John’s gospel records that Mary Magdalene is the first to see the risen Christ (John 20:1-18). Mary stands outside of the empty tomb weeping before two angels question her regarding the reason for her tears (John 20:11-13). After responding to the angelic inquiry, Mary turns and sees Jesus, though she does not recognize him; instead she presumes him to be the gardener (John 20:14-15). When Jesus calls her by her name, she perceives his identity and returns the gesture, exclaiming, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). (John 20:16 NASB)When uttering the caritative “Rabboni”, Mary is most likely excited (John 20:16). Many translations add an explanation point (ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though some do not (ASV, CEV, KJV).
Of the four canonical gospels, John alone records that Mary calls Jesus by this name. Jack W. Stallings (b. 1944) remarks:
This is apparently the term by which she has habitually addressed Jesus and, for some reason, John thinks it important that his readers know the very word she uses. (Stallings, The Gospel of John (The Randall House Bible Commentary), 279)The text notes that Mary turns to Jesus at the sound of her name, a posture she seemingly already has assumed (John 20:14, 16). Shelly Rambo (b. 1968) observes:
There is a slight confusion in the text about Mary’s positioning. It says that Jesus speaks her name and that she turns around and responds to him [John 20:16]. But isn’t Mary already facing Jesus? At first she was looking into the tomb, speaking to the angels [John 20:11]. Then she turns and speaks to him (without recognizing him) [John 20:14]. When he speaks her name, we assume that she is facing him. But the next verse calls that into question [John 20:16]. It says that she turns and responds by speaking his name. Somewhere between speaking to him as the gardener and speaking his name, did she turn away?...Many explain it by saying that the saying that the second turn is not literal; it merely emphasizes Mary’s comprehension of Jesus’ identity. The turning highlights her moment of recognition. (Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, 86)Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) informs:
The use of Mary’s name draws her attention because obviously the gardener knows her personally. Yet Mary had already turned towards the man (same verb) in John 20:14. Those who try to deal with the duplication without resorting to literary criticism (i.e., the joining of once independent accounts) usually suppose that Mary had turned away in the meantime. (Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (The Anchor Bible), 991)James L. Resseguie (b. 1945) posits:
The second turning is redundant, since Mary has already turned once to Jesus. Thus the second turning must represent a spiritual turning, an awakening. (Resseguie, The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, 149)Nicolas Farelly (b. 1978) evaluates:
This new “turn” is best explained by Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], John, 686...for whom it “signifies the sudden and lively movement towards him as μή μου ἂρτου John 20:17 shows.” Additionally, as is explained by Dorothy A. Lee [b. 1953], “Turning from Death to Life: A Biblical Reflection on Mary Magdalene,” 114, these successive “turns” may indicate that “at each point,” Mary moves closer and closer to what she seeks. Misunderstanding in the end, leads her to understanding.” A similar interpretation to Lee’s is given by Jean Zumstein [b. 1944], L’évangile Selon Saint Jean (13-21), 279...“Marie Madelein se détourne du tombeau qui signifie, pour elle, la réalité de la mort, pour se diriger vers le vivant.” (Farelly, The Disciples in the Fourth Gospel: A Narrative Analysis of Their Faith and Understanding, 159)Mary’s body language corresponds with her exclamation: She is experiencing a moment of recognition. Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) analyzes:
The narrator marks her reaction first by noting her movement—being turned—suggesting that she has looked away after making her demand and Jesus’s words cause her to turn about suddenly [John 20:16]. The double turn puzzles exegetes, but Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975]’s observation—“for reasons of rhythm, one hesitates to dispense with it” (1984, 2:209)—may point to the importance of the phrase for the operation of the story. John marks the moment of recognition with a word, “Rabbouni,”...With dramatic economy and without the interjections by an omniscient narrator, the Gospel represents the private experience of recognition through public displays of emotion. Her choice of address is not the language of faith but of reunion (Kasper Bro Larsen [b. 1972] 2008, 190). The personal address “Mariam” calls for a more personal response. She has not been prepared to see Jesus by any prior witness. The response is a pure outpouring of joy. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 270)John uncharacteristically leaves the word “Rabboni” in its original language though the gospel does gloss the term for the book’s Hellenistic audience. Like a movie where only a few words need be subtitled, John’s use of “Rabboni” stands out (John 20:16).
