THE SAINTLY SINNER
by JOAN ACOCELLA
The two-thousand-year obsession with Mary Magdalene.
The New Yorker, Issue of 2006-02-13 and 20
The Catholic Church presumably has enough on its hands right now without worrying about popular fiction, but the Holy See cannot have failed to notice that Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” a novel claiming that Jesus wa married, has been on the Times best-seller list for almost three years. (Its message will soon spread more widely: the paperback is due out next month, and the movie version will be released in May.) Brown is by no means the first to have suggested that Christ had a sex life—Martin Luther said it—but the most notorious recent statement of the theory was a 1982 book, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. “Holy Blood,” which was one of the main sources for “The Da Vinci Code,” proposes that after the Crucifixion Jesus’ wife, with at least one of their children, escaped to France, where their descendants married into the Merovingian dynasty and are still around today. Nobody knows this, though, because, according to the authors’ scenario, the truth has been kept under wraps for a thousand years by a secret society called the Priory of Sion. The book offers a fantastically elaborated conspiracy theory—involving Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau (all “grand masters” of the Priory of Sion), plus Emma Calvé and various others—that cannot be briefly summarized, but the upshot is that the Priory may now be ready to go public with its story. The authors warn that the organization may intend to set up a theocratic United States of Europe, with a descendant of Jesus as its priest-king but with the actual business of government being handled by some other party—the Priory of Sion, for example.
And who is the woman who caused all this trouble? Who married Jesus and bore his offspring and thereby laid the foundation for the overthrow of post-Enlightenment culture? Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene gets only fourteen mentions in the New Testament. Luke and Mark describe her as the subject of one of Jesus’ exorcisms—he cast “seven devils” out of her—and as one of several women who followed him. In all fou Gospels, she is present at the Crucifixion. Nevertheless, her role remains minuscule, until, all of a sudden, after Christ’s death, it becomes hugely magnified. Each of the Gospels tells the story a little differently, but, basically, th Magdalene, either alone or with other women, goes to the tomb on the third day to anoint Jesus’ body, and it is to her (or them) that an angel or Christ himself announces that he is risen from the dead, and instructs her to go tell this to hi disciples. That command gave the Magdalene a completely new standing. The Resurrection is the proof of the truth of Christian faith. As the first person to announce it, Mary Magdalene became, as she was later designated, “the apostle to the apostles."
But there was a problem. Why her? Why a person who previously had been referred to only in passing? Above all, why a woman?
The fact that all four Gospels say that the Magdalene was the one strongly suggests that this indeed is what people said had happened. If so, however, she needed to be improved upon. That was easy enough. Today, with so many Biblical literalists around, we have to fuss about what Scripture actually says, but in the early centuries after Christ’s death such questions were less important, because most people couldn’t read. The four Gospels, for the most part, are collections of oral traditions. Once they were written down, they served as a guide for preaching, but only as a guide. Preachers embroidered upon them freely, and artists—indeed, everyone—made their own adjustments. The English scholar Marina Warner makes this point in her book on the Virgin Mary, “Alone of All Her Sex” (1976). As Warner shows, many of the details of the Nativity so familiar to us from paintings and hymns and school pageants—“the hay and the snow and the smell of animals’ warm bodies”—are not in the New Testament. People made them up; they wanted a better story. Likewise, they made up a better Mary Magdalene.
Jesus, for his time and place, was notably unsexist. In Samaria, when he talked with the woman at the well—this is the longest personal exchange he has with anyone in the Bible—his disciples “marvelled”; a Jewish man did not, in public, speak to a woman unrelated to him. In another episode, in Luke, Jesus is dining with Simon the Pharisee when a “woman in the city,” a “sinner”—presumably a prostitute—enters the house, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them, and then anoints them with balm from a jar. Simon says to Christ that if he can accept that tribute from such a person then he is surely not a prophet. Christ answers that the “sinner” has shown him more love than Simon has.
