2016-06-30
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.

Early Christians intensely debated such basic issues as the content and meaning of Jesus’ teachings, the nature of salvation, the value of prophetic authority, the roles of women and slaves, and competing visions of ideal community. After all, these first Christians had no New Testament, no Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed, no commonly established church order or chain of authority, no church buildings, and indeed no single understanding of Jesus. All of the elements we might consider essential to define Christianity did not yet exist. Far from being starting points, the Nicene Creed and the New Testament were the end products of these debates and disputes. They represent the distillation of experience and experimentation—and not a small amount of strife and struggle.

One consequence of these struggles is that the winners were able to write the history of this period from their perspective. The viewpoints of the losers were largely lost since their ideas survived only in documents denouncing them. Until now. The recent discoveries provide a wealth of primary works that illustrate the plural character of early Christianity and offer alternative voices. They also help us to understand the winners better because their ideas and practices were shaped in the crucible of these early Christian debates. The Nicene Creed, for example, was never intended to be the full statement of Christian faith—after all, it does not ask Christians to affirm anything in the teachings of Jesus even though they were of fundamental importance to faith and practice. Instead every article of the Creed was formulated as a hedge against views that were considered to be wrong.

To take the new texts seriously as historical documents does not mean considering them to be theologically authoritative for contemporary believers. That determination has to be made—as it always has been—by communities of faith.

Meanwhile, placing the figure of Mary Magdalene in this new context helps us understand how the erroneous portrait of her as a prostitute could have been invented and how it could have flourished in the West for well over a millennium without any evidence to support it. Several of the newly-discovered works portray her as a favored disciple of Jesus and apostle after the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mary, for example, she calms the other disciples when they are afraid and gives them special teaching that Jesus had conveyed to her alone. The text states that Jesus knew her completely and loved her more than the others. It also draws upon a tradition of Peter in conflict with Mary, a topic handled with great sophistication by Anne Brock in her new book, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority.

But in these newly-discovered books, Mary is the apostolic guarantor of a theological position that lost out in the battle for orthodoxy. The Gospel of Mary, for example, presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge, not apocalyptic revelation; it acknowledges the reality of Jesus’ death and his resurrection, but it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it also rejects the immortality of the physical body, asserting that only the soul will be saved; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our romantic views about the harmony of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.

The Gospel of Mary lets us see that by making Mary Magdalene into a repentant prostitute, the leaders of the Church could achieve two aims at once. They succeeded both in undermining appeals to Mary Magdalene to support women’s leadership, and at the same time they were able to undermine the kind of theology being promoted in her name—theology which the Church Fathers condemned as heresy.

Mr. Woodward is quite right that the discovery of such sources challenges the traditional portrait of Christian history, a history which states that Jesus gave the true teaching to male apostles who passed it down untainted to the bishops who succeeded them. The purity of this gospel is secured especially through the Nicene Creed and orthodox interpretation of the Biblical canon.

While the new texts do not show a “raging gender war” in the early churches, they do provide evidence that one issue being debated concerned women’s leadership. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter is portrayed as a hothead—just as he is in many episodes in the New Testament gospels. Here he is jealous of Mary and refuses to believe that Jesus would give her special teaching. This portrait seems to suggest that Christians who, like Peter, reject women’s right to teach do so out of jealousy and lack of understanding.

In my forthcoming book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, I argue that this gospel offers an alternative voice to that canonized in 1 Timothy, where women are enjoined to silence and childbearing in order to gain salvation. The Gospel of Mary lets us hear another voice in the ancient debate, one that was lost for almost 2000 years. It expands our understanding of the dynamics of early Christianity, but it does not offer a voice that is beyond criticism. For example, the Gospel of Mary’s rejection of the body as one’s true self is highly problematic for contemporary feminism which affirms the dignity of the human body.

Of course the issue of women’s leadership has not gone away. It is not just an ancient controversy. In our own time, feminists are working to ensure that the true story of Mary Magdalene, as well as other ancient alternative voices, are heard—not only by readers of the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia, but also by a broader range of the public as well. On the other hand, scholars and others who find these new works challenging tend to dismiss them as heresy and try to marginalize their impact on current debates. It would seem, then, that all this commotion about Mary Magdalene is just another episode in the long history of Christians arguing amongst themselves.

Why should anyone pay attention?

This is why: Since so much in Christian belief and practice rests upon historical claims, an accurate view of history is crucial. One criterion for good history is accounting for all the evidence and not marginalizing the parts one doesn’t like or promoting unfairly the parts one does like. Whether or not communities of faith embrace or reject the teaching found in these newly discovered texts, Christians will better understand and responsibly engage their own tradition by attending to an accurate historical account of Christian beginnings.

Moreover, given the importance of religion in today’s world—especially notable in the intersection of religion and violence—I believe it is important for non-Christians as well as Christians to recognize that all religious traditions contain many voices and offer a variety of possibilities for addressing the complex issues of our day.

In that sense, tradition is not fixed, but is continually being constructed as believers draw upon the past to address the present. Therefore religion is not simply given—something one can only accept or reject. Religions are constantly being interpreted, which means that people must take responsibility for their religion and its effects.

Far from suggesting that religious claims are always true and can offer no errors, this perspective insists that communities of believers need to engage critically with their tradition and be held responsible for how they appropriate it. Although nothing can guarantee that people will live wisely and morally, an account that includes all the historical resources of tradition might create a surer basis upon which theological judgments are made. An accurate historical account will not ensure that the figure of Mary Magdalene won’t continue to be prostituted for polemical purposes as she has been for centuries—but it does restore some dignity to this important woman disciple of Jesus.



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