by Luise Rinser
ďHe did not speak to them except in parables,
but when they were alone,
he explained everything to his disciplesĒ.
You call me Mary Magdalene. You should call me by my real name: Miryam. In Aramaic, my mother tongue, Miryam means: the beautiful and also the bitter one. Both apply to me: I was beautiful and much bitterness was in me from youth on, until I met Yeshua, and new bitterness was allotted me when he was killed. Magdala is the name of my home city. A town in Galilee, a mass of chalk-white stone blocks, so white that they dazzle in the sun and sparkle in the moonlight. A commercial town, a town of strong smells, stench and fragrance combined: the smell of fish from the Sea of Kineret and salt, the fragrance of goods which my father bought and sold: sandalwood, myrrh, balsam, perfumed olive oil, accompanied by the stench of camel dung and donkey urine and the sweat smell of men, the merchants and caravan drivers who came out of the desert. When the north wind blew, it wafted the air in, then for a while the town smelled of desert, and after the snow of the distant Hernon. My hometown. Itís old name came from the fish: Migdal Nunaya, fishburg. The Greeks who lived in the eastern neighboring province, in Decapolis, called it Tarischaia, and this name also has a connection to the fish.
Long after Jesusí death, when I lived in my cave in that region called Provincia, far away from my home, far away from the scene of the great sorrow, the west wind brought me the smell of the sea, of salt, of fish, familiar smells, mixed though with the strange one from dead waters and swamp; just the weak hint of salt and fish smell reminded me and hurt. Nothing was forgotten. On such days I crawled into the deepest corner of the deep cave, beat the damp raw rock with my fists and cried out for Yeshua. I screamed so that the sheep that grazed before my cave ran away together with the sheepdogs that guarded them and the shepherd who brought me bread and milk every day. It was he who had showed me the cave when I wandered around, homeless and helpless. He was a child then. I watched him grow up. He stayed near me and was gentle like his lambs. But when I screamed he rushed off, also screaming. He knew why I screamed, however, and he understood, because I told him much about Yeshua, whose widow he thought I was, and I let him believe it.
He was the first to see us land, he stood there on the seashore where the storm ran our ship aground, that rotting, long unseaworthy sailboat in which we escaped from Saulís persecution, a decade after Yeshuaís death: Miryam Schuleamit, Miryam Jaíabovi and I, also Shoshana, Yohana and Sara, our loyal servant, together with the two sisters from Bethany and their brother Lazarus, whom they called Lazaire, and who soon began to bravely preach. We had also hired two Phoenician sailors, who brought us here for a lot of money. After the landing they were baptized and became Lazarusís companions.††††††††††††††
There was no one on the beach when we were thrown ashore, only the child, the shepherd boy, and he did the sensible thing: without a word he brought us water from a spring. Then he led us, still without words, to the village Aqua Mortua. We were received graciously there, but: the area was occupied by the Romans. They were also here. Everywhere Rome. And the hated language: Aqua Mortua. Latin.
The Romans were lazy, however, and they knew nothing of what happened in Erez Yisrael. That was far away. Eight weeks by sea, or more. A hundred years. There were no Jews here in Provincia, except us. But we were no rebels. We were shipwrecked, quiet strangers. But we preferred not to be taken for a group. We went further inland in twos, into the unknown. We still had money, Roman coins with Caesarís head, which were also accepted here, and we worked where we found work: in the fields, in the vineyards, and we tried to learn the foreign tongue better, which wasnít difficult, for the Romansí Latin rang in our ears and we began to proclaim Yeshuaís teaching, but we didnít know if we would be arrested and killed even here. I said: we. It wasnít so. Not we. I still couldnít bear to speak of Yeshua. I separated from the rest, at the division into twos I was superfluous anyway. The little shepherd led me to the cave. After all the wild tumult of the last years all I needed to do was sleep, infinitely long, infinitely deep.††††††††††
The cave was the right place for me. It reached far into the mountain and in the rear formed a kind of low chamber in which I could lie but not stand. The shepherd patiently gathered the bits of sheep-wool that hung on the thorn-hedges and brought them to me, and soft hay that smelled of meadow flowers. Every morning a small jug of milk stood at the caveís entrance, and alongside it a piece of goat cheese and some bread; the little shepherd shared his breakfast with me. What did I do in the cave? Who invented the story that I lived like a holy penitent with a polished skull in my hands, weeping for my sins? Foolish prattle. What should I be penitent about, if HE absolved me? To repent still would mean I didnít really believe that I was born anew in his eyes. No: whoever steps over that threshold through which HE leads, does not look back. What do you know about me? You know what a few men have reported, men who wrote much later of what they heard said about the woman who I was. I was supposed to have been a sinner. Thatís their slander. What did they mean? What they meant is clear. When they talk about a sinner they mean an adulteress or a whore. I was neither. How, then, did this idea come into the story?