According to some scholars, Christ’s equanimity regarding gender was honored in some early Christian communities, where women served as leaders. But by the second century, as the so-called “orthodox Church” consolidated itself, the women were being shunted aside, along with the thing that they were increasingly seen to stand for: sex. It was not until the twelfth century that all Roman Catholic priests were absolutely required to be celibate, but the call for celibacy began sounding long before, and the writings of the Church fathers were very tough on sex. By the fourth century, Christ’s mother was declared a virgin. Chastity became the ideal; women, the incitement to unchastity, were stigmatized.
How, then, could the Resurrection announcement have been made to one of that party? In what seems, in retrospect, an ingenious solution, Luke’s “sinner” was said to be the Magdalene. This made a kind of sense. Luke first introduces the Magdalene by name only two verses after the story of the “sinner.” Then, there were the “seven devils” that Christ cast out of the Magdalene. What devils would a woman have besides concupiscence? Finally, unlike many other females in the Gospels—Mary the mother of James, Mary the wife of Cleophas, etc.—Mary Magdalene, when she is named, is identified not by a relationship with a man but by her city, Magdala, a prosperous fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. Thus the Magdalene was probably a woman who lived on her own, a rare and suspect thing in Jewish society of the period. Add to that the fact that Magdala had a reputation as a licentious city, and that the Magdalene apparently had money (Luke says that she ministered to Jesus out of her “substance”), and we arrive at the conclusion: Mary Magdalene was the sinner who washed Christ’s feet with her tears.
One wonders, at first, how it would help the Church’s new chastity campaign for the first witness of the Resurrection to be a prostitute. But, as noted, the Church was pretty much stuck with the Magdalene. Furthermore, the keynote of Jesus’ ministry was humility. A god who chose to be born in a stable might also decide to announce his Resurrection to a prostitute. And Luke’s sinner was not just a prostitute; she was a repentant prostitute, shedding tears so copious that they sufficed to clean the feet of a man who had just walked the dusty road to the Pharisee’s house. But the crucial gain of grafting this woman onto the Magdalene was that it gave the Magdalene some fullness as a character while also lowering her standing. The conflation was already being made by the third or fourth century, and in the sixth century it was ratified in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great. Mary Magdalene, one of the few independent women in the New Testament, became a whore.
As such, she was a tremendous success. Europe, once it was converted to Christianity, was not content to have all those holy people in the Bible confine their activities—or, more important, their relics—to the Middle East. And so th Magdalene, among others, was sent west. After the Crucifixion, it was said, infidels placed her in a rudderless boat and pushed it out to sea, in full confidence that it would capsize. But, piloted by the hand of God, the Magdalene’s bar arrived at Marseilles, whereupon she undertook a career of strenuous evangelism and converted southern Gaul. Eventually, however, she tired of preaching and retreated to a cave in a mountain near Marseilles, where she wept an repented her foul youth. She wore no clothes; she was covered only by her long hair (or, in some paintings, by an appalling sort of fur). Nor did she take any food. Once a day, angels would descend to carry her to Heaven, where sh received “heavenly sustenance,” and then fly her back to her grotto. This went on for thirty years. Then, one day, her friend Maximin, the bishop of Aix, found her in his church levitating two cubits above the floor and surrounded by choir of angels. She promptly expired.
This is a summary of various stories, but most of them can be found in “The Golden Legend,” a collection of saints’ lives written by a thirteenth-century Dominican, Jacobus de Voragine, who later became the archbishop of Genoa. After the Bible, “The Golden Legend” is said to have been the most widely read text of the Middle Ages. On its basis, sermons were composed, plays written, altarpieces painted, stories told by the hearth fire. The Magdalene, according to some sources, became France’s most popular saint after the Virgin Mary. In the eleventh century, an especially fervent Magdalene cult grew up in the Burgundian town of Vézelay, whose church claimed to have her relics—an assertion undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Vézelay was on one of the main routes to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, Christendom’s third most important pilgrimage site (after Jerusalem and Rome). Vézelay soon became another important pilgrimage site, substantially benefitting the local economy. In 1267, the monks of Vézelay had the Magdalene’s relics dug up from beneath the church—an event attended by the King.
