Deciphering the woman misrepresented by the church fathers and ‘The Da Vinci Code.’
Yeshua y Magdalena a Week before Passover (© 2006 Christina Miller, iconfusion.com)
As a minister, I hope people will go see The Da Vinci Code. (It opens this week , in case you hadn’t heard. And yes, I discuss “secrets” revealed in the film in this essay.) I can’t promise it’s any good, but I’m looking forward to the questions people will have about “symbology,” religious history, mythology, and mystery. The questions I am most looking forward to are questions about Mary Magdalene. If it takes the hype of Dan Brown’s novel and Tom Hanks’s movie to raise questions about her true identity, I can almost forgive Brown for re-obscuring her role as an extraordinary religious leader.
When Brown writes in his best-selling novel that Mary has been terribly misunderstood by most people—and that the Church has intentionally misrepresented her—he’s exactly right. Unfortunately, the “real” Mary Magdalene in his story is not much closer to the truth. Some of The Da Vinci Code’s portrayal reflects speculation by modern biblical scholars, a very little of it is grounded in the highly unorthodox depiction of Mary Magdalene found in the Gnostic gospels, and much of it is his own creation. But his final conclusions are very far from incontrovertible truth.
Scholars and the general public are just beginning to pick up a more respectful and accurate sense of Mary’s true role in early Christianity. So it troubles me that a cultural juggernaut like The Da Vinci Code, while decrying earlier abuses of her reputation, is spreading other misrepresentations. How unfortunate that the novel bashes the Roman Catholic Church for abusing her character when Dan Brown does it, too.
The Da Vinci Code lifts Mary Magdalene from her traditional status as a repentant prostitute only to relegate her to a conventional role of wife and mother. The novel tells us that she sits at the table with the other (male) apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural, “The Last Supper”—at Jesus’ right hand, no less—but she is not there as the apostles’ equal, much less as Jesus’ lieutenant. No, she is there as his wife, the mother of his children—as, of all things, a chalice, a vessel, the worthy receptacle of his dangerous seed, just another foremother in the tradition of Sarah and Hagar and the Virgin Mary. “Behold the greatest cover-up in human history,” the knowledgeable Teabing proclaims in the book. “Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father. My dear, Mary Magdalene was the Holy Vessel. She was the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ. She was the womb that bore the lineage, and the vine from which the sacred fruit sprang forth!”
Don’t get me wrong. Motherhood is a powerful, essential, even sacred office. But in the context of The Da Vinci Code, motherhood is hardly a revelation for any woman, especially the Magdalene. In the scheme of religious history, motherhood is timeless, blameless, and uncontroversial. So the “revelation” that Mary Magdalene was a chalice—even the ultimate chalice—is frankly disappointing. It may be radical by the standards of Catholic doctrine, but it’s not at all radical to those of us living by liberal religious standards. And contemporary scholarship suggests that Mary Magdalene probably was something more unconventional and powerful than a mother, too: She was a leader.
For most of the last two thousand years, Mary of Magdala has been depicted as a prostitute who repented and devoted herself to Jesus. But this depiction is based on a misreading of the texts, as modern scholars have overwhelmingly recognized.
She appears first in Jesus’ life as one of several women healed of evil spirits and infirmities (Luke). Mary of Magdala then becomes one of the most important figures in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ ministry because she appears by name in many of the most important scenes. Along with some other women, she is specifically named as one who travels with him and the disciples (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). She witnesses his death (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56) and burial (Mark 15:47, Matthew 27:61, Luke 23:55), brings spices to anoint his corpse (Mark 16:1, Matthew 28:1), and is named in three of the gospels as the first to see and recognize him after his resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:9, John 20:14-18).
Even though she was clearly important to the writers of the four gospels, her significance was already disputed in other early traditions. She is never mentioned in Paul’s epistles, written within thirty years of Jesus’ death, not even in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 where Paul lists those to whom Jesus made post-resurrection appearances. And the church fathers, who shaped the biblical canon and the earliest traditions of orthodox Christianity, actively misrepresented her.
Biblical scholar Jane Schaberg argues that those who wanted to diminish and stigmatize Mary’s role among Jesus’ earliest followers focused on her visit to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They conflated Mary with other unnamed women in the gospels who also anointed Jesus—including one identified only as a sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet, of whom Jesus famously said, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-50) One version of this encounter identifies the woman as Mary—but she is another Mary, Mary of Bethany. In Luke this woman is a public sinner, a “woman of the city,” and in turn becomes conflated with another loose woman, the Samaritan woman with five husbands and a live-in lover (John 4:8-29), and a woman caught committing adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
This conflation of Mary with other women, most of them not followers of Jesus but merely women he encountered in his ministry, is in line with an underlying element of misogyny in early Christianity that equated femininity with earthly concerns, a kind of sexual evil that undermines the soul. Thus, according to Schaberg, in the early church Mary became a symbol of rehabilitation, of penitence for a life wrongly lived, a testimony to the saving power of Christ even for a fallen woman.
