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Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed - Dennis MacDonald

Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed: The Author of the Gospel of Mark Created Them (Guest Blog by New Testament Scholar Dennis MacDonald)

MacDonaldBelow is a guest blog that NT scholar Dennis MacDonald asked me to post here on Κέλσος. MacDonald argues that both Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are fictional characters that never historically existed, but were created by the author of Mark. This post is heavily related to my previous essay, which discusses the creation of fictional characters in the Alexander Romance, namely prince Nicolaus of the Arcarnanians and Lysias the divider.

I should note that my posting of MacDonald’s essay here does not constitute endorsement, since I also think that Mary and Judas could have existed as historical persons (or been invented for reasons other than Homeric mimesis). Nevertheless, I likewise think that MacDonald’s hypothesis is interesting and certainly plausible. Below is MacDonald’s essay:

I’ve had enough! I’m writing this paper at 4:00 a.m. March 28, 2016, the day after Easter. Throughout Holy Week New Testament scholars, many of whom are not only my colleagues but my friends, have naively proposed in various popular media some variation on the historical Judas and Magdalene and how later tradition reshaped and contested their legacies. I heard no one challenging the presumption that such characters actually existed, even though the earliest Christian records don’t mention them, namely the authentic epistles of Paul and the lost Gospel Q, which I prefer to call the Logoi of Jesus. They both first appear in Christian texts in the Gospel of Mark, and every single reference to them later issues—whether directly or indirectly—from that single work. The existence of both characters thus depends on one’s assessment of what Mark says about them. This not to say that later both characters became exceedingly and controversial dramatis personae in Jesus narratives and their interpretations, but both first appear in Mark, who frequently created character with significant names.


According to Mark 5:9, Jesus asked the ferocious demoniac, “‘What is your name?’ And he says to him, ‘My name is Legion [Λεγιών], for we are many.’” The transliteration of the Latin Legion surely associates the two thousand demons with the Roman army. To the sons of Zebedee Mark’s Jesus gave “the name Boanerges,” just as he “gave the name Peter to Simon” (3:16-17). “The epithet [Βοανηργής] probably transliterates Aramaic בני רגשא (‘sons of noise’) [1].” Its significance for Mark lies in his translation “Sons of Thunder,” which links him to the famous Greek mythological twins Castor and Polydeuces, who shared the name Dioscuri, “sons of Zeus.” They, like James and John, were fishermen.

The name Jairus (᾿Ιάϊρος) transliterates the Hebrew יאיר, “he will brighten.” This “leader of the synagogue” is the father of a girl whom Jesus raises from the dead; Jesus thus brightens his life. The episode of the raising of the girl and the embedded story of the hemorrhaging woman are imitations of the death of Sarpedon and the unstanchable wound of Glaucus (Il2.876 and 16.593), whose name derives from the adjective γλαυκός, “gleaming.”

The place name Dalmanoutha (Δαλμανουθά) is not independently attested; the name is not historical or traditional but compositionally significant and derives from the Aramaic particle ד, “of,” למן, “the harbor,” a loan word from the Greek word for harbor λιμήν, and ותא, probably an Aramaic ending for place names. Mark’s bilingual reader thus may have understood 8:10 to mean that Jesus and his disciples sailed “into the region Of-the-Harbor.” The conflict that takes place at Dalmanoutha modestly resembles one that takes place at a dangerous harbor in Od10.

Barabbas (Βαραββᾶς) is not the rogue’s birth name; it is a nickname: ὁ λεγόμενος (15:7). Even Mark’s Greek readers would have known that this name in Aramaic means “son of a father [בר אבא ].” Mark translated βαρ- as υἱός in 10:46 and αββα as πατήρ in 14:36. So when readers come to Jesus’ trial, they see that the Jewish authorities are given a choice between two sons of God,  Jesus and “son of [the] Father” (15:7). Some manuscripts of Matthew name the rogue “Jesus Barabbas,” which may indeed preserve Matthew’s original reading (Matt 27:16) [2]. If so, at least one of Mark’s ancient readers seems to have noticed the contrast with Jesus, Son of God, and made the comparison even more obvious by adding the name Jesus before the patronymic [3]. Barabbas is a mimetic descendent of Homer’s Irus, a beggar whom Penelope’s suitors favored in a fight against Odysseus in disguise. Like Barabbas, Irus’s nickname is significant insofar as it is the masculine form of Iris, the messenger of the gods; the suitors gave him this moniker because he did their bidding. “Irus all the young men called him” (Od18.6).

No writing earlier than Mark ever mentioned the city Arimathea, the hometown of Joseph. Scholars have not unreasonably stretched for possible analogies, but to a Greek ear the place name would sound like “excellent discipleship” (αρι-μαθαια). Joseph, who shares his name with the traditional name of Jesus’ father, plays the role of Hector’s father who famously acquired the body of his son for burial in the final book of the Iliad.

