Transcript of In Search of Truth: The Bible and Mary Magdalene (S2E1)

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Amy Frykholm: Welcome back to In Search Of. We started season one last year in Lent, which in my opinion, is a great time to begin a search. And here we are for season two, again at the beginning of Lent. In season one, we went into the desert in search of mystics and travel guides, hermits, theologians, and also, admittedly, the kind of random people that one meets when wandering in the desert. We asked each of them, in one way or another, to help us make sense of the human inclination to search.

In season two, we are zeroing in on one very complicated target for our search: truth. Truth is, of course, notoriously elusive. But as we've tried navigating a so-called post-truth world, it has become clearer and clearer that truth is also indispensable. It's one of those paradoxes. We need it, but we struggle to find it, and we certainly struggle to agree on it, which is why we've decided to explore truth in a variety of settings. Truth and biblical studies, truth and history, truth and physics, truth in documentary and memoir. We've assembled a rockstar set of guests to walk us through this search for truth. This week we start our search for truth with the Bible. 

My guest today has a fascinating story of how she went on a quest for truth in relation to the Bible. This is the kind of story that we really wanna celebrate on In Search Of. It's thrilling to listen when someone says "yes" to the search and perseveres as her understandings are transformed. I've gotten a chance to talk with Elizabeth Schrader Polzer a couple of times, and she's told me the amazing story about this  journey. She left the music industry and joined the ranks of Biblical scholars, and she's currently finishing her PhD at Duke University. Meanwhile, she's been producing truly groundbreaking work that is rewriting our perceptions of that complicated and controversial figure, Mary Magdalene, all from a biblical point of view.

The story Elizabeth tells in this interview begins at the end of her music career, she'd had some success in her twenties. She'd won a big contest and her songs had been used on the Gilmore Girls. She toured with artists like Poe and Jewel, but she found that the music business was offering diminishing returns. She moved to New York City and she was drawn to a garden, attached to a Catholic church that was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  She asked the parish priest if she could pray in that garden. She would go into the church, ask for the key, and then go into the garden to pray. So that's where this story begins, in a garden in New York City.

Welcome Elizabeth. Thank you for joining us. 

Elizabeth Schrader Poczer: It's so good to be here. Thank you, Amy. 

AF: So I would love for you to begin with the long story. How and when and why did you become interested in Mary Magdalene?  

ESP: Well, that is certainly an interesting story. It all began maybe 10 years into my working in the music business, I ended up writing a song about Mary Magdalene, which was not the typical song that I write. I'm sort of a pop rock singer songwriter. My favorite band is U2 and I also love Sarah McLaughlin. So it's like, if Sarah McLaughlin was the lead singer of U2, that's how I would always describe my music. So, you know, not really singing, you know, I guess maybe comparable to U2, there's like a little scriptural references sort of here and there, but I was definitely not a Christian artist. It was just, I was raised in the Episcopal church and I would write these songs that, you know, have little hints in them.

So when I wrote this song specifically about a Christian saint, it was a surprise. And it came after I had this sort of prayer in a garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I actually heard words in response to my prayer, which were, "maybe you should talk to Mary Magdalene about that." Which again, totally unexpected and totally strange, and I thought that was funny. So I wrote this song about Mary Magdalene and that caused me to want to research her further because I ended up naming my record Magdalene. So I said, I can't really write a song about Mary Magdalene and name my record Magdalene without knowing who it is that I'm talking about. So I walked over to the Brooklyn Public Library and I checked out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mary Magdalene.

AF: There is a complete idiot guide? 

ESP: There is, yeah. And it's pretty darn good actually. And I started just sort of researching her and getting interested in her. So I guess the next step that I was really interested in, I found out that Mary Magdalene was sort of a controversial character from that book.

And I thought I would really like to look at the world's oldest copy of the Gospel of John and just see if anything there has been changed. You know, maybe the scholars missed something, which looking back on that I now realize was a totally presumptuous thought, because some of the best scholars in the world look at literally every single pen stroke of these ancient papyri, and they dedicate decades of their life to understanding the scribal habits of, of these ancient manuscripts. 

But as a layperson, I didn't know that. I just thought, oh, you know, what's the oldest copy of the Gospel of John? And, you know, has anything strange happened around Mary? 

AF: That is really a weird thing to think though, Elizabeth. Like, why, why did you think “I wanna see the oldest copy of…” I mean, where, where did that come from? That urge, that curiosity?

ESP: I don't know. To me it seems like the most natural thing, so who knows? But I'm just like, oh, you know, Mary Magdalene was controversial. Hmm. The Gospel of John is the one where she's the most important. I wonder if anybody changed anything. I feel like I'm not the first person to wonder that.

