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FEATURE | spring 2006

There's Something About Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene is everywhere: in bookstores, in seminar rooms, on the history channel and, come May, at the movies - in Columbia Pictures' The Da Vinci Code. Soon, perhaps we'll see action-figure Mary complete with alabaster jar. But is ther substance behind the hype? Does Mary say something not just about her times, but ours?

In many ways, Mary Magdalene — a follower of Jesus who was present at his crucifixion and then his empty tomb — has become the iconic example of women throughout history who have been distorted, ignored, appropriated and denied authority. Mary’s story casts light on the way society stigmatizes women’s sexuality and fears women’s intelligence. For feminist scholars and activists, research on Mary Magdalene has created new understandings of Christian history that inform the ongoing struggle for equality in church and society.

Tatou and image of Mary Magdalene
Audrey Tautou stars in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller The Da Vinci Code. Photo: Columbia Pictures

For religion scholars poring over ancient manuscripts, art historians examining paintings and sculptures, medievalists and church historians studying sermons and legends, and activists lobbying for women’s ordination and religious reforms, Mary Magdalene has come to stand for women’s agency and vision. The interest in her is part of the women’s movement itself, especially with the development of women’s studies and increased activism in religious and sociopolitical arenas.

It is now known that the popularized, centuries-long characterization of Mary Magdalene as a whore is not historical fact. Over 30 years of feminist research has led to a reevaluation of the role of women in early Christianity and Judaism, as researchers have revealed vibrant elements of women’s participation and leadership. The discovery in 1947 and earlier of the so-called gnostic Gospels — writings that were not part of the approved canon of the Christian (New) Testament — produced data in which Mary Magdalene is unexpectedly prominent: a leader, prophet and mystic, praised and loved by Jesus and in conflict with his other disciples. Many feel that the church has covered up this Mary, and betrayed its faithful by suppressing feminine metaphors for God and female leadership past and present. Reclaiming Mary fulfills the desire, both popular and scholarly, to rethink the relationship between religion and sexuality.

Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code builds on the academic developments in thriller fashion, creating a Mary Magdalene who is married to Jesus and bears his children, ancestors of the Merovingian kings of France. Brown presents an alternative vision of Christianity — one resistant to biblical literalism and fundamentalism, suspicious of religious institutions and promoting healthier views of sex and of relationships between men and women. The novel appeals to those looking for a spirituality not based in creed or authority, but on knowledge, personal reflection and an embodied life in the world.

But how does Brown’s Mary Magdalene compare with her reconstruction by scholars? Historians recognize that we can know very little about the historical Mary Magdalene: her age, economic status, education, looks, sex life, occupation and death are all blanks to be filled in by imagination. Although mentioned in the Christian Testament Gospel of Luke as a follower and supporter of Jesus, who exorcised her demons, Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospels only at the cross and tomb. She seems to come out of nowhere in the crucifixion scenes, although she is said to have accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem from his ministry in Galilee. Scholars agree that the legends of Mary Magdalene as a whore had their origin in the conflation of Christian Testament texts which had nothing to do with her.
Most important are John, chapter 12 (in which another Mary — of Bethany — anoints Jesus); Luke, chapter 7 (which introduces an unnamed “woman of the city, a sinner” with an alabaster jar filled with ointment); and John, chapter 8 (in which the unnamed woman is caught in adultery). Mary Magdalene appears in none of these Gospel stories. As The Da Vinci Code also asserts, the image of her as the repentant prostitute, whose life shows that no one is beyond redemption, is a distortion.

While scholars instead emphasize Mary’s role as resurrection witness and a prophet and teacher in her own right, The Da Vinci Code — in romance-novel fashion — replaces the prostitute with Mrs. Jesus. She is, writes Brown, the “Holy Vessel [or Grail]...the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ. She was the womb that bore the lineage...Behold...the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father.”

Why the cover-up? Because “the early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible,” Brown writes. His book ultimately weighs in on an age-old Christian question about Jesus: What if he was human after all? This shifts our attention away from Mary again. In the end, she is a vessel, a womb, a body part — no longer a prostitute, but now properly married. Has she been rescued, or covered up again?

There is no evidence to persuade the historian that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were lovers or married. While there are erotic elements in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in John, chapter 20 (where she makes an attempt to embrace him and he says, “Do not touch or hold me”), and in some apocryphal works (notably the Gospel of Philip), the erotic in these texts is an aspect of mysticism, evocative of the intimacy of sharing spiritual knowledge. The question of the genital sexuality of Mary Magdalene, with Jesus or anyone else, remains an open question.

But The Da Vinci Code fills the gap with conventional sexual stereotypes and male-centered expectations. The character Sophie (Mary Magdalene’s fictional descendant) learns that the Hieros Gamos (sacred marriage) was a spiritual act that helped the male achieve spiritual insight and communion with God: “The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis—knowledge of the divine…” Women’s sexuality, in other words, helps men achieve their full spiritual potential.

Mary Magdalene as whore or as Jesus’ wife: Both are historically untenable, each characterization drawing us away from the ancient texts and from women’s history. They both distract from Mary Magdalene as a protagonist. In narratives about the empty tomb and in apocryphal works, she appears to be a Jew from Galilee who was prominent in the pre-Christian Kingdom of God movement, at least after the death of Jesus. It is likely that, with other women, she was present at his crucifixion and burial, then returned to his tomb and found it empty. In line with Jewish apocalyptic and wisdom beliefs of the time (as expressed in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Proverbs, and in the wisdom of Solomon), she believed him resurrected — a righteous, persecuted one vindicated by God. She and others communicated that belief by speaking of encounters with angels and the risen Jesus. She was, therefore, most likely a major source of information about the movement and about Jesus’ death, and an originator and prophet of the Christian resurrection faith.

As the contradictions and blurring of her role in the Gospels indicates, her testimony was challenged from the beginning, and diminished by some in the movement. In the Gospels, her presence at the tomb is upstaged by the drama of subsequent narratives, which depict Jesus authorizing and sending men to evangelize. Mary Magdalene is not even mentioned in the list of those said to have seen the risen Jesus in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, which further contributes to the diminishment of her role. The appearance of the risen Jesus to men became regarded as the foundation of belief in the resurrection, and a powerful source of male authority.

But all this is not a Vatican plot, as Brown suggests. Efforts to sideline women’s contributions and make their stories focus only on their bodies have always been with us. From the outset, Mary Magdalene and other women caused dissension among the faithful and were marginalized, their memories distorted even in the earliest communities. Centuries of elite and male centered interpretations and stereotypes have garbled and nearly erased the contribution of women and nonelite men from our histories. By contrast, feminist historians place women at the center of investigation, understanding them as makers as well as bearers of meaning.

If we use Mary’s newfound popularity to look again at the familiar cover-up of women’s agency, we might see that Mary Magdalene’s traumatic grief over the injustice done to Jesus, and her belief in God’s ultimate justice, produced a theological leap: the claim that resurrection had begun to take place. She stood up and said so, not acting as the mother of his children but more likely his sister and coworker, witnessing to their common vision of the kingdom of God.

Jane Schaberg is professor of religious studies and women’s studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre is assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Drew University. She is collaborating with Schaberg on a popular version of Jane’s book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and Christian Testament (Continuum, 2002).