The names Judas Iscariot and Mary of Magdala also are significant. No one in antiquity apart from Judas (and his father Simon in the Gospel of John) was called Iscariot (᾿Ισκαριώθ). Mark apparently created this neologism by combining the Greek preposition εἰς, into, with a transliteration of an Aramaic word for city (καριωθ, קריתא) to evoke Homer’s villain Melanthius, “blacky,” whom the reader of the Odyssey first encounters on his way “to the city” to provide goats for Penelope’s suitors. Judas repeatedly plays a role similar to Homer’s Melanthius. Here is a distillation of the parallels that I propose in The Gospels and Homer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014):



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Od. 17-22Mark
• Odysseus’s slave “Melanthius, son of Dolius [Blacky, son of Deceitful]” first appears in the epic as he drives goats into the city for the suitors’ feasts.Judas Iscariot (Into-the-city) changes his loyalties from Jesus to his rivals.
The suitors rewarded Melanthius by allowing him to feast with them.The chief priests rewarded Judas with cash.
Melanthius nearly revealed to the suitors the beggar’s true identity as the master of the estate and later supplied them with weapons.With a kiss Judas identified Jesus for those who came to arrest Jesus “with swords and clubs.”
Odysseus punished his treacherous slave with mutilation, including the removal of his ears.Someone in the crowd cut off the ear of “the slave of the chief priest,” who likely was none other than Judas.

Significant too is Mary the Magdalene (Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή). The word Μαγδαληνή comes from the Hebrew word מגדל, “tower,” and the derivative Aramaic epithet מגדלאה or מגדליא, “of Magdala.” Magdala was “Towertown,” and the foundations of the ancient structure are visible today. As we shall see, Mark related Mary to this city to notify his cleverer readers that she was an emulation of Homer’s Andromache.

This assessment finds confirmation by comparing what Mark says about Mary with Homer’s Andromache. According to Il22, three women watched Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot: his mother Hecuba, is sister-in-law Helen, and his wife Andromache. Three women watch Jesus’ death: Mary the mother of James and Joses (significantly, she shares her name with Jesus’ mother, and her sons share names with two of Jesus’ brothers!), Salome, and Mary Magdalene (who also shares her name with Jesus’ mother). As we have seen, Joseph of Arimathea shares his name with the traditional name of Jesus’ father. By means of these names Mark illustrates Jesus’ statement that his true family are those who do his will (see 3:31-35).

It was not Simon Peter who carried Jesus’ cross, as he had sworn (Mark 14:31), but Simon of Cyrene. It was not James and John who died at his right and left, as they had promised in 10:37-39, but two bandits. It will not be Joseph of Nazareth who buries him but Joseph of Arimathea. Mark’s penchant for creating characters to contrast with Jesus’ family and closest disciples applies also to the names of the women at the tomb. One might have expected Jesus’ mother, Mary of Nazareth, to have attended to the body and tomb of her son; instead, it was two other women named Mary and a Salome.




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Compare the following:

Il. 22.430, 460-464, and 515Mark 15:40
Hecuba led the shrieking lament among the Trojan women. / . . . She [Andromache] rushed through the hall like a mad woman, / her heart 
pounding, and her maidservants went with her. / When she got to the tower [πύργον] and the crowd of men, / she stopped at the wall to take a look and saw him / [Hector]Women [γυναῖκες] were watching from a distance, among them were Mary of Towertown, Mary the mother of James the short and Joses, and Salome.
being dragged around the city. . . . / [She gave her lament.] So she spoke, weeping, and the women [γυναῖκες] added their groans. 

If one attributes the three women watching Jesus’ death to Mark’s imitation of the Trojan women watching the death of Hector, the presence of three women at the cross in the Gospel of John should be taken as evidence of dependence on the Synoptics. In fact, John 19:25 appears to be a conflation of Mark and Luke. Instead of keeping Jesus’ loved ones at a distance, John places them at the foot of the cross. Although the Johannine Evangelist retains Mark’s reference to Mary Magdalene, he makes Mary the mother of James and Joses into the mother of Clopas, and omits Salome in favor of Jesus’ mother. Of course, if Mark created Mary Magdalene in imitation of Homer’s Andromache, her appearance in this role also in John betrays knowledge of the Synoptics.

In Il22 Hecuba sees Hector’s limp body trailing Achilles’ chariot, as do “the wives of his brothers” (473), who would have included Helen, Paris’ wife. Later, Andromache learns of her husband’s death. In book 24, when Priam returns from the Achaean camp, Andromache and Hecuba are at the gate (710); Helen is missing. At the funeral, however, the three women give their laments: Andromache first (725-745); Hecuba second (747-759); and Helen last (762-775). A strikingly similar sequence appears in Mark [4].