So I did some research and I found out that Papyrus 66, which is copied, usually people think around 200 AD, like turn of the third century, that's the oldest substantial copy of the Gospel of John. There's one little fragment that's a bit earlier called Papyrus 52, but it's just a couple verses. Whereas Papyrus 66 is like a codex of the entire Gospel of John. And I was having trouble finding a transcription of it. 

And so I had to sort of reach out to Deirdre Good, who was recommended to me through a friend of my hometown parish priest in Oregon. Um, so I was raised in the Episcopal church in Oregon, and my priest said, oh, you know, you should talk to Minka Sprague. And Minka said, oh, you should talk to Deirdre Good. And I lived in Brooklyn and Deirdre was a professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary at that time. So it was easy for me to just, I just wrote an email to Deirdre and she said, oh, why don't you come meet me for coffee? So I just took the train to Chelsea. Easy.

And I said to her, I wanna look up Papyrus 66. And she said, well, let me work on that. And a couple days later, she found a transcription of Papyrus 66 that was on the internet. It was done through the University of Birmingham. They've got a website called where they've been working on transcribing hundreds of manuscripts of the Gospel of John and Papyrus 66 was on there.

And so I looked at it and my first thought was, Hasn't anybody translated this ? I was like, come on. Like I don't read Greek. I don't know Greek. What a pain. And so I was like, okay, okay. Maybe this was like the clue that I have a scholarly inclination when I didn't give up at that moment.

I said, okay, let me figure this out. So I basically went to, I think it's, and I was able to get an Interlinear study Bible where you can see every word of the Gospel and it's translated for you. Okay. And then I had one browser window open to and another browser window open to, which has the transcription of Papyrus 66.

So I was able to compare them and see where, you know, what people think the Bible says, like how that might be different or the same as what Papyrus 66 says. So I of course started with John 19 and John 20. Those are the scenes where Mary Magdalene shows up in John's gospel. And there was nothing different really from what the Bible says to what Papyrus 66 said.

But then I thought, you know, I should probably also look at John chapter 11. The Complete Idiot's Guide had highlighted that some people have always thought that Lazarus's Sister Mary of Bethany from the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, people have always wondered whether she was Mary Magdalene.

So I was like, well, you know, I should just be safe and just check there as well. So I think it was May 7th, 2012. I went there and I look at it and I can just see that there's all these changes made. At the beginning of the chapter, I can see that the name Mary has been crossed out two times, and the first time the name, and now I couldn't read Greek, but I could see enough to see that the name Maria had been changed to Martha. In Greek, that's just the difference of one letter. So Maria is the name for Mary and the “ɩ”, which was an iota, had been changed to a theta, which is like a “th.” So Maria had been changed to Martha. And then a couple versus later, you could see that a woman's name, probably Maria, had been changed, totally scratched out and changed to say,  οι αδελφές, which means the sisters and all the verbs had been changed from singular to plural.

So when I found this, I was like, whoa, what's this?  I could see that for basically four or five verses. There's all these changes being made around Mary and Martha and, so I was like, I mean, this looks like they're adding Martha to the story. That's what it looked like. Mary was changed to Martha and then Mary was changed to say the sisters. I was like, are they adding Martha to the story! Wait a second!

I mean, there's another story with Mary and Martha and that's in Luke's gospel. That's in Luke chapter 10. But Papyrus 66 was copied like 200 AD, so the copyist probably knows Luke's gospel.

Are they adding that character Martha, from Luke and sticking her into John? I mean, that's just what it looked like to someone who had no training. That's what it looks like the scribe is doing. And so I copied it and I just copied the text and I sent an email to Deirdre and the subject line was just 12 exclamation points. Like, whoa, look at that! And Dierdre responded “very interesting.”

And I was like, what?! Like, this is like this, this is a character who people have always wondered if she's Mary Magdalene and they're crossing her name out and they're changing it. Hasn't anybody done anything? And my suspicion, this is in 2012, so my suspicion is that Deirdre knew that Papyrus 66 had been published in 1958. It was discovered in probably 1954. And so once it gets published, people started commenting on it. And Deirdre probably thought, “oh, the work has already been done.” Because it's 50 years old at that point, so you figure, okay, somebody already knows what's going on here. This random girl that found me through a friend, why would she find something that nobody else had found?

Somebody had transcribed Papyrus 66 and so it's not like I had discovered something that nobody had seen before, it's just that nobody seemed to care. But I was just so certain that this mattered and I was also shocked that Deirdre didn't seem to think it was a big deal.

