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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Mary Magdalene: the Origins and Futures of Christianity

The study of the figure of Mary Magdalene is leading to new and more complex understandings of Christian origins, which means new and more complex understandings of Christian present and possible future. This study is taking place in many locations and dimensions: scholars are pouring over ancient manuscripts from the Christian Testament to the apocryphal Gospel of Mary; art historians examining paintings and sculptures; medievalists and church historians looking at sermons and patristic literature; producers, writers and actors making Jesus films, and film critics dissecting them; TV producers producing "biographies;" activists working for women's ordination and religious reforms; novelists and poets and songwriters creating-so many focused in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries on this woman of the first century. The broad context of this work is our phase of the women's movement, characterized by the development of women's studies and gender studies in the academy, and by women's increased activism in socio-political arenas.

Like Mary the mother of Jesus and Joan of Arc, Mary Magdalene is of great interest to feminist scholars in part because her representation is so varied, changes so with the times, expresses sexism and resistance to sexism, submission and erotic freedom, the crushing of women's leadership and its survival. In the ambivalence of her image is its iconic power.

As a biblical scholar, I am interested in the ancient texts, but I cannot approach them responsibly in this case without access through the movies, the art, the novels, and through the contemporary turmoil regarding women and institutional religions, and the political uses and manipulation of that turmoil. Reconstruction involves deconstruction of ideologies of romance, of women's evil and repentance, beauty, religio-political power and lack of power. The theatre and movies have given us only conventionally beautiful, conventionally sexual, usually airhead Magdalenes—with the one exception of Anne Bancroft in Zefferelli's TV movie, "Jesus of Nazareth." Mel Gibson is in the process of creating a Jesus movie in Aramaic, "The Passion," with Monica Bellucci cast as Mary Magdalene .Why not cast Helen Miren, Kathy Bates, Vanessa Redgrave, Tracy Chapman, Sigourney Weaver, or Tovah Feldshuh? We know why not.

Novels by men and women—from Nikos Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ (1960) to Marianne Fredriksson's According to Mary Magdalene (ET 1999); Liz Curtis Higgs' Mad Mary: A Bad Girl from Magdala, Transformed at His Appearing (2001) to Margaret George's Mary Called Magdalene (2002) —give us multiple versions of a love story that semi-humanizes Jesus and highlights the Magdalene's repentance and ongoing or burnt-out seductiveness, her dangerousness, her blandness, her demon-possesion. And now, her rage. Much of this is profoundly boring to me. It also saddens and frustrates me, as an indication of how little acquaintance the general public has with the fascinating complexity of contemporary biblical studies.

We can know little about the historical Mary Magdalene: her age, class, economic status, education, looks, sex life, occupation, family, youth, death. All these are blanks to be filled in by acts of imagination that reveal much about the imaginers. But what little we can reconstruct in terms of historical possibilities and probabilities is significant. The acts of reconstruction, historians are increasingly aware, also reveal much about them. What the investigator assumes or takes for granted, is willing to entertain as possible or likely, and is suspicious of; how savvy the investigator is regarding gender schemas and how they operate; how conscious the investigator is of the political dimensions of his or her work, and for whom and what the work is done—all these elements are factors that influence outcome. To me they are as important as how well trained and competent the investigator is in historical-critical methodologies, ancient languages, literary sensitivity. The framework of my remarks here is feminist criticism.

Scholars agree that the creation of the legends of Mary Magdalene as repentant whore had its origin in the conflation of texts, especially Luke 7, which had nothing to do with her. But scholars disagree heartily on how references to Mary Magdalene in the Christian Testament Gospels are to be interpreted, how they developed, what historical information if any they contain. While the texts are no longer accepted as simply presenting "what happened," for some of us this does not mean they are simply fiction with no historical value or interest at all except to illustrate the ideological battles of various groups and parties.

Mary Magdalene was a Jew from Galilee, a member of the kingdom of God movement associated with Jesus of Nazareth, prominent at least after his death. I judge it likely that with other women she was present at his crucifixion and burial, returned to his tomb and found it empty. In line with and developing Jewish apocalyptic/wisdom beliefs and praxis, she believed him resurrected, vindicated. She communicated that belief in terms of seeing and being spoken to by the risen Jesus: his appearance to her (Gospel of John) or to them (Gospel of Matthew). She was therefore likely a major source of information later about the movement and Jesus' death, and an originator of the Christian resurrection faith. There is enough tension, contradiction and blurring of her role in the Christian Testament Gospels to indicate that her testimony was challenged and diminished by that of some men in the movement, especially Peter, but her testimony was not suppressed entirely. In the Gospel of John there are traces of a tradition that viewed her as a prophetic successor of Jesus.

Study of Mary Magdalene in a number of apocryphal works, especially the Gospel of Mary, which may incorporate first-century traditions, has become important lens through which to view the canonical and patristic materials, as well as an important and intruiging study in itself. Though the representations differ from text to text, and though each is an expression of the ideology of the individual(s) and group(s) that produced it, Mary is depicted as a prominent disciple of Jesus and a visionary leader, with a voice. Join this study of the apocrypha with reconstructions of the leadership roles and theology of women such as the Corinthian prophets whom Paul opposed and attempted to silence, and a broader, more in-depth picture of early Christian struggles for authority comes into focus as gendered. What I call "Magdalene christianity" battles Petrine and Pauline forms down through the centuries.

Feminist study of women in antiquity—especially this woman in antiquity—is no scholarly, insular game. Rather, it is study that enables us to hear multivoiced discussions, whispers, roarings that wean us from fundamentalist belief in the Bible's divine, unilateral authority and its support for violence and domination of any kind: from murder to the subordination of women.

Jane D. Schaberg is Professor of Religious Studies and Codirector of Women's Studies, University of Detroit Mercy, and is the author of The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and Christian Testament (Continuum, 2002), and "Magdalene christianity," in the forthcoming volume, On the Cutting Edge: The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds, Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Continuum).

Citation: Jane D. Schaberg, " Mary Magdalene: the Origins and Futures of Christianity," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=215

 
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