Double Turning and Other Duplicities. A Performative Reading of John 20:11–18

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Clarissa Breu Post-doc Researcher, Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät, Universitat Wien Vienna Austria

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In John 20:11–18, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus after his death. She turns around twice, a double gesture that has puzzled New Testament scholars. In this article, I offer a performative reading of Mary Magdalene’s turns based on Judith Butler’s theory of gesture and the literary inventory of ancient recognition scenes. I argue that the double gesture does not emphasize the difference between a physical and an inner status of recognition. Instead, it is conceived as a non-identical repetition or quotation. It points to other turnings and other duplicities. Both turns are part of a performative process that unfolds the new identities of the main characters after their separation. Mary is not portrayed as a misunderstanding disciple who needs two turns to recognize Jesus, but as part of a reciprocal process that mirrors Jesus’ double appearance and the text’s double layers of meaning.

1 Introduction

In John 20:11–18 Mary Magdalene and Jesus meet after his death. Mary, looking into the tomb, cries. When two angels ask her as to the reason for her weeping, she answers and turns around:

(14) At this, she turned around (=backwards: ἐστράφη εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω) and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. (15) He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” (16) Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him (στραφεῖσα) and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”1 (which means ‘Teacher’) (NIV).

Mary turns twice, in the verses 14 and 16. In verse 14, Mary turns away from the tomb and the angels. In verse 16, she turns toward Jesus, who calls her by her name. With her first turn, Mary thinks that Jesus is the gardener. With the second turn, she calls him “Rabbouni.” The double turn has therefore often been associated with her cognitive resistance or delayed recognition.2 In what follows, I discuss previous explanations of Mary’s double turn and offer a new approach to the double gesture. Against the background of Judith Butler’s theory of gesture3 and the literary inventory of ancient anagnorisis scenes, the double turn appears as a “citational act”4 that reflects the double identities of Mary and Jesus and the duplicity of irony. In this performative reading, I show that the identities of the main characters are developed during their encounter. Mary does not misunderstand with the first turn and understand with the second, but both turns are part of a performative act.

2 The Scholarly Debate on the Double Turn

The double turn has attracted attention in research literature because at a first glance, only one turn towards Jesus seems necessary. The second turn seems superfluous or even implies that Mary stands with her back to Jesus.5 Michael Peppard has discussed possible solutions in his article Mary Magdalene’s Turn. Peppard points to three classic explanations for the twofold gesture: (1) Often, source criticism has solved the puzzle; the second turn is considered as irrelevant or dismissed as a “scribal error.”6 This is a way of solving the puzzle without the need for a substantive discussion of it. (2) The double turning has been explained on the physical level. The first partial rotation (of the head) is followed by a second (complete) rotation.7 Rembrandt’s painting Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (1638) shows how this can be imagined: Mary turns away from the tomb in verse 14 and toward Jesus, who stands behind her at a different angle, in verse 16.8 Some exegetes even introduce a third turn.9 A purely physical interpretation excludes the possibility that the double gesture is of literary and thus interpretative interest. (3) Another line of interpretation leads to the distinction between a physical and a metaphorical/figurative turning.10 This third approach goes back to Augustine, who distinguishes between a turning of the body (conversa corpore) and a turning of the heart (corde conversa). While the turning of the body is ineffective (Mary thinks that Jesus is the gardener),11 the turning of the heart enables her to recognize Jesus.12 Peppard prefers this third option to the others: “When Mary heard her name called by Jesus, she was already talking with him face to face, and it was something inside of her that turned.”13 He notes that John plays with the double meaning of στρέφειν as both a figurative and a physical process. Peppard’s reading emphasizes the dichotomy between inner and outer action, and thus between body and soul, because only the second, inner, figurative turning leads to recognition. This interpretation implies: “[o]n a somatic level” Mary “is a sighted person, but cognitively she is blind.”14 This reading emphasizes Mary’s delayed recognition of Jesus, even though she is standing next to him and talking to him. She is described as “blinded by tears.”15 The implicit characterization highlights her emotional outburst that impairs her cognitive abilities.

To summarize, some previous attempts to solve the riddle of the double turn either explain away the literary quality of a double gesture or legitimize its duplicity with a qualitative difference. The establishment of a qualitative difference, however, serves dichotomies between physical and inner processes. The assertion that the first turn is ineffective in terms of recognition conveys the image of a cognitively limited Mary Magdalene. In what follows, I will engage in a reading of the double turn within Butler’s theory of gesture and offer a different evaluation of its duplicity. I will show that such a reading can connect the double turn to other duplicities. Rather than contrasting a cognitively blind female disciple with a wise male teacher, a performative reading of the passage points to a reciprocal process of recognition.