So I just felt, okay, well I'm just gonna keep going and looking and seeing what people have done about it. So I walked back over to the Brooklyn Public Library and I started requesting academic articles on Inter Library Loan, anything that had to do with Papyrus Bodmer II or Papyrus 66. Those are the same papyrus. And I found some articles written by scholars like Gordon Fee, who is one of the best text critics of the 20th century. And he just very recently passed away, unfortunately. And he comments on it and he says, yep, the name Mary has changed to Martha. Yep. The name Mary has been changed to οι αδελφές. And a woman has been split in two, that's the strangest change in the whole papyrus.

He wrote that in 1965 and that was it. Nobody had done anything and I was like, why? Why isn't anybody doing anything? And it was sort of at that point that I started sending it out to other scholars. I started sending it to people like Elaine Pagels and Karen King and saying, look at this, look at this. And again, I think they basically were like, “okay, girl.” It's also that Elaine Pagels and Karen King are not text critics.They work more with other sorts of ancient sources like the Nag Hammadi Corpus, and so they're sort of siloed. I've since found that the people who work on textual criticism are not the people who work on Nag Hammadi. So there's some lack of awareness between the two disciplines. So now looking back on it, it's like, okay, so the people who work on text critics are often conservative, European, like Oxford School boys or German school boys, and every once in a while there is some crossover, but not necessarily usually is their crossover. And then the people like Karen King and Elaine Pagels, they aren't trained in textual criticism. They might be aware that some of these early manuscripts exist, but they haven't read all the literature on it. So it seemed to me that maybe they weren't talking to one another.

And in any case, they didn't freak out the way that I had. And so my best friend basically said, “Libby, you can't keep harassing these poor scholars. You actually have to go learn Greek and do it yourself.” And I was like, no, that sounds horrible. Who wants to learn Greek? Like, I'm a musician. You know? Like, why would I wanna learn ancient Greek? That sounds like the most boring thing I could possibly do with my time. But I kept thinking about it for probably about a year, and I finally succumbed. I said, you know, I think I do actually need to pursue this because if I don't, it looks like nobody else is going to.

So I enrolled in 2013 in a master's program in General Theological Seminary. And Deirdre Good became my master's thesis advisor and then, you know, she guided me and I did this text critical work. And along the way, there was some other professors who were like, have you looked at the Vetus Latina? And I was like, what's the Vetus Latina? They're like, oh, there's other manuscripts that are in Latin that are just as old and they have different readings as well. And so basically my master's thesis was a study of about 150 transcriptions of John chapter 11.

And it turns out that there are problems with Martha all over the place. Basically, I learned that one in five Greek manuscripts and one in three of the old Latin manuscripts has some sort of instability around Martha. Oftentimes, sometimes you see Mary's name changed to Martha's, sometimes you see Martha's name just like super awkwardly added in the margin because her name wasn't there at first. Sometimes you see Mary doing things that your Bible would say that Martha does, and it's happening literally throughout the entire text transmission. And so I'm like, uh, did I find a corruption in the Gospel of John ? 

AF: Why does it matter that this potentially Mary Magdalene figure in John 11 has been split in two? 

ESP: Right. Well, it's tricky because right now people think that Lazarus's Sister Mary is also Martha's sister Mary, because Martha has been added–well, theoretically. I'm theorizing that Martha was added at a later stage that necessarily brings the reader into a different gospel story. A story found in Luke chapter 10 of Martha and Mary, where Martha is doing much service and Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet and Martha complains, says Lord, my sister should help me. And Jesus says, Martha, Martha, Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. That is a different story by a different gospel author. Not only that, of course, so many women were named Mary at that time, and so it's kind of hard to tell which Mary is which, but when Martha is included in the Lazarus story, it makes you think that Lazarus's Sister Mary is Martha's sister Mary. That is from Luke chapter 10. But if anybody looks at Luke 10, they'll see that they don't have a brother in that story. Mary and Martha don't have a brother. Also, that's at a point in the story where Jesus is further north in Galilee or Samaria. He's not in Bethany, which is right next to Jerusalem, much further south. So if you look carefully at Luke, you see that it's not necessarily the same family. Martha and Mary could be a different family than Lazarus and Mary in John's gospel, but when you add Martha to the story, it sort of distracts the reader into Luke.