R. Alan Culpepper (b. 1946) deduces:
The reader knows Greek and only Greek. Such common terms as “Rabbi” (John 1:38), “Messiah” (John 1:41), and “Rabboni” (John 20:16) must be translated. Names are also translated to convey their meaning (Cephas, John 1:42; Siloam, John 9:7). Where Hebrew or Aramaic terms are introduced (Bethesda, Gabbatha, and Golgotha), they are referred to as foreign words (“in Hebrew,” John 5:2, 19:13, 17) rather than as the names by which the reader would know these locations. Their presence adds credibility to the account. (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 218-19)John refers to “Rabboni” as “Hebrew” (ASV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though it is actually “Aramaic” (CEV, ESV, NIV). Some translations simply omit this clause presumably to avoid the imprecision (KJV, NKJV).
Robert Kysar (b. 1934) acknowledges:
Rabboni is a more personal address to a teacher, one which reflects warmth and affection. John’s translation (Teacher) is consistent with John 1:38, although “my master” might be a more exact rendering of the Aramaic. (John calls it Hebrew, as he is prone to do with Aramaic words, e.g. John 19:13.) (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 300)Though something might be lost in translation, for John’s purposes the word means “teacher” (John 20:16). John’s definition provides the text’s own internal meaning of the term.
Holly E. Hearon (b. 1956) connects:
The identification is underlined...when Mary, in the moment that she recognizes Jesus, calls him “Rabboni.” Throughout the gospel Jesus is addressed as “Rabbi” by his followers (John 1:38, 49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25,9:2, 11:18). However, both the first (John 1:38) and last time (John 20:16) this title is used it is accompanied by the parenthetical statement: “which means teacher.” This suggests that the storyteller wants the audience to hear these two verses together. (Hearon, The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities, 160)Like the Greek text, English versions leave the word in its original language. The term rhabboní is transliterated “Rabboni” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT), “Rabbouni” (HCSB, NRSV) or “Rab-bo’ni” (RSV).
D.A. Carson (b. 1946) explains:
Rabbouni or rabboni (the spelling varies in the manuscripts) appears to be an extended form of the more familiar rabbi (literally, ‘my teacher’). The term appears elsewhere in the New Testament only at Mark 10:51...In rabbinical Hebrew the term is regularly applied to God (in the expression ribbônô šel ‘ôlām, ‘rabbi of the world’), and this prompts Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns [1884-1937] (p. 543) to argue that although it may be used in reference to a human rabbi, it is never used in addressing a human rabbi. Mary’s address therefore becomes a form of address to God, not unlike John 20:28. But it has often been pointed out that rabboni is used in addressing men in the Palestinian and Jerusalem Targums (Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures). As far as John is concerned, he offers Didaskale (‘Teacher’) as his translation for both ‘Rabbi’ (John 1:38) and ‘Rabboni’ (John 20:16). (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 646)“Rabboni” is a title for honored teachers intensified to convey the highest affection. In the New Testament, the title is spoken only twice, both times of Jesus, by Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51) and Mary Magdalene (John 20:16).
Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007) defines:
“Rabbouni” literally means “my teacher” or “my master,” but it is used elsewhere simply as an equivalent to the common word “Rabbi.” Nevertheless, in this description of Jesus’ appearance to Mary there is undeniably something very personal. Unlike his other resurrection appearances, here Jesus simply calls her by name and she recognizes him as she hears him. So the way in which she turns to him and answers him with “Rabbouni” does have a strong personal and affective component (see also “my Lord” in John 20:13). All this is easy to link with her prehistory as a woman saved by Jesus from great distress (Mark 16:9), but the Evangelist does not mention this. (Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, 637)In later years, the Jews recognized three levels of teachers: rab (lowest), rabbi, rabboni (highest). This hierarchy does not seem to be in place in John’s gospel given that the gospel’s internal translation makes it interchangeable with “rabbi”.
