Letting Mary Magdalene Speak

Tradition is not fixed. Newly-discovered texts like the Gospel of Mary let us hear other voices in an ancient Christian debate.

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

In an

article about recent interest in Mary Magdalene

, Kenneth Woodward writes “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.” As he points out, scholars have agreed at least since the 1960s that she was not a prostitute. Likewise, the speculation that Mary and Jesus were married is hardly new. “The real news,” he says, is found in the work of “ideologically committed feminist scholarship”—a statement I heartily agree with.

The rest of his article, however, is more an expression of Woodward’s distaste for feminism than a review or even a critique of that scholarship. Readers may want to evaluate for themselves examples of the best work in rhetorical criticism and feminist scholarship on Mary of Magdala, such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s classic work, In Memory of Her, and Jane Schaberg’s recent book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.



Part of the recent excitement about Mary Magdalene has to do with discoveries of previously unknown early Christian writings from Egypt, like the Gospel of Mary, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Mary is found in a fifth-century C.E. papyrus book that came onto the Cairo antiquities market in 1896. It was purchased by a German scholar and taken to Berlin, where it was first published in 1955. In 1945, two Egyptian peasants made an astonishing discovery while digging for fertilizer at the foot of the Jabel al-Tarif, a cliff near the town of Nag Hammadi in Middle Egypt. They uncovered a sealed clay jar containing a hoard of papyrus manuscripts. Known as the Nag Hammadi Codices, these fourth-century C.E. papyrus books included a wealth of ancient Christian literature, a total of 46 different works in all, almost all of which were previously unknown. These and other original writings are offering new perspectives on Christian beginnings. They show that early Christianity was much more diverse than we had ever imagined.

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