So, Really... Who was She?

So, Really... Who was She?

by Deborah Rose ©2006

Translated into 44 languages, Dan Brown’s thriller novel The Da Vinci Code has become the all time bestseller in the category of adult fiction. Although highly entertaining and fast-paced, there are many other such novels. What is it about The Da Vinci Code? Why such enormous popularity?

The “it” is surely the endlessly fascinating character of Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown has re-invented Ms Magdalene for a 21st century audience and along the way, affirmed the reader’s deepest intuition that Church and State have been lying through their teeth for centuries.

Precious little is known about the flesh and blood Magdalene. This lack of detail has only inspired the collective imagination. People of all stations of life have loved Mary Magdalene and used her as a mirror to reflect and affirm their own values regarding sexuality and female status. Over the ages, Mary Magdalene 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 matron saint of hairdressers. It certainly makes sense that we of the 21st century would want a Magdalene who reflects who we are. In fact, several identities are emerging.

But before exploring these new identities, we need to say out loud, once and for all, that the real Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute. For over 1400 years that particular fictional persona has dominated public consciousness. Gregory the Great is the responsible agent. Reigning as Pope at the end of the 6th century, Gregory delivered the 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.

The Christian traditions of the West have combined many women into a composite character packaged and labeled “ Mary Magdalene.” Luke’s unnamed sinner, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, have most commonly been merged. In the French legends Mary the Egyptian hermit was added to the mix.

Modern biblical scholarship has separated out all these many women and in the New Testament Gospels only the woman specifically named Mary Magdalene is considered to be Mary Magdalene. In 1969, in recognition of this scholarship, the Catholic Church removed the title of “Penitent” from the feast day mass of Mary Magdalene. But still, her false reputation lingers. If nothing else comes of the current wave of interest, if Mary Magdalene is freed of her status as prostitute, then we as a culture will finally have freed ourselves from the misogyny of the early Church that threw it’s most powerful woman teacher right into the gutter.

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 Jesus. 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. (Rumor has it that Dan Brown’s wife was reading Starbird’s books and that they were the inspiration and catalyst for The Da Vinci Code.)

Starbird’s first book Woman with the Alabaster Jar is based on ideas made famous in the1980’s bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail. That book purportedly uncovered a centuries old secret society called the Priory of Sion that was made up of some of the most famous European thinkers and artists including Leonardo da Vinci. The purpose of the Priory of Sion was to guard the hidden knowledge that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were bride and bridegroom and that the Merovingian Dynasty of early French history originated with their legitimate heirs. This is the storyline around which The Da Vinci Code was written.

While Starbird and many others, including myself, were captivated by the legend, it appears that the Priory of Sion story 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. And in recent interviews, Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail, has said explicitly that nothing in the book has been proven to be fact - it is all “conjecture, speculation and interpretation.”

From this source, at least, the bride theory must be acknowledged as fantasy not fact.

Separate from what we can surmise as historical fact, there is truth in the bigger picture that Margaret Starbird is articulating. The long history of excluding sexuality from religious life and the labeling of sex as sinful, as the early Church fathers did, results in distortion, denial - and a profound wounding to our basic human nature. The storyline about a virgin mother and a celibate son no longer serves us. (Did it ever?) True spirituality rejoices in sexuality and recognizes that female nature is as inherently divine as male nature.

If not Bride … Goddess ?

In The Goddess in the Gospels and Magdalene’s Lost Legacy, Starbird presents original research regarding sacred numerology. It appears that some early Christians equated Mary Magdalene with the Vesica Piscis, a very old geometric form denoting the vulva, archetypal symbol of fertility and regeneration.

Starbird invites us to see Mary Magdalene within the framework of the ancient Goddess traditions of Sumer, Babylon and Canaan where the ceremony of the hieros gamos was practiced. A Greek word meaning sacred marriage, the hieros gamos was a ritual event in which a man became King through sexual union with a priestess standing in for the Great Goddess.

The anointing scenes in Mark, Mathew and John are used as evidence for the hieros gamos connection. Christ or Christos means “the anointed one.” In Jewish tradition it was the prophets and then the rabbis who would ceremonially anoint the High King. But, as noted, in earlier cultures it was a priestess of the Goddess who would confer royal power upon the man chosen to be King. Starbird concludes that the anointing woman in the Gospels was Mary Magdalene acting in the tradition of the ancient Goddess.

