I have devoted a few posts to the relationship of / competition between Peter and Mary in early Christian traditions. I conclude by posing a rather significant question. Peter, of course, has traditionally been seen as the “rock” on which Christ built his church, the very foundation of Christianity (Matt. 16:18 – “You are Peter (Greek: petros) and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church.”). And indeed, according to 1 Cor. 15: 3-5, Peter was the first to see the resurrected Jesus (and realize he had been raised from the dead), and that is the very beginning of Christianity. But what if the Gospels are right, that Mary actually was the first. Wouldn’t it make better sense, then, to say that Mary started Christianity?
Here is how I talk about the matter in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:
There is no doubt that Peter became dominant as the leader of the church early in the Christian movement, and Mary receded into the background. We have scores of passages that talk about Peter, his involvement with Jesus during his life, and his leadership of the church after his death. And scarcely any reference to Mary.
Somewhat ironically, this is what makes a number of scholars conclude that the religion actually started with Mary, rather than Peter. The logic is this: later storytellers were fully aware of Peter’s vast importance to the burgeoning Christian movement. How could they not be? He was the main figure during Jesus’ ministry, one of the inner circle, the leader of the Twelve. And after Jesus’ death he became the head of the church in Jerusalem and eventually the main missionary to the Jewish people. He along with the apostle Paul was responsible for the spread of the religion from its tiny, inauspicious beginnings to its relative triumph throughout the empire. Peter was huge.
And what about Mary?
She was scarcely known and little talked about. And so the question: if storytellers were to make up, or at least to modify, the stories of Christianity’s beginnings, would they invent the story that it was a woman who started it? Wouldn’t they be more likely to celebrate the greatness of the illustrious apostle Peter? Wouldn’t they show that although he had denied Christ at the moment of crisis, he had redeemed himself in the aftermath, by being the first to realize that Christ had been vindicated by God, raised from the dead, and exalted to heaven? Why would someone make up a story about a virtually unknown woman discovering the empty tomb and proclaiming the resurrection? Especially if the point of the stories is to give evidence that Jesus’ death was not the last word, that God himself had the last word, by reversing the illicit judgment of the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities by raising his son from the dead. Would the “idle tale” of a woman be invented as evidence for the resurrection?
It seems unlikely. But then where did the stories of Mary Magdalene, either by herself or in the company of other women, originally come from? If it is hard to imagine them being made up by a number of early Christian storytellers, then maybe the stories have a real historical basis. Maybe it actually was Mary who found the tomb empty on the third day and who proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead.
This post has an intriguing thesis. And it’s easy to read it: you simply have to be a member of the blog. There’s a small membership fee, but all of it goes straight to charity. So treat yourself. Treat charity. Treat the known universe. Join!