AS I WRITE THIS, a moving picture called "The Last Temptation of Christ" is making the rounds. Based on a novel, it supposedly portrays Jesus with the same passions as the rest of us, specifically, love for a woman. I have not seen the film, but reviewers have stated that it features a scene showing Jesus on the cross dreaming of making love to Mary Magdalene.
The movie has been severely criticized by Christians as being blasphemous. While I am not supportive of the film, we ought to be fair and look at the evidence for the assertion that there was a romance, or the possibility of one, between Jesus and Mary. I suppose most Christians do not believe that Jesus had those kinds of feelings. Apparently they cannot imagine that he ever was interested in marriage and raising a family.
Yet we are told that he was tempted in all points like as we but without sin (Heb. 4:15), a point the producer of the film does not let us forget. Nor does the Bible condemn marriage and the marriage bed, but rather honors it as a holy institution. Since Jesus was in all other respects a normal Jewish male, could it have been that he was interested in some woman? Specifically, Mary Magdalene?
Though I am not trying to defend the film, I had already come to the conclusion that Jesus was perfectly normal in these respects. The thing to note, however, is that he came to do the Father's will, not his own. He sacrificed his own ambitions to fulfill the plan God had chosen for him, and that plan necessitated that he forfeit the pleasures of marriage and a family. I have given a plausible explanation of this fact in another one of my writings.
There isn't much written about Mary Magdalene in the gospels. We know that the Lord cast seven devils out of her. Except for one incident, discussed below, that really is all. Some have thought she was the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with precious ointment. But such an identity is mistaken: that woman was Mary of Bethany.
The one incident that is recorded, however, hints that Mary's feeling for Jesus went beyond those of a disciple's reverence for the Master. Not only was she one of the women who kept watch at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40, 47), she featured very prominently in the resurrection story. In John's version of the resurrection morning, we read,
The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him (John 20:1-2).
Then some of the other disciples came to the tomb. After they saw it was empty, they left.
But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him.
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God (John 20:11-17).
Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Jesus showed himself after his resurrection! That tells us something of the relationship between the two. But notice the way John has worded the episode: the language here is fraught with the suggestion that Mary loved Jesus a bit more than just as a friend and teacher. John mentions the fact that she was present with the other "Marys" at the cross. Even Mark, noted for brevity, mentions Mary Magdalene four times in connection with the passion and resurrection. Her grief, as John relates it, seems of a more personal nature than the others. She stayed at the tomb even though the others left. Though all the women of the immediate circle of friends of Jesus wept at his death, John's wording implies that the weeping of Mary springs from a deeper anguish, of an inconsolable sorrow over an infinite loss. And I think it is significant that she referred to Jesus as "my Lord," even offering to care for his body.
When she finally recognized him, she addressed him, "Rabboni!" This is the Aramaic form of the Hebrew Rabbi. Rabbi means "master" or "teacher." The gospel writer tells us Rabboni also means "Master" or "Teacher" (depending on the version), which it does. But Young's Analytic Concordance says that Rabboni means "My Rabbi." It seems to be a more personal and intimate form of address than Rabbi, though this is denied by others. According to Davis Dictionary of the
Bible, it is believed that some Jewish schools had three grades of honor: rab (master) the lowest, rabbi (my master), and rabboni (my lord, my master). Regardless, it may have just been the way Mary said it that caused the response of Jesus.
Evidently there was something in Mary's demeanor that Jesus had to discourage, for he said, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father." However, just a short time later, Jesus appeared to other of the women and they held him by the feet and worshipped him (Matt. 28:9). Why would Jesus forbid Mary to touch him, but permit the other women to hold him by the feet?
An answer that many of us believed for years was that the risen Christ was now standing in the role of the high priest of Israel during the Feast of Atonement. As such, he must enter into the Holy of Holies twice, that is, Heaven, once for himself, then again for the people. His Ascension forty days later was the second time he ascended into heaven to his Father. An oft quoted scripture to support this is:
So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation (Heb. 9:28).
We believed that Jesus' first Ascension unto his Father occurred shortly after his appearance to Mary from which he returned before he met the other women. Thus he fulfilled the high priest's duties exactly; for the high priest also went into the Holy of Holies twice, reappearing outside the temple between the events.
But there is something wrong with this. For one thing, the high priest's first entry into the Holy of Holies was to purify himself with a sacrifice before he could appear for the people. That is exactly what Christ did not need to do, for he had never been defiled. It is also difficult to believe that merely touching the risen Lord would defile him, preventing him from ascending into heaven to become High Priest. The law was literal, of course, but Jesus represented the true priesthood of which the first was but a type.
The fallacy with this explanation is that it depends on a very literal understanding of Jesus' warning, "touch me not." Greek scholars maintain that these words do not convey the meaning of a purely physical touching. Modern translations render it either "Stop
clinging to me," or "Do not hold on to me." In other words, it was Mary's possessiveness that Jesus had to forbid.
If this analysis is correct, then I'm sure Jesus knew Mary's affections towards him, deeply felt as they were, though there is absolutely no hint that he ever returned them in like kind. Nevertheless, kind hearted that he was and being sorry for her, he highly honored her by showing himself unto her even before appearing to his own mother, brothers, or apostles. It would seem that he sought to console her and gently hint that he was forever "unavailable."