Il. 22 and 24Mark
Female witnesses to Hector’s death (22.430-514)Female witnesses to Jesus’ death (15:40)
Hecuba U+2198.svgU+2199.svg “Mary Magdalene, and
Helen U+2198.svgU+2196.svg Mary the mother [μήτηρ] of James the short,
Andromache U+2197.svgU+2196.svg and Salome”
Female witnesses to Hector’s return (24.710)Female witnesses to Jesus’ burial (15:47)
Andromache (“his dear wife”) U+2192.svgU+2190.svg “Mary Magdalene,
Hecuba (“royal mother [μήτηρ]”) U+2192.svgU+2190.svg and Mary the mother of Joses”
No HelenNo Salome
Female mourners at Hector’s funeralFemale mourners at Jesus’ tomb (16:1)
Andromache U+2192.svgU+2190.svg “Mary Magdalene,
Hecuba U+2192.svgU+2190.svg and Mary the mother of James,
Helen U+2192.svgU+2190.svg and Salome”

Notice that the order of the women generally is Andromache/the Magdalene; then Hecuba/Mary the mother of X; and finally Helen/Salome.

Nowhere does Mary Magdalene play a more significant role than in the Gospel of John, and many scholars have proposed that Jesus’ appearance to her preserves ancient Christian tradition. Surely this is not the case. Few have taken seriously the following parallels between Jesus’ appearance to her in John 20 and the appearances in Luke 24 [5].

Luke 24John 20
• 1 On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [three women] went to the tomb bringing aromatic lotions that they had prepared. . . .1 On the first day of the week, early, while it was still dark,
9 When they returned from the tomb, they announced all these things [ταῦτα] to the eleven and all the others.


10 They were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. They were telling these things [ταῦτα] to the apostles.





Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, [Cf. vs. 18: “Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ and that he had said these things [ταῦτα] to her.”] And saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. . . .

• 3 When they entered it, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 It happened that while they were at a loss about this situation, suddenly two men in radiant clothing stood before them.11b As she wept, she stooped into the tomb


12 and saw two angels in white garments sitting there.

In Luke, the men/angels declare that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In John, however, it is Jesus who asks a question of Mary, unaccompanied by the other women, which resembles his question to the two disciples in Luke. The disciples and Mary are unable to recognize the risen Jesus.

Luke 24John 20
• 17 Jesus said to them, “What are you discussing with each other as you walk?”13 And they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says to them, “They have removed my Lord, and I do not know where they placed him.”
• 15 And it so happened while they were talking and looking for answers Jesus himself was approaching and joined them in their journey.14 Once she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there
• 16 Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.and did not know that it was Jesus.
• 17 Jesus said to them, “What are15 Jesus says to her, “Woman,
you discussing with each other as you walk? And why have you stopped momentarily full of gloom?”why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
• 37 They were startled and terrified—they supposed [ἐδόκουν] they were seeing a spirit. [In vv. 19-20 the two disciples told the stranger about the death of Jesus.]She, supposing [δοκοῦσα] that he was a gardener, says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where you have placed him, and I will fetch him.”
• 30 While he was reclining with them he took the bread and blessed it; having broken it, he gave it to them.16 Jesus says to her, “Mary.”
• 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.On turning she says to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni” (i.e. teacher) [6].
• 38 And he said to them, 39 “. . . Touch me and look: a mere spirit does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.”17 Jesus says to her, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
• 34 They were saying that the Lord truly was raised, and appeared to Simon.But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father. . . .”
35 Then they told what had happened on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (cf. 22-23)18 Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and that he had said these things to her.

Two differences between Luke and John are most striking. In the first place, whereas Jesus in Luke invites the disciples to touch him, he insists that Mary not do so. Scholars have proposed a wide variety of interpretations for this prohibition [7]. Mary Rose D’Angelo cites as an illustrative parallel the following passage from the Apocalypse of Moses (= Life of Adam and Eve) 31:3-4. On his death bed, Adam told Eve,

[W]hen I die, leave me alone and let no one touch me [μηδείς μου ἅψηται] until the angel of the Lord shall say something about me; for God will not forget me, but will seek his own vessel which he has formed. But rather rise to pray to God until I shall give back my spirit into the hand of the one who has given it [8].

D’Angelo argues that shortly after his death Adam was undergoing an ontological transformation; only after his soul had escaped could his body be buried [9]. Similarly in John 20:17, Jesus may have prohibited Mary from touching him because his soul had not yet separated from the body.

