Old ways are out and new ways in
At a very mysterious wedding.
Just my guess at what it means.
The New Testament uses the terms “bride” and “bridegroom.”
Who is the bride?
Who is the bridegroom?
At least I am beginning to think that is how it plays out. I can’t be sure. More later.
The “bride” and “bridegroom” are Pagan terms. The biblical authors use these terms, which would have been very familiar to Pagan audiences of that time, yet completely redefine the terms.
Why did the New Testament authors use Pagan symbolism like bride and bridegroom? Did they write for Pagan readers? Were they trying to be friendly to Pagan readers? Were they trying to sell to Pagan readers? Is it window-dressing to draw Pagans into the church? I suppose so. And because the Pagan symbolism is so radically altered by the biblical authors, I would guess they were trying to reform Paganism.
By the way, my use of the word Pagan is non-pejorative and simply refers to the dominant religion at the time of Jesus.
I’ve already written that it seems as if the biblical authors used story elements from the first religion, Paganism (virgin mother and child, sacrifice of the son, lamentations, and resurrection), in order to reform what needed to be reformed in Paganism (temple “prostitution,” making of eunuchs, incestuous deities, and perhaps a continued threat of human sacrifices). See my post “Woman at the Well.”
In this post I hope to address one of these problems, the incestuous deities. I am hypothesizing that the biblical authors re-wrote the old mythology and redefined terms in order to create a new mythology in reaction to the old. Here I am not using “mythology” in the sense of worn-out legend, but in the sense of a story that contains deep meaning for many. Is it important for us to try to understand what the biblical authors were trying to accomplish when they developed Christianity? (Even though we can’t know for sure?)
What was the problem with the old mythology? Here it is: In ancient tradition, the Goddess was a virgin who bore a son. This son was also her consort. My understanding of this is that she had no other male to mate with and so mated with him??
In Genesis in the Hebrew Bible there is an earlier attempt to reform the Goddess story: Eve, the first woman and “the mother of all the living” has a proper husband, Adam. Cain, their son, mates with “his wife,” not named. Who is she and where did she come from? Not much of a solution.
The consort/son of the Goddess is also called shepherd, king, and bridegroom. The bridegroom is sacrificed by her or at her direction (or through some other agent) to bring fertility to the land (or some other purpose). The Goddess weeps because her bridegroom is sacrificed. The image of the sorrowful Holy Mother (think of Michelangelo’s Pieta) holding the sacrificed son would seem to have a long, long history.
The old myth is destroyed bit by bit in stages by the New Testament authors:
(1) The virgin birth story is presented and then overshadowed by a rival account of Jesus’ beginnings as one imbued with the “Word.”
(2) At the marriage in Cana, where first-century Pagan readers would have expected to see the old incestuous relationship re-enacted or at least affirmed, there is nothing of the sort.
(3) Jesus delivers long monologues extolling his relationship with a “Father,” but asks, “Who is my mother?”
(4) At Calvary, the role of “bride” is assigned to Mary Magdalene as Jesus says “to her,” (NIV) “Wife/Woman here is your son.” This statement is not made to the other Mary standing there. More later.
(5) Only the Magdalene does a lamentation at the tomb as would normally be done by the Goddess, confirming that the Magdalene is indeed the bride of the sacrificed bridegroom.
(6) The Virgin Mary is not named among those going to the tomb at Easter. We can guess she is there, but she is not named as the mother of Jesus at that point, only as the mother of Jesus’ brother James and possibly as the “other Mary.”
(7) In the Book of Revelation, the bride is completely redefined as the new City of Jerusalem (a consciousness that can enthrone the divine Light).
First-century Pagan readers of the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2) would be thinking that maybe this wedding was not a regular wedding because of the presence of Mary and Jesus (virgin mother and son), but rather more like a sacred ritual marriage called hieros gamos at a temple in which a priestess and a male member of the community are joined in remembrance of the Goddess and her “bridegroom king.”