3 Judith Butler and Gestures

Butler’s theory of gesture, as exemplified in When Gesture Becomes Event, is part of a paradigm shift within cultural studies, the performative turn.16 After the linguistic turn, it emphasized the importance of bodily interactions for the perception of reality.17 Bodies and language, material realities and discursive acts, were now seen as intimately connected.18 Gesture is an important motif in Butler’s theory, because it exemplifies the interaction between materiality and discursivity, between bodies and language. Butler understands gestures as bodily citations, or “non-identical repetitions.”19 Her notion of citationality draws on Derrida’s iterability20 and Austin’s performative speech acts.21 A performative speech act, such as a prison sentence, depends not on the authority of the person uttering it, but on the legal conventions being cited. Building on Austin’s performative speech acts, Derrida emphasizes that the condition for a quotation to be repeated in a conventional way is its non-identical repetition. In other words: A quotation can only be repeated if it can be changed. A prison sentence only functions as such because it consists of repeatable elements, but a repetition in a new context necessarily implies that this repetition is different from what it quotes. Repetition is based on difference. With the notion of iterability, Derrida describes the dissociation of an utterance from its context as the condition of its repeatability.22 Butler develops Derrida’s theory further by applying citationality not only to linguistic acts, but also to gestures. According to her, gestures can be isolated from a whole course of action. Thus, they can be detached from their original context and repeated in new contexts. Butler refers here to Walter Benjamin’s sentence, “Quotation involves the interruption of its context,” from his text What Is Epic Theater?23 Benjamin points to the importance of citational gestures in a theater performance, emphasizing that actors should make their gestures repeatable through self-quotation. Citational gestures interrupt a scene and alienate the audience from the performance in order to provoke astonishment. For example, when Pope Francis washed the feet of eleven Muslim asylum seekers in their camp and a woman from the camp organization at the Holy Thursday Mess in 2016, he said: “Today, at this moment, as I perform the same act as Jesus by washing the feet of you twelve, we are all engaged in the act of brotherhood […].”24 As a “stylized repetition of acts”, the gesture of foot washing in the Holy Thursday Masses are clearly recognizable as a quotation of Jesus’ gesture in John 13:1–20, but in fact, Francis did not perform “the same act” as Jesus; he changed it slightly, provoking astonishment and a debate on inclusion, interreligious dialogue and gender roles. We will see later that Mary’s double turn makes her gesture citational. It is a “non-identical repetition” that provokes astonishment about the reality of the resurrection.

To summarize these theoretical preliminaries, gestures are part of Butler’s turn to performativity. They link bodies to language and speech acts to performances. They are citational acts, that is, repetitions and variations of previous gestures.

4 The Double Turn as Non-Identical Repetition

Seen through the lens of Butler’s When Gesture Becomes Event, Mary’s turns appear neither as mere physical acts nor as expressions of her inner status of recognition, but as non-identical repetitions or citational acts. This viewpoint applies to two levels of the turns: (1) Mary’s second turn repeats her own gesture of the first turn. (2) The two turns emphasize the fact that Mary is turning and thus link her to other turns in New Testament texts.

4.1 The Second Turn as Non-Identical Repetition of the First Turn

A close look at the linguistic structure of Mary’s two turns reveals that the second turn in verse 16 is a non-identical repetition of the first turn in verse 14, because it takes up the same motif but slightly changes it. Significantly, Reimund Bieringer elaborates on this in a volume on “Repetitions and Variations”25 in John; the title evokes the simultaneity of repetition and variation in Butler’s notion of citationality. Bieringer shows that the second turn is not only a repetition, but also a variation of the first turn, for (1) in verse 16, Mary does not explicitly turn εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω: Her second turn is represented as a turn toward Jesus. It prepares the gesture of touching/moving towards in verse 17.26 (2) The word order changes in verse 16 with the effect that the word “Rabbouni” is emphasized (ταῦτα εἰποῦσα ἐστράφη becomes στραφεῖσα ἐκεινη λέγει).27 The non-identical repetition of the first in the second turn thus suggests an intensified contact between Mary and Jesus. Mary appears as Benjamin’s actor, quoting her own gesture to make it repeatable.