Here's the other thing, by distracting the reader into Luke, this change sort of eliminates the possibility that Lazarus's Sister Mary might be Mary Magdalene, which if you read John, John seems to be deliberately putting the idea in reader's heads that Lazarus's Sister Mary could be Mary Magdalene. Of course, she's named Mary, and both of them are at a tomb and crying, and both of them see someone rise from the dead. Sorry, I should say, in John's gospel, in John chapter 20, Mary Magdalene is crying at a tomb by herself and she sees Jesus rise from the dead. Right? There's a lot of textual parallels that a lot of commentators have noticed between John 11 and John 20 that you're less likely to notice if Martha's there. So the addition of Martha distracts the reader into Luke's gospel instead of noticing how very similar John's Mary is to Mary Magdalene.

Also in John chapter 12, Mary anoints Jesus, and Jesus says that he wants her to keep the ointment for the day of his burial, but there's literally just one woman named Mary at Jesus' tomb in John's gospel. That's Mary Magdalene. So I would say that John wouldn't, if I'm right that Martha was added to John's gospel, John wouldn't have deliberately and explicitly stated that Lazarus's Sister Mary is Mary Magdalene, but there's a lot of hints that make you think that she was. And as far back as we have commentators on the story, they did think that she was–not everyone, but people like Hippolytus of Rome or the Mannicheans or St. Ambrose–a lot of people did think that Lazarus's Sister Mary was Mary Magdalene.  If people are thinking that that's Mary Magdalene, then, by adding Martha to the story, you're less likely to think that. 

And here's the reason that it really matters. It’s because right now, in your Bible, Martha's central role is that she gives this crucial Christological confession. So Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe me will never die, do you believe this? And then right now in your Bible, Martha says, yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. That is considered by people who study the Gospel of John to be the central Christological confession in this gospel.

But what if Mary had said it? And in fact, Tertullian, a church father who was writing at the turn of the third century, around the same time Papyrus 66 was copied, he thinks that Mary uttered that Christological confession. We know that people thought that Lazarus's Sister Mary was Mary Magdalene. So this is why it really matters whether Martha's there or not. Right now, Martha's sort of a minor character and people forget that she's the one that gives the Christological confession. People forget who Jesus is talking to when he says, I am the resurrection and the life. That's because Martha kind of drops out of the narrative after this confession. 

But what if you've read John's gospel a few times and you've noticed how similar Lazarus's Sister Mary is to Mary Magdalene, and you're wondering, is Lazarus's sister, is the woman that Jesus says should be there at his burial, is that Lazarus's sister Mary Magdalene? And then if you're wondering that, and you see that Mary gives the Christological confession, which apparently in Tertullian's copy, Mary was giving the Christological confession and then she anoints Jesus and then she's there at the foot of the cross, she stands by Jesus in his darkest hour, then she goes alone to the empty tomb on Easter morning. And then Jesus appears to her first, and then she gets the first commission of the risen Jesus in John chapter 20 to go to his brothers, and that is the disciples, and announce that he's risen from the dead.

All that makes her an essential character in the Gospel of John. That makes her, perhaps, a threatening character because her Christological confession in John, the woman's Christological confession in John, is quite similar to Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ in Matthew 16:16. So for early readers who knew Luke's gospel and Matthew's gospel and John's gospel, and they're reading these gospels and they can see that Peter, when he says, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus says, oh, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. Okay. Peter gets a big reward. He gets all this authority for knowing that, for being the first to confess that Jesus is the Christ. If John crafted a gospel, not only where Mary gives that confession, but that the Christological confessor is maybe also the first person that the risen Jesus appears to, hmm, that's a problem that could make her perhaps a competitor to the authority that Peter ended up getting. Right? Because not only does she confess him as the Christ, she gets the first appearance as the risen Jesus. 

But if you put Martha in there, the problem is solved. And all you have to do is change an iota to a theta. 

AF: Wow. 

ESP: It's just one letter difference. And now the person who confesses Jesus is the Christ is a minor character, and she's forgettable, and it has nothing to do with who stood by Jesus at the cross and who Jesus appeared to first on Easter morning. So I'm saying that it would make sense editorially to diminish it, like that's why Martha matters. It almost would've made the gospel palatable and perhaps acceptable for our canon. 

AF: Do you have any sense… And the Tertullian example is excellent but I wonder if you have any sense, are there other examples of that authority beginning to be embodied in third century art or other kinds of church records… what do you see?

ESP: Well, it is really interesting because most of the early artwork of the Lazarus story just has one sister. Anybody can just like Google, like “Lazarus sarcophagi,” and you'll see that nearly all of them have just one sister depicted. But as far as other records, like textual records, of course the Nag Hammadi Corpus is well known, give Mary Magdalene very special authority. The Gospel of Phillip says that she was Jesus' companion and that he loved her more than all the other disciples. The Gospel of Mary says that Jesus, again, has a special love for Mary and Peter is jealous of her. And he says, did he prefer her to us? 