The first-century Pagans, familiar with their own myths, would be puzzled by the Cana story because there was no sex at the marriage ceremony at Cana. We are not even told the names of the bride and bridegroom.
Was Jesus the bridegroom?
Good question. “John” gives us a big clue in the very next chapter when he has John the Baptizer say of Jesus: “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom” and the Baptizer counts himself as one of the friends of this “bridegroom.” (John 3:29-30 (KJV)). So Jesus is indeed a “bridegroom with a bride,” but I must point out here that it does not necessarily follow that Jesus was also the bridegroom at Cana. Maybe yes he was, maybe not.
In the Cana story, author “John” does not say that Jesus is the “bridegroom.” But you may be shocked when you examine the story and realize there is no way to prove that Jesus is not the bridegroom.
But all that happens at Cana is that Jesus and Mary have a conversation. And then Jesus performs his first miracle.
But what a conversation!
Mary tells Jesus, “They have no more wine.” At least that is how the translators put it. My foray into the Google translator and my New Testament Greek dictionary yields something quite different (and I admit I don’t know Greek):
“And they lacked wine. Says the mother of Jesus to him, ‘Essential wine, willingly.’”
The meaning understood by the first-century Pagan reader is, “Give of your essential sacrificial blood/wine, and do it willingly.”
Wine symbolizes blood elsewhere in the texts (for example, in Revelation 14:19-20, the winepress makes blood; also, wine/blood at the Last Supper).
In the Cana scene, first-century Pagan readers, familiar with their own myths, would see a Goddess-like-figure suggesting a necessary sacrifice in order to get that “essential wine.”
Do the translators hide this? I really doubt the Greek has Mary say, “They have no more wine.”
Jesus asks Mary, “What to me and to thee?” (from Catholic Confraternity Edition footnote). Meaning?? – what are our roles?? Grosvenor’s Analysis says, “What have we in common”?
The King James Version has possibly the clearest rendition of this verse with, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” Meaning: what is our relationship? First-century Pagan readers would have a ready answer. But they would be wrong.
Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” A veiled reference to sacrifice on the cross yet to come?
The meaning understood by the first-century Pagan reader is, “It is not yet the time for me to be sacrificed by you.”
Jesus is shown bucking the authority of his mother. But the new revised Goddess-figure is unexpectedly meek and does not object; rather, she tells the servants to obey him.
When Jesus conjures up some wine, it is only table wine; “the best,” but not that special essential wine.
What of Jesus saying, “My hour has not yet come.” A Catholic Edition footnote says, “Could be said of any critical period in one’s life. Here it is used of the opening of Christ’s public ministry, or of that ministry as a whole.” So Jesus is protesting he is not yet ready to start work, but does a miracle anyway? Well, that’s not at all convincing. When I see a footnote like that, I know I’m onto something. Notice that the same word “hour” in Greek is used both at Cana (John 2:4) and in John 12:27, latter being a passage where the subject is obviously bloody sacrifice – crucifixion on a cross.
The Revised Standard Version alerts me that the Greek allows for both “Jesus was invited” and “Jesus was bidden” to the wedding. So Mary is at the wedding and Jesus is bidden (by her?). So she’s in charge. Even after Jesus rebukes her (“It’s not my hour”), she’s still in charge of the servants, like she’s running the event. Interesting.
I believe the conversation at Cana would have been completely transparent to most informed people living around the Mediterranean in the first century. Paganism was the dominant religion of that time. So Pagan themes would have been thoroughly understood.
Most of the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus worshipped the Goddess as Diana and other names. Without some minimal awareness of what that entailed, much subtlety and symbolism in the New Testament is invisible to readers today. Awareness of history and the possible intent of the authors is critical to understanding the New Testament. Despite the alien nature of the Pagan themes (alien to me anyway and initially upsetting when I realized possible meanings), I think it is very worthwhile and fascinating to try to figure out the symbolism, to try to understand what I take to be the reform goals of the biblical authors.