Some people, though, wondered how the Magdalene’s body got to Burgundy, when the legend said that she had died in Provence. The Provençal Prince Charles of Salerno, a devout man, was especially pained by this relocation. And so in 1279, only twelve years after the Vézelay exhumation, a new set of Magdalene relics was discovered, in the crypt of St. Maximin, near Aix-en-Provence. St. Maximin became a competing pilgrimage site. As time passed, five whole bodies of the Magdalene, together with spare parts, were discovered in various locales. Her saint’s day, July 22nd, became a major holiday. In Viviers, it was said, a peasant who dared to plow his fields on that day was struck by lightning. Numerous professions—winegrowers, gardeners, sailors, barrelmakers, weavers—took her as their patron saint. Church after church was named after her, as were many baby girls.
How did she become such a favorite? In recent years, there have been a number of so-called “reception studies” of the Magdalene, histories of how her image changed over time. Two good examples are Susan Haskins’s “Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor” (1993) and Katherine Jansen’s “The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages” (2001). According to these writers, it was partly because urbanization in the twelfth century caused a rise in prostitution that the Magdalene, that well-known whore, became so prominent at this time. Preachers stressed—indeed, invented—her wayward youth. She was beautiful, they said, with masses of red-gold hair, and she was an heiress; she lived in a castle. But she had no male relative to arrange a suitable marriage for her, and so she abandoned herself to luxuria, or lust. Day by day, she sat at her mirror, applying cosmetics and perfumes, the better to ensnare innocent young men. Soon, according to the medieval preachers (who apparently regarded wealth as no deterrent to prostitution), she began to sell her body—a lesson, they declared, to all young women tempted by luxuria. Jansen quotes a thirteenth-century friar who put himself in the mind of such a girl, sitting before her looking glass: “She pulls her dress to one side to reveal bare skin, loosens her sash to reveal her cleavage. Her body is still home, but in God’s eyes she is already in a brothel.” Preaching was only part of the campaign. All across Europe, institutions were set up, under the aegis of Mary Magdalene, for prostitutes willing to repent their ways.
While she was being held up as a warning, however, the young Magdalene was also an object of admiration. She was chosen as the patron saint not just of barrelmakers and gardeners but also of glovemakers, perfume manufacturers, and hairdressers—in other words, the purveyors of all those fripperies which led her to her fall. (She also became the patroness of prostitutes. In Beaucaire, on her saint’s day, the local whores ran a race in her honor.) Apart from her beauty, what appealed to people was her reputed emotionalism. In medieval representations of the Crucifixion and the Deposition, the Magdalene typically appears mad with grief. Often, her mouth is open; she is screaming. Her hair flies; her cloak flies. She kisses Christ’s bleeding feet. She knows that it is for her sins, too, that Christ has died. Compared with her, the Virgin is usually far more composed. The period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries was the high tide of the worship of the Virgin Mary. According to Marina Warner, all the human failings that were removed from the Virgin were displaced onto the Magdalene, and each cult grew thereby. But, when it came to guilt over one’s trespasses, the Magdalene, not the stainless Virgin, was the saint people needed. As Haskins puts it, she was “a model for mere mortals who could sin and sin again, and yet through repentance still hope to reach heaven.”
This shifting image of the Magdalene—sometimes a pinup, sometimes a sermon—stabilized in the Renaissance. As the great scholar Mario Praz put it, she became a “Venus in sackcloth.” In a painting by Titian from 1530-35, we see her, in her grotto, gazing up to Heaven. At the same time, between the strands of her flowing hair, we see the pearly breasts that in her life—as in all lives, Titian is saying, complicitly—were the cause of sin. But the equipoise held only briefly. In the sixteenth century came the Protestants’ challenge to the sacrament of penance, which, through the sale of indulgences, had been so abused by the Church. The Counter-Reformation therefore placed strong emphasis on penance, and as part of that cleanup campaign we get notably chaste images of the Magdalene, such as Georges de La Tour’s famous series, with the pious saint now fully clothed and with a skull by her side—a reminder of how beauty ends up. The Magdalene also figured heavily in the devotional poetry of the English seventeenth century. Richard Crashaw’s “Saint Mary Magdalene, or The Weeper” (1646) pictures Christ “followed by two faithful fountains”—the Magdalene’s two eyes—“two walking baths; two weeping motions; / Portable, and compendious oceans.” This poem, together with other, like-minded representations, was sufficient to establish the word “maudlin,” a derivative of Magdalene, in the English language, with the meaning of “mawkishly lachrymose.”
