She is the Mary of many faces: fallen woman, penitent saint, apostle of the apostles, visionary, exorcist, anointer, Christian idealist, matriarch of a holy bloodline, the female goddess in the sacred union, independent woman of means, role model, artist’s model, muse, feminist icon, pleasure revolutionary, embodiment of feminist spirituality, victim of a male-dominated religion, wife of Jesus, and much more. “No other biblical figure--including Judas and perhaps even Jesus—has had such a vivid and bizarre post-biblical life in the human imagination,” says Jane Schaberg, one of our contributors. Nor has any culture figure set off more controversy.
Today, we have come to know that much of her image has been contorted, her power as a spiritual figure dismissed. The “true” Mary Magdalene has been kept a secret, in effect, by a church tradition that exiled her from authority and imprisoned her theologically for her sex. For most, she was the inconvenient woman from the beginning. The Romans considered all women to be untrustworthy; the disciples followed suit. “Tell Mary to leave us,” Peter tells Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, “for women are not worthy of life.” As the early church evolved, many church fathers began to preach that Jesus had died to rid the world of Adam’s sin. The source of that sin, of course, was Eve. In the third century, the prolific defender of the orthodox church, Tertullian, wrote: “On account of [women] . . even the Son of God had to die.”
The next turn of the screw came on an autumn Sunday in 591 when Pope Gregory the Great told the assembled that Mary Magdalene had been a whore before being redeemed by Christ. Christendom quickly embraced this erroneous but religiously instructive image of the saintly sinner This version of Mary Magdalene was the basis for the widely popular cult that began to surround her in 13th century France, fed by stories of her arrival in Provence on a rudderless boat and the “discovery” of her bones.
During the Renaissance, artists found her a muse of great versatility--she could be buxom and bountiful (Titian), or haggard and ascetic (Donatello). Mary Magdalene even became something of a pious pinup, as can be seen in the painting recently attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci that graces the cover of this book.
The great social dislocation brought on by the industrial revolution had churches invoke her name to reign in the wayward. Nuns started Magdalene houses in hopes of saving the lost. By the late 19th century Wagner, Rilke and a few other cultural figures began to revive the suggestion that Mary had been an erotic partner to Jesus. By the end of the 20th, she had become a feminist icon, role model for women in the church, and a spiritual guide to New Agers. The Vatican, bowing in 1969 to the new scholarship that was coming even from within, reversed the verdict that had stood for 1400 years by directing that from then on, the Magdalene should be identified with the resurrection and not with the sinful woman in Luke. But one aspect of her old image remains: Even the rehabilitated Mary has continued to be defined and influenced by sex: look no further than the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, or what our contributor to this book, the pop singer Tori Amos, calls Mary Magdalene’s attractive quality of “sinsuality.”
Mary Magdalene’s real meaning, it seems, often continues to be a reflection of the mirror we hold up to ourselves. For some scholars and religious figures, the master narrative which holds that Christian doctrine was fixed by Jesus and has been passed on unwaveringly since, must remain in place unchanged—even though, as it turns out, what we have been taught about Mary Magdalene comes out of Dark Age thought, not from the lips of Jesus. Many others have embraced a Christianity born of diversity, and brought up by egalitarianism and tolerance. For still others, Mary Magdalene is only nominally a figure in the Christian story. Considering how closely Christianity and Western civilization have been intertwined for the last two thousand years, Mary Magdalene’s mythic evolution is really a meta-commentary on how our culture sees the role of women more generally.
This book was written to help you, the reader, scrape off the encrusted layers of paint that have come to obscure Mary Magdalene’s fundamental secular and religious importance and come to your own conclusions about one of the most important and fascinating women in history.
As in previous books in the Secrets series—Secrets of the Code and Secrets of Angels & Demons--we have brought together a stellar group of theologians, scholars and other experts, who bring to our intellectual feast a wide variety of perspectives and experience. We share with you the ideas of those who believe that all we need to know about Mary Magdalene can be found in the New Testament as well as those who find the alternate gospels, with their much greater emphasis on her starring role as disciple, apostle, and close companion to Jesus, as the best way to interpret her. We also bring you the voices of those who connect her to ancient goddess figures and the sacred feminine. And still others for whom Mary Magdalene is the ultimate inspiration for creativity or spiritual community.
We direct you especially to Chapter 5 of this book, where six of the world’s leading experts on Mary Magdalene engage in a remarkable roundtable-style discussion of the major issues, themes, debates, and controversies in the 21st century context of Mary Magdalene studies. All have written, spoken, and published extensively on Mary Magdalene and related subjects: the historical Jesus, the early Christian movement, Gnosticism and other alternative strains within Christianity, the role of women in the early church, religioius art, archaeology, and culture from the Biblical era to the present day, and many other topics in the nexus of gender/spirituality/religion/myth/archetype. Their path-breaking work has uncovered new ideas about the events of 2000 years ago and what they imply for our own age.
A word on our editorial approach. We have engaged in an extensive process to identify the most interesting and thought-provoking ideas and experts and find the right balance of elements—excerpts, original essays, interviews--and perspectives. All original source material has been identified and we have taken care to be clear about when we are presenting original material and when we are speaking in our own editorial voice. For example, the short pieces that introduce the excerpts, interviews, or original essays are set off in a noticeably different typestyle. Permissioned materials that previously appeared elsewhere are identified with bylines and/or copyright and reprint permission notices. We have tended to regularize spelling and naming conventions in our own work while leaving undisturbed the original spelling and conventions in excerpts. Variations in style such as in the spellings of “Magdalene” and “Magdalen” are inevitable, and we ask your understanding. Short biographical notes are contained most of the introductions. For fuller biographies, please see the contributors section toward the back of the book. We also encourage you to explore the full-length works and many additional works by each of our contributors.
The story of Mary Magdalene is in some ways one about how we as a society interpret myth, legend, and the unknown when it connects with the “real world.” It can also serve to remind us of the essential value of compassion, openness, tolerance, and respect for individuals that reaches beyond the narrow confines of one gender, one group, or one people. We invite you to explore these themes with us.
Arne J. de Keijzer