4.2 Mary’s Turns as Quotations of Other Turns

Understood as non-identical repetition and self-quotation, the citational gesture of turning can be taken out of context and leads to other scenes of turning that can add to the image of turning Mary in John 20: Her turning quotes Isaiah 6:10, a prophetic text quoted in John 12:40–41, to demonstrate why Jesus’ signs did not result in faith for everyone:

“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn (στραφῶσιν) – and I would heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (NIV).

John here changed ἐπιστρέψωσιν in the LXX to στρέφειν, strengthening the intertextual link with John 20.28 Mary turns, sees the Lord and speaks about it (in v. 18). She is thus associated with the prophet, not with those who do not see and do not turn. Peppard cites Isaiah 6:10 to show that στρέφειν “can denote non-physical turning,”29 but the pivotal meaning of στρέφειν suggests that physical and inner or figurative processes are intertwined and cannot be easily separated (see also Matt 16:23, 18:3; Luke 9:55; Acts 7:39). This does not necessarily lead to a distinction between a first physical turn and a second figurative turn. Jörg Frey devotes an entire article to the pivotal layers of material bodies and symbolic meaning in the Gospel of John. He notes that the symbolic layer cannot be separated from its material manifestation in the Lazarus episode in John 11,30 but this also applies for other passages, such as the water flowing from Jesus’ side, the healing of a man born blind, etc.31 The focus on gestures as citational acts takes into account the pivotal function of the symbolic and the material, emphasizing that bodily processes and meaning construction go hand in hand. Mary’s bodily turn is also a figurative turn towards change, but not – as traditionally interpreted32 – a change of repentance from sinner to saint. Rather, it is a change from grieving disciple to prophet of a faith in the possibility of continuing a relationship with Jesus after his death. This continuation is not only based on contact on the spiritual level, but can also be experienced on the physical level, as the second quotational allusion of the turning suggests: Most instances of the word στρέφειν in the New Testament refer to a gesture of Jesus (see Matt 16:23, 22:61; Luke 7:9, 10:23, 14:25, 23:28). He often turns around to transmit a message to his followers. In John 1:38, the turning is combined with “Rabbi,” translated as “teacher,” and the motif of “looking for.” These parallels form an intertextual bracket with John 20: “Turning around (στραφείς), Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What are you looking for (τί ζητεῖτε)?’ They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’” The passage in John 20 suggests more intimacy, because the τί (“what”) changes to τίνα (“whom”) in verse 15.33 “Rabbi” changes with the possessive suffix to “my Rabbi” in verse 16. Unlike the two disciples in John 1, who follow Jesus to his dwelling place, Mary does not follow Jesus, who still has to prepare a place for her (see 14:3).34 Instead, she quotes his turning and offers a non-identical repetition of Jesus’ gesture. It seems no coincidence, therefore, that the gesture of turning is quoted in another citational act in the Gospel of Mary. Mary turns to the weeping disciples and causes them to turn: “When Mariham said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior” (9:21–24). Peter, however, questions her authority, asking: “Did he really speak privately with a woman (and) not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” (17:18–22).35 Mary, who turned to Jesus, is now the reason for others to turn around.

Mary’s double turn thus functions like the citational gesture that Benjamin exhorts actors to create by quoting their own gestures. It alienates the reader from the action and provokes astonishment about Jesus’ return from the dead. It breaks with its context and develops quotational links between Mary’s and Jesus’ turns, but also between Mary and her later reception history in the Gospel of Mary.

In the second part of this article, I argue that Mary’s two turns can be interpreted as quotations and reflections of other duplicities in the passage. These duplicities are evoked by the literary inventory of ancient recognition scenes. I will first define recognition scenes and then show in what ways they contain duplicities that are relevant in the context of the double turn.

