The Da Vinci Code

The Washington Post, via The Modesto Bee, Aug. 2, 2003

Mary Magdalene is back.

Not that she ever really went away, but every now and then, she’s thrust into the spotlight, the canon’s cover girl for a lively debate about women, sex, feminism and the church. Her latest starring role comes in the blockbuster thriller “The Da Vinci Code.” The novel, which has topped best-seller lists for 16 weeks, poses the not-so-innocent question: What if Jesus and Magdalene were husband and wife? It’s not a new premise, but it never fails to rile the faithful, the faithless and the devil’s advocates.

“I think Mary Magdalene is the most fascinating figure in the New Testament outside of Jesus himself,” says Charlotte Allen, author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.” As the first person to see the risen Christ, Magdalene is central to the Resurrection story. Other than that, the Bible offers a few tantalizing clues.

Was Magdalene, as portrayed in centuries of art and literature, the penitent prostitute, the devoted follower, the woman with the alabaster jar? Or, as “The Da Vinci Code” suggests, was she Jesus’ wife, partner, confidante, beloved disciple, the “apostle to the apostles”? All this and more, says “Code” author Dan Brown.

“I was skeptical, but after a year and a half of research, I became a believer,” says Brown. “As soon as people understand that the few Gospels included in the Bible are not the only version of the Christ story, they begin to sense contradictions. Magdalene is most obvious.” Her role, he says, was deliberately distorted, a smear campaign by the early church fathers — as one of his characters declares, “the greatest cover-up in human history.”

Does Brown believe Jesus was actually married to Magdalene? “I do,” he says.

The Da Vinci Code

So error-laden is The Da Vinci Code that the educated reader actually applauds those rare occasions where Brown stumbles (despite himself) into the truth. […] In the end, Dan Brown has penned a poorly written, atrociously researched mess.
Source: Dismantling The Da Vinci Code By Sandra Miesel, Crisis, Sep. 1, 2003

Nothing in the Bible says she was a prostitute. Magdalene is named by Mark (15:40-41) and Matthew (27:55-56) as one of the women from Galilee. Luke (8:2) says seven devils (probably mental illness) were cast from her. The Gospels place her at the Crucifixion, watching from a distance. She might have remained a minor character, except the Bible says she was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection — therefore a critical figure in the Easter story. But after telling the disciples what she has seen, she’s never mentioned again in the Scriptures.

John describes Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. In Luke, an unnamed woman does the same thing, but this one is called a sinner. In the next chapter, Luke tells of Mary of Magdala and her demons.

Magdalene’s reputation as wanton was sealed by 591 when Pope Gregory announced that Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinner were the same woman. (In 1969, the Catholic Church restored them to three separate individuals.)

The Eastern Orthodox Christians never accepted the tainted version of Magdalene. According to one legend, she and Jesus’ mother went to Ephesus to teach. Another has her in Rome appearing before Emperor Tiberius. When she tells him of the Resurrection, he replies that a man could no more rise from the dead than an egg could turn red. Mary picks up an egg and it turns bright red. Icons often depict her holding an egg, and Orthodox Christians color their Easter eggs red.

Magdalene’s Western cult is based in southern France, where she supposedly fled for safety with Lazarus and his sister, Martha. Her Feast Day, July 22, was a major celebration during the Middle Ages and still is observed.

In the Renaissance, she became the femme fatale of Christian art and morality plays. She made a neat contrast to the Virgin Mary, repentant whore to the Madonna. She’s almost always had long red hair and revealing clothing, and carried an alabaster jar of precious oils.

By the 19th century, Magdalene was a synonym for prostitution and became the patron saint of reformed prostitutes and sexual temptation.

“The Da Vinci Code” presents an entirely different Magdalene.

Brown’s novel is the spiritual and literary heir of the 1982 book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

(Brown named a key character “Leigh Teabing,” an anagram of the authors.) The nonfiction “Holy Blood” pulls together facts and rumors centered on a secret society called the Prieure de Sion, supposedly founded in the 12th century by the crusader Godfroi de Bouillion and boasting members such as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton. The book focuses on a 19th-century French priest in southeastern France, Abbe Sauniere, and his claim of a link among Jesus, Magdalene and the French Merovingian dynasty of the seventh century. The story spins off to include the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and King Arthur.

Margaret Starbird, raised as a devout Catholic, read “Holy Blood” 18 years ago. “I thought it was blasphemous. … I didn’t need this book. It rocked my boat.” she said.

It bothered her so much that she started doing research. “The deeper I got into it, the more convinced I became. There is so much evidence. I wanted to feel safe in my church. I didn’t want this to be true. The last thing I wanted is to be a heretic.”

But Starbird ended up writing “The Woman With the Alabaster Jar,” which uses ancient goddess rites and anointing ceremonies to conclude that Jesus and Magdalene were united in a sacred marriage.

Defenders of a Magdalene-Jesus union say Jewish tradition would have accepted Jesus as a sexual being within a lawful marriage, but it was problematic when apostles tried to expand Christianity into the Greek world, where spiritual purity demanded a chaste Jesus. They say the church fathers effectively wrote Magdalene out of the official record, but her story was kept alive through myths, legends and secret signs.

Most biblical scholars, however, believe that the Magdalene-Sion-Holy Grail tale ranks with “The X Files” and other vast conspiracy theories. “Jesus had a mission. I cannot believe he would take on a wife and family knowing what would happen to him, just in human terms,” says Margaret George.

George, author of “Mary, Called Magdalene,” set out to write what she calls the “thinking man’s Bible novel.” George’s Magdalene is a wife and mother from Galilee tormented by madness and desperate for relief. Jesus commands the evil spirits to leave her, and Magdalene becomes a devout follower and friend. In her novel, Magdalene falls in love with Jesus, but there is no romance, no marriage.

“He chose to reveal himself to her alone in the garden after the Resurrection. Clearly, he had some special relationship to her and trusted her with important things,” she says. “But more than that, I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Many Christians stick to the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and are dismissive of historical context and noncanonical texts. They say Magdalene is popular today because she’s what feminists would have wished the early church to be — not what it was.

But the Rev. Thomas Kalita, a priest at St. Peter’s Parish in Olney, Md., who holds a doctorate in biblical theology, says Magdalene clearly held a special role. “In the liturgical calendar, every saint is given a particular description. Mary Magdalene holds the unique title ‘Disciple of the Lord.’ The conclusion we can draw from that is St. Mary Magdalene was a disciple par excellence and a model for all others who would follow Jesus.”

An increasing number of mainstream scholars believe women held positions of leadership — deacons, teachers, preachers — and Magdalene was one of the most important.

Some of this is based on a rereading of the Bible. Some comes from nonbiblical, ancient texts. Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 6, 2003.
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