One thing, however, still needs to be explained, ". . .for I have not yet ascended to the Father." What has that got to do with anyone touching Jesus? Was he saying that it would be alright for Mary to "touch" him, or "cling" to him after he had ascended to the Father?
In Hebrews, we read of Jesus as the new High Priest:
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16)
Now can Mary Magdalene "touch" her beloved Master.3 She can cast herself at his feet and tell him of her most secret needs, her disappointments, and her griefs. He will listen and sympathize; he will dry her tears. He will be better than a husband ever could be, a true friend that sticks closer than a brother (Prov.18:24), and most of all, a saviour. Now Jesus can fulfill his promise, "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out (John 6:37). Or Peter's exhortation, "Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you" (1 Pet. 5:7).
Yes, I quite agree that there could have been, at least on Mary's part, the normal human feelings of
eros. Jesus did not rebuke her; he simply refused to become involved with her in any way other than as a beloved friend. But it should be noted that what we have suggested about Mary's feelings is by no means established beyond any doubt. It surely cannot be accepted by sincere scholars of the New Testament as the grounds for a novel, play, or film such as "The Last Temptation of Christ."
I also agree with the Christian critics of the film that it is disgraceful to display a scene of Jesus making love to a woman, especially when he was dying in agony for all our sins. I quite reject the suggestion that this was the last temptation of Christ.
If longing for Mary Magdalene was not the last temptation, what was? I think I might have the answer to that.
During the last Passover supper that Jesus ate with the twelve, he ended the feast by passing around bread and wine, and commanded them all to eat and drink. He said, "But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29).
The phrase "fruit of the vine" reminds us of the vow of the Nazarite found in Numbers 6:
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord:
He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels [seeds] even to the husk [skins] (Num. 6:2-4).
Further restrictions forbid both the cutting of the hair throughout the time of the vow and touching a dead person. Everyone is familiar with Samson, the most famous example of a Nazarite in the Bible. Though he was dedicated by his parents to be a Nazarite for life, there was no prescribed interval mentioned in the Law. There is some indication, for example, that Paul took on the vow for a short period of time (Acts 18:18).
Perhaps John the Baptist was a Nazarite but Jesus definitely was not.4 This contrast is revealed in Matthew 11:18-19 where Jesus states how John drank no wine (and was said to be possessed with a devil) whereas he himself did and was labeled a glutton and a winebibber (Matt. 11:18-19). Jesus also touched the dead (Matt. 9:25).
The question is this: knowing that Jesus was not a Nazarite during the main part of his ministry, is it possible that he did, at the last, take on the vow?
I believe that he did, though I shall not be dogmatic about the issue, for there are many uncertainties. Here are my reasons:
Jesus said, "I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." One of the Psalms seems to point to his taking a vow:
will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the
Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of
all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death
of his saints. . . . I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in
the presence of all his people" (Psa. 116:13-15, 18).
There may be some who doubt that this is a prophecy of the Messiah: I rather think it is. There are as many parallels to his ministry and purpose in this Psalm as there are in several others that we all agree are Messianic. If so, then here is a reference to Jesus "paying his vows," which has some connection with his death ("Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints"). Note also "I will take the cup of salvation" and how Jesus prayed three times that "this cup pass from me."
As we said, Samson was a Nazarite. There are also parallels between Samson and Jesus. We all know that Samson was a strong man who pitted his strength against the enemies of Israel, the Philistines. In one of Jesus' discourses, he likened himself as one who was stronger than "the strong man," by which he meant Satan (Luke 11:21-22). Paul notes how Christ "spoiled principalities and powers, [making] a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15).
It is well within the limits of credibility that, though Jesus was not a Nazarite during his ministry, he took upon himself that vow on the eve of his death. As I see it, he vowed to defeat "the strong man," that is, Satan, and set free his captives (Eph. 4:8). One of the requirements of the vow was a total abstinence from the "fruit of the vine."
Regardless whether Jesus actually took upon himself the Nazarite vow, we are interested in the definition of the phrase, "fruit of the vine." Included under this category was any part of the grape: leaves; grapes, whether skin or seeds, fresh or dried; and juice in any form, wine or vinegar.
One of the "seven last sayings of Christ" was, "I thirst" (John 19:28). In response, the Roman soldiers gave him vinegar mixed with gall (Matt.27:34). (Other gospels say
wine.) According to E.W.G. Masterman, "It is well known that the Romans gave wine with frankincense to criminals before their execution to alleviate their sufferings; here the chole or bitter substance used was myrrh (Pliny
Ep.83).5 Some authorities have even suggested that the substance given to Jesus was opium. Evidently, some of the Roman soldiers felt sorry for Jesus (one even recognized him to be the Son of God) and offered him a pain killing drug to alleviate his suffering.
Here then was the last temptation: Jesus could have taken an anesthetic to relieve pain, but to do so would force him to violate his vow to abstain from the "fruit of the vine". He refused. Satan was defeated, for he had nothing further he could do. Regardless whether Jesus was a legal Nazarite or not at this point, he, like Samson, proved himself to be stronger than Satan.
At what time he will begin "drinking it anew with us in his Father's kingdom," I do not know. Perhaps he is even now doing so in a symbolic way, for in the language of Paul, our drinking of his cup is a celebration of the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 10-11). Paul further identifies the drinking of that cup with the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). In confirmation, John recorded what the Spirit of Jesus said:
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20).