5 The Double Turn and Other Duplicities

Scenes of recognition after separation are type scenes in ancient literature.36 They, e.g., appear in the Odyssey (13–24),37 narrate the reunion between the siblings Orestes and Electra in ancient drama (see Aesch., Cho. 165–263; Soph., El. 1098–1231; Eur., El. 549–604) and the meeting between previously separated lovers in novels (see Ach. Tat. 3.17; Charit. 8.1.8; Longus 3.7). It is common sense among scholars that the Gospel of John contains allusions to anagnorisis scenes.38 They are an invention of ancient authors and are still ubiquitous in movies and books. In the 2021 series Christmas Flow a mother of two daughters, of Greek descent and head of a feminist household, opens the door to a stranger, unaware that he is a famous misogynist rapper. She explains her hospitality by saying: “In antiquity we Greeks had to be hospitable, because every unknown visitor could be a god in disguise.”39 The scene is ironic, because the mother alludes to recognition scenes without knowing that she is at the same moment part of such a scene. She reflects on passages such as the meeting between Dionysus and Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae.40 Pentheus binds Dionysus without recognizing him. Dionysus says: “The god himself will release me, whenever I want.” Pentheus replies: “Where is he? He is not visible to my eyes.” Dionysus: “Near me; but you, being impious, do not see him.”41 The audience knows what Pentheus has not yet realized. Aristotle defines anagnorisis scenes as depicting a transition from ignorance to knowledge (see Aristotle, Poetics 1452a29–30). In his inventory of anagnorisis scenes, Larsen calls the moment of delay that accompanies this process “cognitive resistance.” Along with other recurring elements,42 it helps define how recognition scenes function.43 The moment of cognitive resistance is of interest here because Mary’s double turn is often portrayed as a transition from ignorance after the first turn to knowledge after the second turn. This idea is emphasized by Mary’s address of Jesus, first as “Sir,” then as “Rabbouni.” We will discuss below that the double speech act mirrors the double turn and is part of a reciprocal recognition scene (5.1). Cognitive resistance creates suspense and emphasizes the surprising aspect of the narrated event. However, it is not based on Mary’s limited cognitive abilities, but on literary conventions, more specifically, dual appearance (5.2) and irony (5.3).

5.1 A Double Speech Act and Reciprocity Language

Butler’s idea that bodily gesture and verbal expression are closely related, is sustained in John 20 by the double speech act that accompanies and mirrors the double gesture. Mary calls Jesus “Sir” (v. 15) after the first and “Rabbouni”44 (v. 16) after the second turn. Jesus addresses Mary first as “woman”45 (v. 15), then as “Mariam”46 (v. 16). The speech acts of naming mirrors the double turn because the twofold gesture – like the double speech act – attests to increased intimacy: While κύριε und γύναι are often “used between people who are strangers”47 in the Gospel of John, only Mary addresses Jesus as Rabbouni.48 Mary’s proper name as a recognition token also establishes intimacy.

This double speech act is part of what Larsen calls a “reciprocal recognition scene.” In such scenes, the moment of anagnorisis is mutual (cf., e. g., Chariton, Chaer. 8.1.7). Reciprocal recognition exposes “the mutual love of the characters” who “embrace each other as […] recognizer and recognized.”49 It exists in Johannine “reciprocity language,”50 as, for instance, in John 10:14: “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Reciprocal recognition scenes in John are, for instance, to be found in John 4: Jesus reveals that he knows about the Samaritan woman’s husbands, which leads her to call Jesus a prophet (John 4:17–19; cf. also 1:43–45, 9:1.7): “Jesus’s recognition of the other character is the way to human recognition of Jesus.”51 Applied to John 20, this means: “Before Mary understands that the apparent gardener is her rabbi, he identifies her.”52 Focusing on speech and leaving aside the aspect of gesture, Larsen emphasizes Jesus’ role in establishing contact with Mary: “Jesus first approaches Mary with a telling question […].”53 Mary, however, approaches Jesus by turning around before he asks this question. Her turning is the starting point that makes the conversation possible and the bodily condition for Jesus’ recognition of Mary as “Mariam!” The reason for the first turn remains obscure, whereas the personal name is the reason for Mary’s second turn.54 As a gesture without an explicit reason, the first turn undermines the idea of gestures as expressions of intentionality. It can be read as “a readiness that suggests that one is, as it were, already in a binding relation to the divine voice before one succumbs to its call.”55 The response to the address of the Other as part of subject formation is an important aspect of Butler’s philosophy. It is linked to the gesture of turning. Turning around when Jesus addresses her, Mary is redefined as a resurrection witness. Sarah Ahmed summarizes:

We would recall here that Judith Butler, following Louis Althusser, makes “turning” crucial to subject formation. One becomes a subject through “turning around” when hailed by the police. For Butler, this “turning” takes the form of hearing oneself as the subject of an address.56

Mary’s turns are not only reactive, but an active response to the address of the Other. This process redefines both characters’ identities. In Excitable Speech, Butler writes:

