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Magdalene The Apostle

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): October 25, 2003    Discovering Magdalene the Apostle, Not the Fallen  Woman    The Volatile Notion of a Married Jesus   .

October 25, 2003

Discovering Magdalene the Apostle, Not the Fallen Woman


There is a breathtaking moment in the Gospel of Philip, one of the Gnostic gospels, which were denounced by the church as heresy. The apostles witness Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The apostles are horrified, jealous. "Why do you love her more than us?" they ask. Jesus' response is mysterious and enigmatic. "Why do I not love you like her?" he says.

What is the meaning of those kisses? Sexual passion? A profound friendship? Jesus anointing Mary Magdalene as his successor and as leader of the church?

Traditionally, Mary Magdalene has been seen as a reformed harlot, portrayed in paintings as red haired and bare breasted. But as Karen L. King, the Winn professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard University, in the Divinity School, points out in her new book, "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle," nowhere does the Bible say that she was a prostitute.

The Bible is full of Marys, notes Ms. King, the author, most recently of "What Is Gnosticism?" There is Jesus' mother, for instance. Another is Mary Magdalene, who probably came from Migdal, in the Galilee, and is the first person to witness the Resurrection. The Gospels of Luke and Mark describe Mary Magdalene as possessed by "seven devils," which are driven out of her. In Luke, she and other similarly afflicted rich women "minister" to him and probably give him financial support. This Mary is sometimes conflated with another, nameless, woman in Luke, "a sinner" who washes Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair, and with Mary of Bethany, mentioned in the Gospel of John, who also washes Jesus' feet.

At the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I officially made these Marys into one. "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark," he said in a sermon. "And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?"

Mary Magdalene became the patron saint of fallen women.

In 1969, the Catholic Church decreed that the biblical Marys were actually different people. But the image of Mary Magdalene as a symbol of repentant female sexuality persisted.

Ms. King and several other scholars, maintain that the church made Mary Magdalene into a sinner in an attempt to denigrate women and to solidify male leadership. Their argument is fueled by the Gnostic gospels, which were written during the early Christian period; they were discovered in the late-19th century and the first half of the 20th in various locations in Egypt, including Nag Hammadi in 1945.

These gospels, like the Gospel of Mary, written in the names of early church figures but not included in the New Testament, present different accounts of Jesus' teachings, and have resulted in a revolutionary challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Scholars argue that gospels like Mary's show that Christianity originally contained diverse beliefs. Christian doctrine was codified in Nicea in A.D. 325 in an effort to centralize and strengthen church authority in the face of persecution.

Now Ms. King has undertaken a new study of Mary's gospel, which dates from the second century A.D. Only short and incomplete passages were found on the papyruses. In them, Jesus has been resurrected and is preaching to the apostles. Peter, the traditional founder of the church, asks Jesus about the nature of sin. In perhaps the gospel's most radical utterance, Jesus replies, "There is no such thing as sin." Sin occurs, Jesus says, when people "act in accordance with the nature of adultery." Ms. King interprets "adultery" not necessarily as illicit sex, but rather becoming mired in the passions of the material body.

Jesus continues preaching and warns the apostles not to "lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it." In other words, do not get caught up in rules and regulations, canonical or otherwise.

When Jesus finishes speaking, he leaves, and the apostles are despondent, afraid that if they preach his teachings, they, too, will be killed. Mary Magdalene comforts them, at which point Peter, saying that "the Savior loved you more than all other women," asks her to tell things Jesus said to her but not to them.

Mary relates that Jesus said, "Where the mind is, there is the treasure."

When Mary finishes, Peter becomes angry. "Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it?" he says. "Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?"

Mary starts to cry, and the apostle Levi rebukes Peter. "You have always been a wrathful person," Levi says, adding, "For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?" Then the apostles go out to preach.

In Ms. King's view, the Gospel of Mary gives legitimacy to women's leadership in the church. It also, she says, undermines the figure of Peter, the male founder of the church, who is portrayed as hotheaded and misinformed.

She seems to interpret the Gospel of Mary as a profoundly humane document, with salvation as a highly personal thing, a matter between the individual and Jesus. God is depicted not as a wrathful judge who punishes the wicked, but as wanting to free people from suffering.

The new study reveals few, if any, new facts about Mary. But Ms. King's close reading is one more step in the current rethinking of orthodox Christian views of the role of women in the church.

Some of Ms. King's interpretations are subtle, some are of interest mainly to theologians. Traditionalists have called such readings tendentious and driven by ideology. But then, it could be argued, all readings of the Gospels are. So little is known of the historical Jesus, it is perhaps impossible to view his life through any lens other than individual belief.

Still, Ms. King's book is an important step by a renowned scholar in the continuing and painful process of opening up the infinite varieties of Christianity to those who struggle with faith.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

The following story in the NYT appeared 9 days later, on 11/3/03.

The Volatile Notion of a Married Jesus


Half a dozen religious leaders joined David Westin, the president of ABC News, and others from the network and the press for lunch on the 22nd floor of ABC building on 66th Street in Manhattan late last week. Mr. Westin wore a sharp suit, as did some members of the clergy; others had dressed casually. Many were diffident. Some were quietly furious.

Part symposium and part focus group, the meeting had been convened to discuss "Jesus, Mary and da Vinci," tonight's ABC News special; the show is a woolly and underthought treatment of the religious sophistry in "The Da Vinci Code," the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. The producers, along with the show's on-camera reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, were troubleshooting. After the meeting on Thursday, they rushed to the editing room to make changes to the show.

