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.
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.
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.
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.