Mary Magdalene in Recent Literature
The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. By Dan Brown. New York: Doubleday, 2003. pp. 454.
The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents. By Antti Marjanen. NHMS 40. Leiden: Brill, 1996. pp. ix + 261.
Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth. By Esther de Boer, translated by John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997. pp. xi + 147.
The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. By Jane Schaberg. New York: Continuum, 2002. pp. 379.
Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. By Ann Graham Brock. HTS 51. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. pp. xviii + 235.
Dan Brown's brilliant thriller The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining read. Fast-paced, with surprising turns, it would make a great movie. Unfortunately, Brown's claims to historical accuracy on the first page is specious, for there are some real howlers. For example, the emperor Constantine, when he "collated" the Bible "as we know it today," had over eighty gospels (italics his) to choose from, but chose only the four we now have (p. 231). The rest were suppressed by the Church. Among the documents rumored to have been found by the Knights Templar under Solomon's temple was "the legendary 'Q' Document." "Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus' teachings, possibly written in His own hand" (p. 256).
More to the point of this essay is what Brown tells us about Mary Magdalene. She was married to Jesus Christ, pregnant with Jesus' royal blood, and was spirited out of Jerusalem after the crucifixion of Jesus by her uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. She wound up in a Jewish community in Gaul and brought forth Sarah, ancestor of a European bloodline that included the Merovingian dynasty of France (pp. 243-58). Some of Jesus and Mary's descendents still exist. The "historical record" of Jesus' marriage to Mary now includes the Gnostic "scrolls" (sic) discovered in Egypt. Brown quotes from (actually paraphrases, pp. 246, 247) two of the Gnostic gospels, The Gospel of Philip (NHC II, 3: 63,32-64,2) and The Gospel of Mary (BG, 1: 17,16-18,16). While both texts say that Jesus loved Mary more than the other disciples, neither of them says anything at all about his marriage to Mary.
Of course, none of this is new. In her book The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, Jane Schaberg discusses several other attempts to link Jesus and Mary in marriage, including the popular book by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983), from which Brown borrows a good deal. Schaberg's comments about that book apply equally well to Brown's: "This sensationalistic and influential book reminds us, if we need reminding, of the world of difference between scholarship and journalism" (p. 101). While Brown's influential novel playsloose with the historical record, several recent scholarly books proposeinterpretations based on the historically plausible rather than the purelyfictional. So the remainder of this essay will be devoted to scholarship.
In his book, The Woman Jesus Loved, Antti Marjanen discusses and analyzes the Gnostic and related texts that pertain to Mary Magdalene: The Gospel of Thomas (NHC II,2, sayings 21 and 114), The Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHC III,4 and BG,3), The Dialogue of the Savior (NHC III,5), The Gospel of Mary (BG, 1), The (First) Apocalypse of James (NHC V,3), The Gospel of Philip (NHC II,3), Pistis Sophia (the Askew Codex), The Great Questions of Mary (excerpted in Epiphanius' Panarion 26), and the Manichaean Psalm-Book (three psalms in the Psalms of Heracleides). In his discussions of the Gospel of Mary (which is unfortunately only partially preserved) and the Gospel of Philip, Marjanen excludes the possibility of any sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary, even though the texts say that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. In the former, the main issue is the legitimacy of women's spiritual leadership. In the latter, the relationship between Jesus and Mary is purely spiritual—Mary is Jesus' spiritual consort (syzygos)—but she is not given any special role in the transmission of spiritual mysteries.
In his conclusion Marjanen argues that the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a prominent Gnostic disciple emerges in the early second century, probably rooted in the role she is given in the canonical gospels as the first witness of Jesus' resurrection (John 20:14-18; Mark 16:9-11). Does this tradition also "reflect a historical figure who...had a leadership function among early Christians?" Marjanen answers prudently, "It may, but there is no real evidence for it" (p. 223).
In her popularly written book, Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth, translated from Dutch, Esther de Boer (a pastor in Holland) discusses the sixth-century Western "myth" of Mary Magdalene as a penitent sinner, discusses how this myth was based on erroneous interpretations of New Testament texts, and how scholarship has exploded this myth. In her discussion of the earliest sources about Mary she stresses the importance of her birthplace, Magdala, as a Hellenized mercantile town. She entertains the possibility that the Mary mentioned in Paul's greetings in Rom 16:6 could be Mary Magdalene (pp. 59-60).
De Boer's discussion of the non-canonical sources focuses particularly on the Gospel of Mary (BG, 1). She offers a generally reliable translation of the Coptic text (pp. 81-86, but there are translation problems at 8,4-5 and 16,22-17,4), followed by an extensive commentary. De Boer calls into question the "Gnostic" character of the Gospel of Mary and stresses rather its character as a "Hellenistic" rendering of Jesus' teachings, which can be a source of inspiration for any who take this gospel seriously.
Jane Schaberg's book is an avowedly feminist project, liberally sprinkled with quotations from Virginia Woolf. In the first chapter she discusses Woolf's life and writings at some length and compares her with Mary Magdalene. In the second she describes the site of ancient Magdala and bemoans the fact that excavations begun there in the 1970s were suspended. In the third she describes how through silence, conflation, distortion, and legends (e.g., the confusion of Mary of Magdala with Mary of Bethany and her identification with the sinful woman of Luke 7) the earliest sources were manipulated to create a false picture. Schaberg discusses the Gnostic and apocryphal material in chapter four and reconstructs from this evidence a nine-point profile of Mary:
(1) she was prominent among the followers of Jesus,
(2) exists as a memory in an androcentric textual world,
(3) spoke boldly,
(4) assumed a leadership role among the disciples,
(5) was a visionary,
(6) was praised for her superior understanding,
(7) was an intimate companion of Jesus,
(8) was opposed by one or more of the male disciples, and
(9) was defended by Jesus (p. 129).
