I began this short thread with a discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, where she seems to be Jesus’ preferred follower; I then talked about the idea that there were women apostles in the earliest period of the church – according to Paul himself – and pointed out an old tradition that in fact Mary was the very first apostle.
I want to pick up there, and show how not just in the Gospel of Mary but in other parts of the early Christian tradition Mary and Peter were sometimes portrayed in controversy over who was Number One!
Here is how I discuss it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.
As I’ve intimated, this view that Mary was the original apostle – the one commissioned to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection – is found already in the books of the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark, it is Mary Magdalene along with Mary the mother of James and Salome who come to the tomb on the third day, learn from a young man there that Jesus has been raised, and are told then to go tell the disciples. In this account, it is true, they say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). And there is no word here of Christ himself appearing to these women (or to the other disciples, for that matter). But in the later account of Matthew, Mary along with “the other Mary” not only learn of Jesus’ resurrection from an angel at the tomb, they are also instructed to tell the others. Jesus himself appears to the women and commissions them to “tell my brothers (i.e., the men disciples) to go to Galilee; and they will see me there” (Matthew 28:11). We are not explicitly told that the women did what they were told, but we do learn that the disciples made a trip to Galilee and that Jesus appeared to them there – so one can assume that the women fulfilled their commission.
It is in the last New Testament Gospel to be written, John, that Mary herself is singled out as the first to see Jesus raised from the dead. According to this account, Mary comes alone to the tomb, finds it empty, and goes to tell Peter and the “beloved disciple.” They race each other to the tomb to see that Jesus’ body is not there. When they return to their homes, Mary is left outside the tomb, and Jesus suddenly appears to her. She mistakes him for the gardener, and asks where he has taken the body. But then he calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes him: “Rabbouni” (which means “Teacher.” Note: she does not call him “Hubby!”) Jesus commissions her to tell the disciples that he is about to ascend to heaven, and she does as she is told.
Here Mary is the first to be commissioned to proclaim the resurrection. In this account, at least, Mary is the first apostle. It is striking that in other traditions that we have, it is not Mary but Peter who is the first to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion. This is the case, for example, in the Gospel of Luke, where there is no mention of Jesus appearing to the women at the tomb, but several stories of his appearing to his men followers. The first appearance is to Peter, as the disciples proclaim, “He has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:36). But even here, before Jesus appears to anyone, it is the women – Mary Magdalene along with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women – who discover the empty tomb and inform the disciples. Somewhat typically, one might think, the men dismiss the women’s account as an “idle story.” It is not until Jesus himself shows up that they believe.
Even more striking is the earliest account of Jesus’ resurrection that we have, found not in the writings of the Gospels but in a letter of Paul, some fifteen or twenty years before the Gospels were composed. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds his converts of the message that he had originally delivered to them when trying to persuade them to join him in his faith in Christ:
For I delivered over to you as of first importance what I in turn received, that Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…. Then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to a miscarriage, he appeared to me.
It is interesting that Paul never mentions the women discovering the empty tomb. In fact, he never mentions the empty tomb. Or the women at all. Any women. He instead refers to the appearances of Jesus after his death. And all the appearances are to men (unless one wants to argue that the “five hundred brothers” included “brothers and sisters”; but if that’s what Paul meant, at least it is not what he said).
Some scholars have thought that Paul recounted only the stories of Christ’s appearances he knew about. This would mean that the stories about the women at the tomb were not in broad circulation. Others have pointed out that Paul is giving evidence for the Christian claims about Christ. The evidence that he died is that he was buried; and the evidence that he was raised is that he appeared alive afterwards. But since the point is evidence, it is sometimes argued, Paul has restricted himself to naming the men that Christ appeared to, since the testimony of women would not be admissible in a Jewish court.
This may be right, but it’s hard to know. What is clear is that there were two competing traditions in early Christianity. In one set of traditions, Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene (and possibly other women); in the other he first appeared to Peter (and possibly other men). One of the reasons this is interesting is that we have repeatedly seen through our discussion of Mary that there is a steady stream of stories that show her in competition with Peter. Or at least that show Peter constantly becoming upset by the high status she is given by Christ. And so, in the Pistis Sophia, Peter complains that Mary gets to do all the talking. In the Gospel of Thomas Peter asks that Mary leave Jesus and the disciples, “for women are not worthy of life.” And in the Gospel of Mary, Peter argues, in typically hotheaded fashion, that Mary’s revelation cannot have come from Christ, who would not have revealed his secrets privately to a woman rather than publicly to the men. This contest between Peter and Mary seems to go back to our earliest traditions – some of which claim that he was the first to see Jesus raised from the dead, and others that give the nod to her.