Will the Real Mary Magdalene Please Stand Up?

Articles, Medill School of Journalism


Published by the Medill School of Journalism

By Christina Maria Paschyn

Chicago, IL
April 30, 2007

I’m nervous as I walk into the confessional booth; I’m nervous as I cross myself; and I’m nervous as I kneel down onto the pew behind the screen separating me and the priest.

I’m about to ask if it’s a sin to read The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, in hindsight I realize that was a stupid question. Yes, the Catholic Church has its negative aspects, but it is not completely a totalitarian, book-burning regime.

Still in my defense, with the outrage expressed over Dan Brown’s novel by some Catholic and Protestant Christians, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the hysteria.

The Da Vinci Code is essentially heresy. Sure Brown and his publicist say it’s a piece of fiction, but subsequent interviews with Brown have exposed that he really buys into the central premise of his book: that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her.

There were other themes in the book that insulted the Christian faith as well, but the idea that Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene pretty much took the cake.

And since Jesus-loving people across the world were championing that “good Christians shouldn’t read the book”…well, could you blame me for being a bit worried?

As a Catholic I’m taught to pretty much submit to authority—Catholic hierarchical authority to be exact. And even though I value democratic freedom of speech over theocratic suppression…can I help it that an insecure voice in the back of my head comes out to taunt me?

Brainwashing takes years to overcome.

“Well,” I asked the priest. “Is it a sin to read The Da Vinci Code?”

“I don’t know,” he answered in not so precise words. “It depends on your motivation. If you’re reading it for information, then, no, it’s not a sin.”

Hmm…reading it to promote heresy versus reading it just for the sake of reading it? That was the green light for me.

The Real Feminine Divine

I did read the book and it was pretty good. I can see why Hollywood wanted to make a movie out of it.

However, as you can imagine, I wasn’t a big fan of the Mary Magdalene-Jesus relationship, but not for the reasons you may think.

I believe the book did a great disservice to Mary Magdalene and to the real Feminine Divine in Christianity.

No, I’m not talking about the Virgin Mary. As great as both she and Mary Magdalene are, many Catholic theologians are quick to qualify that these women do not correct the gender imbalance within the Christian godhead; they are still only human to Jesus and God’s ‘masculine’ divine nature.

What I mean is the female elements within the Trinity. That’s right: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, the latter of whom has been referred to as ‘Mother’ in Eastern Christian churches for centuries.

The Catholic Catechism states that ‘Father’ is simply a metaphor for God. God in reality has no gender and can be envisioned just as much as maternal and feminine as paternal and masculine.

Furthermore, there are many Catholic theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, who assert that Jesus’ gender was never supposed to be a symbol of anything—at least not of heavenly support for patriarchy.

In She Who Is, Johnson explains that Jesus was supposed to be the embodiment of Sophia, the daughter of God in the Old Testament. Her name is also translated as Wisdom.

Not Just a Metaphor

Those who are not well-educated in biblical studies or theology interpret Sophia as a metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity.

But scholars say she served to balance the spirituality of the overly macho Jews, who struggled to maintain believers against the more pro-female polytheistic societies surrounding them.

That’s not to say that Judaism was really polytheistic. Sophia fulfilled the same role that Jesus does today in Christianity.

And just like Christians believe that God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit are really just one deity with three different emanations, so Jews believed that Sophia and God were the same being.

This concept is reiterated in the Jewish Kabbalah, which worships the Shekhinah (Sophia) as the female emanation of God.

Indeed the gospel writers and other early Christians believed that Jesus was the embodiment of Sophia. And through her, they were able to connect him to Old Testament Messianic prophecies.

Jesus himself used some of the same phrases Sophia spoke when talking about his own mission on earth!

Take this biblical example from the Book of Ecclesiasticus 51:26-27, as spoken by Sophia:

“Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction…I have labored little, and found for myself much rest.”

Now here are Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:28-30, describing himself as Wisdom Teacher:

“Come unto me, all you, who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The resemblance between the two passages is more than just a coincidence; this was a deliberate attempt by Jesus and the gospel writers to prove that he truly was the Messiah and born of a divine lineage.

So why did God incarnate himself as a man? Contemporary Catholic theologians give this explanation:

Jesus came to teach humility, compassion, meekness, turning one’s cheek in the face of humiliation and giving up one’s life for another.

This was something a woman, due to her lowly status in Roman and Jewish society, was already expected to do. For a man to preach this was truly revolutionary; Jesus came to subvert patriarchal domination, not condone it!

Now the Church is gradually beginning to realize this too.

For me this is the real Feminine Divine. And unfortunately, Brown has undermined it with his silly book.

By touting Mary Magdalene as the Divine Feminine, he has further alienated ignorant Christians—and there are a lot of them—from the idea that God isn’t really male.

Likewise, so-called scientific evidence, such as James Cameron’s recent documentary on the lost tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, also unintentionally transform the Divine Feminine into something that is considered bad and heretical.

Let’s face it. Most people don’t bother to study their own religion. Christian feminists are already fighting an uphill battle against the Vatican; we don’t need greedy entertainment moguls looking for a quick buck to slow us down too!