Though set mostly in modern Europe, Mr. Brown's thriller centers on Leonardo da Vinci's role in maintaining a secret from biblical times. In pursuing what it calls the "claims" of Mr. Brown's fiction, the ABC special, which the group on the 22nd floor had seen before the meeting, bares Leonardo's so-called secret: Mary Magdalene, far from being a prostitute, was the rightful wife of Jesus; Mary and Jesus had a child and heirs; and finally, the heirs, whose existence threatened church dogma, were protected by a clandestine priory that counted Leonardo among its members.

Soon after the floor was opened for questions, Nikki Stephanopoulos, the communications director for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, whose son is the ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos, complained that the voluptuous, ravenous images of Mary Magdalene on display in the documentary bore little resemblance to Eastern representations of the Magdalene. (Sexy music by Me'shell Ndegeocello accompanies one sequence of semi-nude pictures on the show.)

As a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Ms. Stephanopoulos also objected to the show's restrictive use of the word "orthodox." In an interview, Ms. Vargas uses the word to denote the repressive church hierarchy in the Middle Ages. Joseph De Feo, policy analyst for the Catholic League, then asked the show's producers why they hadn't solicited opinions from Roman Catholics other than the Rev. Richard McBrien, a priest and theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who, Mr. De Feo said, is known chiefly for his far-out views and his "shtick" about Mary Magdalene's primacy among Jesus's apostles.

Rudy Bednar, an executive producer at ABC, responded that the Catholic view had been expressed in the documentary by various evangelicals the producers had consulted. Mr. De Feo, perhaps bridling at the idea that arch-Protestants should represent the opinions of Catholics, shot Mr. Bednar a look of incredulity.

As several people mused about whether a married Jesus could still be divine — the consensus was that he could — the subject of the documentary almost seemed to stymie further discussion.

Its logic is of an especially enervating kind. Like a seatmate on a train who voices ardent ideas about Procter & Gamble's satanism, the ABC special is both amusingly audacious and profoundly irritating. If you're not freshly familiar with the invariably eclectic materials under discussion, you can express only general skepticism, which makes you a sucker. You're suddenly in the camp of the uptight "orthodox," those joyless suppressors of truth who enjoy none of the pleasures of heresy. The more attractive option may be to keep quiet.

On the other hand, many theories advanced in the ABC special are not ultimately endorsed by it. ("Not all the claims made in the book are true, and some have been made before, but there is some surprising truth," is how Ms. Vargas puts it.) Early in the show, too, Ms. Vargas asks a series of questions that begin with, "What if we told you," which suggests that the ideas that follow are being proposed so that viewers might entertain them as beliefs — and thus be entertained, while not informed. This is a curious approach for network news.

To establish and then half-dismantle its arguments, the show relies on interviews with Mr. Brown, whose novel is simply called a book in the voiceover and who is treated as a historian; Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician and novelist; Elaine Pagels, the Princeton professor of religion; Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School; Robin Griffith-Jones, an Anglican rector in London; Margaret Starbird, an independent scholar; and Daryl Bock and Jeff Bingham, two Evangelical scholars in Dallas.

These experts have divergent reputations. Ms. Pagels, for example, wrote "The Gnostic Gospels" in 1979; that book is still considered the gold-standard explication of the way the Gnostics illuminated the power struggles of the early church. By contrast, Henry Lincoln, a chief source for "The Da Vinci Code," is an author of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," a weird farrago about Jesus and the Knights Templar.

The juxtaposition of ivory-tower erudition and antic amateurism creates odd effects. Did Ms. Pagels know that her statements would be marshaled in the service of an argument that, at its outer reaches, contends that the pregnant Mary Magdalene was the holy grail, the lost vessel of Jesus's blood? And further, that the figure in Leonardo's "Last Supper," generally taken for the effeminate apostle John, is none other than Mary Magdalene, leaning away from Jesus in a telltale "V" that symbolizes her femininity?

More important, how did ABC manage to persuade this group to come together to use a popular thriller as a pretext for a serious discussion of religious history?

Individual motivations seem to surface in the show itself. Ms. King and Ms. Starbird are eager to make a case for the importance of Mary Magdalene in the early church and, more generally, to elucidate the ways that women have been denied access to power and had their reputations smeared for seeking it.

In contrast, Mr. McBrien and Mr. Griffith-Jones appear determined to advertise Jesus as a sexual man. And by arguing that Jesus was heterosexual and monogamous — married, even — they offer a new portrait of him that may be more palatable to some contemporary Christians who, following sex scandals in the Catholic Church, now find the idea of a celibate priesthood unnerving. In the view of the priests consulted for the ABC documentary, Jesus wasn't an asexual Jewish radical who consorted with a prostitute and a gang of guys, one of whom was an androgyne; instead, he was a normal family man.

"Jesus, Mary and da Vinci" has, however briefly, provided common cause for feminists and Catholics who are discouraged. Formally, it mixes fable with history in an absurdist way that, while indecent as documentary, can nonetheless activate the intellectual immune system in viewers, implicating them in the drama of historical debate. That's an exciting aim for network documentaries.

On this note, a sensible summation comes from Ms. King at the end of the hour: "Sometimes religion is presented as something that's fixed and stable. When you have to accept it and reject it. But the fact is that religious traditions, and certainly Christianity among them, are very diverse, very filled with possibilities. And we need to take responsibilities for the kind of religion that we make."

But others at the meeting missed the uplift of the day, and found the implications of ABC's show unnerving. As the meeting broke up and participants bussed their sodas and plastic plates, one minister grumbled that the last thing he wanted to offer to his congregants was a married Jesus. Conceived that way, Jesus's role as consoler of gay people, single people, widows and widowers, as well as the lonely, would be diminished, he said.

Jesus with a wife also implies favoritism, someone else said. Wasn't he supposed to love us all?

Copyright 2003 The New York Times CompanyHome — — Back to Top

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