With the Enlightenment, Mary Magdalene, like other holy matters, suffered some neglect. But in nineteenth-century England she was again invoked by reformers, for prostitution was epidemic in Victorian London. More convents were established for rescued prostitutes in the Magdalene’s name. (Actually, as Haskins explains, they were halfway houses, where the girls did needlework while awaiting a modest marriage or a job in a shop.) The very word “magdalen” was widely used to mean “fallen woman.” At the end of the century, a great wave of prurience broke over European art; in that, too, the Magdalene had a place, and not in a devotional guise. In some paintings, she appears buck naked—full body, frontal—without even the pseudo cover of her hair. She appealed also to the “black Symbolism” of the time. In an 1888 engraving by the Belgian Symbolist Félicien Rops, she crumples over, without a stitch on, at the foot of the Cross, as she embraces Christ’s feet.
In the twentieth century, the Magdalene received more exalted tributes. Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Boris Pasternak all devoted beautiful poems to her. They are love poems, about her relationship with Christ, but they are grave and nuanced. Popular representations of the Magdalene in our time have been less subtle. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” portrayed her frankly as a whore, in love with Jesus. In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV movie “Jesus of Nazareth,” we first see the Magdalene as she is finishing up with a client. In Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), based on Nikos Kazantzákis’s novel, the Magdalene becomes a prostitute only because Jesus, her childhood companion, rejected her sexually. Not that he wanted to. Later, on the Cross, he is assailed by a fantasy (vividly filmed) of bedding her and conceiving a child. Apparently, this is too much for her; she dies. So, after his fantasy, does Jesus. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” uses the Magdalene only as a weeper at the Crucifixion, but it is a rare case.
In fact, Gibson’s film is the only one in this catalogue that conforms to current Church doctrine. In the nineteen-sixties, the Church finally caught up with some of the more fantastic of the saints’ lives, and in 1969 the liturgical calendar was revised. A number of long-honored saints’ days were dropped, for lack of evidence that the saint in question had ever existed. (That included St. Christopher, to the grief of many people still wearing his medal.) Other saints had their entries rewritten, and the Magdalene’s was one. She was no longer a prostitute, the Church said, and the Song of Songs, that sexy poem, was no longer to be read on her saint’s day. As the film record demonstrates, some people wanted no part of this cleaned-up Magdalene. Others began asking how she got sullied in the first place.
The crucial development in Magdalene scholarship was the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library. Biblical scholars had understood for a long time that the orthodox Church was just the segment of the Church that won out ove competing Christian sects, notably the so-called Gnostics. But, apart from what could be gathered from the Church fathers’ denunciations of these supposed heretics, students of early Christianity knew little about them. Then, one day i December of 1945, an Arab peasant named Muhammad Ali al-Samman drove his camel to the foothills near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, to collect fertilizer for his fields, and as he dug he unearthed a clay jar about thre feet high. Hoping that it might contain treasure, he broke it open and, to his disappointment, found only a bunch of papyrus books, bound in leather. He took the books home and tossed them in a courtyard where he kept his animals. In th weeks that followed, his mother used some pages from the books to light her stove; other pages were bartered for cigarettes and fruit. But eventually, after a long journey through the hands of antiquities dealers, black marketers, smugglers and scholars, Samman’s find was recognized as a priceless library of Gnostic writings—thirteen codices, containing fifty-two texts—recorded in Coptic (an early form of Egyptian) in the fourth century but translated from Greek original dating from between the second and fourth centuries. In time, the books were confiscated by the Egyptian government and moved to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where they remain today. (They were published in 1972-77.) Actually they were not the first Gnostic texts to be discovered. Others had come to light in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but most of them were not published until after the time of the Nag Hammadi discovery
Anyone who wants to know the full, surprising contents of the Gnostic Gospels—with a Demiurge (not God) creating the universe, and the story of the Fall told from the point of view of the serpent, a friend to mankind—should consult Elaine Pagels’s classic “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979) or Marvin Meyer’s “The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library” (HarperSanFrancisco; $21.95), which was published last fall. Meyer is more descriptive, Pagels more analytic. What is important for this story is that Mary Magdalene is a central figure in the Gnostic Gospels and, compared with her European legend, an utterly new character. Not only is she not a prostitute; she is an evangelical hero and Christ’s favorite disciple.
