An Inconvenient Woman

She was with him to the end, and beyond. As Jesus hangs in agony on the cross, his life ebbing, Mary Magdalene is there, beside his mother, Mary, watching. The Passion has been tumultuous and frightening, and crucifixion is slow, but still she stays. Finally the hour comes. "It is finished," Jesus says, and bows his head. His body is bound in linen, carried to a garden, buried in a tomb.

Before dawn on the day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene rises to anoint Christ's body and makes her way to the grave. It is empty. The Lord is gone; she is confused, and terrified. She races back to tell the others, returning with them so they can see for themselves. The male disciples come and go again, unsure what to think; Mary, paralyzed, stays in the garden, in tears.

Then comes a voice, and a question. "Woman, why are you weeping?" she hears from behind her. "Whom do you seek?" She turns and, thinking she sees the gardener, answers, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Then, in a recognizable voice, Jesus says, "Mary." Crying "Rabboni," she leaps up in joy to embrace her teacher.

"Do not touch me," Jesus says, distancing himself from her, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Her words to the disciples are simple and few, yet transform the world: "I have seen the Lord."

I have seen the Lord: such is the story of the Resurrection, as told in the Gospel of John. With it begins the history of Christianity, and with it ends the New Testament history of Mary Magdalene. Peter and Paul form the new church, Stephen dies a martyr's death, John the Divine envisions the End Times. But Mary Magdalene--a critical figure in his earthly circle--is neither seen nor heard from again.

Yet the Magdalene--that part of her name derives from Magdala, her hometown--lives on in another tradition that can be found in an obscure second-century text. Dubbed "The Gospel of Mary," it depicts Mary as a leader of Jesus' followers in the days after his resurrection. Written by Christians some 90 years after Jesus' death, Mary's is a "Gnostic gospel"; the Gnostics, a significant force in the early years of Christianity, stressed salvation through study and self-knowledge rather than simply through faith. The text was lost for centuries until found in fragments by a collector in Cairo in 1896. In its telling, Jesus rises and vanishes after instructing his disciples to "preach the good news about the Realm." The exhortation makes them uneasy: Christ had died preaching that gospel. What was to save them from a similar fate?

Mary, however, is serene. "Do not weep and be depressed nor let your hearts be irresolute," she tells them. "For his grace will be with you and shelter you." Jesus, she says, has appeared to her in a vision where he gave her special knowledge of the soul's journey through mystical realms. She tells the men she will help them understand the true teachings of Christ: "What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you."

Her words seem to sting the others. Peter, "a wrathful man," takes particular offense. "Did he really speak with a woman in private, without our knowledge?" he asks. "Should we all turn and listen to her?" Mostly, he is jealous: "Did he prefer her to us?"

It is a question that is shaking Christianity after two millenniums. To many feminists and theological liberals, the Gospel of Mary suggests that the Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, was the "apostle to the apostles," a figure with equal (or even favored) status to the men around Jesus--a woman so threatening that the apostles suppressed her role, and those of other women, in a bid to build a patriarchal hierarchy in the early church. To others, shaped by orthodoxy, Mary was an important player in the life and ministry of Jesus, but subordinate to the men who followed him. Now, thanks to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," read by some 60 million people and open in 3,735 movie theaters nationwide, Mary Magdalene has a new role: wife of Jesus and mother of his child, whom Mary, who purportedly escaped the Holy Land, raised after Jesus' death. According to the "Code"--which opened to tepid mainstream reviews but strong box office--the baby grew up to marry into a royal line in France--and descendants of Jesus and Mary can be found in Europe to this day. In one particularly affecting but purely fanciful scene, one character argues that the figure at Jesus' right hand in Leonardo's "Last Supper" is not a male disciple but Mary Magdalene, and that if one recasts the painting by putting "Mary" on Jesus' left, they complete each other, male and female, a human whole--a married couple, joined together forever. It is cinematically intriguing, but like virtually all of Brown's novel and the movie, it is a fantasy, not fact, and, not for the first time, Mary Magdalene is a vehicle of fevered fiction.