As satisfying as the connection is, it is problematic. In the Canonical Gospels it is not Mary Magdalene who is named as the anointer. In John 12, six days before the Passover feast it is Mary of Bethany who anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. Then, in Mark 14 and Mathew 26 an unnamed woman breaks open a bottle of precious oil and pours it upon the head of Jesus. In these last two scenes, despite the protest from the disciples, Jesus welcomes the anointing and says “it was her way of preparing me for my burial.” Then he adds, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, what she has done will be told in her memory.” It is possible that this woman was Mary Magdalene but from the viewpoint of historical scholarship, we cannot say for sure. The erasure of the name of this woman is the painful legacy of the patristic church that devalued what Jesus himself valued deeply.

What we can say is that on the level of archetype and myth the 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 wrote 30 years ago in her book, 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, brings him back to life, if only for awhile.

The late Joseph Campbell talked 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.

I have come to understand Margaret Starbird’s work as 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. The idea of Mary Magdalene as bride and/or goddess fills a great collective hunger, which is why, I believe, The Da Vinci Code became so wildly popular.

But it occurs to me, aren’t we still stuck on Mary Magdalene’s sexuality? Even if we are honoring the Magdalene as the sacred vulva instead of libeling her as the sinful whore, aren’t we using the same old terms traditionally used to define a woman’s worth? When I hear conversations about the Magdalene as bride or goddess, so often her role as visionary leader or first witness to the mystery of the resurrection disappears.

Are we again losing sight of the real Mary Magdalene?

Is it even possible to know the real Mary Magdalene?

There are a number of contemporary feminist scholars whose work allows us to glimpse a different Magdalene. Karen King is one such scholar. She is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School and her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle was published in November of 2003.

The Gospel of Mary of Magdala is a translation and interpretation of a second century text that was found in Cairo in 1896. The text was an anomaly and biblical scholars were unsure of its meaning until many other such texts were found in 1946 at the site of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Altogether they form the body of literature called the Gnostic Gospels that was most probably considered heretical -- and therefore hidden in the fourth or fifth century because they 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 of Magdala may give us insight into the flesh and blood Mary Magdalene.

At the beginning of the text the resurrected Christ is speaking to a group of the disciples about the nature of matter. It is interesting to note that his teaching is not about sin and redemption, but rather inner spiritual growth. When he departs, the disciples become despondent and weep. Mary Magdalene remains calm and steps forward to assume leadership, offering words of encouragement and strength.

Although initially encouraged by Peter, when she reveals teachings she and she alone has been privileged to receive, Peter challenges her authority. He says angrily: “Did he really speak with a woman? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Mary Magdalene 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.)

Levi reproaches Peter and after the squabble is resolved, the group reunites and sets out to begin preaching.

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a visionary and as a leader is commonplace in several of the other Gnostic texts where she is also lauded as a brilliant student who has the capacity to fully grasp and receive the teachings. In Dialogue with the Savior, Mary Magdalene is called “a woman who had understood completely.” In the text called the Pistis Sophia, Jesus names Mary Magdalene and John the Virgin as the greatest of the disciples.

Does this identity of Mary Magdalene as the brilliant student 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 of Magdala, 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 the word companion, in its original Greek usage, has innuendos of something more, perhaps of sexual partnership.

Also in The Gospel of Philip are the provocative and much quoted lines that Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene upon the …. The last word is missing in the papyrus document. Typically it is translated as mouth. Scholar Elaine Pagels has interpreted this statement as symbolic and indicative of a transmission of knowledge but given the intimacy conveyed in other phrases, her interpretation seems overly academic.

In November of 2003, ABC produced an hour long TV special called "Jesus, Mary & Da Vinci" featuring Dan Brown, Margaret Starbird and a number of prominent scholars such as Elaine Pagels, Karen King and Father Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame The program investigated the claims made by The Da Vinci Code concerning the hidden marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

The academic scholars were in agreement: Within the Gnostic and Canonical texts available to us, there is no evidence for the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Most of the scholars, however, were sympathetic to the idea of some kind of love relationship between Jesus and Mary. The ABC commentator Elizabeth Vargas ended the program by debunking the legendary underpinning of The Da Vinci Code but then saying in conclusion, “The story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is indeed a love story.”

Affirming the possibility of a love relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus is thoroughly refreshing – and the main point the contemporary scholars are making is this: let’s not get hang up on relationship, let’s look – finally - at the woman’s work, at her contribution to the early Jesus Movement as a visionary and as a strong and fearless leader.

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

An earlier version of this article was published in the winter 2004 issue of Spirit of Change magazine.