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Vision of St Maria Magdalena di Pazzi from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Pedro de Moya)

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

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?”

That was the question not only about Mary Magdalene, but about women generally. It should be no surprise, given how successfully the excluding dominance of males established itself in the church of the “Fathers,” that the Gospel of Mary was one of the texts shunted aside in the fourth century. As that text shows, the early image of this Mary as a trusted apostle of Jesus, reflected even in the canonical Gospel texts, proved to be a major obstacle to establishing that male dominance, which is why, whatever other “heretical” problems this gospel posed, that image had to be recast as one of subservience.

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