Mary Magdalene's Myth

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July 22 is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. In modern times, the date has also gained special significance as a symbol of Christian feminism, of women's role in the churches. This year, like others, that day will serve as a focus for ordination campaigns, and may even be marked by irregular ordinations of women into the Roman Catholic priesthood.

For feminists, the argument is straightforward. If Mary Magdalene herself was such a critical figure in the early church, even an apostle, how could any modern institution not recognize women's spiritual gifts?

But while Mary's significance is beyond debate, her story contains some real mysteries that we are a long way from solving. And no, I'm not referring to the twentieth century fantasy about her marrying Jesus and spawning a royal bloodline somewhere in France.

Modern accounts of Mary Magdalene usually tell a sinister story of misconduct by male church authorities. Mary, we are told, was the primary witness of the Resurrection, and must have exercised real authority in the early Christian community. Widely circulated alternative gospels recorded her mystical dialogues with Jesus. Over time, though, she dropped from the picture. Those "Other" gospels were banned, and vanished from sight for centuries. Worse, church leaders decided to identify her with other women reported in the gospels, so that she became a reformed prostitute. In later centuries, "Magdalene Homes" catered to saving women fallen into sexual sin. That's quite a comedown for someone who might have been one of Jesus's closest companions.

Actually, we can exaggerate the degree of malice suggested by that familiar Magdalene myth. The gospels that starred Mary were much later than the canonical accounts -- by a century or more -- and they relied on them entirely for any historical information about Jesus's life and times. Historical concerns fully account for these texts' exclusion from the church's canon.

Even with her sordid back-story, moreover, Mary Magdalene simply was not airbrushed out of the church's history. She continued to be highly venerated in medieval times and afterwards, one of the most beloved popular saints. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities commemorate her with their ancient Magdalene Colleges.

But it is the Resurrection stories that are most puzzling, and which raise most doubts about the Magdalene myth. A typical reader of the New Testament may well think that Mary was pivotal to the story of Jesus's death and Resurrection. She was one of the small band present at the crucifixion, and (depending on which account you read) she either met the risen Jesus, or was the first to report the event. Later on in the Bible, we move to Paul's extensive letters, in which her name never features. Surely here we see evidence of the patriarchal cover-up?

The problem is that the New Testament books do not appear in the order in which they were written. The true sequence of writings goes like this. Somewhere around 55AD, Paul wrote about Jesus's post-Resurrection appearances, and he began with Peter (Cephas). The phrase "The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon/Peter" became a standard formulation, in fact the oldest Christian creed.

Twenty years after that, Mark's gospel ends with an angel telling a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, about the Resurrection, but the text as it survives today says nothing about actual appearances.

Twenty years after Mark, perhaps in the 90s, Luke tells a similar story about the women reporting what an angel told them about the Resurrection, but not witnessing it. Again, Mary is just one of a group.

About this time, though, a new element emerged in the tale, namely that the group of women went beyond hearing about Jesus, but actually met him. This is the story we find in Matthew -- although Mary is only one of a pair of witnesses.

Last in the sequence, and not before 100, John's gospel tells us the story that has become most famous. Peter discovers the empty tomb, but it is Mary Magdalene herself (solo, not just one of a group of women) who is the first to have a personal meeting with the risen Jesus, who has a hauntingly beautiful conversation with her. Overjoyed to see Him, she reaches to touch Him. No, He says, not until I have ascended.

John's tale of the encounter is touching and memorable, and it is not surprising that it has attracted so many artists through the centuries. But as a historical account, it is very much later than the others, and much less likely to reflect the views of the earliest Christian community. The first references to Mary receiving a special Resurrection appearance were thus written seventy years after the supposed event.

Mary Magdalene herself makes no appearances in the New Testament outside the gospels, and is rarely mentioned by the group of very early writers we call the Apostolic Fathers. Only in the third century pseudo-gospels does she become the spiritual superstar who receives Jesus's special revelations.

So we have everything neatly tied up. The early church told of a Resurrection appearance to Peter and then the whole body of disciples. Although there might have been early tales concerning the faithful women, this element became much more prominent over time, until eventually one heroine took center stage as key witness to resurrection, and that was Mary Magdalene.

But wait a moment...

We can easily imagine an institution reinventing its origins to cover up embarrassing elements. But has any religion ever deliberately gone out of its way to make its beginnings less rather than more plausible?

Over time, the church's developing literature placed ever-greater reliance on women as key witnesses for a profoundly improbable event. Of course, women's testimony carried little weight in the courts of the time. Even worse, the central figure is Mary Magdalene, and as Luke tells us, seven demons had been cast out of her. In modern parlance, that language suggests mental disturbance or personality disorder.

Anti-Christian critics naturally had a merry time with this idea. Around 180, the pagan writer Celsus mocked any claims of Christ's Resurrection that relied on a "hysterical woman" (gyne paroistros). Either she was creating a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a dead boyfriend -- perhaps her pimp? -- or else she was inventing silly stories to impress the derelicts and street people she wandered around with.

Would an intelligent Christian author really have invented a legend of Mary Magdalene, if he or she had any hope of preaching Jesus's claims to a wider world?

So where does that leave us? Just conceivably, the early church as an institution might have known early stories about the Magdalene's role as a resurrection witness, and suppressed them out of embarrassment at her past, and her claims to be a plausible witness. It's possible, but wildly unlikely.

Instead, we have to remember that virtually everything we hear about the special relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene comes from one scene in one gospel, and should be understood as the literary creation of that one author. Perhaps the author of John's Gospel just found the Resurrection meeting scene so wonderful that he could not resist writing it, even if he had to bury the other material he must have known, including Mary's seven demons. Sometimes, an artist just has to create, and never mind the consequences. Over many centuries, that outlying story became the standard popular vision of the Resurrection.

And that author's creation is the foundation of what has become a whole alternative history of early Christianity.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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