2016-06-30
Long before the debut of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code," people have speculated on Mary Magdalene's relationship to Jesus. Beliefnet recently asked two biblical scholars with opposing views to weigh the evidence and defend their conclusions about the woman from Magdala.

Bart D. Ehrman is the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He has published numerous books including "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code," "Misquoting Jesus," and the recent "Peter, Paul, and Mary Magadalene."

Dr. Barbara Thiering, a retired academic, is the author of "Jesus the Man" (1992), published in the U.S. as "Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls."


    Round 1    Round 2
Bart Ehrman  Bart Ehrman
Barbara Thiering Barbara Thiering


From: Bart Ehrman
To: Barbara Thiering
Date: May 11, 2006


Dear Dr. Thiering,

As you know, most scholars who study the New Testament and early Christianity are persuaded that Jesus was single and celibate, like the Essenes before his day (and afterwards) and like the Apostle Paul. In particular, there are compelling reasons for thinking that Jesus was not married to Mary of Magdala.

Because I know you disagree, I would be interested in your answers to these questions:

(1) If Jesus was married to Mary, why is there not a single reference to the marriage in any source in the ancient world? You can list all of the gospels we know besides the canonical four--the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Philip, Mary, the Nazareans, the Ebionites, the Hebrews, and so on.  In none of these gospels is there a solitary reference to Jesus' marriage to Mary.  Plus, it's not just  the Gospels. There is no reference to Jesus and Mary being married in any Christian (or non-Christian, for that matter) writing of any kind from the ancient world. Modern historians, of course, can only argue about historical probability based on surviving evidence.  But what evidence is there for Jesus and Mary being married? There's not a single reference to it in any historical source.

(2) On a related point, if Mary was important in Jesus' earthly life (for example, during his public ministry prior to his death), why do the two have almost no contact with each other in the Gospels? To the surprise of many people who owe their knowledge of Jesus more to Hollywood than to the New Testament, Mary is scarcely ever mentioned in Jesus' company in the four Gospels of the New Testament--our earliest and best sources for knowing about the historical Jesus. In these sources, our only first-century records of Jesus' life, how often is Mary associated with Jesus during his public ministry? Once. And only in the company of other women.

We are told in Luke 8:1-3 (this is the one and only reference to Mary in connection with Jesus before his crucifixion) that Mary, Joanna, Susanna, and a group of other women all accompanied Jesus and the Twelve on their itinerant preaching ministry in Galilee, and were provided with the funds they needed. We are also told in Luke that Mary is the one who had seven demons cast out from her, but we are not told that Jesus was the one who performed the exorcism. If Mary was married to Jesus, wouldn't she figure more prominently in the stories? Wouldn't she be named throughout his public ministry? At least sometimes? Or a few times? As it is, she is no more prominent than, say, Joanna. And far less prominent than Mary of Bethany (a different woman from the Judean town of Bethany; the other Mary comes from the Galilean town of Magdala) or Martha, Mary of Bethany's sister.

(3) If Mary was married to Jesus, why is she identified the way she is, as Mary of Magdala? All of the Marys of the New Testament are given some kind of qualifying description to differentiate them from one another. Mary was such a common name and peasants didn't have last names. We have Mary "the mother of Jesus," Mary "who came from Bethany," and Mary "who came from Magdala," for example. Each Mary is identified by the distinguishing feature that makes her stand out from the others. Now, if this particular Mary was in fact married to Jesus as his lifelong spouse and lover, couldn't you imagine some way to identify her more distinctively from the others, other than the fact that she came from a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee?

(4) The early Christian writers have no trouble mentioning Jesus' other relatives: his mother Mary, his father Joseph, four of his brothers by name, his sisters. All of these are mentioned in the New Testament Gospels. If Jesus was married, why would his spouse not be mentioned as such? In short, as exciting and titillating as it is to imagine that Jesus was married, and even married with children, there are compelling reasons for thinking that he was not married--at least, not married to Mary Magdalene. Anyone who thinks that he was married needs to provide some evidence; something more than wild, intriguing, captivating speculations with no historical basis. Sometimes, historical fact simply isn't as juicy as modern fiction.

Having said that, I don't want to minimize the importance of Mary Magdalene. According to some of our traditions, she and other women saw Jesus get crucified, saw where he was buried, and on the third day, were the ones who found his tomb empty. In some of the later traditions (not our earliest ones), Mary Magdalene was the first to declare that Jesus was raised from the dead. If this tradition is historical, one could argue that Mary, in fact, started Christianity! That's about as important as a person can be. But, it does not mean that she was Jesus' lover and had his children. That's a different question. And for that, we need historical evidence which, regrettably, is completely lacking.

I look forward to your response. From: Barbara Thiering
To: Bart Ehrman
Date: May 11, 2006


Dear Dr. Ehrman,

Thanks for opening up the discussion so cogently. May I reply on each point by saying that the available evidence needs to be taken more fully into account?