There's also a kind of a funny text called the Pistis Sophia, probably authored maybe in the third century, where Peter is complaining about Mary and she's obviously the star disciple. She answers more than half of the questions correctly, and she's the one who gets everything. And Peter's like, Lord, tell this woman to stop talking. We cannot suffer her. There's no room for us when she talks too much. And Jesus says, no, anyone who has the right interpretation can come forward. 

And then of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, Peter asks Mary to leave. He says, women are not worthy of life. And then Jesus stands up for her. So we see not only that, some of these texts, I would say particularly the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia, give Mary this sort of special status as Jesus's closest disciple who understands him better than anybody else. I mean, there are multiple.

I should also emphasize, those manuscripts, they each only survive... the Gospel of Mary has one Coptic copy and a couple Greek fragments, only one copy of the Gospel of Philip and one copy of the Pistis Sophia that exists, but they were found in three different places and copied at different times, which means that this is independently attested in multiple Christian communities that Mary has a special authority, that she's closer to Jesus than all the other disciples. And that Peter seems to have a problem with her.

AF: I was gonna say, there's also some documentation of, uh, some anxiety around her role, role and her leadership. 

ESP: Exactly. So if there's this sort of anxiety around Mary, then, that might explain first of all why somebody would wanna change a text. Especially one where she is seen as maybe having more authority than Peter, which by the way, she absolutely is in the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the Pistis Sophia. So you can absolutely see why somebody would wanna change that. But also you can see that there are these records that were frankly suppressed where Mary Magdalene is given a greater role. And those, of course, were not the ones that we have in our Bible or in our apostolic church fathers like the ones that people read when they go to seminary, those were not preserved. They were basically sometimes put in a jar, sometimes thrown away and sometimes just flat out suppressed.

AF: That is so fascinating. I mean, it's fascinating that in 1958 somebody would look at this and say, that's weird, and then just move right along. Right? Like, that part really interests me as well, that so often in the tradition we glance at something or it draws our attention for a moment, and then we just get swept along by, without any blame for textual critics of previous generations, just to notice that what draws the attention of a scholar in 1958, and what draws the attention of a scholar in 2022, that they are different things and that that allows us to take different paths.  What do you make of the history of criticism in that way?

ESP: Well, I think that's absolutely true. Different things were, though, honestly in the 1950s, people were really interested in the Nag Hammadi corpus in the 1950s, because that's when they were first starting to be published in the 1960s. So it just seems to me that it's more about a siloing. People like Gordon Fee. Gordon Fee was like a conservative evangelical scholar, an excellent text critic, but more conservative. Whereas I think that if somebody like, I don't know, Bentley Layton, who was working on the Nag Hammadi Corpus, if he had seen that change, he would've seen something very different. But oftentimes the people who were working on Nag Hammadi were working in Coptic, and that was sort of their specialty. They were just getting the lay of the land on these newly discovered texts. The Nag Hammadi library was discovered in 1945, and they were just starting to be published. And the Gospel of Mary was published in the 1950s. And so it was, you know, it was around the same time, but the two disciplines were very siloed.

I think it's strange that there wasn't more crossover between the two. And, unfortunately, I also think it has something to do with the very gendered nature of scholarship. If you go to the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, and you walk into any session of New Testament textual criticism, they're very well attended panels, you'll see maybe a hundred people there, 90 something of whom are white men. And that doesn't say anything about the quality of their scholarship. Some of these are some of the best scholars I've ever met in my life. Absolute geniuses who I would completely trust to make excellent decisions. And at the same time, if you don't have diversity in scholarship, there will always be a certain blind spot because, you know, they see a woman split in two and they don't do anything about it.

You know, there's a lot of changes in Papyrus 66, I think there's 450 corrections made over the course of the text. And so they're busy cataloging those 450 corrections. They don't necessarily have the time to stop and think about that one. I, of course, was going straight for the Mary ones because that's how I entered the field of textual criticism. I do think that that's a testament to the importance of diversity in scholarship in any field really. 

AF: Yeah, that really makes a lot of sense. That we bring ourselves to the text and yes, when we bring ourselves to the text, things happen and we see new things. We are transformed. And the text also looks a little differently depending on who's looking at it. It seems like a really important… 

ESP: It always does. It always does. And text critics like to portray an error of objectivity. But it's not that way. There is always an aspect of subjectivity and bias, even in the very best scholars. And that's why scholarships should always be done in conversation with groups and especially in diverse groups. 