From the beginning, the story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus has been the stuff of literature and legend, politics and theology, controversy and conflict. From age to age her changing image in the minds of believers and historians and artists has reflected the temper of the times--so much so that it is difficult to recover the historical Mary Magdalene from centuries of myth. Yet her history sheds light on essential questions, from the role of women in first-century Judaism to the nature of Jesus' ministry to the formation of early Christianity. Understanding her relationship with Jesus and with the religion that came to bear his name offers a window on the fluid nature of the faith, and of the tensions about sex and power that shape it still, in the third millennium since that morning at the empty tomb.

Mary was always an inconvenient woman. Although the Gospel authors can't avoid her-- mentioning her 13 times in the New Testament--they offer few details of her life. This was perhaps no accident: women were considered untrustworthy in the Roman world, and the Gospels, eager to make new converts, probably did not wish to highlight the fact that a woman was a key witness to their story of the Resurrection--a story that was already difficult enough to explain. The New Testament Gospels "tell us a woman called Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and played a role around the time of his betrayal and resurrection," says Elaine Pagels, a professor of early Christian history at Princeton. "But beyond that they tell us very little about what her role really was."

Scholars have picked apart the few hints the New Testament provides. Many have interpreted Luke's observation that Mary and other women around Jesus "ministered unto him of their substance" as evidence that they provided the financial support for Jesus' ministry. But where would this money have come from? A marriage contract? A divorce settlement? An inheritance? A job? The Gospels provide no direction, but a sign that women played an essential role in Jesus' life.

Another vexing detail: Mary's name. Most New Testament women are identified by their relation to men (Mary the wife of Clopas, for example, is different from Mary the mother of James.) Yet the Magdalene is distinguished by her hometown, the port city of Magdala. No husband ever appears--an explanation, perhaps, for how she was able to travel freely with Jesus. Was she never married at all? "A freewoman who never married probably would have been exceedingly rare," says Ross Kraemer, a Brown University professor of religious studies. All the New Testament really tells us about Mary is that she entered Jesus' ministry as he preached throughout Galilee, that she had been possessed by seven demons but was no longer, and, of course, that she announced the Resurrection. We never learn her occupation, the color of her hair, if she was old or young, homely or beautiful.

Yet from the earliest hours of Christianity, there were other voices, too, those determined to present a fuller picture of the Magdalene. In several Gnostic Gospels, texts whose dissemination in the past 50 years has turned the study of Christian origins on its head, she is not the wallflower of the New Testament but rather a favored, perhaps favorite, follower of Christ. In the Gospel of Thomas, she and another woman, Salome, are one of six (not 12) true disciples of Jesus. In the Gnostic Dialogue of the Savior, she is referred to "as the woman who understood all things." Most compelling is the Gospel of Mary, not just for its portrait of the Magdalene as a strong, willful woman but also for its radical ideas about gender. While Mary is called the disciple "the Savior loved ... more than all other women," she and Jesus see gender as irrelevant, something that will disappear in the path to the next life. "The text is arguing that the distinction between male and female is one of the body, which will dissolve," says Harvard historian Karen King. "The basis for leadership lies in spiritual development."

Why, then, did this woman, whom the New Testament tells us was Jesus' constant companion and whom the Gnostics claim was privileged above all others, disappear after the resurrection? If Mary were so important to Jesus, why is there no mention of her in Acts, or in the Epistles?

The noncanonical Gospels provide a troubling answer. In Gnostic texts, Mary is under constant attack, most often from Peter. "Tell Mary to leave us," he implores Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, "for women are not worthy of life." Mary understands his threat. "I am afraid of Peter," she tells Jesus in the Gnostic Dialogue Pistis Sophia. "He threatens me and hates our race."

In her frightened voice, we can hear the beginnings of a rift that would determine Mary's future in the church. "You have one tradition where Peter plays a role of tremendous significance and Mary is on the margins," says Pagels, "while in another tradition Mary is the significant figure and Peter is suspect." And Peter's version is the one that comes down to us, which means it was his story, not hers, that carried the day.

The tension is not just a Gnostic aberration. For centuries the Resurrection sequence of the Gospel of John has vexed scholars. In John's version, Mary realizes the figure addressing her is Jesus and she reaches for him, but he holds her off, saying, "Do not touch me." Later that same day, however, Jesus appears to his male disciples and they recognize him instantly. He shows the men his hands, his sides, even breathes on them. Eight days later he appears to the Apostle Thomas, a doubter, and specifically asks to be touched so that Thomas will believe. "Reach hither thy finger and behold my hands," he says.