The Catholic Church nervously insists that Mary is “Ever-Virgin,” and that despite what the Gospel says, Jesus had no brothers, only “brethren” (cousins?). Aren’t they the sons of Joseph and Mary? Why can’t Mary have a real marriage with Joseph? Now that I think I understand more about Cana, I realize that Joseph is not the problem. The problem is still-remembered incestuous Pagan deities. And by the way, I am now tempted to officially become a member of the Ever-Virgin school of thought. On the other hand, if the “bride” is the refined consciousness we can all achieve (Revelation 21:9-10), then maybe it is perfectly alright to call these men the “brothers” of Jesus as does the New International Version.
In tradition in later centuries, Mary’s mother is given the name “Anna,” a name recalling the Goddess Di-ana or the Goddess In-anna??, to preclude the possibility?? that Mary could be viewed as having any responsibility whatsoever for that role. (She cannot be the Great Goddess if her mother is.)
However, the Book of John emphasizes over and over that Jesus’ relationship with his divine Abba is spiritual. Clearly it is not physical.
The old incestuous myths are gone, long gone, at least in the West. Maybe the Catholic Church can relax now?
Back to the story. Who is the bride?
In John, it is Mary Magdalene. How do I know? She is the one shown weeping at the tomb – the only one. Thus she fulfills the Pagan myth in which the Goddess-bride weeps after her bridegroom is sacrificed. The Magdalene weeps not knowing Jesus has resurrected.
Notice that not one of the books of the Gospel names the mother of Jesus as being at the tomb at Easter. We can guess she is there as the “mother of James” or the “other Mary,” but she is not named as the mother of Jesus. In John, the Magdalene is the only woman at the Easter tomb. The mother is not the weeper. The weeping mother of old has been replaced by the weeping other. So the old myth with its incest has been smashed and a new one takes its place. The sacrificed-deity-son-consort-of-Goddess is now the sacrificed-deity-son-of-a-Father. Notice that Mary Magdalene is named in all four books of the Gospel as being at the Easter tomb. So it is very important for her to be there. She is not invisible like the mother.
Annual ritual weeping for the sacrificed bridegroom was done by Pagan women. This tradition is captured in the Hebrew Bible where women weep for Tammuz, the consort of the goddess Ishtar of Babylon (Ezekiel 8:14 (NIV)). Evidently women had the nerve to do this weeping thing even at Yahweh’s temple! This ritual weeping for the bridegroom is what is symbolized by the scene in Luke where the women of Jerusalem weep for Jesus on his way to be sacrificed on Calvary (Luke 23:27-28 (TNIV)).
Notice that both Jesus’ mother and his beloved-disciple-Mary-Magdalene are named Mary (Maria in Greek). Both are called “woman” by Jesus. In Greek, the word for woman, γυνη, also means “wife.” These are not the only women addressed as “woman” by Jesus and so the setting has to dictate whether there could be a double meaning directed at Pagan readers.
When English-speaking readers read that at Cana Jesus said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come,” (KJV), they think simply that Jesus is talking to a woman. But when first-century Pagan readers of the Greek saw that same passage, they would understand “Woman [or] wife, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.” Further they would understand the passage in light of their own myths.
The NIV footnote for that verse says, “The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.” I agree. Rather the author is setting up a mystery for the reader to solve to keep the reader interested.
The mystery is solved at the cross, where Mary Magdalene is called “woman/wife” and also at the Easter tomb (John 20:15) where the risen Savior appears to Mary Magdalene and addresses her as “woman/wife” and thus confirms her as the “bride” within the context of John. (Revelation has a different bride.) You won’t see “woman” in the TNIV at that scene – they leave it out – so find it instead in the King James Version, the Catholic Confraternity Edition, or the Greek (γυνη/γυναι).
