A Magdalene for the Twenty-First Century

Two thousand and three was a banner year for the beloved and much maligned Mary Magdalene. Who could have imagined? The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s suspense thriller based on esoteric French legends concerning the marriage of Mary Magdalene to Jesus has been on the bestseller list for months.

Months! Dan Brown’s novel was inspired by the work of Margaret Starbird whose fourth book on Mary Magdalene was published last summer. In November, ABC Frontline produced an hour long special called Jesus, Mary & Da Vinci featuring Dan Brown, Margaret Starbird and a number of prominent academic scholars. Following on the heels of ABC, WBUR’s “The Connection” did its own show with Lese Bellevie, creator of www.magdalene.org, the major internet reference site for Mary Magdalene, and Karen King, Harvard Divinity School professor, whose groundbreaking book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle has just appeared in the bookstores.

What’s up? Why now? Over the centuries the figure of Mary Magdalene, more than any other saint — probably more than any other character in the cultural history of the West — has functioned as a kind of Rorschach for society’s values regarding sexuality and female status. She has been lauded as the first apostle and companion to the Savior, defamed and adored as the sinner who repented, and chosen by medieval guilds to be the guardian of gardeners and the patron saint of hairdressers. On the level of consciousness and its evolution, it makes sense that we, of the 21st century, are forging a whole new identity for Mary Magdalene. In fact, several identities are emerging.

But before exploring these new identities, we need to say out loud, once and for all, that Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute. For over 1400 years that fiction has dominated public consciousness. Gregory the Great is to blame. Reigning as Pope at the end of the 6th century, he delivered a now-famous homily on Luke’s gospel merging Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinner of the city” who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. The story of Mary Magdalene as the repentant whore was born. Over the centuries many other women — like Mary of Bethany — were fused together into a composite character packaged and labeled “Mary Magdalene.” Contemporary scholarship has separated out all these many women so that in the New Testament gospels, only the woman specifically named Mary Magdalene is considered to be Mary Magdalene. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed the title of “Penitent” from the Roman calendar feast day mass of Mary Magdalene, along with the traditional readings from Luke concerning the nameless sinner. But still, her false reputation lingers. If nothing else comes of the current wave of interest in Mary Magdalene, at least if Mary Magdalene is freed of her status as prostitute, then we as a culture will have finally freed ourselves from the misogyny of the early Church that threw its most powerful woman teacher right into the gutter.

So if Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, who was she?

Margaret Starbird is a leading voice in proclaiming a very different identity for Mary Magdalene, that of the bride of Christ. Starbird is not the first in recent times to articulate this theory but her books have found a wide audience within women’s spirituality circles where there is a great longing to restore the female divine to its rightful place of power and dignity and to re-integrate sexuality and spirituality. One of Margaret Starbird’s sources for the bride of Christ theory comes from the French legend made famous in the1980’s bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a fantastic and fantastical piece of investigative reporting that uncovered a centuries-old secret society called the Priory of Sion. This society, made up of some of the most famous European thinkers and artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, guarded the hidden knowledge that the Merovingian Dynasty of early French history originated with the legitimate heirs of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. (This is the storyline around which The Da Vinci Code was written.) Unfortunately that “legend” is of very recent origin: the Spring 1999 issue of Gnosis magazine published a well documented article by Robert Richardson exposing the Priory of Sion as the fabrication of an extreme right wing group active in the 1950’s and 60’s seeking to purify and renew France. I am deeply sympathetic to Starbird’s work and I regret she did not know the historical inaccuracy of the claim.

Separate from what we can surmise as historical “fact,” there is truth in the bigger picture that Margaret Starbird is articulating, namely, that there is something deeply troubling with a religion based on a virgin mother and a celibate son. The exclusion of sexuality from spiritual/religious life, and the labeling of sex as sinful, as the early Church fathers did, holds us to ideals that are impossible to maintain and results in a distortion, denial and profound wounding of our basic nature, the consequence of which we are seeing played out in the recent clergy sex scandal.

Starbird’s most original piece of research, and the other source that leads her to conclude that Mary Magdalene is the bride of Christ, concerns the sacred numerology used by writers of the Old and New Testaments. Starbird discovered that the Greek spelling of “the Magdalene” corresponds to the number 153 identified in the ancient world as the vesica pisces. This geometric shape of two overlapping circles forms, in the center, an almond-shaped vulva, the archetypal image of fertility and regeneration. Early Greek mathematicians called this form “the Holy of the Holies” and considered it the matrix from which all other geometric forms were derived. Given the power accorded to numbers in the ancient world, it would not have been an accident that “the Magdalene” spelled out 153 and was therefore equated with the vesica pisces.