Mary's description of the risen Christ--unrecognizable, untouchable--is of a piece with the portrait of resurrection in the Gnostic texts. But in the New Testament, the men describe Jesus as a physical being in front of them, a body that lives, walks and breathes. In Luke, as the Lord invites the apostles to touch him, he points out, in case they missed it, that his physical resurrection makes him different from a ghost or an apparition. "Handle me and see me," he says, "for a spirit hath not hands and flesh."

The dispute--resurrection of flesh or of spirit?--would dominate the first three centuries of Christianity. Orthodox clerics worried that the Gnostic belief in resurrection as spiritual release would compromise their teaching that Christ physically suffered on the cross to atone for the sins of man. They called the Gnostics pagans and hedonists and spun wild tales to make them look profane. (The church writer Epiphanius, writing in the fourth century, claimed that Gnostics believed Jesus had forced Mary to watch him eat his own semen.) When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, the orthodox won the power of the state, and the sword. Fearing that bishops enforcing the new orthodoxy would destroy the texts, monks tried to erase all evidence of the Gnostic tradition. They buried the Gospels, with their powerful portrait of Mary Magdalene, in the sand.

The role played by women in the early church was also being erased. Jesus clearly had a rare empathy for women. Luke tells us that in addition to Mary, Jesus' Galilean ministry included an array of other women in prominent roles, including Susanna and Joanna, wife of Cuza. Luke also offers as a model of faith the story of Mary (a different Mary) who put aside concerns of keeping a household to listen attentively at the feet of Christ. Jesus' "last shall be first" message of salvation in the next life would certainly have been appealing to women who felt oppressed in this one. "Jesus was not a social reformer; he was focused on the apocalypse," says Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina and the author of "Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene." "But his message would have been appealing to an egalitarian."

It wasn't long after Jesus' death, however, that male church leaders took steps to subordinate women. "As the church submits to Christ," Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "so wives should submit to their husbands." Yet Paul's letters also contain references to female missionaries throughout the empire. Among these wom-en was Junia, whom Paul calls "outstanding among the apostles," and admits was in Christ "before I was." Christians in the first and second centuries came to believe in a trinity that included a holy spirit, filled with a decidedly feminine grace.

Yet as church teachings evolved, women took on a more sinister role: carriers of earthly sin. In the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death, his followers explained the resurrection as evidence that the apocalypse was at hand. But as the years passed and the kingdom of God did not come, church teachers needed a new theory of the Resurrection. By the second century, they had come to think of Jesus' time on the cross as the fulfillment of a Biblical cycle in the works since Eden. Jesus had died, the clerics now said, to rid the world of Adam's sin. But women, with their tie to sexual reproduction, were a problem, a reminder that the good work would not be done until Christ's return. Bishops barred women from the ordained ministry and accused them of spreading sin. "On account of [you] ... " the prolific third-century author Tertullian wrote, addressing women, "even the son of God had to die."

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary's sins were manifold: she had "coveted with Earthly eyes" and "displayed her hair to set off her face." Most scandalously, she had "used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts." Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. "It is clear, brothers," he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory's remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed "sinful woman" who anoints Jesus' feet in the seventh chapter of Luke--a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh--in the first century, a woman could be considered "sinful" for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult--war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory's church needed a character from Jesus' circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Christendom eagerly embraced its new saintly sinner. A Magdalene cult spread throughout Europe, from England where Mary was made the patron saint of lepers, to Florence where prostitutes and young men ran a race on her feast day. In Germany, the Penitent Sisters of the Blessed Magdalene took the lead in reforming wayward women; in Spain young men on stilts danced with Mary's icon in the streets.

The French were particularly enamored with the Magdalene--so enamored that, naturally, they made her French. In the 13th century, a Dominican monk published the Golden Legend, which claimed that after Jesus' death Mary had fled Jerusalem and ended up in southern Gaul. Her spirit, the story said, protected Frenchmen. There was no historical evidence to support this claim, only the imaginations of Provençal storytellers. Still, the legend persists. Dan Brown's claim that the Magdalene spent her final years in Provence has its roots in the tales of medieval France.