The Real Mary Magdalene

So what about Mary Magdalene? Well, Brown was right about one thing. Mary Magdalene was labeled a prostitute by the Church even though there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that she was one.

Instead, the gospels refer to Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus exorcized seven demons.

Historians say the harlot notion originated with Pope Gregory the Great, who erroneously associated Magdalene with two other women in the Bible.

They are the Gospel of Luke’s unnamed sinner and Mary of Bethany, who appears in the Gospel of John:

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” the Pope said in a sermon given in 591 A.D.

What is interesting, however, is that neither the unnamed sinner nor Mary of Bethany are described in the Bible as having been prostitutes as well.

Rather, it states that both women annoited Jesus’ feet with oil from an alabaster jar. They then dried his feet with their hair.

Experts believe the Pope confused Magdalene with these two women because the New Testament describes her as having been among the women who brought jars of oil to Jesus’ tomb after his crucifixion.

In an April 2000 interview with U.S. Catholic Magazine, Sister Barbara Bowe, a New Testament professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, explained that such blending of biblical characters was a tendency in that period.

“Characters get blended together and homogenized in ways that don’t preserve the integrity of the texts,” she said.

Still, if neither the unnamed sinner nor Mary of Bethany were harlots, then from where did Magdalene’s stigma come?

Pope Gregory believed that Magdalene’s possession by seven demons represented what is known in Catholicism as the “seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

And although he never explicity called her a prostitute, the Pope thought that lust had been Magdalene’s, and therefore the other two women’s, greatest affliction:

“It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent [ointment] to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts,” he explained in the homily.

This idea quickly caught on with the public. As a result, Magdalene was also later confused with the unnamed adulteress whom Scripture says Jesus saved from being stoned to death – a fallacy that was even adopted by Mel Gibson for his movie The Passion of the Christ.

Sexualizing a Role Model

As for the seven demons representing sexual deviancy—well, what can you expect from a Church that demonized women for centuries?

According to the Bible, Jesus also expelled demons from several men, but as feminist scholars point out, none of them were ever associated with sexual perversion.

Furthermore, the seven deadly sins were an invention of Pope Gregory, who described them in his Moralia in Job (Morals on the Book of Job).

The Book of Proverbs 6:16-19 does mention seven cardinal sins as well, but they are different from the ones that appeared later.

They are: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises evil imaginations, feet that are quick to do mischief, a witness who bares false testimony and someone who stirs up trouble among friends.

If Magdalene had really fallen prey to the seven deadly sins then they would have been the ones mentioned in the Bible, not the ones Pope Gregory assorted later.

And within the Proverbs list, lust is not specifically mentioned. Once again, there is nothing in the Bible that implies Magdalene was a prostitute.

By associating Magdalene with sexual sin, the Church undermined the leadership role she held in the early Church, whether intentionally or not.

“This fans the flames of the stereotype of women as sinful,” Bowe said in the interview with U.S. Catholic Magazine. “For women today who look to the Bible for inspiration and liberation, their choices are limited enough.”

“When we suddenly cut Mary Magdalene off at the knees and turn her into some evil sex pervert, we deprive men and women, but especially women, of a figure with whom they can identify with,” she continued.

Her Eastern Roots

The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, never accepted the Pope’s fusion of the three women. Instead Orthodox Christians believe that after Christ’s resurrection, Magdalene traveled preaching the gospel.

She eventually made her way to the court of Emperor Tiberius Caesar, where she presented an egg to him and proclaimed “Christ is Risen!” The emperor scoffed at the notion, but as he expressed his doubt, the egg in Magdalene’s hand turned red.

Allegedly, this is where the Eastern tradition of painting Easter eggs comes from.

Whether this story is true or just a legend we will never know. What we do know is that Magdalene was most likely one among several independent women who supported Jesus’ ministry.

She was also a leader among the female and male disciples of Jesus; it was she who was most loyal to Jesus and who remained at the tomb after his crucifixion while all the men fled.

And it was she whom Jesus commanded to tell the apostles about his resurrection. In those times a women’s testimony was not equal to that of a man’s and it could not be taken as evidence in court.

Yet Jesus chose Magdalene to proclaim his good news. She was truly an “apostle to the apostles.”

Modern Implications

But what’s the big deal if Brown fictionalizes her as Jesus’ wife? Mary Deeley, a pastoral associate at the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University, says the book sexualizes Magdalene just like the Church sexualized her in the past.

“Why can’t Mary Magdalene just be a disciple in Jesus like Peter or like countless other men were,” she said. “Couldn’t she have decided simply to be a disciple of Jesus? Why does she have to be married to him?”

Sheil parishioner Irene Doyle passionately agrees.

“Why do we always have to sexualize women,” she asked. “It’s like equating Mary Magdalene with the fertility goddesses in paganism.”

The truth behind Mary Magdalene is slowly beginning to reach the ears of everyday Church goers as more evidence of female leadership in the early Church is uncovered.

Many women now view Magdalene as a strong role model and cite her as their inspiration for supporting women’s ordination.

So will the Vatican and Hollywood ever embrace this message? If they are anything like the male apostles then modern day Magdalenes have a long road ahead of them.

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