The key text is the Gospel of Mary. As the treatise opens, the Risen Christ is preaching to his disciples. There is no such thing as sin, he says. Also, the disciples, in their quest for the divine, should follow no authorities, heed no rules, but simply look within themselves. Having delivered these lessons, Jesus departs, leaving his disciples quaking with fear. No sin? No rules? If they teach these doctrines, they may end up getting killed, like him. At that point, Mary Magdalene takes over. “Do not weep or grieve or be in doubt,” she tells the others. (This and the following quotations from the Gnostic texts are Meyer’s translations.) Peter then says to the Magdalene that they all know Jesus loved her more than any other woman, and he asks her if there is anything that she learned privately from the Saviour. The Magdalene responds by describing a vision she had of the soul’s ascent to truth—a story she shared with Jesus. (She adds his comments.) Four pages are missing from this passage, and some readers may not regret their loss. Accounts of Gnostic visions are sometimes like people’s descriptions of their dreams: bizarre yet boring—and long. The Magdalene’s story seems to have struck her audience that way. “Did he [Jesus] really speak with a woman in private, without our knowledge?” Peter now asks his brothers. “Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Mary bursts into tears and asks Peter if he thinks she’s lying. Another disciple, Levi, interrupts: “Peter, you always are angry. . . . If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?”
This text exemplifies the principle for which Gnosticism was named. In Greek, gnosis means “knowledge.” To the Gnostic communities, it meant a kind of spiritual understanding—the goal of all believers—that was achieved only through intense self-examination, typically accompanied by visions. The Gospel of Mary shows the Magdalene as an expert in this practice. It also presents her as a leader, full of confidence and zeal. Another of the Gnostic texts, “Pistis Sophia” (“Faith Wisdom”), takes the form of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. Of the forty-six questions put to Jesus, thirty-nine come from the Magdalene. Peter finally complains that no one else has a chance to speak. Another feature, then, of the Gnostic portrait of the Magdalene is the quarrel between her and Peter. Jesus repeatedly defends her, and that is the final, critical point about the Gnostic Magdalene: Jesus’ preference for her. In another Gospel, she is referred to as his “companion,” whom he often kissed. Some readers have taken this to mean that she was his mistress or wife, but kissing was common among people in the Middle East at that time, and the companionship seems to be based on Jesus’ conviction of her superior understanding. When the disciples ask him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?,” he answers, uncomfortingly, “If a blind person and one who can see are both in darkness, they are the same. When the light comes, one who can see will see the light, and the blind person will stay in darkness.”
So, while the orthodox Church was busy eliminating women from positions of power, the Gnostic sects seem to have been following a different route. One of their texts says that Jesus had seven women as well as twelve men among his disciples. The Gnostic pantheon includes female divinities. But Exhibit A is the Magdalene: her leadership and Christ’s endorsement of it. This is not to say that the Gnostic Gospels portray a gender-blind community. In another passage in which Peter complains about the Magdalene—“Mary should leave us,” he says, “for females are not worthy of life”—Jesus replies, “Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom.” This statement, a disappointment to many admirers of Gnosticism, has been explained by scholars as a reflection of the ancient belief, accepted even by the forward-thinking Gnostics, that women stood for earthly matters, while men were more in touch with the divine. Jesus is saying that his female disciples, despite their sex, will become spiritual. Peter clearly does not agree. So the authority of women was a point of conflict among the Gnostics, too.
