Blessings on this feast day for Mary Magdalene!

I feel particularly close to Mary Magdalene this feast day since I just finished writing an article on her for the forthcoming Talpiot Tomb volume edited by James Charlesworth. The article is called "The Memorial Mary Meets the Historical Mary: The Many Faces of the Magdalene in Ancient Christianity". In the paper, I cover the foundational memories of Mary, counter memories of the encratite Mary, counter memories of the gnostic Mary, and the master narratives of the apostolic Mary.

I finally discuss what emerges from these memories as likely historical memories. What are they? Our oldest recoverable memories know her to be a single woman and an important woman disciple of Jesus' movement who was a public Christian leader after his death. The public nature of her mission and the authority that she commandeered as a woman disciple of Jesus became a real liability for her memory in a movement that was initially unconventional and that gradually conformed to the norms of its society, norms which often stereotyped public women as prostitutes and closed public offices to women.

Illustration: "Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene" (anon., early 15th c.; AMICO Library Image)

Apocryphote of the Day: 5-9-08

Strive and save what is able to follow [me]. Seek it and speak from it, so that what you seek will be in harmony with you. For truly I say to you, the living God [dwells] in you, [as you also dwell] in God.

Dialogue of the Savior 137.16-138.2.

Comment: Since you liked this particular text so much yesterday, here it another quote from it. By the way, this text has always fascinated me, and when I first learned Coptic this was the text I chose to translate first. For a time, I even planned to write my dissertation on it, but instead went with Thomas. I did put my thoughts on the Dialogue of the Savior into an article many years ago which I published in VC. If you go to my articles page here, scroll down to 1996 "The Dialogue of the Savior and the Mystical Sayings of Jesus" you will see a pdf file of the article that you can download if you wish. And now I find myself in this text again as I write my article on the many faces of Mary Magdalene for the Talpiot tomb volume that Charlesworth is editing. I'm also going to be using this material in a chapter in my tradebook, Sex and the Serpent in Ancient Christianity: Why the Sexual Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. I'm having a blast with this book! Plan to finish it by the end of the summer.

News from Toronto on Talpiot Tomb

The Globe and Mail just released a story following Andrey Feuerverger's publication of his statistics article which we learned about at the Talpiot Tomb conference in January.

Excerpts from this story:
In a peer-reviewed article published last month in the prestigious Annals of Applied Statistics, Andrey Feuerverger places the odds of the 2,000-year-old tomb not belonging to the Jesus family at 1 in 1,600.

This figure is even more bullish than the 1-in-600 figure that Dr. Feuerverger calculated a year ago, when interviewed for The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a $4-million documentary produced by James Cameron and directed by Toronto's Simcha Jacobovici...

For years, archeologists attempted to deflect speculation about the tomb, saying that the names inscribed on the Talpiot ossuaries were common to the period. But Dr. Feuerverger's analysis rejects that argument, noting that while the individual names might have been common, this specific cluster of names so resonant of the New Testament is not. Indeed, in January, at a symposium with about 50 academics in Jerusalem, no one made the case for commonality.

Instead, opponents have challenged Dr. Feuerverger's historical assumptions, notably that the unusual Greek name Mariamne found on one of the ossuaries is an appropriate designation for Mary Magdalene.

But even discounting the Mariamne assumptions, Dr. Feuerverger's 51-page paper says that the tomb has a 0.48 chance of belonging to Jesus. That means, says James Tabor, head of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, "that if we had two tombs to examine, one of them would be the Jesus tomb. With Feuerverger's paper in print, a more responsible discussion of the Talpiot tomb name frequencies and statistics can take place."...

University of Detroit professor Jane Schaberg, one of the world's ranking experts on Mary Magdalene, says it is "quite possible, even probable," that the inscription on that ossuary describes Magdalene and adds that the tomb "may very well belong to Jesus and his followers, as opposed to Jesus and his family. My gut tells me it's a movement site."

UPDATE: Here is a link provided by a reader in the comments to stats paper and all the comments on it. Thanks!