There were two sources; one was myself, for I was an outsider, not fitting the picture of a Jewish woman. When my father died I was sixteen and not engaged to be married. A young woman in Yisrael, rich, beautiful and of marriageable age, who sits home and studies the Torah like a boy and doesnít want a husband, that is already a scandal. Doesnít she place herself wantonly and sinfully outside the holy law if she refuses to bear children? Doesnít she jeopardize Yisraelís salvation when she closes her womb to the Messiah, whom every female Yisrealite of royal descent could give birth to? Such a one was a sinner. In any case she was weird. Why wasnít she married? Did she have a secret blemish?
It was something quite different. I swore never to marry at twelve years of age, when my mother died. Why?
I loved my mother very much, for I saw that she suffered. She was beautiful and when guests came my father showed her off full of pride, as he showed off his best horse and the new alabaster cup. But she wasnít allowed to participate in the conversation. She had to stand behind the guests and serve them. That was the custom. Who thought anything about it? Surely her husband loved her, in his way, as he loved his house and his balsam forest and all his property. Sometimes he patted his wife, as he patted his horse. In motherís eyes I read nothing, neither love nor contempt nor rebellion. She died young, she died of melancholy, she suffocated from lack of spirit. When she died I vowed never to live a life like hers. And I kept that oath.
I became beautiful like my mother. The men twisted their necks and heads after me. Once I noticed how a guest made a sign to my father about me and how both nodded and smiled. After supper the man inspected me from top to bottom. Bad manners. I realized what it meant: I was to marry him. When he looked at my face I showed him my teeth. Whatís that mean? He asked. I said: Doesnít one look at the horseís teeth that heís going to buy? He laughed loudly. Afterwards I saw him and my father bargaining for a long time. They were bargaining over me. My aunt said: Youíre lucky, the man is filthy rich and very respected.
I cried: He? He will not be my husband, not him. I will not be sold, not even to the highest bidder. I cried it in Aramaic and Greek and Hebrew, so he would really understand; in the borderland we were all trilingual. The man heard and laughed, and my father laughed. The stranger said loudly and also in three languages: I like her. I will break in this wild foal; sheíll be a splendid stock-mare.
At dinner I stumbled on purpose so that the hot soup fell on his bare feet. He screamed, he cursed, I ran off, my aunt bandaged the burns, my father gave him scented oil. The stranger never returned. He lost the courage to tame me. Others came, but my scowling face frightened them. I also smeared ashes on my cheeks. They thought I was sick and left me alone. I began to study the Torah and my brother helped me, although he didnít see why I, a girl, should study like a boy.††††††
Why do you want to study the Torah, Miryam?
Youíre a girl.
Girls donít need to do that. They learn other things, things that are useful.
Useful for whom? Men, children.
Isnít that enough?
Not for me.
What are you aiming at?
What are you aiming at?
I am a man and can become a teacher. But you, a girl!
Do you despise me?
Not you. Youíre an exception.