It is at the cross where author “John” begins to clarify roles for the two Marys, and the meaning of the conversation at the cross (John 19:25-27) can be taken many ways. Use the translation in the New International Version (NIV):
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
Jesus said “to HER,” not “Jesus said to his mother” is what they have, and “her” would have to refer to the Magdalene in that sentence. Many know this passage incorrectly?? as “Jesus said to his mother” because translators improvise to “make it correct,” thus making it incorrect?? Obviously, the Magdalene is not Jesus’ biological mother, and so when Jesus says to her, “Wife, behold your son,” what son is that? The Lost Tomb of Jesus DVD has a young boy standing next to the Magdalene (their son) and so solves the problem that way. I would be satisfied with that as the solution to the puzzle because I think there are at least three passages that hint at an heir.
At the cross John symbolically splits the ancient Goddess into two women, one Mary is the mother, another Mary is the wife. Jesus transfers responsibility for his mother to Mary Magdalene the beloved disciple with, “Here is your mother” and the disciple takes her to the disciple’s home.
In the NIV, where it says “this disciple took her into his home,” the “his” stems from a mistranslation of the pronoun which is masculine in Greek only because it modifies “disciple,” a noun which is masculine in Greek regardless of the gender of the disciple. (Am I remembering that right??) In this case, the disciple is a woman and her home is where Jesus’ mother goes.
Notice that the Virgin Mary is absent from the cross (except in John where her role as mother-only is carefully defined). In Matthew and Mark, she stands at a distance and is named only as the “mother of James and Joses,” Jesus’ brothers. She is hidden. In Luke she is not mentioned at all, but may be one of the women standing at a distance watching. She is not allowed by the author(s) of the Synoptics to stand near the cross lest this be interpreted by first-century Pagan readers that, like the ancient Goddess, she is the one commanding the sacrifice, responsible for it, or presiding over it. Rather it is “The Father” who “wills” the sacrifice. In this way the old myth is re-written.
Notice also that Mother Mary does not participate in the burial of Jesus. Why do the women merely observe the burial of Jesus? Not even participating? His own mother just watches! Or we can guess she watches, hidden under the names of “other Mary” and “mother of Joses.” The biblical authors would have known that first-century Pagan readers at this point might expect something like the Egyptian myth where the goddess Isis succeeds in revitalizing her dead consort (here a brother) enough so that she is able to get herself with child by him. Thus the biblical authors hide the Virgin and do not allow any women to take part in the burial. First century readers get the message that no female caused the resurrection and, more importantly, nothing vile happened. Rather, in the story, the women get an active role at the tomb only after the resurrection is completed. In John, there are no women whatsoever at the burial scene, not even as observers.
Were the women afraid to approach the burial because of the Romans? Possibly. But I’ll guess that is not the explanation for the women’s nonparticipation, because they have no problem going to the tomb two days later. Rather the authors have deliberately constructed the burial scene with no women taking part in order to sanitize the ancient myth it recalls. Contrary to what we see in art where the Holy Mother holds the Sacrificed or women stand at the foot of the cross to receive his body (“Pieta” by Michelangelo Buonarroti and “The Descent from the Cross” by Rosso Fiorentino), the Gospel has no such thing. The Pieta is popular imagery. No Mary is allowed by the Gospel authors to touch the dead body of the Sacrificed. The victory of resurrection belongs solely to what becomes over the next few centuries the triune God. Is that fair? Perhaps only such a radical reform could have had any guarantee of correcting the storyline in the minds of the people. From one extreme to another?
A trinity of circles: three persons in one divinity
Instead of Mother Mary mourning and tending to her dead son, what do the first-century Pagan readers see? Joseph of Arimathea stepping forward to take charge. Is there such a location as Arimathea? I doubt it – I’ve searched. Instead, Arima is Greek for the name of the Persian principle of evil and darkness. Thea is Greek for goddess. So Joseph-evil-goddess is a slur on the Goddess-bride who would be expected to appear at that point in the story. John balances this darkness with another character who helps with the burial, Nicodemus, whose name means something like victory-city, perhaps anticipating the re-casting of the bride as a “city” in Revelation? So at the burial scene, the ancient Goddess is symbolically split into two bride-replacements, both male, one evil and one foreshadowing the new City of Victory.