We know how the orthodox Church—which, not incidentally, claimed its apostolic mission from Peter—solved this problem, and the fact that the Gnostic communities seem to have been solving it otherwise was one of the reasons that they were regarded as heretics. In any case, it was in the fourth century, at the moment when the orthodox Church was finally, after centuries of persecution, achieving stability, that the leaders of a Gnostic community near Nag Hammadi, apparently feeling that they were now in serious danger, put their most precious books in a jar and buried it in the hillside.
Their problem wasn’t just women, though. As Elaine Pagels explains, the Church’s whole effort at this time was to create an institution, and certain Gnostic principles—above all, the rejection of rules and hierarchies —were utterly incompatible with institutionalization. Pagels also points out that Gnosticism, for all its egalitarianism, was élitist. To qualify, you had to set yourself, over a long course of study, to discovering the divine within yourself. This was not for everyone, and the orthodox Church wanted everyone. Accordingly, the Church did not ask people to search for the divine—their priest would tell them what the divine was—and it assured them that as long as they confessed certain prescribed articles of faith and observed certain simple rituals, they, too, could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Without these reasonable, followable rules, Pagels writes, “one can scarcely imagine how the Christian faith could have survived.”
Other writers have been less understanding. Feminist Bible scholarship began in the early nineteenth century and carried on quietly until the nineteen-sixties, when it acquired new force in the wake of Vatican II. Soon afterward came th publication of the Nag Hammadi library. The feminists had long suspected that the New Testament, together with its commentators, had downplayed women’s contributions to the founding of Christianity. Here was the proof. Writings o the Magdalene exploded after 1975. Conveniently, this happened at the same time as the rise of postmodern literary theory, which held that all texts were unstable and porous, marked by “gaps” that the reader had to fill. If anything eve had gaps, it was the revised Magdalene. She wasn’t a prostitute anymore, but what was she? Young scholars tried to figure out what happened to her story. To mention only two recent books, Ann Graham Brock, in “Mary Magdalene, th First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority” (2003), and Holly E. Hearon, in “The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities” (2004), took on the New Testament Gospels, claiming that the suppressed the oral traditions descending from the Magdalene in favor of traditions descending from Peter’s ministry.
But the most searching and passionately argued of the books in this category is “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the New Testament” (2002), by Jane Schaberg, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. With tweezers, as it were, Schaberg goes through the New Testament, the Gnostic Gospels, and later writings to pull out and expose the textual maneuvers by which, in her words, the Magdalene was “replaced, appropriated, and left behind” by the orthodox Church. Between the first and fourth centuries, she believes, Christianity coalesced into a few broad traditions. One was Magdalene Christianity, whose goal was to put an end to the oppression of the world’s powerless. Magdalene Christianity was egalitarian in its organization, like the Jesus movement in which it originated. In that campaign, Schaberg says, Jesus was “not hero or leader or God” but just a brother to his fellow-reformers. It was only after his death and supposed Resurrection that the focus shifted from the group to him alone, and that he was deified. Clearly, however, Schaberg sees him as having had special authority within the movement, for she proposes that he chose the Magdalene as his successor. That, she says, is what the Resurrection announcement was about. The Resurrection, to Jesus, meant the ethical renewal of the world, and in making the Resurrection announcement to the Magdalene he was passing this mission on to her. But, while the Magdalene and the communities she inspired were fulfilling this assignment, other traditions, notably those descending from Peter and Paul, were branching off in less egalitarian directions. Those were the traditions that won, and, lest anyone recall the woman who wanted to create a different sort of Church, they “murdered” her memory, by turning her into a harlot.
