  1. To counter the first accusation, two of the gospels (Luke and Matthew) go to a lot of trouble explaining the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth.
  2. To counter the second accusation, all of the gospels emphasize Jesus’ enjoyment of people and social gatherings, but are careful to place them within the context of his outreach ministry to people, especially the disadvantaged.

The enemies of the first Christians would certainly have accused Jesus of sexual misbehavior if there had been the slightest chance this charge would stick. No-one ever seems to have made the charge.

MM-rabbouniAnother point: at the moment of extreme emotion when Mary sees Jesus for the first time after the Resurrection, she calls him ‘rabbouni’, the title his disciples used. She did not call him by his personal name of ‘Jesus’, which she surely would have done if she and Jesus had had the sort of intimate relationship that has been suggested in popular novels.

In complete shock at the sight of a living man whose dead body she had seen only hours before, she used the word she had always used, ‘rabbouni’, teacher.

Who was the real Mary Magdalene?

She was not the gorgeous red-haired woman often shown in paintings of the crucifixion. Reality was much less romantic. Nor was she a repentant prostitute.

  • Womans_face_Nikolay_FechinShe was a middle-class Jewish business-woman from the town of Magdala, a town noted for its dried fish and wool dyes.
  • She had suffered a severe illness, which Jesus cured.
  • She seems to have been financially independent, and able to offer financial backing for the itinerant rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth, and his group of disciples.
  • She seems to have been the leader of the group of women who sometimes traveled with, or met up with, this group headed by Jesus. Men’s and women’s groups often traveled together, for example on the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but they kept strictly within their own group. This is why Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, did not realize for some time that the boy Jesus was missing, when he stayed behind in Jerusalem: each separate group thought he was with the other.

Was Mary an ex-prostitute?

  1. MM_14_CosimoIn quite a few paintings, Mary is confused with the woman with the alabaster jar, described in Luke 7:36-50 – see one of these paintings at right. The story of this other woman comes just before Mary Magdalene is first mentioned. The woman with the alabaster jar has the characteristic features that were later transferred onto Mary Magdalene: long flowing hair, tears of repentance, and a ‘past’. She is described in Luke 7:37 as a ‘sinner’, a word which was interpreted by the early Church fathers as ‘prostitute’. But in fact, when Luke describes an actual prostitute in 15:30, he uses a different word altogether.
  2. Later celibate male interpreters of the gospels linked Mary’s illness, her ‘demons’ (Luke 8:2) with her sexuality.
  3. Mary is also confused with the woman who has committed adultery, in John 8:1-11. Someone recently argued that people at the time of Jesus knew that Mary Magdalene was his wife because they threw stones at her. It is hard to know how to counter this sort of argument, since the person making the statement has obviously never actually read the gospels. The unnamed adulterous woman lived in Jerusalem in Judea, not Magdala in Galilee, where Mary came from. There would be no reason at all for anyone to stone a wife of Jesus, supposing he had been married. And the woman in the story is about to be stoned to death because she has been discovered in the act of adultery, not because she has married a popular rabbi.
  4. Showing Mary Magdalene as a beautiful ex-prostitute created a dramatic contrast to the Virgin Mary, the perfect virgin/mother. This contrast mirrored a philosophical idea popular during the period of the early Church: Platonic dualism. Plato had proposed that everything in the universe had an equal and opposite other, for example man/woman, logic/emotion, good/evil, light/darkness, etc, (see the introductory section on Mary Magdalene, link at top of this page). People of the time admired Greek thought and culture, so they emulated this way of thinking to shape their view of the world.

In the centuries following Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene became everything the Virgin Mary was not: a reformed, flamboyantly beautiful whore who was the perfect foil for the modest virgin/mother Mary. Both images departed from the original, more mundane truth.

What did the people around Jesus think?

Jesus had a considerable following during his life, enough to make him a cause for concern to the Roman and Jewish authorities. The gospels often mention crowds of people who gathered to hear him teach. He was a noted rabbi and teacher during his life.

Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper; Passion of the ChristBut Jews expect a high standard of behavior at all times from their rabbis, who must be constant role models to their followers. The Jewish crowds would never have paid any attention to a rabbi who consorted with a woman who was not his wife, or who had a ‘secret’ marriage. This would have instantly destroyed his credibility as a teacher.

If his disciples had doubted his integrity for even a moment, as they surely would have if he had been having any sort of illicit relationship with Mary Magdalene, they would have abandoned him and turned to some other teacher. There were many rabbis and teachers in 1st century Palestine for them to choose from.

If Jesus was married, would they hide it?

wedding_processionNo, quite the reverse. At the time that Jesus lived, it would have been seen as a plus. Jesus was Jewish. The first commandment in the Jewish Scriptures is to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Jews take this commandment so seriously that they have always endorsed marriage and sexual love.

A Jewish man did not consider he had properly fulfilled his obligations to God until he was married; the only exception to this was a man who chose to devote himself to the study of the Scriptures, although even then he was encouraged to marry. It is not impossible that Jesus had been married as a young man and was a widower. It is more likely that he had chosen the second way of life, of teaching and studying Scripture, and had not married because his itinerant way of life made this impossible, in that culture at that time.

If Jesus had had a wife at the time of his ministry, he would have been proud of the fact. He would certainly not have tried to keep it hidden. There would have been no ‘secret marriage’. Christianity in a later period endorsed celibacy as a way of life, but as a Jew, Jesus would have been perplexed by the idea of celibacy, seeing it as non-fulfillment of God’s commandment to ‘Go forth and multiply’.

What was the gospel of Mary Magdalene?

This text was written at least a century after the events, and certainly not by Mary Magdalene. It was written for a specific purpose, to promote the role of women in the church hierarchy of the time, by people who believed in the truth of their own dreams/ visions.

Different translations of this ‘gospel’ give different impressions of the vision described. The exact meaning of the words is much debated. The original remnant of manuscript is badly worn, tattered and difficult to decipher. Moreover, the words are open to different interpretations, eg does ‘kiss’ mean the common kiss of greeting, or a sign of unity and compassion, or a sexually passionate act? The manuscript does not make this clear, and describes what seems to be a symbol-laden dream/ vision, not a real act.

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