Your first point is that there is no evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. My reply is that students of both the Bible and the Gnostic gospels would not agree. There is good evidence, and in the case of the Bible, it has always been there. In the "Gospel of Philip" (found in the Gnostic codices at Nag Hammadi), these words are clearly readable, in spite of the holes in the manuscript: "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion." Later on in the same document we read: "And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene [...loved ] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [...]. The rest of [the disciples...] said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The savior answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you like her?'"

The significance of this passage has been weakened by some scholars' assigning an unlikely late date to the "Gospel of Philip," insisting that it was composed after 250 CE. But, the very words of the "Gospel of Philip" show that it was written before 70 CE when there was still "Hebrews"--Jews who had recently become Christians. The earlier a document is, the more likely it is to be historical.

In the New Testament itself, a woman identified as Mary of Bethany in John's gospel "took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (12:3). This is a direct allusion to Song of Solomon 1:12: "While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance." The Song of Solomon verses refer to the wedding liturgy of the kings at the time of David; it is clear that John's text delicately alludes to the wedding of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Your second point is that if Mary was married to Jesus, she would be featured more prominently in the Gospels. Here, you are not taking into account the strong evidence that Jesus came from the Essenes. It does not work to argue from present-day middle class society to the Essene society of 2000 years ago.

Essenes were very different from mainstream Jews in that they tried to avoid sex. Some were monastics, total celibates. But the members of the Essene dynastic lines, the second order of Essenes that the historian Josephus describes, had to marry in order to continue their lines. Jesus was a descendant of the line of David (Romans 1:3). Joseph, whom I take to be Jesus' biological father, was a descendant of the royal house of David, as the genealogies in both Matthew's and Luke's Gospels state.  Essene dynasts went outside the monastery to have sex with their wives at regular intervals, then went back to the ascetic life. Their wives certainly did not go around with them. The Essenes and many early Christians regarded women as the agents of sin, as certain early Christian writings such as 1 Timothy 3:13-15 and similar statements by the patristic writers illustrate.

The years of Jesus' ministry described in the Gospels period were those in which Jesus lived outside the Essene monastery, the three-year trial marriage of Essene custom that Josephus describes (Jewish War 2, 160-161). Mary Magdalene appears with Jesus at key moments. She was the same person as Mary of Bethany. "Bethany," meaning "House of the Poor," was a name for the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect described by Philo of Alexandria, to which Mary Magdalene belonged. She was not a demoniac or a prostitute. Here, and at all points, the pesher has to be taken into account. The pesher is a new way of reading the Gospels, learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

According to the pesher of the Gospels, a "demoniac" was a militant zealot. Mary was a freedom fighter with nationalist opinions that Jesus "cast out"—that is, he persuaded her to change her politics. The full historical background of the first century has to be taken into account.

Your third point, about the name "Mary," overlooks Philo's description of the Therapeutae. They were ascetics based in Egypt closely related to the Essenes. Their worship centered on Exodus imagery, and included a liturgy with a choral dance. The Therapeutae, unlike the monastic Essenes, had women members. In the liturgy, the male choir was led by a man acting as a "Moses" and the female choir by a woman acting as a "Miriam," the sister of Moses. "Miriam," translated as "Mary," was a title. ("Joseph" was also a title, as were "Jacob," "Abraham," "Isaac," "Moses," and "Elijah.") Once this is recognized, a woman with the title Miriam (Mary) is understood as a holder of the office of the chief woman of the Therapeutae. The mother of Jesus had held that role, and his wife continued it. From: Bart Ehrman
To: Barbara Thiering
Date: May 22, 2006


Dr. Thiering,

Thank you for your lively and imaginative response to my initial posting. I too will try to give a point-by-point response.

I'm afraid I strongly disagree that scholars of biblical studies and early Christianity think there is evidence that Jesus and Mary were married. Quite the contrary; there is scarcely a bona fide scholar in the field who thinks they were married. Of the hundreds of biblical and patristic scholars whom I know personally, who attend the meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the North American Patristics Society, I don't know of a single one who subscribes to this view.

You quote the Gospel of Philip in support, but you don't explain the quotations. In one verse, we are told that Mary was Jesus' "companion." The word used there is a Greek loan word (the Gospel itself is in Coptic, not in Aramaic as Dan Brown claims) that is not the word for spouse; it is koinwnos, a word that means "associate," or "someone that one spends time with." I am Dale Martin's koinwnos this week (we're at the beach), but I can assure you, we're not married.

The other passage indicates that Jesus kissed Mary. Possibly in our own context we might take this to mean that they were engaged in sexual activity (though not necessarily that they were married!). But anyone who reads the Gospel of Philip as a whole realizes that this sexual conclusion is being imported into the text, not drawn from it. The Gospel of Philip refers to kissing in another passage, where its meaning is quite clear. Christians kissed each other in the early communities as part of the liturgical ritual (passing the "kiss of peace"). According to Philip, this is because the Word of God is communicated, from one person to another, by means of the mouth. And so kissing is a statement that a revelation is being delivered from one person to another. Jesus "kissed" Mary: this means that he gave her a special revelation from on high.