Was there such a place as Cana? The Catholic CE says “probably in Lower Galilee.” Probably? Maybe “Cana” is supposed to recall the land of Canaan (Old Palestine), which the rightful owners of the land believed belonged to its Goddess before it was ravaged by Hebrews committing genocide, thus Cana just means place of Goddess-worship.
So the puzzle in John is complicated. Both Marys are “woman/wife” – γυνη. Thus, both have been tentatively advanced as “wife.” But in the end, only the Magdalene is there at the tomb, weeping, then trying to caress the Risen One. The Virgin has been disguised under a variety of names and has slipped into obscurity.
But only temporarily. I don’t think it was the intention of the biblical authors to do away with Her, just revise her. Mother Mary is not just a village maiden anymore than Jesus is just a carpenter. In the texts and in tradition, She is still the one who births the Christ, the One we are all becoming. The cathedrals of Europe are named for Her and were built to honor Her.
Once we find out that the Magdalene is the bride, are we supposed to install her at Cana? No. The Cana story just raises the issue of relationships rhetorically. We are not supposed to fill in the blanks and imagine it is the wedding of Jesus and the Magdalene or any other couple. We can’t ever know the names of the bride and bridegroom at Cana. Should we assume that historically, Jesus and the Magdalene were husband and wife? I can’t rule it out, but the author of John is crafting a new mythology, not writing history.
The Gospel authors have Jesus comment discretely on the incest problem. Jesus gives a nod to Genesis when he says that the creator made them male and female (Mark 10:6); clearly he doesn’t buy the Pagan version of the tale. Also, Jesus denies the possibility of celestial marriages between the Goddess and her string of consorts when he answers the question of who would be the husband in heaven of a woman who had married seven husbands, with the retort that there is no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30).
I think the abrupt designation of the Magdalene as the wife at the cross and as the weeping bride at the tomb sort of leaves the reader hanging and thus the explanation of bride as “city” in the Book of Revelation is really necessary to deal with that problem.
The author of Revelation explains that the Lamb’s bride (Christ’s bride) is the “Holy City Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:9-27 and 22:1-5 (TNIV)). The city extends all the way to heaven (our divine connection). The city is a metaphor for a consciousness characterized by beauty and “clarity,” a truly fitting place for the Light to be “enthroned.” Each and every one of us can have this altered state of awareness.
How is the bridegroom each and every one of us? Jesus the bridegroom becomes the obedient servant of God, becomes the Anointed of Prophesy, becomes the Son, becomes a Christ. In this progression of ideas, the biblical authors shift us to a point where we collectively become the Body of Christ, each and every one of us becoming a Christ member, each and every one of us capable of functioning as a Christ, incarnating and harboring the Light and overflowing with it, if we have entered the new state of awareness. Thus the bridegroom (Christ role) and the bride (enlightened consciousness) are joined in the Self. An interesting marriage! Certain to be productive! (Obviously just my best guess on Revelation’s symbolism.)
Why am I going into all this? To show you that not every idea in the New Testament is a conclusion. Some ideas are there as stepping stones to other ideas. Also, some ideas are there to be rejected. Are we supposed to retain any of the Pagan imagery as fact? Jesus says no, “You do not put new wine into old wineskins.” The imagery is not fact, just metaphor, just a construction within which truth can be found.
