Nuns hop the bus
By JONATHAN WOLFMAN
The viciousness with which Rome of late has gone after American nuns for what it consider their hyper-focus on the poor and outspoken positions on the Ryan-Romney Budget proposals, health reform and women’s health issues generally, as well as on more general economic reform, reminds me that a few serious scholars in the field of historical-Jesus research have more than once wondered above a whisper whether one of the four canonical gospels (and the first written), Mark’s, could have been composed by a woman.
In brief – and I’ll give this fuller measure another time – the Markan scene in which an unnamed woman places costly perfume on Jesus’ head as he visits a Bethany household struck by leprosy. This is, by some historians, thought to be a signature, Mark’s anonymous signature.
She herself, on this thinking, may well be Mark and if it could be shown to be, it’d be rather significant not simply because of all of the misogynous history it would challenge but because of what Jesus says specifically of her.
When, in the story she’s admonished by the men in the scene for presuming such a closeness, Jesus upbraids the men, telling them in effect that only she intuitively understands that his body may well shortly be in need of some perfume.
This is to say, only a woman, this woman, understands fully the risks Jesus has assumed through three-years’ increasingly strident anti-poverty agitation, three years’ repeated symbolic performances modeling his Kingdom of God program here-on-earth, performances rife with radical notions of equality in an empire and in the shadow of far-too-complicit Jewish political authority, both now increasingly dependent on the grinding rural exploitation at the core of systemic inequality, a slap in the face to a justice-demanding Jewish God.
As one researcher has put it, whether or not one could ever really show that Mark was a woman, for the woman in this scene, at least.
That is, she seems thoroughly to understand the man’s program and what it will surely cost him but that his ideas will survive his death and live.
Further, Mark has Jesus tell those assembled, that is, Mark tells his/her readers as well as the group in the scene what none of his male companions seem to understand: their friend is certainly going to die, and pretty soon and for the God of justice.
The scene ends, most importantly, with Jesus telling the men that when the stories of his work spread (after he’s gone) the stories will be told “in memory of her”, that is, in her honor (not theirs).
There can be no more fundamental and symbolic raising up of the downtrodden in nearly all of our common religious literature for in ancient Near East cultures poor women were often regarded as barely persons let alone as people to remember, to honor.
Could this vignette be Mark’s signature?
No proof will likely be found either way. Certainly by the time ‘Mark’ was declared part of an official canon (in 325 C.E.. at Nicaea) if the unnamed woman had ever been known or written of, the earliest known copies of ‘Mark’ do not say whether or not they had been scrubbed.
What I do know is that the American nuns who have objected strenuously to the new (male) oversight of their work have, some of them, started a nine-city bus tour under the leadership of Sister Simone Campbell.
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