A Quite Contrary Mary

Like Jesus, Mary Magdalene is now the subject of a cultural makeover. What agenda do feminist scholars have in mind?

This article was originally published on Beliefnet in 2003, as the "Da Vinci Code" novel was first becoming popular.

Why the sudden interest in Mary Magdalene? Yes, I know about the two or three new books on the subject, as well as the best-selling book, "The DaVinci Code," and the new movie "The Magdalene Sisters." But is anything new being said about this familiar Biblical figure?



Not really. Scholars have known for decades, if not longer, that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, and that she had been erroneously conflated in early Christian tradition with the penitent woman in Luke who anoints the feet of the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus and dries them with her hair. It's certainly not news that her greatest claim to fame was the commission she received from Christ to go tell the apostles the news of his resurrection. Those kinds of "redefinitions" were readily available in the entry under her name in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1967—hardly an arcane resource for any journalist willing to check out claims that something new is being said.

 

That Jesus was married--possibly to Mary Magdalene--is also a hoary notion going well beyond William E. Phipps' theological potboiler of 1970, "Was Jesus Married?" Phipps' answer--that he probably was, since most Jewish men of the time married--was hardly persuasive. Nor is the contrary view, that Jesus was gay and had a thing for John, the "beloved disciple," a new idea; I came upon it in the 1960s, when the notion of Jesus as the ultimate “outsider” was popular in Existentialist circles. The conceit was that by virtue of his “illegitimate” birth” and his rural origins, Jesus was an outsider to the power groups of his day. Anglican bishop Hugh Montefiore added homosexuality to the mix so as to complete the outsider image. Like Jesus, Mary Magdalene is now the subject of a cultural makeover.

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When it comes to Biblical figures, it is not enough to say that every generation entertains notions already imagined and discarded by previous generations. In the case of Mary Magdalene, the news is not what is being said about her, but the new context in which she is being placed--and who is doing the placing and why. In other words, Mary Magdalene has become a project for a certain kind of ideologically committed feminist scholarship. That's the real news. For that story, however, attention should first be paid to a more ancient Biblical figure, Miriam the sister of Moses, because the parallels between the two women as "projects" are instructive.

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