Who was Mary Magdalene? The buzz goes mainstream
A blockbuster novel, a controversial TV special, and a just-released book on a long-hidden gospel bearing her name: The woman known as Mary Magdalene is again at the center of a swirl of speculation.
Long portrayed in Christian tradition as a repentant prostitute out of whom Jesus cast seven devils, Mary is having her own resurrection in the popular imagination as history is corrected, and new, sometimes explosive, claims are asserted about her relationship to the Master.
This is not, though, just about setting the record straight on an intriguing historical figure. In an era when “God talk” has moved convincingly into the media/entertainment arena, observers say, her story is captivating because it encapsulates major unresolved issues facing Christianity – the role of women in the church, the place of human sexuality, and the yearning for the feminine aspect of the Divine.
All these issues are tantalizingly injected into the best-selling thriller “The Da Vinci Code,” which set off the latest debate this summer by positing that Jesus and Mary were married.
“I don’t think (author) Dan Brown knew the bull’s-eye he was hitting, nor set out to be heretical,” says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion at Publisher’s Weekly. “He was aware of the questions boiling in the cultural soup and found them fascinating.”
Yet Mr. Brown says that on the basis of documents about secret societies and legends of the Holy Grail that he presents as fact in the novel, he believes they were married. ABC-TV was so taken with the premise that it sent correspondent Elizabeth Vargas globetrotting to explore the evidence, and aired a special Nov. 3. A movie of the novel is now planned by the Hollywood team that made “A Beautiful Mind.”
Mary as an apostle
A nonfiction book out this month – “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala,” by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School – strikes a different chord. An eight-page fragment lost for 1,500 years, this gospel, written in the second century, tells of a conversation among Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi about a teaching Jesus gave to Mary on the end of the material world and the nature of sin. It highlights Mary’s role as an apostle and Peter’s resistance to her role.
The gospel “shows us there was a tradition of Mary Magdalene as an important apostle of the church after the resurrection,” says Ms. King in an interview. Several other gnostic works (gospels not chosen for the New Testament and termed heretical by early church fathers) similarly support her in that role.
For some, the Bible hints at the same idea in John’s Gospel, which depicts Mary as the first to see the risen Jesus and then to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples. “Since she was commissioned by Jesus to be in essence an apostle to the apostles, she provided the most crucial precedent in the New Testament for women to be teachers, preachers, or evangelists,” says Ben Witherington III, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.
An expert on women in the Bible, Dr. Witherington says that “what happened on Easter morning involving her is really what triggers all of this (debate).” It’s now clear that the debate about Mary has gone on from the early church through the Middle Ages right up to today.
Many see her as a central character in the church’s marginalization of women over several centuries. The perception of Mary as a prostitute originated in 591, when Pope Gregory the Great falsely identified her with an unnamed sinful woman in the Bible. Almost 1400 years later, in 1969, the church officially corrected its error, though it lingers in public consciousness.
Often-fantastic legends about Mary traveling from Jerusalem to France, pregnant with Jesus’ child and giving birth to a line of kings, spread in medieval times and reappeared in books in the 1980s, to be folded into “The Da Vinci Code.” The novel depicts Christianity as based on some fabrications. “The greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold,” declares a key character. Praised by critics as a “brainy thriller” with “intellectual depth,” the book reveals its secrets so skillfully that readers are caught up in the debate, wondering just how much of the story might be true.
“America is a Jesus-haunted culture, but at the same time, it’s a biblically illiterate culture,” Witherington says. “When you have that odd combination, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus.”
For the most part, historians and theologians interviewed on the TV special and elsewhere see no historical evidence for the legends – the novel should be seen strictly as fiction, they say.
Sexuality and the body
King sees something else at play in the debate: The question of Jesus’ marriage resonates, she believes, with the complex issues that churchgoers are facing today in discussions about sexuality and the body, including the contentious homosexuality debate. “We have such a medicalized view of the body,” she says. “The real issue is how do we think theologically about the body and sexuality.”
The “Gospel of Mary,” for instance, takes an approach to the issue that is distinct and startling from a traditional perspective. In the teaching Mary receives from Jesus, King writes, people are spiritual beings, sin is not real, the material world will dissolve, and salvation lies in “discovering within oneself the true spiritual nature of humanity and overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions.”
Over the past 15 years, a stream of books has appeared about Mary Magdalene by feminist theologians, seeking a heritage for women within the church. Meanwhile, new books on the gnostic gospels have captured public interest. Elaine Pagels’s recent “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” has been a bestseller.
Tickle sees this interest in Gnosticism and Mary Magdalene – and the willingness of many to look afresh at the Christian tradition – as going beyond the role of women in the church. “This is the pursuit of the divine feminine, a kind of yearning that infects both genders; it wishes to find in the divine parent that wholeness that is the feminine and masculine together,” she says. “Scripturally speaking, Mary is our best shot at showing that there was in Jesus the recognition of that.”
“The Da Vinci Code” ties that yearning both to Mary and to pagan beliefs of the goddess. “What I would hope is that when the hullabaloo settles, it will cause people to go back and read the biblical narratives for themselves,” Witherington says. “A text without context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to be.”