Faces from the Talpiot Conference

Here is a group photo of those of us who went to the Qumran excursion the day before the Talpiot Conference. In the front row is Valerie Hemingway, Lee McDonald, Geza Vermes, Jim Charlesworth, Leah, James Tabor, Ann Brock, Mrs. Feuerverger, Andrey Feuerverger. In the second row is Lamar Barden, Alan Segal, Konstantinos Zarras, John Hoffmann, Eric Meyers, Dick Darden, Mrs. Pokorny, Petr Pokorny, and me. It was a wonderful excursion with Professor Vermes giving us a lecture on site about his memoirs translating the Dead Sea Scrolls into English, and Professor Charlesworth walking us through the ruins.

Some of us tried to climb up to one of the caves. This is not a hike for the weary. I kept thinking, if the latrine is really behind that rock cropping, I guarantee I would have had a hard time being part of this community! My experience also got me to think long and hard about the idea that these caves are in some way a library. They are not easily accessible by any means. In fact, none of us was able to actually get to the cave we were headed for. So I'm starting to think about these caves as repositories for the literature during a time of crisis, that is the years of the Jewish War, to hide them. It is also possible that some of the caves were used as places to bury copies of sacred texts that needed to be discarded for whatever reason. But a library where people come and go, carrying manuscripts back and forth to read? I don't think so.

The Tomb that Won't Close: More Reflections on the Talpiot Conference

Some have asked my opinion of the Duke letter that is now circulating with signatures from several scholars who attended the Talpiot conference. Mark Goodacre has posted it on his blog.

First let me say up front that I do not have a dog in this fight. I find the discussion interesting, mostly imaginative, but very contentious. I went to the conference a skeptic and I have returned home a skeptic, although a much more informed one.

What I learned at the conference is that Mary Magdalene is the linchpin. Without the Mariamne inscription factored into the stats, the stats are insignificant statistically. Since the Mariamne inscription should be read, "Mariam(e) kai Mara", this means that the stats as they have been run with Mariamne are not compelling proof.

The statisticians, however, were very clear that a different set of assumptions would mean a different result. What if we were to change the assumptions and run a different set of names, Mariame instead of Mariamne? What if we get rid of Jesus' sisters' names which were part of the original equation? Since we don't actually know his sisters' names (and how they got on the statistician's list is a mystery to me), Joanna and Salome can't be on the list of possibilities for those who might belong in the tomb. So the conference discussion did not result in a definitive dismissal. Rather the suggestion was made by more than one participant, including Stephen Pfann, that the statisticians might try a different range of names as the assumptions for the problem.

The same is true about the DNA tests. They were contaminated. So they are inconclusive. The DNA specialist, however, told us exactly what has to be done to do the tests correctly. But the tests are very expensive and no one at the conference seemed compelled to take up the charge to go and do it right, although it was suggested that this should be something to pursue.

I found the Duke letter arresting because it takes at historical face value the canonical stories, with little appreciation for critical textual methods. The proof that the Talpiot Tomb can't be Jesus' tomb is because the canonical stories relate that Joseph buried him in a new cut tomb of his own?

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling reason that I did not sign this letter is the marginalization of Gat's widow, which I find offensive. Her treatment is appalling to me, especially with no proof given that we shouldn't trust her words. What benefit is there to discredit her memory of her husband and his work? It makes absolutely no difference to the Talpiot Tomb discussion whether or not Professor Gat thought this was or wasn't the Jesus family tomb. So why would a handful of archaeologists feel so compelled to argue that she doesn't know what she is talking about because Gat didn't read the inscriptions? I assume that he could read Hebrew fluently.

My Reflections on the Talpiot Tomb Princeton Theological Seminary Conference

I flew back into Houston a few hours ago. Sorry that I was unable to blog while in Jerusalem, but the computer connections weren't fast enough to be able to get my observations posted in a timely fashion.

If you have any questions about the conference, ask and I will do my best to answer them. If you attended the conference too and want to add something to my list, or correct me if you had a different take, let me know in the comments and I'll flip your comment up to the main page.

This was one of the most extra-ordinary conferences I have had the privilege of participating in. I learned an enormous amount of information about disciplines I normally don't interact with, including statistics. The conference had so many high moments - and high emotions with many conference members yelling and becoming agitated, especially the archaeologists who seem to have very contrary opinions among themselves and about the involvement of the media in their discipline. At one point, Professor Charlesworth had to intervene and call for order.

What did I learn?