Iím no exception. Iím a Jew and want to learn. But you, you are one of those who thank God every day that youíre not poor, not sick and not a woman, arenít you?
Well, yes, thatís the way it is.
Thatís the way it is. It doesnít have to be that way. And I donít want to stay ignorant. I study!
He shook his head about me. My father too. He didnít know that I hated him ever since that story with the Persian, his business partner, that insolent storyteller. There were also other guests at table and they had drunk a lot and had become talkative. The Persian told one story after another. I remember one. Oh, how I remember it! Do you know what he said about how Eve was created? Adam was bored in paradise. God wanted to create a diversion for him, and he decided to give him a woman, for thatís what women are good for: diversion. And he thought: from which part of the man should I make the woman? From the back? No, then she would stand up tall and no longer bow down before the man. From the head? No no, then she will think and butt into all the manís affairs. From the ear? No, then she would hear too much. From the arm? Then she would be strong and beat the man whenever possible. I know: Iíll take something from the darkest, most hidden part of the man, so that she will remain humble.
Loud laughter. I understood. My father guffawed. I hated him for that. Thatís what he thought of his wife, and also of his daughter.
My aunt had listened: They are pigs, she said.
My father died suddenly, before he could decide on a fiancť for me. My brother didnít either: he took his inheritance and joined the Essenes in the desert. He became a monk and I never saw him again.†
So I was alone in the big house that now belonged to me, young and beautiful and rich and without a husband. Something isnít right with someone like that. She is a demon, someone said who cornered me in a blind alley, until I made him flee with nothing more than my glare. She has snakes instead of hair and glowing coals instead of eyes. He didnít mean it quite so seriously, but it went around and, once said, was unstoppable. The demon.
†Why a sinner though? Why a whore? In the stories those men wrote about Yeshua and me thereís no mention of a whore. How did the whore come into the picture then?
An old story, much older than I. The Greeks called such stories myths. Stories that once happened and were repeated from time to time, as a weaving pattern is repeated, always a little different and nevertheless the same. There was a man in our times called Shimon, he was a magician, a real sorcerer, and he claimed that God ordered him to find his wife in a whorehouse. He did it and went around the land with her afterwards. The original pattern was, however, this: the bride, Sophia, wisdom, had been stolen from one of the high Gods, and he had to find her. She was in the underworld, in the shadows. The underworld became the whorehouse. The God sought his Sophia amongst the whores. She had become a whore herself.
The God and the Whore. The purest and the impurest together: the exalted pair. I heard the story from a Greek. I never imagined that it would one day be applied to me. I had to be a whore to fit into the mythical picture.
In truth I was often found in the small, notorious taverns in which publicans, drovers and loose women hung out. I was there with Yeshua. He liked to associate with such people. He learned from them how the people lived and thought. He heard the complaints and curses against the Romans, the priests, the rich, and from the curses he heard the cry for the savior, the liberator, the promised one, the Messiah.
Thus I became a whore. Why though the possessed one from whom Yeshua exorcised seven demons? Is there something to this story?††††
Yes, there is.
I was sixteen and was bored in my big house, or, rather, uneasiness gripped me. A roving spirit, irresistible. I had relatives in Bethany near Yerushalayim. Why not go there.
But I didnít go there. What drew me then to Nazareth? Why Nazareth, that hole?
The fish on a hook: it hung there four years, and I didnít know it, but felt it. It was four years ago that I first met him, he who would be my teacher, destined to me.
A stranger encounter. I stood on the doorstep of our house. A boy walked on the other side of the street. He held his head very high and his bare feet touched the ground so lightly that the dust barely rose. Who was this boy? A stranger. I stared at him. He felt my looking and glanced around him, as though someone had called him. Then he saw me. We looked at each other, curious, child-like. But we were no longer children. He smiled and did something unheard of: he bent his index finger. Come! that means. What a demand! Much later I understood: the bent finger was the fishhook which he threw out to me. The fish took the bate: it never escaped from the hook. Not even until today. And also the fisherman: He never let go of the hook; the fish belonged to him.†††
Someone pulled me back from the doorstep. My aunt.
