On this third Sunday of Pascha, we commemorate saints Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and the myrrhbearing women who went to pour spices on the body of Christ in Joseph’s donated new tomb—the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Salome, Susanna, and Joanna. As my patron is Joseph of Arimathea, today is one of my patronal feast days. Saint Joseph’s main feast day is July 31 (currently August 13 on the old calendar as reckoned on the new calendar). The women steal the show, however. In many parishes, only women sing in the choir on this day, but perhaps this is a Russian custom. My friend Andrew suspects that it is an unusual practice.
It is difficult to sort out the myrrhbearing women. There are so many Mary’s in the bible just as there are so many James, and Eastern and Western traditions maintain different identification schemes. Here is what I believe to be the common Orthodox schema.
+++ The Theotokos—there is no confusion about this lady. She is the only one listed here who is not represented in the icon above. She is portrayed below (left), along with Mary the wife of Cleophas (center) and Joanna (right).
+++ Mary from Magdala—the apostle to the apostles. Western traditions tend to identify her with other Mary’s while the Orthodox do not. She is the woman from whom Christ cast seven demons. In Luke’s gospel, we read about the sinful woman’s anointing Christ’s feet in Simon the Pharisee’s house (chapter 7), and then right after we read about the people who accompanied Jesus during his travels, with Mary Magdalene listed among them (chapter 8). Her description is “out of whom went seven devils,” not the sinful woman who went in peace from Simon’s house.
+++ Mary of Bethany—the sister of Lazarus and of Martha. She is the contemplative friend of Jesus who chooses the better part. She also anoints Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper. As there are two accounts of women who anoint Jesus’ feet in a house that belongs to a Simon, some in the West identify Mary of Bethany as the sinful woman and thus also as Mary Magdalene. However, the two events have nothing else in common save the name Simon and the anointing. In one story, we have a typical Pharisee (Simon) who is hesitant about Jesus’ claims, while in the other story, we have Judas Iscariot’s greed as the moral backdrop in the leper’s (Simon’s) house. The Orthodox maintain that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the unnamed sinful woman are all different women. Of course, the Western obsession with answers could not easily allow the poor sinful woman to go in peace unnamed. She just has to be one of the listed cast among the New Testament followers.
+++ Martha of Bethany—the sister of Lazarus and of Mary. She busies herself with practical matters while her philosophical sister gets away with no cooking or cleaning. Those of us who would like to choose the better part but recognize that meals just do not pop out of baskets miraculously (well, you know, there are exceptions to everything) love and sympathize with Martha. Somebody has to do the busy work for those lazy ingrates (not meaning, of course, Jesus, Lazarus, and Mary—but most folks in the same situation). As such, Martha typifies for me what is especially admirable about women.
+++ Mary the wife of Cleophas—the mother of James, probably James called the Less. In Mark’s account of the crucifixion, we read (15:40-41):
There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.
In John’s gospel, we have (19:25):
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
Mary the wife of Cleophas is identified in the East with Mary the wife of Alphaeus. Alphaeus and Cleophas are understood to be the same man, though the West generally does not accept this identification. This Mary, then, is considered by the Orthodox to be the mother of the apostles James and Matthew, the sons of Alphaeus—though some modern scholars wonder if the two sons of Alphaeus are the sons of the same Alphaeus. The West holds that James the Less is the same as James the son of Alphaeus, but the East maintains that “Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses” is the Theotokos, not Mary the wife of Cleophas. James the Less, then, is not identified with James the son of Alphaeus among the Orthodox. Rather, James the Less is the Brother of Our Lord—the first bishop of Jerusalem, a.k.a. James the Just. For the Orthodox hold that Joseph the carpenter was a widower who had several children from his first marriage when he betrothed the Theotokos, including James. In Matthew’s gospel (13:55-56), we see:
Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?
Furthermore, it would be strange if, in his crucifixion account, Mark did not specify Jesus’ mother as one of the women. Nonetheless, though I am not a biblical scholar, I find it odd that Mark would refer to Jesus’ mother as the mother of James rather than simply Jesus’ mother, as John’s gospel states. Assuming that the mother of James and Joses is the Theotokos, Mark’s account, then, specifies the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene, and Salome, while John’s account specifies the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and the sister of the Theotokos.
+++ Salome—the mother of James and of John, the sons of Zebedee. In the gospel of Matthew, we read (27:22-56):
And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedees children.
Some traditions hold that Salome is the sister of the Theotokos, and the previous parallel between the gospel accounts in Mark and John appears to agree with this position. Other traditions hold that she is the daughter of Joseph the carpenter, but that does not seem consonant with the gospel accounts unless we assume that Mary the wife of Cleophas is the sister of the Theotokos. To make matters even less clear, there is a tradition that holds that Cleophas is the brother of Joseph the carpenter, which would make Mary the wife of Cleophas the sister-in-law of the Theotokos. We can see how the gospel accounts agree with this tradition, too. Regardless, Salome is held by all to be a close relative to Jesus—an aunt or a stepsister—which would make the beloved disciple John Jesus’ cousin or nephew.
+++ Susanna—one of Jesus’ many followers during his ministry. I cannot find out anything else about her. There have been several later saints named Susanna, but I do not know what became of the New Testament woman.
+++ Joanna—the wife of Chuza, the steward for Herod Antipas. One account of Joanna that I found speculates that she is the same person as Junia, mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. However, that seems like an incredible stretch if there is no tradition in support of it. Moreover, one may assume that the Andronicus mentioned with Junia is her husband or brother. If so, and if Joanna is Junia, then what happened to poor Chuza? I have no idea, but the suggestion seems fantastic without other evidence.
It is a shame that the various traditional accounts have so many discrepancies. Such inconsistency naturally casts doubt on anything conclusive, especially for us moderns who normally operate with a hermeneutic of suspicion.