A Quite Contrary Mary

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

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In the 13th century, no less a figure than Peter Abelard preached a sermon in which he saw symmetry between Miriam and Mary Magdalene as proclaimers of good news. (Even then, Mary Magdalene was known as "apostle to the apostles.") Finding symmetries between Old and New Testament figures was an important aspect of medieval Biblical exegesis.

In the current context, some exegetes focus on Exodus 15:20-21, where Miriam is called a "prophet" and leads the Israelite women in dance and song. For those feminists who are looking for any signs of female leadership in the Hebrew Bible (not to mention grounds for doing their own song and dance), this passage has led to the creation of a story of their own. According to that narrative, Miriam was regarded as a prophet, just as her brother Moses was, producing a rivalry among the ancient Israelites between the party of Moses and the party of Miriam.

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.

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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.

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