This has been "the summer of Mary Magdalene," according to Time magazine. One of the things that made it so is a best-selling novel called The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, which makes the biblical story into a thriller in which Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, she was a rich woman who financed his ministry, and the Apostles conspired to suppress the truth in order to maintain male dominance.Brown's fantasy is not entirely without foundation, since some of it is taken from some early books called the Gnostic Gospels, which in many ways are at odds with the four gospels of the New Testament. There was a debate over these documents in the early centuries, and the Church defined the canon of the Bible partly for the purpose of excluding those other "gospels."Gnosticism was older and wider than Christianity, affecting Judaism and other religions. It was a "dualism," in which reality is thought to be composed of two irreconcilable principles - light and darkness, spirit and matter. The heresy was its belief that the universe is not ruled by one God, but that there are two warring kingdoms which ultimately will be completely separated from one another."Gnostic" is a Greek word for knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to possess secret knowledge which their followers used to free themselves from the world of darkness. Whereas orthodox Christianity preaches salvation as available to all who accept it, Gnostics thought that only an elite could know the hidden truth.There are things in Gnosticism that the modern mind finds repellent - elitism, weird stories, peculiar rituals, above all its rejection of the flesh. If orthodox Christianity is criticized for not cherishing the body, Gnosticism rejected it entirely.Gnosticism is now enjoying a vogue, however, partly because it was a religion in which women held leadership roles. This was consistent with its rejection of the flesh, which made sexual identity unimportant. The Gnostics did not accept the Incarnation of Jesus and treated doctrinal orthodoxy as being too literal-minded. The gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings.Thus it was possible to write new "gospels," since the Gnostics were not bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. Mary Magdalene could become Jesus' intimate, and the New Testament could be dismissed as essentially false. (Modern people like Dan Brown, who treat the Gnostic gospels as history, miss the point - to the Gnostics themselves it was irrelevant what actually happened when Jesus was on earth, if he ever was.)
This is about as weak an act of faith as it is possible to make and, if such an understanding had triumphed two millennia ago, Christianity today would be nothing but a footnote in books written by historians like Pagels.