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Snowballs and Bowling Balls: (3) Jesus and Mary Magdalene

In the first post in this series we looked at the notion of reading cumulatively as an important strategy for reading the Bible using John 19:25–30 as a worked example. The second post undertook a “snowball” reading of Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael in John 1:47-51. In this third and final post we consider one of the most beautiful and poignant passages in all of Scripture, namely the risen Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene outside the garden tomb.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene in John 20:11-17

In this climactic scene, Mary is the first person in John to encounter the risen Jesus and the first to proclaim to others the good news of the resurrection. The passage opens with a focus on Mary’s grief:

“11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’” (John 20:11-13).

We may note four connections between Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene and other parts of John:

1. Looking for Jesus 

At this point Jesus appears and engages Mary in conversation:

“14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’”(John 20:14–15a).

As it turns out, there is a lot of “seeking” in John’s Gospel. The “seeking” begins in John 1:38 when Jesus asks Andrew and Philip, “What are you seeking?” Their answer is given in 1:41, “We have found the Messiah,” and in 1:45, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.”

The successful “seeking” of Andrew and Philip contrasts with that of the Jewish leaders, about whom Jesus lamented, “you will seek me and you will not find me.” (7:34). Up until Mary’s “search” in John 20:15a most examples of people seeking Jesus in the Gospel show them doing so for wrong or inadequate reasons.

On the theme of seeking Jesus in John, the Gospel opens with Jesus asking Andrew and Philip, “What are you seeking?” (1:38); and it closes with Jesus asking Mary, “Whom are you seeking?” (20:15). As Bauckham notes, in John “only the last occurrence of the verb [“to seek”] corresponds to the first.” In both cases what is found far exceeds what is sought. They find the Messiah who loves them and laid down his life for them (John 10:11)!

2. Known by Jesus 

The two questions from Jesus are not enough for Mary to recognise him. In fact, she mistakes him for someone else:

“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” (John 20:15b)

To clear up the misunderstanding Jesus utters a single word – Mary’s name:

“Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher)” (John 20:16).

Don Carson draws out the significance of this exquisite moment and makes a connection to the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10:

“Whatever the cause of her blindness, the single word , spoken as Jesus had always uttered it, was enough to remove it. The good shepherd ‘calls his own sheep by name … and his sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (10:3–4). Anguish and despair are instantly swallowed up by astonishment and delight.”[1]

3. Rabbi Jesus 

Mary answers Jesus in her customary manner, “Rabboni,” which indicates her relationship to Jesus as his disciple and acknowledging his authority. As Andrew Lincoln notes, “the first disciples had responded to Jesus’ question in John 1:38 by calling him Rabbi, and Rabboni is an extended form of this address.” The disciple Mary’s response to Jesus reminds us of the first response of Jesus’ disciples in John 1.

4. Children of God

The “touching” scene continues with Jesus insisting that Mary not touch him. Their intimacy and friendship will have to continue in a different form in the light of his resurrection:

“Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to , to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17).

Jesus’ response to Mary contains a hint regarding what he has done for her in laying down his life (John 10:11). His Father is now her Father, and his God, her God. John’s Gospel has around 120 references to God as the Father of Jesus, but this is the first and only one where that filial relationship is extended to Jesus’ disciples!

Throughout the Gospel Jesus’ relationship to his Father is a constant focus and, at times, a bone of contention (cf. John 10:30). That relationship has been exclusive; even his disciples have not shared in it and do not address God as Father. But back in the Prologue, it was promised that all who believed in Jesus’ name would be given “the right to become children of God.” (1:12) Jesus’ words to Mary indicate the fulfillment of that promise.

The Bible Reader’s BFF

When reading cumulatively, like a snowball rather than a bowling ball, there are two ways to track down links across the text. The first is to read the text multiple times; and the second is to use a concordance. Some connections are conceptual and thematic and require calling to mind what you’ve read before. However, many others involve common terms and can be found using a concordance (either in print or online).

In my “snowball” reading of John 20:11-17, for example, I looked up the use of a number of words in John. The most fruitful searches were “Seek,” “Name,” “Rabbi / Rabboni,” “Father” and “God.” And my cumulative reading of John was built upon the study of the usage of these words. As much as I love a good commentary and make regular use of Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias, Greek lexica and grammars, the concordance is by far my favourite tool for Bible study.

A concordance is in fact the serious Bible reader’s “Best Friend Forever.” And, no matter what level of Bible study training you have undertaken, all of us can put it to profitable use. Nothing beats discovering where the key words in the passage before you occur elsewhere in the book you are reading.


Photo: Eric Leger, flickr

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 641

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