De-coding Mary MagdaleneThe resume is impressive, if ultimately fanciful, but it actually only begins to touch on the many ways in which Mary Magdalene has been interpreted over the past two thousand years. Legends, myths, and wish fulfillment abound, but what’s the truth — based on the evidence of history — about Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene was an enormously important figure in early Christianity. She was, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. Her cultus reveals much about medieval views of women, sexuality, sin, and repentance. Today, Mary Magdalene is experiencing a renaissance, not so much from within institutional Christianity, but among people, mostly women, some Christian, many not, who have adopted her as an inspiration and patron of their own spiritual fads, paths, and fantasies.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation, and women.

This book is a very basic introduction to the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene. We’ll unpack what Scripture has to say about her identity and role in apostolic Christianity. We’ll see how, very soon after that apostolic era, she was adopted by a movement that remade her image in support of its own theological agenda, a dynamic we see uncannily and, without irony, repeated today.

We’ll look at the ways in which both Western and Eastern Christianity have described, honored, and been inspired by her, and how their stories about her have diverged. During the Middle Ages in the West, Mary Magdalene’s story functioned most of all as a way to teach Christians about sin and forgiveness: how to be penitent, and with the hope of redemption open to all. She made frequent appearances in religious art, writing, and drama. She inspired many to help women and girls who had turned to prostitution or were simply destitute. She inspired Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to preach reform and repentance.

It all sounds very positive, and most of it, indeed, is. That’s not, however, the idea we get from some contemporary commentators on Mary Magdalene’s historical image.

Many of you might have had your interest in the Magdalene piqued by the novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, Brown, picking up on strains bubbling through pop culture and pseudo-historical writings of the past fifteen years or so, presents a completely different Mary Magdalene than the woman we meet in the Gospels and traditional Christian piety. She was, according to Brown, Jesus’ real choice to lead his movement; a herald of Jesus’ message of the unity of the masculine and feminine aspects of reality; a valiant and revered leader opposed by another faction of Jesus’ apostles led by Peter; the mother of Jesus’ child; and in the end, some sort of divine figure herself. Mary Magdalene is no less than the Holy Grail herself, bearing the “blood” of Jesus in the form of his child.

A glorious figure, indeed, was this Mary Magdalene, but one that a patriarchal church could not permit to flourish. So, the story goes, a new image of Mary was created: that of the penitent prostitute. This Mary Magdalene, degraded and demeaned, was the tool of a conspiracy to degrade and demean women in general, and to bury the “truth” of Mary Magdalene’s leadership in early Christianity once and for all.

The theory fails on a couple of levels. First, there’s no evidence to support it. That would seem like a fairly daunting obstacle. There were certainly other interpretations of Jesus aside from the orthodox, apostolic experience and witness to him. We generally call these “heresies.” Mary Magdalene was used, in minor ways, by some of these groups to embody their teachings, but — and this is the important point — these groups’ writings date from at least two centuries after the life of Jesus and have no connection to the events of that period. The Mary-Peter competition is a myth and a misuse of these writings, which do have historical value — but for what they tell us about third- and fourth-century Gnosticism, not the Jesus movement of the first century.

The heresy that some modern thinkers believe says the most about Mary Magdalene is Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a diffuse system of thought that taught, in general, that the material world was evil, and that salvation came from freeing the spirit imprisoned within the body. Christian Gnostics saw Jesus as a Gnostic teacher, and some Gnostic systems presented Mary as one of his wisest students.

The image of Mary Magdalene as repentant sinner certainly is a medieval development, but as we shall see, it is the consequence, not of a political plot, but of a not-entirely illogical conflation of Mary with other figures in the Gospels.

The logic of the conspiracy theorists is flawed, too. If the patriarchy sought to demean the Magdalene, they did a terrible job of it, for it is difficult to see a figure who inspired prayer, devotion, countless good works, and who was honored and celebrated as a saint, and who was even popularly depicted in art as preaching, as a demeaned, degraded creature. Those who espouse these theories demonstrate, every time they write a sentence, an appalling, but not surprising, ignorance of historical and cultural context.

Brown’s plot is a simplified version of some pretty complicated and esoteric theories about Mary Magdalene, a genre of spiritual speculation probably most strongly personified by Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile.

Be assured that this kind of theorizing is not taken seriously by any scholars, no matter how secular or hostile to traditional Christianity those scholars might be. In my speaking on The Da Vinci Code, I often run into people who hold on to that novel, as well as its inspiration, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Templar Revelation, and Starbird’s work, as serious exercises in history. They are not. A simple test to administer, if you doubt me, is as follows. Are these works used in courses on the History of Christianity at any university of any stripe, secular or religious? The answer: No.

In my research for this book, I have read much of the contemporary historical scholarship on Mary Magdalene. The only times the theories of Brown, Starbird, and their ilk are mentioned are in bemused footnotes on popular culture. The major work on the history of the Holy Grail written in the past few years, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, published by Harvard University Press, does not mention Mary Magdalene in 370 pages of text.

Are they all part of the conspiracy, too?

The Magdalene-Spouse-Queen-Goddess-Holy-Grail theories are not serious history, so, frankly, we are not going to bother with them until the final chapter, and then only briefly. What we will be looking at — the history of the person and the imagery of Mary Magdalene — is daunting, rich, and fascinating enough.

The contemporary scholarship on Mary (and, indeed, on much of the history of Christian spirituality and religious practices) is growing so fast and is so rich that all I can do here is simply provide an introduction. A thorough, objective introduction, I hope, but the fact is that the burgeoning scholarship on Mary Magdalene is quite vast, and much of it, particularly that dealing with the medieval period, is not yet available in English. I have provided an annotated bibliography at the end of this book for those readers interested in pursuing this subject in more depth.
Our brief survey will undoubtedly be revealing, as we rediscover how deeply Mary Magdalene has been revered, used, and yes, misused and misunderstood by Christians over the centuries. The story, I hope, will be provocative in the best sense. For the fact is, the greatest interest in Mary Magdalene in the West today comes from those outside of or only nominally attached to the great course of traditional apostolic Christianity. Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to have lost interest in her, as, it must be admitted, they have in most saints.

Lots of people are listening to a Magdalene of their own making, a figure with only the most tentative connection to the St. Mary Magdalene of centuries of traditional Christian witness.

May the story recounted in the book play a part in reclaiming Mary Magdalene, so that we may hear her speak clearly again, as she does in the Gospels: for Jesus Christ, her Risen Lord.