AF: Well, that kinda leads me to my big question, which is, you have explored the relationship between biblical texts and truth in multiple different media in multiple different ways. And I wonder if you could just talk about what it means when we look for truth in biblical texts. What are we doing? 

ESP: Well, seeking truth in biblical texts is again, gonna be a somewhat subjective enterprise because, as you said, everyone is bringing themself to the text and they will see different things. If you just read what the church fathers said, like what Origen of Alexandria said in the third century, about these biblical texts, they're thinking totally different thoughts than what we're thinking.  

So first of all, I think a humility when approaching the text is really important, knowing that you are a product of your time and you're asking questions that are particular to your time. I wouldn't say that the question of women's authority is particular only to our time though. Like, just look at the Gospel of Mary. I mean, that's a second century text and that's exactly like they're asking questions about women's authority. So that one is a perennial question. It's not about the feminist movement or something like that. I mean, that's an ancient text. 

But when it comes to truth, for me, it's actually something that's far more profound when it comes to the transmission of John's gospel in particular because this is a gospel that says that the spirit of truth cannot be received.  And so people talk about reception history and the reception of the text, or even the textus receptus, that is, the received text. John already warns that the spirit of truth cannot be received. So for me, there's actually something very theological about digging into these variants in John.

And I would say that I've certainly had my own spiritual quests at times. I've done a lot of meditation. At the time that I was writing this, I was living at General Seminary, which is a residential seminary, going to chapel twice a day, getting the Eucharist all the time, praying the rosary. And it was just a constant state of spiritual immersion at the time that I was writing this.

And I would find that whenever I would have a certain breakthrough in my inner spiritual life, I would find more textual variance. I would have some sort of breakthrough in my inner, and then I would go to my computer and some pathway would be open where I suddenly found three more manuscripts, like I found some other resource or some other church father, or some printed edition or something. I just followed a path and it just brought me there and it was so strange and sometimes sort of awe inspiring that it really felt to me as though the more I saw in myself, the deeper I went into myself, the deeper I was able to go in John.

And it almost felt like the Gospel was showing a wound in the text to me. It felt like a very, almost tender invitation, saying well, “let me show you this and let me show you this and let me show you this.” And it felt like sort of an invitation saying, “can you help?” That's what it felt like as I was digging deeper and deeper. Each textual variant was revealing a new aspect of the vulnerability of the word of God. And to me, that is so theological, especially in a very Johannine way.

John's gospel does say that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. Another way of translating that is the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not mastered it. And I would almost see those variants theologically as, well, even if someone has changed this, there's gonna be a record. There's gonna be a path.  It feels as though it's a red thread. There's a path that guides you and leads you, and takes you back to wherever that place is, that the wound happened. And it provides an opportunity to come to terms with that. And it's so Johannine. I mean, the Gospel of John says that there's no greater love than to lay one's life down for their friends. I mean, what if Mary Magdalene laid her life down in this gospel so that the gospel could be received? It's like the gospel itself is moving and meeting us where we're at. So at the time, the gospel met people where they were at that time, and now there might have been a shift so that the gospel reveals itself in a way, meeting us where we're at now. That's how I see the gospel. I'm saying even the text itself is operating according to Johannine principles. That's how I would see it. So, to me, that's what I would see as truth. Even in the lie.

The lie itself is, oh, and I always think of things according to this, to John 11 verse four, because I kept looking at John 11 over and over and over in a zillion manuscripts. And this one verse kept popping out to me. Jesus says, he's speaking of Lazarus, “this illness is not onto death, but it is for the glory of God in order to glorify the sun through it.” And I just kept returning to that. It's almost like the text predicted its own illness. The text is ill, there's an illness in the text, but it's like, if so, do you really think that Jesus doesn't know that? Do you really think that God doesn't know what has happened? This illness is allowed to stay for a reason. It's because it's not unto the death of Christianity or to the death of our belief in the Bible or the books of the Bible. It's for God's glory. It's to show that no matter what human sinfulness might do to serve our own purposes, the truth comes out in the end, and that's in the end for God's glory. That's how I see the text. That's what I see the truth to be of what is happening in the Gospel of John. 

AF: This is so fascinating. I am grateful for the way that you followed your curiosity and in that way I think what's one of the things that's very inspiring about your story is how we might all follow those strange sparks in ourselves and trust that they are taking us somewhere that's worth going. Yeah. Not only for ourselves, but maybe for others for the bigger picture in your case. 