Is that starting already?
That you gape at young men. Itís about time that your father found a fiancť for you.
Aunt, who is that boy?
How do I know? Heís not from here.
From where then?
Where? From Nazareth, from where nothing good comes. What is it to you?
What is he doing here, aunt?
Oh, You bothersome, naughty questioner!
His father is a carpenter. Heís working over there on the construction. And now enough questions. Not another word or Iíll tell your father.
Not another word, but many thoughts. They couldnít be forbidden. The memory of that boy embedded itself in me. He wasnít like others. What was special about him, that I never forget him?
The big question, asked a hundred times, later, still today. Who was he that no one who met him ever forgot him? You could love him, you could hate him, but never overlook him. He was simply THERE, and he was HE. And he was the one I loved. What a fountain was this love, born for an instant, then streaming on underground, deciding my path. Unbreakable bond.
My aunt soon forgot about it and she suspected nothing when, a year later, I begged her to go with me to the sea feast at kefarnachum. Many went there. My aunt lost sight of me. I mixed with the young people. I had only one idea: to see that boy again. He wasnít there. But I found out something new. In Nazareth there was a carpenter named Joseph who had a son, twelve or thirteen years old, who was much talked about. He had agitated a whole family, a group of pilgrims and half a town when he got lost. He went with his parents to the Passover feast in Yerushalayim and he separated from them. They only noticed on the return, almost back in Nazareth, and no one knew where he was. They turned back, went all the way again, and in Yerushalayim they found him in the synagogue, amongst the rabbis, and he was talking with them like a real learned scribe and knew so much that they were astounded. He was lavish with quotations from the Torah and gave them new meanings. He was extremely clever and sagacious as an old rabbi. The old ones liked him, but they also found him uncanny, especially when they found out that he belonged to the birth year that King Herod the Great had exterminated, that superstitious madman, to whom it was prophesized that a new king would be born who would overthrow his throne.††††††††††
The year had been predicted. The astrologers knew that it was an extraordinary constellation: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction. If all the Jewish boys born that year were killed, the danger would be eliminated. And now it became apparent that one had survived. How was that? Was it a good or a bad sign for Yisrael?
The parents finally found this boy and took him home from the synagogue and scolded him. Understandable. But he looked at them both as though they were strangers and didnít say a word during the whole trip back. From then on he was no longer a child and more like a guest in the family, a stranger, and one day he left and no one knew to where.
This, and that his name was Yeshua, I found out that time at the sea. On the way back I went to Nazareth and asked around until I found the house of the boyís parents. I found only the mother there. As I stood before her, my question seemed improper and I spoke of something else.
But she said: Why have you come, girl?
I took heart: You have a son named Yeshua. I met him once when his father was working in my hometown, Magdala.
He has gone.
Gone? Where to?
She pointed to the east, then to the south and repeated: Gone.
From the way she said it, I knew: he was gone forever.
Later, much later, she told me she assumed he had gone to one of those places in the desert which attracted the young men. Why did they do that? What good was it? What did they do in the desert?
My brother also: he was always talking about the end of times, about the great catastrophe, long ago prophesized by our old prophets, and that one could be saved through a strict, pure life. What was that: a strict, pure life?
Little by little I found out some things about it. The men who lived in those desert places belonged to an order. Whoever wanted to enter had to withstand hard trials before he could swear the permanently binding oath: renunciation of property, freedom, marriage, love, in short of everything that binds one to the earth. A hard life otherwise also: by day working in the oasis-gardens in burning heat and frost; nights study and prayer; confessing oneís offences publicly and accusing others who have gone against the order. (What a terrible demand. It made me shudder.) And, above all, blind obedience to the Superior, whose Supreme Superior they called ďTeacher of RighteousnessĒ. And why all that? To save themselves, for the end of the world was at hand. Silly belief. No end of time, only a new time was to be expected. There had always been new times, always upheavals. How many beginnings and how many endings had we Jews already experienced since the creation of the world!