As to the date of the Gospel of Philip: I don't know of any Coptologist or scholar of early Gnosticism (I know dozens, and have read dozens of others) who date it, as you do, prior to 70 CE. This past month I have had occasion to spend time with Elaine Pagels, Marvin Meyer, Stephen Emmel, Zlatko Plese, and other Gnostic scholars in one context or another. None of them--nor the editors of the text in Coptic nor any of the translators of the text in any of the modern languages--dates it that early, to my knowledge. So what is your evidence that everyone else is wrong? Surely it is not the fact that the text mentions "Hebrews:" I read a 19th-century novel last week that mentioned the Hebrews, and it was written about 150 years ago! I'm afraid your reference to Jesus' anointing by Mary of Bethany is also not relevant. This is a different woman from Mary of Magdala, as virtually all biblical scholars have always known. "Mary" was one of the most common names in first-century Palestine. To differentiate different Marys from one another, in a world in which lower classes didn't have last names, identifying features of each one were cited.


So one Mary is "the mother of Jesus"; another is Mary "who came from Bethany"; another was "Mary who came from Magdala." Bethany, of course, was a city in Judea near Jerusalem. Magdala was a fishing village in the north, on the Sea of Galilee. The fact that these two women came from two different places--and are explicitly identified as such--shows that they cannot have been the same person.

I also have to say that the entire thesis that Jesus was connected with the Essenes is not at all plausible historically. This is not just my private view. When I wrote a book on the historical Jesus six years ago or so, I read about 50 books by leading scholars on aspects of the historical Jesus, many of them by the world's leading scholars on the relationship of Jesus to Judaism (Ed Sanders, Geza Vermes, Jim Charlesworth, Paula Frederiksen--name any name). None of them finds this connection worth discussing at any length. The evidence is simply too overwhelming on the other side. Jesus did not have the characteristics of the Essenes. They were concerned about maintaining their ritual purity, keeping themselves away from the defiling influences of Jewish "sinners." Jesus didn't care at all about ritual purity (or he cared very little about it), and spent so much of his time with "sinners" that even people the Essenes felt were defiled (Pharisees/Sadducees) thought he had gone too far.

Finally, there is not a solitary reference in any of our sources that links Mary to the Therapeutae (about which, I might add, we know very, very little). For one thing, Mary was from rural Galilee. Do you have any ancient source that explicitly refers to the presence of Therapeutae in Galilee? Josephus, for example? Pliny the Elder? The New Testament? Philo? Anyone?

Again, thanks for your lively response. I have a feeling neither one of us is going to convert the other!

From: Barbara Thiering
To: Bart Ehrman
Date: May 22, 2006


Dear Dr. Ehrman,

Thank you for your reply. As you have probably foreseen, I feel that each of your disagreements with the evidence I brought forward comes from conservative opposition to new sources that would be damaging to traditional Christian beliefs. Your approach is not to explain, but to explain away.

My article giving the full reasons why the Gospel of Philip was written before 70 CE was published in the Journal of Higher Criticism, vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 102-111. You have misrepresented my point about its statements on "Hebrews" by saying it was a "mention." It is the starting point of the Gospel of Philip that some people were still "Hebrews," as Paul was before his conversion (Philippians 3:5-6), and some had just become Christian. The New Testament's epistle to Hebrews has the same context.

In the Beliefnet smackdown, "Is the Da Vinci Code Anti-Christian?", I gave my opinion that we are in the middle of a new kind of Reformation, one that is inevitable because of social changes and advances in knowledge. The Protestant Reformation is a model for what is happening now. Luther and the Reformers taught that "every peasant at the plough" was capable of learning for himself by reading the Bible, setting aside the priestly domination that encouraged ignorance and idolatrous cultism. The only new learning he could offer at that time was the Bible.


Now, there is reason to say that the Bible itself has become the idol, one that must be superseded by spiritually aware people in favor of the knowledge to which we all have access. Universal education has made a vast difference to worldviews. We can no longer live in the first century CE. The present fashion for TV documentaries on ancient history comes from people's hunger to know all about the past of our culture, including the religious past. People have become aware that a great deal has been kept from them in the name of a religious orthodoxy. That has always been the case with orthodoxy. Thomas Aquinas was condemned by the bishop of Paris for heresy because he took account of new scientific knowledge coming from the East through the Crusades!

My understanding of theological scholarship is that it goes first to the sources, all the available sources, and deals with them directly and thoroughly, setting aside matters of social power and position. That has been the European approach that has brought us so far forward. I think that scholars today should feel similar pressure to study all the new sources that have become available, not reading them superficially and selectively, but with the rigorous reasoning that a sound scientific method requires.



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