[..T]o be addressed is not merely to be recognized for what one already is […]. One comes to “exist” by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the Other. One “exists” not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable.57

Against this theoretical background, the aspect of reciprocity and mutual recognition is emphasized. The clear distinction between the roles of recognizer and recognized is blurred in the double speech act of naming. Mary depends on Jesus, because she is recognized by him, but also Jesus depends on Mary, because her address makes him recognizable as a teacher sent by God.58 Although some scholars describe the address “Rabbouni” as a misunderstanding because Jesus is no longer an earthly teacher,59 Reimund Bieringer, in an extensive analysis of the Rabbi title in the Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels, shows that Mary’s use of this title does not attest to her misunderstanding.60 It is associated “with the most significant Christological titles and with the most important actions (σημεία) of Jesus.”61 Therefore, the Rabbi title does not reveal that Mary is addressing Jesus incorrectly,62 as if nothing had happened. It connects the earthly Jesus with the risen one,63 suggesting that the identity of Jesus, the earthly teacher, was always double: He was a teacher sent by God before his death and remains such after his resurrection. Mary’s address brings the resurrected Jesus “into social location and time through being named.”64 Butler further elaborates that “the one who names […] is presumed to be already named, positioned within language […].”65 Jesus is not. He calls Mary’s name before he is being called Rabbouni. In this sense, a close reading of the double speech act emphasizes the reciprocity of name-calling in this scene. A close connection between double gesture and double speech act disturbs the clear ascription of recognizer and recognized. In the following, we will see that also Jesus’ dual appearance is connected to this double gesture and speech act.

5.2 Dual Appearance

Cognitive resistance is sustained by what Larsen calls “dual appearance,” consisting of a camouflage and the recognition token or the mark.66 The camouflage (gardener) points to a different facet of identity than the recognition token (“Mariam!”).67 Without the camouflage, the scene would not be suspenseful or interesting. Without the token, recognition would be impossible. Suspense is created by the establishment of a tension between recognition and unrecognizability, and a tension between the changed appearance and the recognition token. The camouflage does not suggest that Jesus is dressed like a gardener,68 but that his appearance is not what Mary expects. In Od. 23.94–95, Penelope looks into the face of Ulysses, but is deceived by his shabby clothes and does not recognize him.69 In Euripides’ Electra (487–595), Electra distrusts the tokens of recognition, because she expects a different appearance:

How could Orestes, she asks, still fit in clothes made for him many years ago by a little girl who probably was too young even to use a loom? How would Orestes be able to set footprints on rocky ground, and if so, would they not be larger than Electra’s? Finally, how can a boy’s and a girl’s hair seem alike?70

The delay of recognition is the logical consequence of a changed exterior and the time that lies between the last meeting and the current scene. The last time Mary saw Jesus was when she stood underneath the cross (see John 19:25). It is possible that his appearance changed between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Anyway, it is surprising that only an unpublished article on queer interpretations of the passage by Matthew Palmer describes Jesus as “unrecognizable”71 in this scene.72 If it is possible that Jesus’ appearance has indeed changed, why is Mary portrayed as cognitively limited? Judith Halberstam offers a possible answer in The Queer Art of Failure:

[s]tupidity is as profoundly gendered as knowledge formations in general; thus while unknowing in a man is sometimes rendered as part of masculine charm, unknowing in a woman indicates a lack and a justification of a social order that anyway privileges men […].73 [S]tupidity in women is often expected.74

Some scholars, however, have reframed the fact that Mary takes Jesus for the gardener as a “productive misunderstanding”75 that adds to the image of Jesus as the starting point of a new creation.76 As I see it, it is not only a “productive misunderstanding” that reveals the double layer of meaning in the word “gardener,” but also a deconstructive mis-/understanding, a misunderstanding that is double, because it contains understanding.77 The fact that Mary does not immediately recognize Jesus reflects his “dual appearance.” In other words: Mary understands while she misunderstands. As a result, the first turn that accompanies her recognition of the gardener is not of lesser quality than the second turn. Mary does not simply misunderstand, but she testifies to a truth that is not obvious. The truth that Jesus lives is to be developed performatively before the eyes of the reader. The double layers of understanding and misunderstanding are part of the passage’s ironic tone.