How much parting, exodus, exile, persecution, annihilation since our exile in Egypt and in Babylon, how many fatal casualties in the battles against the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Persians and Seleukidians. And it was never the definitive end. A new beginning was always within the end. Yisrael is like an old olive tree: you see a dried up trunk. You think itís dead, for a hundred years, four hundred years, and suddenly a fresh green branch sprouts, you donít know how, and from the ancient root the new tree grows. Why, then, this catastrophe-fear? And, my question: if it were so, could some save themselves when all the others die? The story of Noah always infuriated me: he and his family survived in a wooden ship and watched as the others drowned. What kind of man was that Noah? And what kind of God, who wanted it thus and not otherwise?
And my dear little brother: could he want salvation for himself and not for me and others? That was incomprehensible to me, and also incomprehensible was Adonai, the Eternal, who saves a few and destroys the others, even though they are all his children, mostly unhappy and burdened beyond their strength. What can the beast of burden do if it breaks down under the weight? This question caused me great anguish later during my conversations with Yeshua and Jochanan. I never found the true explanation.
One thing I understood, though, when my brother joined the desert monks: in a time like ours one dreamed dark dreams about a great catastrophe that would put an end to our suffering, because we couldnít save ourselves. We, such a small people, a grain of wheat between the millstones. Job, struck by the Eternal. What a history lay behind us: since Alexander the Macedonian defeated Erez Yisreal our freedom had been lost. We lived not much better than slaves under foreign masters, and never under good ones. The Syrians were the worst: they destroyed the temple, stole the holy devices, ripped apart the Torah rolls, burned them and put to death those Jews who were found with one of the holy books; the observance of the Shabbat was forbidden as was circumcision, and when they found a woman who had circumcised her child, they killed her and hung the child around her neck.
Many fled to the desert, leaving their possessions behind in the city. The desert as a place of refuge: it was also that during my time, but the persecutors were no longer the Syrians, but their own fear of the eternal rejection by the Highest. At least thatís how I understood it. I despised all who fled and admired those who defied the enemy in open opposition. My mother had taught me this admiration for the fighters: when she spoke of the Maccabee uprising under Mattathias and his son Yehuda her eyes shone. You, she said, are also a Maccabee daughter.
But the Maccabees were defeated!
A defeat can be shameful, but also an honor, remember that.
But why did Adonai permit the courageous among his people to be defeated?
It is not Adonai, Miryam, who defeats his people; the people defeats itself through its sins. At the time the Greeks were in the country. Now we have the pagan Romans. Why? Our fault, our own fault. We ourselves called the Romans into our country.
How? How could we be so stupid?
We werenít stupid, just weak, because we were divided.
Pay attention to two names: the high priest Hyrkanos and King Aristobulos. Although both sons of our people and brothers, they fought among themselves and tore the people apart in their fight that was carried out with bloodshed. The battle was so great and vile that both parties, on their own, sent messengers to Rome: Come and help us! The Romans came, and they stayed, and the Roman eagle screams our shame into our faces until today.
How long will that last, mother?
Until the Messiah comes and frees us.
When will he come, when finally, tell me!
No one knows that, Miryam, and no one may predict his coming, or, if someone knows, he may not say.
Does someone know?
Perhaps one of those in the desert.
Who are they?
They are those who didnít want to fight and fled to the desert. Today we call them Essenes.
But that was a long time ago, mother, they are all dead, or arenít they?
New ones always go there.
What do they do?
They wait for the Messiah. They call themselves Chassidim, the pious ones. The most pious of all the pious.
And they wonít fight against the Romans?
Who fights against the Romans?
So we will be forever under their domination?
Until the Messiah comes. Cry out to Adonai to send him soon, cry out, Miryam.
Continued in the next issue of Southern Cross Review
Translated, from the German, by Frank Thomas Smith