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

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.

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.


As second-century documents, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip (in which Jesus and Mary kiss), and other apocryphal texts come much too late to provide any reliable historical information about Jesus, Peter, or Mary Magdalene. But they do suggest what some groups--traditionally considered Gnostics--understood about the story of Jesus and his followers. (They also provide evidence--if more evidence were needed--that the post-Reformation quest for a pure, original and orthodox Christianity is a quixotic hunt that, like the proverbial peeled onion, leaves the seeker with only the smell.)

Karen King, a professor at HDS Harvard Divinity School, argues that there is a relationship between the Gospel of Mary, which exalts the role of Mary Magdalene, and Paul's Letter to Timothy, which counsels women to be silent in church. Her argument is that both were produced about the same time, 125 CE, and taken together reflect a raging gender war in the early church. But she does this by taking certain liberties with the dating of these two texts. No one knows when either was written, but some scholars put Timothy in the 90s CE, and some scholars put the Gospel of Mary in the late--not early--second century. King maximizes the dates of both, like bookends with nothing in between, for her purposes. In short, the new Mary Magdalene is an old Gnostic.

Even so, how credible is the assumption that the church’s rejection of Gnosticism in all its forms was essentially a gender war? In his rigorously balanced "Introduction to the New Testament," the late scholar Raymond E. Brown summarizes how the scriptures written by Christians were preserved and accepted--and what criteria were used. Among them were apostolic origin, real or putative, and conformity to the rule of faith. None of them involved gender. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that whole communities of Christians used the Gospel of Mary, or of Phillip, as authoritative texts. Yes, they were in circulation, but so are a number of books in my own library, several of them including the Gnostic gospels, but that does not make me a Gnostic. We do know, from the texts found at Nag Hammadi and other sources, that in the patristic period there were groups of Gnostics—some with hierarchies of their own—which comprised a kind of counter-church. Whether any of these groups saw themselves as belonging to a “party of Mary Magdalene” is not clear and to say more is to guess.

But is not hard to guess what is going on now. For several years I have kept an anthology of selections from the various world religions that on the cover invites the reader to choose from them those that they find appealing and thereby "create your own scriptures." That anyone would package this material, I thought, was indicative of one wind blowing in the mixed weather pattern of contemporary American religion. The operative assumption is that all sacred texts are of equal value and the reader is free to make sacred those that provide personal appeal. (Karen Armstrong, who calls herself a “serial monotheist,” does much the same thing.) It is the ultimate in consumer-oriented religion, of course, and has the added advantage of bypassing the authority of any community as to which texts count as sacred and which do not.

Something similar is, I think, happening with the Gnostic texts that support poor Mary Magdalene in the role thrust upon her as a leader of the church--and, if author Lynn Pickett is to be believed, as "Christianity's Hidden Goddess." At least the minority of feminist scholars pushing the Gnostic texts as equal in standing to those of the New Testament can argue that at an early period in Christian history they were available to Christians and occasionally read. From that it apparently follows that if you don't like the established canon, create one of your own. If the Gospel of Mary is just as authoritative as, say, the Gospel of Mark, then of course Mary Magdalene can be whatever today's feminists want her to be.
Were I to write a story involving Mary Magdalene, I think it would focus on this: that a small group of well-educated women decided to devote their careers to the pieces of Gnostic literature discovered in the last century, a find that promised a new academic specialty within the somewhat overtrodden field of Biblical studies, on which they could build a career. They became experts in this literature, as others become experts in the biology of the hermit crab. But unlike those who study marine decapod crustaceans, some of them came to identify with the objects of their study--in some cases, perhaps, because they had no other religious community to identify with other than that formed by common academic pursuit; others perhaps because they were in rebellion against whatever authoritative religious community nurtured their interest in religion in the first place, still others because they found in the Gnostic texts the kind of affirmation of inner divinity that their own New Age inclinations led them to. It may turn out, of course, that what we are witnessing is the nurture of tender intellectual shoots in a rarified academic hothouse. Most feminists in the field of Biblical scholarship do sober work. Who, after all, is going to celebrate a Mary Magdalene put forward by a professor like Jane C. Schaberg of the University of Detroit-Mercy, author of a book claiming that the Mary the mother of Jesus was the victim of rape?

And the next step? That is already upon us in the form of a new book from Harvard's Karen King, "What Is Gnosticism?" which aims at showing the great diversity among Gnostics-true and pluralizing Gnosticism --fair enough--but also at divesting Gnostics of their opposition to orthodox Christianity, thereby dissolving the very category of heresy. In short, if there is no error, then anything can be true. How very American. How inclusive and nonjudgmental. And in this age of postmodernism, so Now. In this kind of environment, even the figure of Mary Magdalene can be prostituted for polemical purposes.

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