5.3 Irony

The irony of the situation is established because the audience knows what Mary does not know:78 “[…] narrative irony depends on the polarity of ‘knowledge/ignorance,’ where the ignorant characters are assumed to be disadvantaged and the knowledgeable narrator and reader can believe themselves inherently superior.”79 The reader and narrator know after Mary’s first turn that she is unknowingly speaking to Jesus. Thus, the sense of cognitive superiority often expressed in scholarly commentary on this passage is an effect of the text. The dichotomy between knowledge and ignorance can easily be deconstructed because irony allows characters to say more than they know – like Pilate, who attests to Jesus’ messianic identity with the ironic inscription “King of the Jews.”80 This example shows that irony can be based on two possible meanings of the same word. Mary’s use of the designation κύριος is such a play on double meanings. In verses 13 and 18, she uses κύριος as a Christological title, in verse 15 as an address to a stranger. The ambiguity of κύριος indicates that the risen Lord Jesus appears in the attire of an ordinary “Sir.” Through equivocation, Mary unknowingly designates him already in verse 15 with the “right” title. She says ὅτι ἦραν τὸν κύριόν μου (v. 13) to the same body the narrator calls the “body of Jesus” (τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ; v. 12): “Her language betrays that she is already unknowingly searching for the one who is beyond the tomb.”81 The duplicity is part of the word κύριος. Johannine irony is part of the cognitive resistance with which the anagnorisis scene plays. It is – like the supposed gardener – a mis-/understanding. Mary addresses the gardener Jesus as κύριος, reflecting that the gardener is also the “Rabbi,” and the “Sir” is also the “Lord.” Stephen D. Moore discusses this effect under the heading “The Erosion of Johannine Irony”:82 “Irony – which depends on the clean separation of flesh and glory, earthly and heavenly, material and spiritual, literal and figurative […] – now collapses in paradox.”83 Moore comes to this conclusion on the basis of his analysis of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4, because “[t]he ironic structure that positioned us on a level above these characters depended on our being able to keep the literal and the figurative levels clearly separate.”84 This conclusion also applies to the equivocation of the designation κύριος, because the word as such does not allow for a clear separation between the “Sir” and the “Lord.” This duplicity corresponds to the physical appearance of Jesus (like a “normal” gardener and resurrected) and to the double (physical and figurative) meaning of στρέφειν. The reader cannot ultimately decide which level is dominant.

Irony itself turns by definition, because it is a trope (τρόπος = “turn”), a “pattern of words that turns away from direct statement or its own obvious meaning […].”85 Irony turns like Mary:

Trope means “to turn,” and it’s that turning away, that deviation between literal and figural meaning, this turning away of the meaning, which is certainly involved in all traditional definitions of irony, such as “meaning one thing and saying something else,” or “praise by blame,” or whatever it may be […].86

Turning Mary undermines the clear separation between body and mind, pre- and post-Easter Jesus, literal and figurative meaning of στρέφειν. Not only her words, but also her double performative gesture, is closely linked to the duplicity of irony, because “[i]rony also very clearly has a performative function.”87

6 Conclusions

Mary’s double turn in John 20 puzzles New Testament scholars, because meaning seems to “turn away” with Mary: Is it an error, can it be explained on a physical level or is it an indication of a figurative meaning? The passage of John 20:11–18 contains numerous duplicities: Mary’s double turning corresponds to a double speech act of address, the double appearance of Jesus, the double meaning of the word κύριος and the double level of metaphorical and literal meaning that establishes irony. In the history of interpretation, this duality has often been intensified into a dichotomy. A heavenly, spiritual, male teacher was juxtaposed with an earthly, physical, female disciple who struggled to understand.

In the reading presented in this article, with Butler’s theory of gesture as a point of reference, the duplicity of Mary’s turn is conceived as a non-identical repetition. It thus becomes a “performative turn” and leads to a re-evaluation of the portrait that is often depicted of Jesus and Mary in this scene: Mary is not portrayed as a cognitively limited figure, who needs two turns to recognize her teacher, and even then misses the point of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary’s double turn and double address makes Jesus’ new identity recognizable and real. Mary testifies not only to Jesus’ dual appearance and dual identity, but also to the dual layers – material and figurative – of John’s Gospel. Mary and Jesus change in the process of their encounter; their identities unfold before the eyes of the reader. A performative reading of the passage does not pit dualities against each other but mediates between them. They become part of a performative construction of identity that is necessary to establish continuity and difference between the earthly, crucified, and risen Jesus. The double gesture of turning points to this tension between continuity and difference as a non-identical repetition. Thus, a first ineffective turn is not distinguished from a second effective one, but they are seen together as a process of establishing a relationship interrupted by death, in which both characters are redefined. The focus is not on Mary and her misunderstanding, but on a reciprocal process.88


