Who Was Mary Magdalene?

From the writing of the New Testament to the filming of The Da Vinci Code, her image has been repeatedly conscripted, contorted and contradicted

Vision of St Maria Magdalena di Pazzi from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Pedro de Moya)
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Thus, for example, out of discrete episodes in the Gospel narratives, some readers would even create a far more unified—more satisfying—legend according to which Mary of Magdala was the unnamed woman being married at the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus famously turned water into wine. Her spouse, in this telling, was John, whom Jesus immediately recruited to be one of the Twelve. When John went off from Cana with the Lord, leaving his new wife behind, she collapsed in a fit of loneliness and jealousy and began to sell herself to other men. She next appeared in the narrative as the by then notorious adulteress whom the Pharisees thrust before Jesus. When Jesus refused to condemn her, she saw the error of her ways. Consequently, she went and got her precious ointment and spread it on his feet, weeping in sorrow. From then on she followed him, in chastity and devotion, her love forever unconsummated—“Do not cling to me!”—and more intense for being so.

Such a woman lives on as Mary Magdalene in Western Christianity and in the secular Western imagination, right down, say, to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Mary Magdalene sings, “I don’t know how to love him...He’s just a man, and I’ve had so many men before...I want him so. I love him so.” The story has timeless appeal, first, because that problem of “how”—whether love should be eros or agape; sensual or spiritual; a matter of longing or consummation—defines the human condition. What makes the conflict universal is the dual experience of sex: the necessary means of reproduction and the madness of passionate encounter. For women, the maternal can seem to be at odds with the erotic, a tension that in men can be reduced to the well-known opposite fantasies of the madonna and the whore. I write as a man, yet it seems to me in women this tension is expressed in attitudes not toward men, but toward femaleness itself. The image of Mary Magdalene gives expression to such tensions, and draws power from them, especially when it is twinned to the image of that other Mary, Jesus’ mother.

Christians may worship the Blessed Virgin, but it is Magdalene with whom they identify. What makes her compelling is that she is not merely the whore in contrast to the Madonna who is the mother of Jesus, but that she combines both figures in herself. Pure by virtue of her repentance, she nevertheless remains a woman with a past. Her conversion, instead of removing her erotic allure, heightens it. The misery of self-accusation, known in one way or another to every human being, finds release in a figure whose abject penitence is the condition of recovery. That she is sorry for having led the willful life of a sex object makes her only more compelling as what might be called a repentance object.

So the invention of the character of Mary Magdalene as repentant prostitute can be seen as having come about because of pressures inhering in the narrative form and in the primordial urge to give expression to the inevitable tensions of sexual restlessness. But neither of these was the main factor in the conversion of Mary Magdalene’s image, from one that challenged men’s misogynist assumptions to one that confirmed them. The main factor in that transformation was, in fact, the manipulation of her image by those very men. The mutation took a long time to accomplish—fully the first 600 years of the Christian era.

Again, it helps to have a chronology in mind, with a focus on the place of women in the Jesus movement. Phase one is the time of Jesus himself, and there is every reason to believe that, according to his teaching and in his circle, women were uniquely empowered as fully equal. In phase two, when the norms and assumptions of the Jesus community were being written down, the equality of women is reflected in the letters of St. Paul (c. 50-60), who names women as full partners—his partners—in the Christian movement, and in the Gospel accounts that give evidence of Jesus’ own attitudes and highlight women whose courage and fidelity stand in marked contrast to the men’s cowardice.

But by phase three—after the Gospels are written, but before the New Testament is defined as such—Jesus’ rejection of the prevailing male dominance was being eroded in the Christian community. The Gospels themselves, written in those several decades after Jesus, can be read to suggest this erosion because of their emphasis on the authority of “the Twelve,” who are all males. (The all-male composition of “the Twelve” is expressly used by the Vatican today to exclude women from ordination.) But in the books of the New Testament, the argument among Christians over the place of women in the community is implicit; it becomes quite explicit in other sacred texts of that early period. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the figure who most embodies the imaginative and theological conflict over the place of women in the “church,” as it had begun to call itself, is Mary Magdalene.

Here, it is useful to recall not only how the New Testament texts were composed, but also how they were selected as a sacred literature. The popular assumption is that the Epistles of Paul and James and the four Gospels, together with the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation, were pretty much what the early Christian community had by way of foundational writings. These texts, believed to be “inspired by the Holy Spirit,” are regarded as having somehow been conveyed by God to the church, and joined to the previously “inspired” and selected books of the Old Testament to form “the Bible.” But the holy books of Christianity (like the holy books of Judaism, for that matter) were established by a process far more complicated (and human) than that.

The explosive spread of the Good News of Jesus around the Mediterranean world meant that distinct Christian communities were springing up all over the place. There was a lively diversity of belief and practice, which was reflected in the oral traditions and, later, texts those communities drew on. In other words, there were many other texts that could have been included in the “canon” (or list), but weren’t.

It was not until the fourth century that the list of canonized books we now know as the New Testament was established. This amounted to a milestone on the road toward the church’s definition of itself precisely in opposition to Judaism. At the same time, and more subtly, the church was on the way toward understanding itself in opposition to women. Once the church began to enforce the “orthodoxy” of what it deemed Scripture and its doctrinally defined creed, rejected texts—and sometimes the people who prized them, also known as heretics—were destroyed. This was a matter partly of theological dispute—If Jesus was divine, in what way?—and partly of boundary-drawing against Judaism. But there was also an expressly philosophical inquiry at work, as Christians, like their pagan contemporaries, sought to define the relationship between spirit and matter. Among Christians, that argument would soon enough focus on sexuality—and its battleground would be the existential tension between male and female.

As the sacred books were canonized, which texts were excluded, and why? This is the long way around, but we are back to our subject, because one of the most important Christian texts to be found outside the New Testament canon is the so-called Gospel of Mary, a telling of the Jesus-movement story that features Mary Magdalene (decidedly not the woman of the “alabaster jar”) as one of its most powerful leaders. Just as the “canonical” Gospels emerged from communities that associated themselves with the “evangelists,” who may not actually have “written” the texts, this one is named for Mary not because she “wrote” it, but because it emerged from a community that recognized her authority.

Whether through suppression or neglect, the Gospel of Mary was lost in the early period—just as the real Mary Magdalene was beginning to disappear into the writhing misery of a penitent whore, and as women were disappearing from the church’s inner circle. It reappeared in 1896, when a well-preserved, if incomplete, fifth-century copy of a document dating to the second century showed up for sale in Cairo; eventually, other fragments of this text were found. Only slowly through the 20th century did scholars appreciate what the rediscovered Gospel revealed, a process that culminated with the publication in 2003 of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King.

Although Jesus rejected male dominance, as symbolized in his commissioning of Mary Magdalene to spread word of the Resurrection, male dominance gradually made a powerful comeback within the Jesus movement. But for that to happen, the commissioning of Mary Magdalene had to be reinvented. One sees that very thing under way in the Gospel of Mary.

For example, Peter’s preeminence is elsewhere taken for granted (in Matthew, Jesus says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”). Here, he defers to her:

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.”

Mary responded, “I will teach you about what is hidden from you.” And she began to speak these words to them.

Mary recalls her vision, a kind of esoteric description of the ascent of the soul. The disciples Peter and Andrew are disturbed—not by what she says, but by how she knows it. And now a jealous Peter complains to his fellows, “Did [Jesus] choose her over us?” This draws a sharp rebuke from another apostle, Levi, who says, “If the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?”

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