On the level of archetype and myth, the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene can be readily linked to the Mediterranean goddesses of antiquity. The death, resurrection and reunion scenes in the gospel stories are hauntingly familiar to readers of the ancient myths. As Marjorie Malvern writes in Venus in Sackcloth: “Bits and pieces of goddesses not quite dead cluster around the Mary Magdalene pictured in the Gospel of John as the woman who, lamenting the dead Christ, seeks him and finding him resurrected, rejoices.” There are echoes here of the Egyptian Isis who searches for her murdered lover Osiris, and in finding him, excites him back to life, if only for awhile.

The late Joseph Campbell used to talk about the great myths as perennial themes in the working out of human ideas. These mythic or archetypal stories speak truth that is truer than most facts. But they do so by generalizing, abstracting and squishing out the particulars of everyday human life. What we have in Margaret Starbird’s work is a form of myth making, a working out of contemporary values that will no longer tolerate the absence of the female voice, or the denial of sexuality as spiritual. Mary Magdalene is being used to work out these ideas, but it occurs to me, aren’t we still stuck on Mary Magdalene’s sexuality? Even if we are honoring her as the sacred vulva instead of libeling her as the sinful whore, isn’t that still on the terms the patriarchy has traditionally used to define women’s worth? As Karen King said at the end of the WBUR Connection program, do we really want to make Mary Magdalene a “poster girl for heterosexual marriage”? Are we again losing sight of the real Mary Magdalene?

Is it even possible to know the real Mary Magdalene?

King, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, has translated a second century text called The Gospel of Mary that is part of the body of Gnostic literature that was considered heretical and hidden in the fourth or fifth century because it did not conform to the institutional needs of the emerging patriarchal Church. Being closer in time to the historical reality of Mary Magdalene, The Gospel of Mary may indeed give us insight into the flesh and blood Mary Magdalene. Here we see her as a leader among men, a clairvoyant and a very vulnerable human being. The content of The Gospel of Mary is this: in a moment when the other (male) disciples are despondent and weeping, Mary Magdalene remains calm and steps forward to assume leadership, offering words of encouragement and strength. When her authority is challenged, by none other than Peter, the rock upon whom the Church was built, she cries. (Of course! We all should be crying, for the whole history of the Church and its suppression of female leadership can be seen in this moment.) In The Gospel of Mary we also learn that she, and she alone, has been privileged to receive teachings from the risen Christ, meaning she has communicated telepathically with Christ in his non-corporeal form. In another Gnostic text Dialogue with the Savior, Mary Magdalene is given advanced teachings and is called “a woman who had understood completely.” In yet another text called the Pistis Sophia, Jesus names Mary Magdalene and John the Virgin as the greatest of the disciples.

In these Gnostic texts, it is refreshing to encounter a non-sexualized image of Mary Magdalene and to see that it is her capacity as a student and her abilities as a leader that are valued and commented upon. But does this new-to-us identity exclude her sexuality? Do we have to get caught in yet another polarization, where this time we value her head and throw out her body?

There are many indications of intimacy and love between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic material. When Karen King was translating The Gospel of Mary, she had to determine which Mary was being discussed because the Mary written about had no last name. She identified Mary as Mary Magdalene because twice in the text Mary was described as the woman Jesus loved more than the others. This refrain appears often in the Gnostic texts, and in The Gospel of Philip Mary Magdalene is described as the “companion” of Jesus. According to different scholars, that word in its original Greek usage, has innuendoes of something more, perhaps of sexual partnership. Also in The Gospel of Philip are the provocative lines that Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene upon the …. The last word is missing in the papyrus document. Typically it is translated as mouth. In the ABC Frontline special Elaine Pagels interprets this statement as symbolic and indicative of a transmission of knowledge but, given the other phrases of intimacy, her interpretation seems overly head-oriented. While all the academic scholars on the ABC program state there is no evidence for the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic or Orthodox texts available to us, most of them, particularly Karen King and Father Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, were sympathetic to the idea of some kind of love relationship between Jesus and Mary. The ABC Frontline special ended with the commentator debunking the legendary underpinning of The Da Vinci Code but then saying, “The story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is indeed a love story.”

Affirming the possibility of a love relationship outside of the context of marriage is quite radical in the history of the Church, and very much a product of our times. But the main point most of the contemporary scholars are making is this: let’s not get hung up on relationship. Let’s really look — finally — at the woman’s work, at her great contribution to the early Jesus movement as a visionary and a strong and fearless leader.

Welcome Mary Magdalene, you are now in the 21st century. You get to have it all.

Deborah Rose is an acupuncturist and herbalist with a long-standing interest in women’s spirituality. In 1999 and then again in 2000 she lead tours to France to search out the legends and visit the holy sites of Mary Magdalene. Her current project, entitled The Female Divine Through Time, is the writing up of ten years of Goddess-oriented travel in Europe. Deborah produces events throughout the year on different aspects of women’s spirituality. To be on her mailing list, contact her at Magdalineage@aol.com.