Clarissa Breu is a (post-doc) researcher at the Institute for New Testament Studies of Vienna University. After studying theology and comparative literature in Vienna, Heidelberg, and Paris, she was a prae-doc assistant at Vienna University, a Marie-Jahoda post-doc fellow and a post-doc assistant at Göttingen University. Her dissertation Authorship in the Revelation of John: A Postmodern Reading was published by Mohr Siebeck in 2020. Another article on gesture (The Exposure of Violence: A Performative Reading of Sacrifice in Genesis 22 with Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben) appeared in JRAT 8 (2022).


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  • Zumstein, Jean: Das Johannesevangelium, KEK 2. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.


The NIV here translates the form ῥαββωνί that is attested in some manuscripts including the Codex Bezae. Most scholars, however, stick to the better attested Ῥαββουνί.


See, e.g., Zumstein, Johannesevangelium, p. 752; Wengst, Johannesevangelium, p. 283; Larsen, Stranger, p. 199 et seq.


See also Breu, Exposure.


Butler, Gesture, p. 178.


Brown, John, p. 991.


Haenchen, John, p. 209.


Peppard, Turn, p. 564.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 197 n. 26.


Lindars, John, p. 606; Peppard, Turn, p. 565; Brown, John, p. 991: “Those who try to deal with the duplication without resorting to literary criticism […] usually suppose that Mary had turned away in the meantime” (i. e., between the first and second turn). Brown also points to Kastner, Noli me tangere, with the note “Notable as a curiosity.” Kastner states that Mary turns away from the naked Jesus, the new Adam, out of modesty.


Peppard, Turn, p. 565.


See Wengst, Johannesevangelium, p. 285, who states about the second turning: “Erfolgt dann nicht hier die Wendung vom ‘Gärtner’ zu Jesus selbst, als sie dessen Anrede vernimmt?”.


See Augustine, Tractates on John 121 (PL 35, coll. 1956–1957).


Peppard, Turn, p. 566; see also Lee, Turning, p. 13: “Her physical movement towards the risen Christ is symbolic of an inner turning; it represents a metamorphosis. In this turning, she moves through grief and longing towards the joy and hope awaiting her.”


Larsen, Stranger, p. 200.


Carson, John, p. 641; Larsen, Stranger, p. 199.


See Bachmann-Medick, Performative Turn, p. 70.


Barad, Performativity, p. 802.


The speaking body, however, “destroys from its inception the metaphysical dichotomy between the domain of the ‘mental’ and the domain of the ‘physical,’ breaks down the opposition between body and spirit, between matter and language” (Felman, Speech Act, p. 94).


Striff, Introduction, p. 2: “Performance can […] be understood as being related to theatricality, a sense of otherness, of non-identical repetition, that can occur anywhere, at any time. It may consist of societal rituals, or it may be understood as the conscious and unconscious adoption of roles that we play during everyday life […]. The theatrical metaphor is a fundamental tool we use to understand culture.”


Derrida’s iterability is derived from iterum, Latin for “again,” which is derived from itara, Sanskrit for “different”; Derrida, Signature, p. 7.


Austin, Words.


Derrida, Signature, p. 7.


Benjamin, Theater, p. 15.


Pope Francis, Mass.


Bieringer, Lord.


The discussion on the phrase μή μου ἅπτου is extensive and not the focus of this article. It can mean the process of touching, clinging to or moving forward; see Bieringer, Touching Jesus.


Bieringer, Lord, p. 626.


Peppard, Turn, p. 566 n. 6.


Peppard, Turn, p. 565.


Frey, Leiblichkeit, p. 307.


Moore, Derrida, p. 62, applies the blurring between figurative and literal meaning to the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4: “She has insisted, in effect, that earthly and heavenly, flesh and Spirit, figurative and literal, are symbiotically related categories […].”


Nancy, Noli me tangere, p. 42.


Taschl-Erber, Maria von Magdala, p. 302.


See Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 39.


MacRae/Wilson, Gospel, pp. 471–474.


Larsen, Stranger, 55.