1. There were two stats professors on the panel: Andrey Feuerverger (who had to create a new methodology to deal with the problem and is now publishing his 100 page result in a refereed stats journal) and his very vocal critic, Camil Fuchs (who was one of the referees for Feuerverger's article). The stats are fascinating, and everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene according to both professors - whether Mariamenou kai Mara refers to her. If she is "in" the equation, the stats are astounding, double what had been previously aired in The Lost Tomb film. If she's out of the equation, then the numbers are not statistically meaningful. Many participants wanted Feuerverger to run different scenarios with different assumptions, but he was hesitant because the paper that he has written has already taken so much out of him in terms of time and commitment.

2. So everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene, a woman. The panel on Mary included myself, Jane Schaberg, and Ann Grahman Brock. My own conclusions about Mary:

2.1 Mariamenou kai Mara can't be maintained as the best reading of the inscription in my opinion. There are major problems with Mariame[noue]Mara, as Steven Pfann and Jonathan Price have pointed out. The inscription ought to be read: MARIAMEKAIMARA. This translates either "Mariame and Mara (=Martha)" (if the second part of the inscription KAIMARA were added at a later date with new bones of a new person were put in the ossuary) or "Mariam, who is also Mara" (if the inscription was written at the same time). Some at the conference wanted to play around with the inscription IDs and wondered if "Mariam, who is also Mara" might refer to Mary the mother, while the other "Maria" ossuary might refer to one of Jesus' sisters (according to the Gospel of Philip, Mary is the name of his mother, his sister, and his partner) or Mary Magdalene.

2.2 It is questionable in my opinion whether Mariamene (which is what Rahmani said Mariamenou derived from) is even a name for Mary Magdalene. The "E" has to drop out to get Mariamne which occurs in the Acts of Philip. But Mariamne in the Acts of Philip isn't distinctively identified with Mary Magdalene; she appears to have been understood in some of the manuscripts as Mary of Bethany sister of Martha. Mary Magdalene in fact has a plethora of names attached to her from the very early sources: Mariam, Maria, Mariamme, Mariammen, Mariamne, Maria he Magdalene (but not Mariamene, as far as I know - please correct me if I'm wrong).

2.3 The Magdalenes in our literature are memorial Maries rather than historical Maries. I contrasted the encratic Mary (female-become-male celibate) with the Valentinian gnostic Mary (wife of Jesus). I explained how these Maries are the result of communal memory functioning within different socio-religious environments. The earlier knowledge of Mary that they seem to be developing is the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a single woman, who was a disciple of Jesus, and an important Christian leader. This is plausible historical information about her.

3. On the final day of the conference, I asked if only family members could be in these tombs. I got "yes" from some of the archaeologists and "no" from others. When they were pushed, I got "we don't know." Why? because not all ossuaries are marked with information about relationships that the deceased had with each other. On average there is buried 4-6 people in one bone box, and sometimes the box only has one name on it. The period of ossuary burial in these "family" tombs is very brief. By the second century, catacomb burial arrived full force, probably influenced by Roman practice.

4. The KEY moment at the conference was when the widow of Joseph Gat (the man who originally excavated the tomb) accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award given by Princeton for her husband. She gave a moving speech in which she shocked us all. It has been said over and over by the archaeologists that there isn't anything particularly stirring about the cluster of names on these ossuaries, and no one seemed to notice them including Professor Gat. Mrs. Gat told us that when he salvaged the tomb contents her husband thought that this tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and because he was a Holocaust survivor, he kept silent. He was afraid that a wave of anti-semitism would erupt if he said anything.

5. The patina expert (I am forgetting his name because he sat in the audience rather than up front on the panel floor) said that it could be significant that the James ossuary and the others in the Talpiot tomb had the same patina, especially since the Talpiot ossuaries were half covered with earth and the tomb had been breached. He said that the random sample that was tested wasn't high enough - another 50 ossuaries would need to be tested, and other tombs in the immediate proximity of the Talpiot tomb would need to be tested too. So there is more work that would need to be done to link the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb. But it is not the 10th ossuary that Gat found. The 10th one was plain, uninscribed and broken. The archaeologists were very verbal and very committed to this. Could there have been another ossuary looted from this tomb before Gat got there? Who knows. More tests would need to be run to figure this out. We found out that these tests are very costly and time consuming, so who knows if they will be conducted.