Schaberg says that all this is guesswork. That’s fine by her. Since the nineteen-seventies, there has been a true paradigm shift in Biblical scholarship. Before, people thought that Christianity was a truth; even the reformers sought only a modification of that truth. But, with the publication of the Gnostic Gospels, abetted by postmodern theory, a number of young scholars came to regard early Christianity entirely differently—as a process, a vast, centuries-long argument among competing sects, during which certain choices were made. And, as these writers saw it, choices were still being made, which meant that any new proposals, however conjectural, were not only useful but essential. People don’t have to worry about contradicting the New Testament, Schaberg says. That document was just a draft: “a collage of fragments, aborted ideas, blackouts, white spaces, instructions, verbal experimentations, doodles, dots.” Earlier writers had also said that Christians had to make their own Christianity—and that it should be political. In the words of the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, feminist reinterpretations were a good thing, a way to “develop and adjudicate our own Christological meaning-making in the face of violence and killing today.” Fiorenza’s views, cousin to “liberation theology” (she calls the Magdalene one of “the disappeared”), were embraced by many young Bible scholars. Schaberg describes herself as a “guerrilla exegete.”
Not all the reformers have bared their teeth. In November, Doubleday brought out “Mary Magdalene: A Biography” ($23.95), by Bruce Chilton, an Episcopal priest and a professor of religion at Bard College. According to Chilton, the Magdalene was one of the “shaping forces of Christianity.” Especially important, as he sees it, was her visionary experience, both in the Gnostic Gospels and in the Resurrection announcement, which he takes to be a subjective, not an objective, event. Chilton, then, is one of those who believe that they can advance a more modern, acceptable Christianity by questioning the existence of miracles. Many of the Catholic reformers, like Fiorenza and Schaberg, seem to be past that stage. They belong to a Church that really believes in miracles, and whatever skepticism they felt regarding those fantastic events appears to have been exhausted years ago. Schaberg, when confronted with the question of whether Christ underwent a bodily resurrection, refuses to make the call. “Who knows?” she says. “Who cares?” Chilton cares. To him, apparently, as to many of the older liberal clergy, miracles are a mumbo-jumbo separating the faithful from the true meaning of Scripture. And so, in his view, Lazarus was not raised from the dead. He was probably buried alive by mistake—Jesus rescued him. Likewise, it is only “resuscitation literalists” who believe that Christ underwent a bodily resurrection. If the tomb was empty, maybe somebody stole the body. Christ was a man, with an idea about love and justice, and we should follow his lead without bothering about those old stories. By now, however, such an argument seems, itself, an old story, of limited usefulness. Many, probably most, of the world’s two billion Christians do believe in miracles, and want to. This makes life more interesting and serious to them. To mount reform on a denial of miracles seems futile and also —however unwittingly—unkind.
The Catholic reformers, from what I can tell, are not just more radical. They also seem more likely to spawn fringe groups such as “goddess worship.” In 1993, Margaret Starbird, a good Catholic who never publishes anything without letting her pastor read it first, came out with her book “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail.” Starbird says that when she read “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” she was “shattered” by its claim that Jesus was married. She didn’t reject it out of hand, though. She did seven years of research, and concluded that “Holy Blood” was right: Jesus was married to the Magdalene. Not only that, but the suppression of this secret—and of the “forgotten feminine” in general—had caused terrible trouble in the world: environmental pollution, child abuse, war. But now the divine goddess was fed up. Statues of the Virgin Mary “have been seen to shed tears in churches worldwide. . . . Even the stones cry out!” So do Disney movies. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel’s true identity is the “Lost Bride,” the Magdalene. The forgotten feminine is on its way back.
Starbird goes beyond analysis; she writes a love story. Jesus was a tall, handsome fellow; the Magdalene was a shy Jewish maiden, accustomed to sitting in her garden and gazing at little birds. One day, they were introduced. “His dark eyes caressed her.” We are taken through their wedding night, alas. Soon afterward, Jesus tells the Magdalene, now pregnant, that he has to go on a dangerous mission and that she must stay behind. “She buried her tears in the warmth of his shoulder.” The academic feminists have very little patience with the Jesus-married-the-Magdalene plot. As Schaberg sees it, these stories are not about the Magdalene. They are about Jesus; they are an effort to make him a “real man,” and not just for humanistic, Christ-is-your-friend reasons. (In the sixties, there were some naughty suggestions that maybe Jesus was gay.) Insofar as the love plot concerns the Magdalene, Schaberg writes, it is again demeaning, an attempt to convert this independent woman into a “normal” female. Starbird’s book bears out that theory.