Leon Morris (1914-2006) compares:
It is often said that the word means much the same as “Rabbi”. Etymologically this may be so, though we should not overlook the point made by W.F. Albright [1891-1971] that the term is a caritative with a meaning like “my (dear (or) little) master” (The Background of the New Testament and its Eschatology, p.158). But the usage is decisive. “Rabbi” is frequently used as a form of address, but “Rabboni” is not cited in this way (other than in prayer, of address to God). Matthew Black [1908-1994], however, points to its use in the old Palestinian Pentateuch Targum (see p. 119, n. 136; he regards it as a much more reliable guide to first-century Aramaic than the Onkelos Targum which is the basis of much of Gustaf Dalman [1855-1941]’s argument), which “shows that it cannot have been uncommon in earlier Palestinian Aramaic for a human lord” (An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, p. 21). He does not, however, cite any example of the term as a form of address to a human lord. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 839)Beauford H. Bryant (1923-1997) and Mark S. Krause (b. 1955) add:
The precise distinction between “Rabbouni’ and the more common “Rabbi” is difficult to see, although some have suggested that “Rabbouni” shows greater respect and is therefore more suitable for use by a woman. This may be the case, but these subtle distinctions would be as lost on John’s original readers as they are on us today. More likely is that John is concerned to preserve the actual word used by Mary. (Bryant and Krause,John (The College Press NIV Commentary), 394)The vocative appellation does seem to indicate intimacy. Francis J. Moloney (b.1940) discusses:
The name Jesus calls Mary and her response are Greek transliterations of Aramaic, although the narrator explains that it is Hebrew. There is a level of intimacy implied by the recourse to an original language in both the naming and the response (cf. Robert Gordon Maccini [b. 1951], Her Testimony is True 212-213). Some (e.g., B.F. Westcott [1825-1901], Gospel 292; John Marsh (1904-1994), Saint John 637) mistakenly argue that Rabbouni is quasi-divine. A number of scholars (e.g., Sir Edwyn Clement Hoskyns [1884-1937], Gospel 542; Marsh, Saint John 633, 636-637; Béda Rigaux [1899-1982], Dio l’ha risuscitato 324-325; Sandra M. Schneiders [b.1936], “John 20:11-18" 162-164) regard Mary’s addressing Jesus as Rabbouni as an authentic confession of faith. Others (André Feuillet [1909-1998], “Le recherche du Christ” 93-112; Mark W.G. Stibbe [b. 1960], John 205; Teresa Okure [b. 1941], “Jesus’ Commission” 181) trace in this encounter the experience of the bride seeking the spouse in the early hours of the dawn in Song of Solomon 3:1-3. (Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina), 528)Mary’s use of “rabboni” parallels Jesus’ personal direct address earlier in the verse (John 20:16). Adeline Fehribach (b. 1950) recognizes:
When Mary Magdalene does recognize Jesus through his calling her by name, she responds by calling out “Rabbouni,” not “Rabbi” (cf. John 1:38). Although English texts usually render this title “Teacher,” some scholars maintain that “Rabbouni” is the equivalent of “My Master” or “My Teacher,” rather than just “Master” or “Teacher.” This personalization of the title makes it a term of endearment. On one level of the text, the use of this particular title by Mary Magdalene may indicate that she does not yet understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. On another level of the text, however, the personalization makes up for the fact that the christology of the implied author would not allow Mary Magdalene to call Jesus by his given name. No one in the Fourth Gospel calls Jesus by his given name. As one who has been sent above by the Father, Jesus’s aloofness from the world would not have allowed for it. Nevertheless, combined with Jesus’ calling Mary Magdalene by name, Mary Magdalene’s use of a personalized title for Jesus makes the Johannine text reminiscent of Chaereas and Callirhoe who call out each other’s name. (Fehribach, The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel, 159-60)What is undeniable is that in calling Jesus “Rabboni” Mary Magdalene is now aware of his identity. (John 20:16). There are parallel recognition scenes in other cultures. Raymond E. Brown (1929-1998) catalogs:
Some have found here an adaptation of the recognition scene that appears in stories of the Greco-Roman gods as they walk among men (Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 33 , 137). However, C.H. Dodd [1884-1973] is correct in insisting that a prolonged recognition is common the Circumstantial Narratives of Jesus’ appearances (p. 973)...The two disciples on the road to Emmaus walked and talked with Jesus for a while before they recognized him in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:31, 35). In John 21 we shall find Jesus standing on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and talking with the disciples about fishing, before finally the Beloved Disciple recognizes him [John 21:1-7]. Such difficult recognitions may have had an apologetic purpose: they show that the disciples were not credulously expecting to see the risen Jesus. But they also have a theological dimension. (Brown, The Gospel According to John, XIII-XXI (The Anchor Bible), 1008-1009)In this moment of revelation, Mary’s perception of Jesus transitions from a corpse, an object, to a living subject. Kathryn Madden sees this as being conveyed in Mary’s turning to Jesus:
The scriptural narrative does not indicate that Mary has ever turned away from Jesus in the first place. The pivotal point is that when the angels first ask Mary why she is weeping, she cannot recognize Jesus as the risen Christ but only through her projections as a gardener [John 20:15]. Then, in contrast to a bodily act, when we turn the second time, we come to know that we are separate but related to the divine source who meets us in the dark night of the imageless space. There is no one other than God who is capable of being such a reliable and eternal mother-mirror. If we are fully given to this source, we are transformed into the same image. In psychological terms, this moment of self reflection would be an instant when perception gives way to apperception, when “object” turns into a “subject.”...We can look into the psyche and think we “see him,” but he is hidden from us, for whatever reasons of human defense structures. When Christ does reveal himself, we may not “see him” because we are caught in our own projections. The second turning, then, is a profound transfigurative moment for Mary as well as the Risen Christ. We see all essences in their restored, eternal form. It is the eternal essence of the Risen Christ who Mary greets as “Rabbouni.” (David A. Leeming [b. 1937], Madden and Stanton Marlan [b. 1943], Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Volume Two: L-Z, 550)In this exchange, both Jesus and Mary Magdalene utter only a single word. Yet these words speak volumes. Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) quips, “This is Jesus’ shortest sermon.” (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1151)
Adele Reinhartz (b. 1953) interprets:
In identifying her by name, Jesus is acting out the role of the good shepherd who calls his own sheep (John 10:26). Mary’ recognition of Jesus as ‘Rabbouni’ indicates that she is a member of his flock (John 10:27) and demonstrates that she is a true disciple who recognizes the resurrected Jesus as teacher. (Amy-Jill Levine [b. 1956] with Marianne Blickenstaff (b. 1959), “Women in the Johannine Community: An Exercise in Historical Imagination”, A Feminist Companion to John: Volume II, 25)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) concurs:
The present scene validates Jesus’ words in John 10:3, “My sheep know my voice” (Rudolf Schnackenburg [1914-2002] 1990: 3.317; Teresa Okure [b. 1941] 1992: 181). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 568)Craig R. Koester (b. 1953) generalizes:
Being called by name is what moves Mary from the conviction that Jesus is dead to the realization that he is alive. This encounter is unique in many respects, yet her experience anticipates the way people of future generations will come to faith. The Gospel speaks to those who have not seen the risen Jesus (John 20:29), and Mary’s story shows that seeing the tomb, seeing the angels, and even seeing Jesus himself do not guarantee faith. Like Mary, others will be called to faith by the risen Jesus. This is reflected in Jesus’ comments about the good shepherd, who “calls his own sheep by name” and leads them out, and they recognize his voice (John 10:3-4, 16, 27). Jesus calls Mary by name outside the empty tomb, but he will also call others to recognize him, sending them as he sent Mary to tell others what has happened. (Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel, 125-26)Bruce Chilton (b. 1949) agrees:
It is her experience that ultimately teaches the other disciples how to see Jesus as well. (Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography, 130)Mary Magdalene is emerging from her grief and awakening to a new reality. In this moment of recognition both Jesus and Mary Magdalene identify each other. Though their relationship will not be the same (John 20:17), Mary has found the Jesus for whom she is looking.
What about being called by name triggers Mary Madalene’s positive identification of Jesus? Why does John preserve Mary’s address in its original language? Is calling Jesus “Rabboni” equivalent to his calling her by her name? What is the most you have ever heard conveyed by a single word? When have you suddenly been able to perceive that God had been present in a situation long before you sensed it? In that instance, what prevented you from seeing God previously? In what ways is Mary Magdalene’s revelation a template for all who believe in the resurrected Jesus? Would you recognize Jesus if you saw him?
Mary is caught off guard and as such her response is completely unprompted. As in many impromptu utterances, her one word response is telling.