Larsen, Stranger, 55: “The Odyssey seems to be, if not the mother of anagnorisis, then the earliest surviving work in ancient Greek literature, in which the type-scene is the mainspring of the narrative.”


See especially Larsen, Stranger; Huprich, Recognition; Fehribach, Women; Whitaker, Jesus.


My own translation; the original is in French.


An intertextual link between this play and the Gospel of John has been recognized; see MacDonald, Gospel; Stibbe, John.


See Euripides, Bacchae, 476–518.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 71: “the meeting, cognitive resistance, displaying the token, the moment of recognition and attendant reactions/physical (re-)union.”


The gesture of turning is hardly ever mentioned in anagnorisis scenes, which suggests that it is not mere decoration in John.


“Rabbouni” is an expression of intimacy (Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 31 n. 91). The fact that John translates “Rabbi” in 1:38 and “Rabbouni” both as “teacher” does not necessarily mean that the suffix has lost its meaning (against Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 21). Regardless of John’s translation, the suffix adds a variation to the repetition of the Rabbi title used in 1:38 and 20:16, “since in 20:16 the word carries the rich connotations which it has gained in the course of the gospel” (Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 35).


Brant, Dialogue, p. 53: “By echoing the words of the angels ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ Jesus aligns himself with those who have no prior relationship with Mary. He presents himself as someone whom she ought not recognize.”


The name is still under debate among New Testament scholars. It is unclear whether the name should be read as “Mariam” or as “Maria” and whether “Mariam” is more Aramaic than “Maria”; see Brown, John, p. 990; Peppard, Turn, pp. 567–576.


Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 29.


On a possible link to the other NT use of the word in Mark 10:51, see Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 37.


Larsen, Recognition Scenes, p. 343 et seq.


Larsen, Recognition Scenes, p. 341.


Larsen, Recognition Scenes, p. 348.


Larsen, Recognition Scenes, p. 348.


Larsen, Recognition Scenes, p. 348.


John Chrysostom suggests in his Homilies on John 86 that the startled expression of the angels at the sight of the resurrected Jesus made Mary turn around; see also Peppard, Turn, pp. 654–665.


Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 33.


Ahmed, Phenomenology, p. 15. She here refers to Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 26.


Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 5; emphasis original.


Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 25.


Bultmann, Johannes, p. 532: “Ihre Anrede zeigt indessen, daß sie ihn noch nicht voll als den erkannt hat, der er jetzt als Auferstandener ist”; Morris, John, p. 741; Moloney, John, p. 526: “partial confession of faith”; Wengst, Johannesevangelium, p. 285; Zumstein, Johannesevangelium, p. 753; Witherington, Women, p. 179: “She still thinks of Jesus in terms of her past relationship with him”; against Becker, Johannes, p. 617; Gnilka, Johannesevangelium, p. 152; Busse, Johannesevangelium, p. 254.


See Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί.


Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 26.


Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 34: “Interpellation is an act of speech whose ‘content’ is neither true nor false; it does not have description as its primary task.”


Taschl-Erber, Maria Magdalena, p. 304: “Kontinuität und österlicher Neubeginn.”


Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 29.


Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 30.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 46.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 348 describes the name as the recognition token.


As, e.g., in Rembrandt’s already mentioned painting and other depictions of the scene.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 47 n. 48.


Larsen, Stranger, p. 32.


Palmer, Interpretations, p. 6.


See also Brown, John, p. 1009: “One important motif may have been to stress that the risen Jesus had undergone a change from the Jesus of the ministry.”


Halberstam, Queer, p. 55.


Halberstam, Queer, p. 57.


Thyen, Johannesevangelium, p. 760.


Frettlöh, Gärtner; Zimmermann, Communication; Wyatt, Gardener.


See Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology, p. 4: “[… I]gnorance is as potent and multiple a thing […] as is knowledge.”


Pentheus is, in contrast to Mary, explicitly called “impious” by the god. His delay of recognition is fatal. He is finally ripped apart by his mother and other women, because they do not recognize him.


Thatcher, Sabbath, p. 66; see also MacRae, Theology, p. 107.


Scholtissek, Ironie, p. 253.


Bieringer, Ῥαββουνί, p. 12.


Moore, Cross, p. 59.


Moore, Cross, p. 62.


Moore, Cross, p. 61.


Frye, Anatomy, p. 40.


de Man, Irony, pp. 164–165.


de Man, Irony, p. 165.


I am indebted to Jason Valdez for his helpful proofreading of this article.

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