ESP: Always. Always. Yeah. I'm grateful to that prayer in the garden that said, you know, talk to Mary Magdalene about that. That helped me to point my direction outside of myself, and that was where the turn happened. Again, it's very spiritual and very mysterious and very unexpected.

AF: I was thinking that was probably another part that the music business taught you, which was to follow those leads. Because you can't write a song, right, if you're not listening. 

ESP: That's a fact. 

AF: I don't know. I've never written a song, but–

ESP: That's a fact.

AF: You have to be listening and you have to be hearing “Yes…no…” in a kind of deep way in order to write the next line.

ESP: In an intuitive way. Yes. And to sort of put the pieces together. Sometimes it feels like you're finding a song rather than writing it. That's certainly what it felt like with the Magdalene song. It just dropped out of the sky. I wrote it in like two days. It's just like, boom. There's this random song. I don't even know where it came from. And yeah, you do have to be listening and following. Like any pursuit of a dream, I feel like the dream is like the carrot on the stick. I feel as though God wants all of us to be our best selves. And the dream, like, it's not actually about the carrot, it's about where you go. It's about where you are led. And in our sort of limited view of things, it's like, I just want that carrot. I'm gonna get that carrot. I just keep walking, gonna get the carrot, where you don't actually realize that you're being led someplace that is where you really need to go. And then eventually, maybe when your perspective is broadened, you'll actually see it. But at the time, again, God meets us where we're at. 

AF: So there's another aspect of this that I'd love to get into. If you could talk a little bit about your research into where Mary Magdalene was from and what her name means and why that's significant to our understanding of who she was.

ESP: Well, um, so basically this is what Joan Taylor's and my article is about, that was published in the December 2021 issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature. There is a place excavated by the Sea of Galilee, and today that place is called Magdala. And people like to say that it's Mary Magdalene's hometown. But what our article shows is that nobody actually called it that. Nobody thought that she came from that place until the sixth century. It seems to be sort of a location that people wanted to venerate her because there were a lot of pilgrimage sites that happened, where, your favorite saint, you wanna go and venerate them.

And the West and the East had different interpretations of Mary Magdalene. In the West, they thought that Mary Magdalene was Mary of Bethany. And they also thought that she was that sinful woman who anointed Jesus in Luke's gospel. And that's how she became a prostitute in the West. In the East, that conflation was never made. And Mary of Bethany and Luke's sinful woman and Mary Magdalene were all seen as different people in the East. I think it goes back to Origen of Alexandria and his interpretation. Everybody kind of followed Origen in the Greek-speaking East, but in the West, people were doing other interpretations.

So the reason that this happens in the East is that if you, if you don't have… like in the West, you know where she's from, she's from Bethany, and you can go to Bethany, right? And people do. But if you're in the East, where are you gonna venerate Mary Magdalene? If she's not from Bethany, you have to have a place where she's from.

And some people thought she came from a place called Magdala, or Magdalene. Origen says that, though he doesn't know where it is. He's like, “she's from this place.” And that's funny because he actually lived walking distance from the place that today is called Magdala. So Origen didn't know that as the place that she's from. He's like “Magdalene, she must be from a place called Magdala.” There was, I don't know, like a dozen places called migdol-this, migdol-that. It just means Tower. And so Origen sort of creatively said, okay, she must be from a town called Tower. Whereas other people, like St. Jerome said, no, Mary herself is the tower. Mary the Tower-ess. So there's a sort of split opinion about whether Magdalene means Mary the Tower or Mary the Magnified, versus the place that she came from. For people who think that it's the place that she came from, they want a place to venerate her, but they don't know where it is. 

And what's really funny is that around the fifth century, you start seeing gospel manuscripts being changed. Matthew 15, verse 39. The oldest copies say they came to the shores of Magadan, which is someplace by the Sea of Galilee. Magadan. And people like Eusebius and Jerome know this place. They lived in the Holy Land and they're like, oh yeah, Magadan, that place by the Sea of Galilee. But when you get a little later, in fifth and sixth century, people start to change that word in copies of Matthew and it says they came to the shores of Magdala.

So they're basically inventing a location because they don't know where this Magdala is. But all you have to do is change a few letters, which, as we know, people like to do. You just have to change a few letters in Matthew 15:39 and Magadan becomes Magdala. And that ended up becoming the majority reading in most Greek manuscripts and you even see it in the King James Bible. Matthew 15:39 will say, “they came to the shores of Magdala.” And now we know where Mary Magdalene came from. She came from that spot. And that's where the pilgrimage location is today. And that place that is being archaeologically excavated is more likely to be a really well-known first century town called Tarichaea that was known to lots of first century commentators like Josephus and Pliny. It's commented on by many people, and it's a well known city and it's a Jewish city, and so there's no surprise that they would find several synagogues there. 