Only in the Gospel of Mary do all nine points appear. She dates that gospel to the late first or early second century (p. 168) and suggests that Gos. Mary and other works "may preserve very early tradition that has been filtered out of the canonical materials" (p. 202).
In chapter five Schaberg discusses five sets of problems in the NT evidence:
(1) the nature of the Jesus movement,
(2) the crucifixion and burial of Jesus,
(3) the empty tomb,
(4) resurrection appearances, and
(5) depictions of Mary Magdalene.
She then discusses five scholarly reconstructions by Francois Bovon, Robert M. Price, Antti Marjanen (his book discussed above), Karen King, and John Dominic Crossan. She presents her own interpretation of the empty tomb and appearance to Mary Magdalene in the final two chapters.
In her feminist reconstruction Schaberg stresses in chapter six the egalitarian character of the Jesus movement, refers to a pre-Gospel tradition of Galilean women present at the crucifixion, defends the historicity of the empty tomb tradition, and argues that the original ending of Mark, now lost (suppressed), featured a resurrection appearance to Mary. The seventh and final chapter is entitled "Mary Magdalene as Successor to Jesus." Based on her reconstruction of a source lying behind John 20 that included an account of a vision by Mary of Jesus' ascension, she poses this "threatening thought...that Mary Magdalene can be considered a—or the—founder of Christianity" (p. 303). She sees in John 20 "fragments of the claim that Mary Magdalene was a successor of Jesus," based on "an imaginative reuse of 2 Kgs 2:1-18, Elisha's witnessing of Elijah's ascent" (p. 304). That tradition survived in part in the Gospel of Mary, wherein "Mary claims to have had a vision of Jesus, and to have spoken with him of ascent" (p. 320). That tradition "was short-circuited in circles that became dominant," starting with its dilution in the final editing of the Gospel of John (p. 325). Nevertheless, "Magdalene Christianity" continued to exist for a time until it was eventually suppressed by Petrine and other androcentric varieties of Christianity. (pp. 347-349).
With this daring reconstruction of early traditions it is no wonder that Schaberg dismisses as "defeatist" (p. 233) Marjanen's view that there is "no real evidence" for Mary's leadership role among early Christians (quoted above). Schaberg is well aware that her treatment "will not be convincing to everyone" (p. 352). Much as I'd like to be convinced by it, I must confess that I have great difficulty in finding any intertextual relationships between John 20 and 2 Kings 2. I am more open to seeing in the early traditions evidence of Mary's role as one of the apostles, as is argued in the next book under review.
Ann Brock's book, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle, revolves around the issue of apostleship, what that entails, and Mary's role as an apostle. In the first chapter Brock concludes that the key criteria for apostleship in the early church were the experience of an appearance of the resurrected Christ and a divine calling. In that connection she quotes Gregory of Antioch (sixth century). Gregory portrays Jesus as coming to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb with the charge, "Be the first teachers to the teachers. So that Peter who denied me learns that I can also choose women as apostles" (p. 15). It might be added that this quotation illustrates the vast difference between the Eastern and the Western churches in their portrayal of Mary Magdalene, as pointed out in De Boer's book and as Brock points out in chapter nine.
In chapter two, Brock discusses apostolic authority in the Gospel of Luke. Luke defends the primacy of Peter and diminishes Mary Magdalene's role as a witness to the resurrection. In chapter three she finds that the Gospel of John privileges the beloved disciples over Peter, and does the same with Mary. In chapter four, she concludes that Matthew and Mark are closer to John than to Luke in their portrayals of Mary's role. Other texts are discussed in chapter five: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, Pistis Sophia, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Sophia of Jesus Christ. She sees in all of them the portrayal of tensions between Peter and Mary Magdalene rooted in historical controversies over the leadership role of women in the church.
In chapter six, Brock compares the way in which women are portrayed in the Acts of Paul and the Acts of Peter. Their authors "advocate significantly different social roles for their constituents." These texts also show that "the greater Peter's authority in a text, the more Mary Magdalene's role is altered or compromised" (pp. 121, 122). In chapter seven, she discusses texts that reflect a strategy of the replacement of Mary Magdalene by other figures. For example, whereas in the Greek version of the Acts of Philip Mary plays a prominent role in mission, in the Coptic version Mary is replaced by Peter as Philip's traveling companion. Other texts favor Mary's mother Mary over Mary Magdalene. In the Questions of Bartholomew, Mary the mother is "the spokesperson for the authority of Peter over women" (p. 139). In chapter eight, Brock discusses the contradictions over apostleship reflected in the earliest evidence. Paul is cited for evidence that "the category of 'apostle' in the early church was not only of considerable importance but also gender inclusive" (p. 147, citing the example of Junia in Rom 16:7). The Lukan writings and the Pastoral Epistles present a counterpoint to this point of view.
In her concluding chapter, Brock expresses the hope that the study of the historical evidence will foster greater appreciation of Mary Magdalene's role as "the first apostle" (p. 175). Her book, as well as the others reviewed here, shows that this process is now well under way.
Birger Pearson is an SBL member and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara.
Citation: Birger A. Pearson, " Mary Magdalene in Recent Literature," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=208