She is not the only one who has resorted to fiction. There have been quite a few novels about the Magdalene in the past few decades, and many of them, according to Susan Haskins, are reluctant to part with the Magdalene’s reputation as a prostitute. The trend is to celebrate her as a sexually liberated woman. Behind this, of course, is second-stage feminism, but I think there is another motive as well, an effort to smuggle a little liveliness back into the Magdalene’s story.
A problem for the Magdalene revival, or at least for the theologians, is that it has had to draw its reconfigured heroine from the austere philosophy of the Gnostics. A religion, in order to succeed, must offer a little fun: stories, symbols rituals. The Catholic saints, however ill-founded their biographies, are a vivid group, each with a certain kind of hair and a certain hat, and accompanied by a lion or a dragon or something else interesting. They are like a collection of doll or superheroes, or like the Hindu pantheon—full of color and variety. The New Testament, for the most part, gives the Magdalene no concrete life. The medieval legend filled that void, equipped her with a boat, a grotto, some friends Take these things away, and you are back to zero. The Gnostic Gospels don’t provide much of a personality for her, and what they do come up with is not endearing. The Gnostic Magdalene is a showy visionary. At one point, sh responds to something Jesus has said by staring into the air for an hour. She is also a swot, the best student in class, constantly raising her hand. If I had been Peter, I would have complained, too. The feminists are of course right to point t her Gnostic virtues—the visionary faculty, the zeal—as an answer to the Church’s demotion of her, and of all women. Still, we miss the red-gold hair, the ointment jar
At one moment, however, the faceless Magdalene is given not just a face but a great, flaming personal drama. This is not in the Gnostic Gospels but in the New Testament, in John’s account of the Resurrection announcement. Here the Magdalene goes to the tomb in darkness, before dawn, and she goes alone. We feel her hurry, her sense of danger. To her astonishment, she finds the stone rolled away. She runs back to the disciples and tells them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” Peter and another disciple take over. They rush to the tomb; indeed, they race to see who can get there first. (This exemplary male competition became a favorite scene in medieval morality plays. In John’s Gospel, it adds a bright little note of comedy to the otherwise dark tale.) When they arrive, they see that the Magdalene was right: the body is gone. They go back home, presumably baffled, but the Magdalene stays behind, weeping. She looks again into the tomb, and now she sees two angels dressed in white. They ask her why she is crying, and she repeats her simple complaint: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” Even with angels, she’s still looking for the body. But then she turns around and sees another figure, who says to her, “Why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” The tomb is in a garden, and the Magdalene thinks this man must be the gardener. A third time—it’s like a song—she repeats her complaint: “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him.” Now comes the stab through the heart. “Mary,” the “gardener” says to her, and instantly she knows. “Rabboni” (roughly, “My dear rabbi”), she replies, and apparently she reaches out to him, because he says, “Touch me not.” (This is the Latin Bible’s famous phrase “Noli me tangere.”) “But,” he tells her, “go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father.” He then vanishes, and she is left by herself.
This scene is the New Testament’s most powerful statement about the confrontation with death, about losing forever the thing you love. The setting is beautiful: the green garden, the morning light, the angels. Then we hear the cruel words: “Don’t touch me.” He was there; he had called her name; she had reached out to embrace him. Now she must stand back, let him go, and make her way alone. The young Bible scholars should have all our support, and we should agree with them that the energetic, far-seeing Magdalene of the Gnostic texts is good evidence that the Church should ordain women. But that is not the evidence of the Magdalene’s authority on matters of the soul. John’s story is the evidence.