6. The DNA test that was run on the Mariame ossuary was so contaminated that the results have to be thrown out.

7. The results. We didn't take a vote, or anything like that. There seemed to me to be an enormous range of opinions, many of which were connected into theology and why theologically it can't be the tomb of Jesus and his family. There were some that said "No way" for other reasons. Most people I polled during the reception said that there wasn't enough evidence to make a positive identification (for various reasons), so they said they were "very skeptical" or "skeptical." A few people, however, did find it likely if not probable. There were a number of scholars who thought that this might be an early Christian tomb or what Professor Charlesworth called a "clan" tomb, rather than a "family" tomb.

The New Year Ahead

The year ahead looks like it is going to be busy, and hopefully, productive. In January, I will be attending the Talpiot conference in Jerusalem organized by Professor Charlesworth as a Princeton symposium. My role is to address traditions about Mary Magdalene in the early literature. I plan to focus on the Valentinian portrait of Mary Magdalene, contrasting that with the encratic. The result will be an attempt to see if we can say anything determinative about Mary as a historical figure from this literature. A full length paper will be published later in a conference volume that is planned. I still haven't received the final agenda for the meeting, with all participants. As soon as I do, I'll post it here.

Looking forward to spring, there will be the Codex Judas Congress, March 13-16. I am receiving abstracts from the participants now. I will get those posted mid-January. I am in the process of preparing my own contribution to the Congress on issues of authority in the Gospel of Judas, the First Apocalypse of James, and other early Christian literature. I am particularly interested on how appeals to the Twelve were being used by the Christian leaders of the second century. After the Congress, full length papers will be collected and edited into a conference volume. So keep your eyes out for that book.

Over the summer, I have several articles to prepare for various projects. One will be about sexual practices among Gnostics. This is for an edited volume that Paul Foster is putting together. I also am preparing a paper on angels in Valentinian traditions for a conference in Tours which will take place in September. I will likely focus on the Jesus Aeon-Angel as the microPleroma descending to earth and incarnating.

Also in September is the Coptic Association's meeting - this year in Cairo. I hope to be part of a session on (re)defining Gnosticism.

As for the Boston SBL in November, that is too far ahead for me to know exactly what I will be preparing for, although I know that the New Testament Mysticism Project will be continuing. So I will at least be preparing an entry for that.

I am also going to begin writing my second book for the general audience. I'm trying to decide - should it be a book on the Gospel of Thomas, making my scholarly work more accessible to a broader audience, or should I begin work on a book about how I think the early Christians (as Jews) began to worship Jesus?

In terms of teaching, this semester Coptic continues. We will finish the last five chapters of Layton's book and then move on to read the Tchacos Codex to prepare for the Congress in March. I also have a lecture class, Christian Controversies and Creeds, that covers the growth of Christian thought from the bible to Chalcedon.

So in the upcoming year, this blog will probably continue to feature the newest and latest on the Tchacos Codex, the Gospel of Judas, the Valentinian literature, and the controversies between various factions of Christians in the second and third centuries. I also want your suggestions as my readers. Is there anything that you would like to see me address in the coming year? Let me know via comments or e-mail.

Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context

In case you haven't heard yet, Professor Charlesworth, for the Third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, is holding a three-day conference in Jerusalem called "Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context." Dates are Jan 13-16, 2008. The provisional agenda that I was sent looks outstanding in terms of coverage and folks involved. Actually amazing might be closer to the mark.

Topics to be covered in special sessions:
Ancient Beliefs about the Afterlife and Burial Customs
Tombs, Ossuaries, and Burial Practices: The Archaeological Evidence
Burial Beliefs and Practices: The Textual Evidence
Onomastics and Prosopography in Second Temple Judaism
The Talpiot Ossuaries and their Epigraphy
Paleo-DNA and its Archaeological Applications
Patina Testing and its Archaeological Applications
The Talpiot Tomb in March 1980
Mary Magdalene in Early Christian Tradition
Relating Tomb Archaeology with Historical Figures: Possibilities and Problem Discoveries
The Palestinian Jesus Movement: Correlating Textual and Archaeological Evidence for Jewish Christianity
The Burial of Jesus, the Empty Tomb, and the Jesus Family
Statistics and the Talpiot Tomb

This is exactly the kind of academic forum that I suggested (on this blog) was needed when all the media hoopla engaged the Talpiot Tomb. I am looking forward to participating in the Jerusalem conference, and want to thank Professor Charlesworth for organizing it.