It's Tarichaea. Whereas there's just like a few little random villages called Migdol Gad, Migdol Nuna. There's lots of different Migdols that are small. Basically what ended up happening is that later interpreters tried to map these rabbinic places onto Tarichaea. And they said that that's the place that Mary Magdalene's from basically because they want a place to venerate her. 

AF: Right. A pilgrimage site.

ESP: It's a pilgrimage site. So the place that's being archaeologically excavated today, that's called Magdala or Migdol. It is absolutely a first century Jewish town with synagogues and it was a really important town. It's just that, it's probably not where Mary Magdalene came from. Nobody ever said that she came from a place by the Sea of Galilee until the sixth century. 

AF: And when is she called Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John?

ESP: She's called Maria Magdalaney by Mark, by John, and by Matthew. The first time that the word “Magdalene” shows up is at the cross, John 19 verse 25, and that's kind of the same as in Mark's gospel. John probably had access to Mark's gospel and Mark first mentions her at the cross. So if John knows what Mark is up to, it would make sense that John would sort of mirror Mark's gospel in mentioning her first at the cross.

But if John thinks that Mark has withheld some information about her, like perhaps that she was the anointing woman at Bethany. In Mark's gospel, she's anonymous. Jesus says, “oh, what she's done will be, what she's done will be told in memory of her,” but then they never say her name in Mark. If John has access to Mark's gospel, which most people think that John did, I can see John being like, “uh, gotta fix that. Gotta fix that.” If Mary Magdalene, if John understood her to be the anointer, but also knows that it's sensitive information because the name has been withheld. The name of the anointing woman has been withheld.

So I think that John's strategy was to just name Mary, say she's from Bethany, give her all these amazing things like the Christological confession and the anointing. And also, of course, Peter gets the confession in Mark's gospel. So John's like, I'm gonna do something that people are not gonna like. I'm gonna give the confession, not to Peter, but to Mary, and I'm gonna name who the anointing woman is, and I know people are not gonna like that.

So he just calls her Mary. And then right when Mark introduces her as Mary Magdalene, that is at the cross. That's also when John introduces her as Mary Magdalene. But there's these parallels between John 11 and John 20 that makes the reader wonder if the confessor and anointer is Mary Magdalene. That's my theory.

AF: I mean, that makes sense to me. And then on a literary level, you can also understand why suddenly at the cross naming her the Tower has a certain literary power, right? 

ESP: Oh, absolutely. 

AF: This woman, Mary, we've been following her. We've been following her, and obviously in John's time, her name would've been well known. She would've been a part of community conversation or whatever, and then to suddenly name her “Mary the Tower” at the foot of the cross… 

ESP: Well, right. ‘Cause Peter gets the name “the Rock” after he makes the confession. Right? Peter gets called the Rock in Matthew's gospel after he makes his confession. So maybe Mary Magdalene got her title, the Tower, after that incident with the confession in the anointing in John's gospel. 

I mean, this comes down to what Jesus might have been doing historically. Like Jesus might have been giving, he did give nicknames to his disciples. The question is whether Mary got one too. And I think that John is being really careful and if John just straight out says, “Mary the Tower,” it's gonna cause problems. And I think John is fully aware that there's certain things about Mary Magdalene that are controversial and that's why certain things are why things are presented in a certain way.

I think that the cross, of course, theologically, it's very important that she's called Mary the Tower at the cross. At the same time, I think that John, in my view, did it because that's where Mark did it. That's the first safe place to identify her. And I'm saying John suspected that it wouldn't be safe to call her the confessor and the anointer. And in fact, it wasn't safe. The text was changed. That's my theory. Just one possibility. 

AF: Well I think I wanna talk to Mary Magdalene about that.

ESP: she's good company. I recommend . 

AF: Well, thank you Elizabeth. Thank you so much for joining us here on In Search Of, and thank you for your work. 

ESP: Thank you for the opportunity to share it.

AF: Obviously this week on in search of, we only scratch the surface, what could be said about Biblical studies and its relationship to the search for truth. If you have ideas of scholars, projects, perspectives that you'd like to hear on this podcast, please let me know. You can email me at

Also, go to our website at to sign up for our newsletter and connect with us. Please follow this podcast and rate it on your favorite podcast app. This has been a production of The Christian Century, a progressive, thoughtful, independent magazine for today.  We'll see you next week. Until then, happy searching.