I believe we will never know the exact meaning of the Pagan themes woven into the New Testament. There were too many centuries of brutal suppression and too much knowledge is forever lost. Because of that brutality, we will never be able to fully understand our own sacred texts. A very sad epitaph for the ideal of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When I write about Pagan themes, I do realize that there was variability from place to place, and over time. I am trying to write about major themes that might have predominated,1 and of course, I don’t know which themes were available to the first-century biblical authors and cannot see into their heads. I’m not about to attempt a thousand-footnote thesis to do the topic justice. I am just musing on what information has crossed my desk.
Incidentally, I think there might have been an ulterior motive for why a Pope in the Catholic Church declared that the Magdalene was a prostitute, besides the motive of trying to defame a woman leader just because she was a woman. (His declaration had no factual basis.) Perhaps the Church feared a resurgence of the old ways, with the Magdalene as a new Goddess-bride in practice, not just in John’s symbolism. Perhaps Saint Mary Magdalene was becoming too popular. I’ll guess she became even more popular as the “fallen prostitute.” In the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the Magdalene is featured as a prostitute (incorrectly), and sings, “I don’t know how to love him.” Who hasn’t heard that song? The DVD Secrets of Mary Magdalene gives me the impression that for many women, an earthy Magdalene is more approachable than the celestial Virgin.
Kind of strange that the Church continues to add new roles for the Holy Mother (assumption of Mary into heaven, immaculate conception of Mary, apparitions of Mary at Lourdes), while at the same time continuing to discriminate against women members. Women will put up with this for as long as they want to. Don’t expect me to predict what will happen next.
Is Christianity the triumph of patriarchy? I think the world breathed a huge sigh of relief to exchange one bridegroom for another. The New Testament doesn’t set one gender over the other: all are equal members of the Christ, and by establishing a respectable role for the Holy Mother, and celebrating her, Christianity may in fact have softened the impact of patriarchy on women. I think we are very fortunate that the Gospel writers made the essential reforms they did and energetically spread their Gospel. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was mainly women who went for a more highly-esteemed version of Her because it helped their self-esteem, and they drove Christianity into the future.
Was there ever a Golden Age of Woman when god was a woman and women reigned supreme? I doubt it. I think the golden age of woman and all humankind is now when we have the freedom to say that the Divine is not violent, murdering his/her own son, in fact does not have any gender, and does not save us or nourish us with “blood,” only with pure grace. We can follow Jesus who saw clearly that the Divine is Mind, Spirit, and Providence. It sustains us and we are one with it. The Divine does not have progeny – only us children of God.
Can we do without the myths? I wouldn’t want to. I can’t tell myself, “Have an altered state of conscious awareness,” and expect anything to happen in that department. I need someone to lead me by the hand. I need someone to tell me a story. A great story. A story told for uncounted generations and upgraded in recent millennia.
I’m ready to hear it again, especially at Christmas and Easter.
Oh! I almost missed it. Are there three or four women standing at the cross of Jesus in John? A New American Bible footnote says we don’t know. I agree. But I believe there are three women at the cross:
(1) Mary, the mother of Jesus,
(2) her sister, Mary, wife of Klopas, and
(3) Mary Magdalene
By making Jesus’ mother have a sister, the author is letting the first-century Pagan reader know that the mother is NOT the ancient Great Goddess. If the Virgin has a sister, then the Virgin cannot be the “mother of all the living” like the Great Goddess. (Mary cannot be the mother of her sister.) So it is very important for a sister to appear at the central event of the cross. The addition of sister Klopas (from Kleos – honor??, see Kleopas in Luke 24:18) does indeed make the scene honorable.
Why are all three of these women named Mary? Did I say that at the cross John symbolically splits the ancient Goddess into two women? I misspoke. She is split into three persons. How could we ever hope to follow what the author is doing unless all these women have the same name? This allows us to understand they are all derived from and are revisions to the same mythological concept.
Or maybe there are three women at the cross with the same name because that’s just the way it happened. Mary was a common name then.
And maybe it just so happened that Jesus and Mary went to Cana to attend the wedding of their friends (just any John Doe and his bride Jane).
Who knows for sure?
1 Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993.