Rodney A. Whitacre (b. 1949) surmises:
Jesus calls her by the name he used for her before, and she responds with the title she used before [John 20:16]. She would naturally assume that their relationship could pick up where it left off and continue on as before. Jesus’ response, however, lets her know there has been a radical change in him and consequently in his relationship with his followers [John 20:17]. (Whitacre, John (IVP New Testament Commentary), 476)Some have seen Mary’s use of “Rabboni” as a failure, or at best an incomplete understanding of the situation. Of the title “rabboni”, Karen L. King (b. 1954) regrets that it indicates “a relatively low standing on the hierarchical scale of Johannine Christological titles.” (King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, 131)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) traces:
Even when Jesus calls Mary by name, her pilgrimage is not over. In her initial reply she calls Jesus Rabbouni (my master), which suggests that she still thinks of Jesus in terms of her past friendship with him, as her teacher. This is verified by the translation the evangelist gives to the term—Teacher (John 20:16). At this juncture it becomes clear that it is no longer adequate to relate to Jesus as a great sage. He must now be seen as more that just a conveyor of Wisdom. Her reaction is of course natural and also involves her clinging to Jesus. (Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel, 331)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) critiques:
The present reference is the only instance of the term “rabbi” in the second half of John’s Gospel. Since John 13-21 is told from the vantage point of the exalted Jesus, Mary’s address of Jesus as “rabbi” indicates that she has not yet comes to terms with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. (Ben Witherington III [b. 1951] 1995: 331). (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 568-69)Jane Schaberg (1938-2012) examines:
Mary Magdalene’s use of the title Rabbouni is often thought of as another sign of her ignorance. It is a “modest” title, says Raymond E. Brown [1928-1998], “characteristic of the beginning of faith rather than of its culmination,” certainly falling far short of Thomas’ ‘My Lord and my God; in John 20:28. He is tempted to theorize that by using this “old” title the Johannine Magdalene is showing her misunderstanding of the resurrection: she thinks she can now follow Jesus in the same way she did during the ministry. Such thinking may indicate she has an inferior faith, and does not possess the Spirit: “[O]ne may wonder if her use of an inadequate title does not imply that only when the Spirit is given (John 20:22) is full faith in the risen Jesus possible.” Her use of the title “Lord” in John 20:18 makes this reasoning less plausible, but it is nevertheless common, in spite of her use of “Lord” in John 20:2 also. (Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, 328)Morna D. Hooker (b.1931) determines:
In case we do not see the significance of her words, the evangelist explains that they mean “my Teacher.” [John 20:16] She still doesn’t really understand. She knows only that Jesus has come back, the old Jesus, the Jesus she knew and loved. She supposes that in spite of everything that has happened, life will now go on just as before...When she calls him “Rabbouni,” Mary is clearly thinking in terms of her old relationship with the earthly Jesus. When she holds on to him, she is wanting to perpetuate that relationship. The time for that is past. A new era has begun. From now on, she must learn to “hold on” to him in a new, spiritual way. (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], Preaching John’s Gospel: The World It Imagines, “Seeing and Believing”, 141-42)Though Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, her identification is incomplete. Anthony J. Kelly (b. 1938) and Francis J. Moloney (b. 1940) assess:
A moment of recognition follows; yet her way of addressing Jesus is still according to her previous experience of him: “Rabbouni” (John 20:16b)—pointedly translated once again as “Teacher” (cf. John 1:38, 20:16). She is yet to acknowledge him as “the Lord” (John 20:18), in whom the glory of the Father is revealed. Jesus summons her into the luminous darkness of a new relationship to him: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17a). She is to relate to him, not in terms of past experience, but as the one who has come from the Father and is not returning to him. (Kelly and Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, 377)Jesus is not merely an ethical teacher. Henry Gariepy (1930-2010) corrects:
It is not enough that we ascribe to Christ those titles of respect and tradition. We, too, must know Him as our risen Lord. We, too, have a mandate and mission to proclaim the Good News from a personal experience, ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Only a vibrant encounter with the resurrected Christ and a recognition of His mighty power leads us to know Him as He truly is and to share His message with others. In that discovery is our destiny. (Gariepy, 100 Portraits of Christ, 103-04)Though no one enduring so much emotional turmoil ought be criticized, Mary Magdalene wrongly assumes that life will return to normal. This is seen as she tries to cling to Jesus and the Lord’s subsequent rebuffing of these efforts (John 20:17). Mary attempts to pick up where they left off, to recapture the past. But life can nonot revert to business as usual. As is often the case with death, Mary Magdalene must adjust to the rhythm of a new normal.
Her relationship with Jesus will take on new meaning. Though Mary Magdalene is ahead of the curve as the first to identify the risen savior, her revelation is incomplete. She is still Mary. Jesus, however, is no longer merely “Rabboni”.
When have you encountered someone whose personal transformation resulted in a changed relationship? What does Mary Magdalene’s identification of Jesus reveal of her relationship to him? Is she wrong to call him “Rabboni”? What should she have called Jesus? What do you call Jesus? How would you identify Jesus: lord, liar, lunatic, etc.?
“Recognizing isn’t at all like seeing; the two often don’t even agree, and it’s sometimes a less effective way of determining what is.” - Sten Nadolny (b. 1942), The Discovery of Slowness