But the Johannine author also made a second significant transformation: he substituted Mary to play the role that Luke had awarded to Cleopas and his companion. He may have done so under the influence of Euripides’ Bacchae, the tragic recognition by Agave.

  • After Pentheus’s death, his mother appears alone on stage unaware that she was carrying the head of her son, mistaking it as the head of a lion. Similarly, after Jesus’ death Mary appears in the garden alone, sees Jesus’ empty tomb, and is unaware what had happened to his body. Later, she fails to recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener.
  • Agave asks the chorus, “Where [ποῦ] is my son Pentheus?” (1212); later she asks Cadmus, “Where [ποῦ] is the body of my dear son?” (1298). Mary tells the angels why she wept: “They have removed my Lord, and I do not know where [ποῦ] they placed him” (20:13). To “the gardener” she says, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where [ποῦ] you have placed him, and I will fetch him” (20:15).
  • In the end, Agave recognizes the head atop her thyrsus to be that of her beloved son. When Jesus addresses Mary by name, she recognizes him.
  • More striking than the similarities are the differences: Agave’s jubilation turns to tears when she recognizes the head of her son; Mary’s tears turn to jubilation when she recognizes the gardener to be her teacher. Here one finds a spectacular emulation, an emotional inversion.

In sum, it would appear that the Johannine author skillfully borrowed from two models for the composition of Jesus’ appearance to Mary. He redacted Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus but transformed the two disciples into one woman, who replaces Agave’s tears at the death of her son with joy at Jesus’ resurrection.


No reliable information exists that Judas Iscariot or Mary of Magdala ever existed. Their names are entirely missing in the earliest Christian sources, the letters of Paul and the missing Gospel Q (Logoi of Jesus). There is no debate that their names first appear in the Gospel of Mark, but there is a huge debate about whether the Evangelist knew of them from traditions or created them. This paper has argued for the latter.

  • Every reference to Judas or Mary Magdalene later than Mark relies on it either directly, as in Matthew, Luke, and John, or indirectly on canonical Gospels. There is no exception; their existence relies entirely on one’s assessment of Mark.
  • The Markan Evangelist created many significant names, several of which are markers to readers to compare his narrative with characters in the Homeric epics, such as Boanerges, Jairus, and Barabbas.
  • By designating Judas as Iscariot, “into-the-city,” Mark evokes Homer’s first reference to Melanthius in the Odyssey who was driving goats into the city for the feasting suitors. Throughout Mark Judas plays the role of Odysseus’s most treacherous slave.
  • By designating Mary as the Magdalene, “of-Tower-town,” Mark accomplishes two tasks: first, he presents her as the namesake of Jesus’ mother, who is conspicuously absent at the cross; second, he evokes weeping Andromache, who watches the death of her husband from the walls of Troy and laments at his funeral.
  • Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the Gospel of John does not represent a tradition independent of the Synoptics but relies on Mark for her appearance at the tomb and on Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus for her recognition of the gardener as Jesus. The change of gender from Luke’s Cleopas and his (male?) companion to Mary may reflect the Johannine Evangelist’s investment in portraying Jesus as a rival to Euripides’ Dionysus. At the end of the Bacchae Agave recognizes to her horror that the head atop her thyrsus, which she thought was from a lion, was the head of her son, whom she had just killed.

Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene thus never existed before Mark created them.

-Dennis MacDonald

[1] Joan E. Taylor, “The Name ‘Iskarioth’ [Iscariot],” JBL 129 (2010): 381.

[2]  See the excellent defense of “Jesus Barabbas” by Eldon Jay Epp, “Textual Criticism and New Testament Interpretation,” in Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge (ed. Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards; RBS 67; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 92-102.

[3] Origen gives this reading of Mark in Comm. Matt. 27:16-18 (GCS 38.255-56).

[4] For this observation I am indebted to Taegyu Shin.

[5] The Gospels and Homer (320-26) argued that Luke created Jesus’ appearances on the road to Emmaus and then to the eleven by imitating Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’s revelation of his identity to his father Laertes and his slaves.

[6] Both in Luke 24 and John 20 one finds anagnōrisis, or recognition, so important in ancient Greek tragedy. Brant: “The act of recognition [by the Magdalene] in the Gospel [of John] ends, as do many such scenes, with an embrace” (Dialogue and Drama, 56).

[7] See the judicious treatment by Harold W. Attridge, “’Don’t Be Touching Me’: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Mary Magdalene,” in vol. 2 of A Feminist Companion Companion to John (ed. Amy-Jill Levine; Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 140-66.

[8] Translated by Marshall D. Johnson in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. James H. Charlesworth, 2 vols; Garden City: Doubleday, 1983 and 1985), 2.287.

[9] “A Critical Note: John 20:17 and Apocalypse of Moses 31,” JTS ns 41 (1990): 529-36.

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