A Quite Contrary Mary

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

BY: Kenneth L. Woodward


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But--so the story goes--the male editors of the Bible expunged the stories of Miriam's leadership that they believe existed in ancient oral traditions. Moreover, a few feminist scholars insist that the ancient Israelites actually created an egalitarian society before the rise of male kingship. Thus, we have a classic case of patriarchy--feminism's equivalent of original sin--excising the evidence of female leadership, indeed, of female prophethood. Similarly, the Biblical myth of an original Eden is replaced by the feminist idea of an original egalitarian society which was eventually covered up by the male redactors of the Exodus story, Judaism’s foundation event.

Whether any of this is true--or even likely--is not something a mere journalist is equipped to judge. Nonetheless, a journalist might note that not many Biblical scholars, male or female, give these speculations credence. The evidence simply isn’t there, which is why those who advance them rely on what is called “rhetorical analysis” of Biblical texts rather than historical or archeological evidence. A journalist might also note that within religious feminism, the truth or falsity of these speculations doesn't matter. Thus, at least since the late 1970s, some Jewish women have staged feminist seders in which a cup is set aside for Miriam as well as the traditional one for Elijah. They do this not because they believe that Miriam, like Elijah, was taken bodily into heaven and so will return in the fullness of time, but just to make things, well, egalitarian.

We find the same pattern in the feminist redefinition of Mary Magdalene. Here the narrative framework functions like this: the early movement led by Jesus was egalitarian and gender-inclusive (though some second-generation Jewish feminists now reject this on the grounds that it makes Jesus an exception among Jewish men of his day and so is anti-Semitic). Among the women who follow Jesus, Mary of Magdala is the most prominent: she is mentioned more often (12 times) than any other woman but the mother of Jesus. The most important mention is in John 20:11-18, where the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary alone and commissions her to relay the news to his (male) apostles. Hence her traditional title: "apostle to the apostles."

Now, it should be clear to any reader of the New Testament that the women who followed Jesus often acted more like disciples than did some of Jesus' chosen Twelve. For example, the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) have only women at the foot of the cross. (The Gospel of John adds John, the beloved disciple.)

But a small cadre of feminist scholars--especially those tutored and credentialed at Harvard Divinity School--go much further. Their headline-making claim is that in the early church there was a party of Magdalene and a party of Peter--again, men versus women, as in the case of Miriam--and that the party of Peter not only won, but also proceeded to expunge the evidence and memory of the Magdalene faction from the New Testament and to tarnish the reputation of Magdalene to boot. A sermon preached by Pope Gregory in 591 is frequently cited on the latter point, as if he had invented an anti-woman tradition and sealed it with (retroactive) infallibility. Blaming a pope fits the feminist agenda here, injecting an anti-hierarchical, indeed, anti-papal note. In short, patriarchy is again the culprit.

But there is a difference between the two Marys--Miriam and the Magdalene. To make their case, Mary Magdalene's feminist defenders have switched to a different deck of cards. Just as a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion--biblical scholarship based on suspicion of male authorship--dictates that the text of the New Testament, being the work of males, must be distrusted for that very reason, so a feminist hermeneutics of retrieval--in this case, retrieving the suppressed evidence of the party of Mary Magdalene--must go to other sources. These sources are the various texts that did not make it into the New Testament as it was fixed in the 4th century. And the very fact of this exclusion by male church hierarchs makes the extra texts all the more authoritative for scholars whose aim is showing that patriarchy suppressed female leadership in the church. Among these texts, The Gospel of Mary is paramount; it reads as if the author had obtained a DD degree from Harvard Divinity School.


Continued on page 3: Create your own scriptures? »

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