In the Renaissance, artists gloried in her versatility. The Virgin Mary was a difficult subject--how to make her compelling and controversial while still modest, graceful and chaste? The Magdalene knew no such restrictions, and the old masters used her to explore the full range of femininity. In Titian she was buxom and bountiful; in Donatello she was haggard and ascetic. She was not, as "The Da Vinci Code" claims, the figure "with delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom" at Jesus' right in Leonardo's "Last Supper." Scholars have identified the figure as John the Evangelist: tender intimacy between two men was a possibility understood by Leonardo, if not by Dan Brown.

Even as other saints lost their luster in the modern era, the Magdalene remained a powerful force. When the Industrial Revolution upset gender roles and cities were plagued with prostitution and disease, preachers once again spoke her name from the pulpit, hoping to rein in the wayward world. Nineteenth-century artists from Wagner and Rilke to Rodin drew inspiration from her--or rather from Gregory's imagining of her. They explored her sexuality in new depth, even imagining her as erotically connected to Jesus.

The 20th century brought yet another new identity for Mary: feminist icon. Women's liberation brought a new generation of historians who argued that the Gnostic Gospels, together with the New Testament portrait of Mary as faithful witness, provided a better picture than Gregory's of who the Magdalene really was. Their outcry even managed to penetrate the Vatican's walls. In 1969, the church declared that, for the first time since Gregory's day, Mary should not be thought of as the sinful woman of Luke. In 1988, Pope John Paul II called Mary Magdalene "apostle to the apostles" in an official church document and noted that in Christians' "most arduous test of faith and fidelity," the Crucifixion, "the wom-en proved stronger than the Apostles."

Yet Mary has continued to be defined by sex. In 1971, the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" presented Mary as thoughtful, powerful and still a prostitute. The Magdalene of the era of free love and sexual liberty was so comfortable with her body she used it for power over men. "He's just a man," she sings in "Jesus Christ Superstar." "And I've had so many men before, in very many ways, he's just one more." Modern generations proved as adept as their forebears in adapting Mary to fit their needs. By the time "The Da Vinci Code" was published in 2003, the fires of feminism burned less brightly than they had in the "Superstar" days, and Mary was reinvented as the ideal working mother: protecting the mystery of faith by day, raising Jesus' child by night.

Indeed, for all its revolutionary claims, "The Da Vinci Code" is remarkably old-fashioned, making Mary important for her body more than her mind. In the movie, we see a stricken, shadowy Magdalene with swollen belly being spirited out of Jerusalem by a crowd of attendant men. But we never hear her voice. "The Da Vinci Code" seems to think that the secret tradition of Mary Magdalene speaks to the carnal. In reality, it tells of something far more subversive: the intellectual equality of the sexes. The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. "Why do we feel the need to re-sexualize Mary?" wonders Karen King, author of "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala." "We've gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there's this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn't it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?"

"The Da Vinci Code" especially misses the point about Mary when it makes its case that she was the bride of Christ. Both the novel and the film use as their evidence a gap-filled passage from the Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic Gospel of the second century. The passage reads as follows: "And the companion of the [gap] Mary Magdalene. [Gap] her more than [gap] the disciples [gap] kiss her [gap] on her [gap]." The gaps are maddening. Companion of whom? Loved her more than what? Kiss her where? But even if we fill in what seems to be the logical meaning--Jesus loved Mary more than the male apostles and kissed her on her mouth--the passage is less sensational than we might think. In the Gnostic tradition, kisses on the lips are not an erotic act but a chaste gesture meant to symbolize the passage of knowledge and spiritual truth. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Philip, Jesus also kisses his male disciples on the mouth. (If the makers of "The Da Vinci Code" wanted to interpret this act as erotic, they would no doubt be facing even more vehement protests from conventional Christians.) The passage is certainly significant, for it could imply that Jesus gave Mary special authority in his church. But "The Da Vinci Code" fails to make this point by mistaking the nature of Jesus' kiss.

Brown's mistake is understandable. Sex sells in our time, as it did in Gregory's, and probably Jesus', too. Mary remains a prisoner, a mistaken creature of sex. History may yet set her free. There are still undiscovered gospels sitting in unknown deserts or on unknown library shelves. Scholars say it is only a matter of time before some of them surface and upend our notions of Mary and Jesus once again.

Until then, she will remain a mystery. All we can really know about her is that she was always faithful to Jesus' message of love and hope, always willing to risk all for him, always open to the possibilities of grace--an example that transcends time and gender, a beacon in a modern-day fog of faction and fiction.

An Inconvenient Woman | News