This is perhaps one of the most successful and extended smear campaigns in history. After all, there is no evidence in the gospels themselves that Mary Magdalene was a sinner.
And there are other ancient gospels, Christian texts from as early as the second century, rejected by the church fathers as heretical, that portray a very different Mary Magdalene. The Da Vinci Code cites them, but doesn’t take them seriously enough. The Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi—the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Dialogue of the Savior—really do exist. They really were found in Egypt in 1945, as Dan Brown says, but they say a lot more about Mary Magdalene’s role in the Jesus movement than Brown presents, or perhaps just more than he’s interested in.
Those three texts, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Dialogue of the Savior, are among nine early Christian texts that explicitly or implicitly present Mary Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus. In fact, in these texts she is portrayed as a preeminent disciple with a special relationship to Jesus, which the texts explicitly link to her gnosis, her advanced understanding of Gnostic truths. While the Gospel of Philip does say that Jesus’ companion was Mary Magdalene and that he “loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss often on her” (63: 31-35), Jesus goes on to explain that this is because she shares a mystical communion with him—perhaps one with a physical dimension, but not one that was primarily worldly in orientation.
Another Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, shows the religious nature of Jesus’ commitment to Mary, and indeed to gender equity in his movement: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” And in the Gospel of Philip again: “The rest of the disciples . . . said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.’” Though he goes on from here to talk of marriage, Jesus uses marriage as a symbol of completeness that inures people from lustful and inherently lowering distractions that come with sexual frustration. Thus marriage is important not in itself but because it frees its participants to focus on attaining gnosis, spiritual wisdom. And Mary, married or not, is the one in these texts who has access to spiritual wisdom the others haven’t yet attained.
Insofar as Leonardo’s painting shows Mary as Jesus’ right hand man—according to The Da Vinci Code—that’s actually ironically true to the Gnostics’ view of gender and spirituality. The Gnostics had a phrase, “putting on the perfect man,” which meant freeing oneself from worldly concerns—even those of family, children, parenthood—in order to realize spiritual insights. In the Dialogue of the Savior, Gnostic enlightenment dissolves the “works of womanhood.” Though such phrases carry an inherent gender bias—being “male” is a metaphor for operating on a higher plane—anyone, male or female, could put on the perfect man.
Thus, in the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene repeatedly speaks with authority concerning spiritual insights. She is, the text says, “a woman who understood completely.” And in the Gospel of Mary, one of the disciples says, “Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man. . . .” The Gospel of Mary clearly implies that Mary is more of a perfect man than the other disciples.
Her status and significance in the Gnostic tradition are not about her being a wife and mother and thus Jesus’ companion in life. Rather, these texts portray her in some ways as the first apostle. Do these texts reflect tension in the earliest Christian communities about which of Jesus’ followers—Peter, James, Paul, and perhaps Mary—was the legitimate leader after Jesus’ death? Peter often attacks her in the Gnostic texts; Paul ignored her in his letters. But the New Testament gospels, like the later Gnostic gospels, hint at Mary Magdalene’s leadership, too. And that really is revolutionary.
The Da Vinci Code challenges the traditional understanding of Mary Magdalene’s historical identity, but it offers another for which there is little support and ignores the more likely truth. So what if Jesus did have children? That would be cool, but that’s about it. The Da Vinci Code claims that Mary Magdalene “posed a threat to the men of the early Church that was potentially ruinous”—but not, as the novel claims, because in bearing a child she would have borne evidence that Jesus was mortal. Jesus’ earthly life and mortality have always contributed to the power of his story; his commitment and suffering wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if he hadn’t experienced them as powerfully as a mortal would.
The novel concentrates on conflicts in the church three centuries after Jesus and Mary lived, when Christianity was becoming the religion of the Roman Empire and when theological debates about his divinity were especially intense. But the first-century community of Jesus’ followers had other concerns and conflicts. Paul’s writings illustrate one of those conflicts: Should the movement understand itself as Jewish or open to all? The Gnostic texts point to another conflict about gender: Is the movement one where, as in Judaism, men are the leaders and women are understood to be only wives and mothers? Or is gender in some way spiritual or transcendable such that anyone, male or female, can be “perfect men.” The New Testament shows that Paul won the conflict about religious heritage: Anyone, male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, could be a Christian. And Peter and his view prevailed in establishing roles for church leadership: Anyone could be a Christian, but only men could lead. The established church of Rome followed Peter’s path, and much (though not all) of Christianity has continued on it ever since. And the most prominent woman in the early Christian community ended up depicted as a prostitute.
This treatment of Mary Magdalene is a disservice, of course, to the historical woman who lived a visionary life of radical commitment and sacrifice. But it is also a blow, one of many, against the right of women to be recognized and honored as religiously legitimate figures, even leaders, in our own time.
This essay, which originally appeared under the byline Elizabeth A. Lerner, is based on a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, on December 8, 2003.
Like this on Facebook
The Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay is minister of First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Raised Unitarian Universalist in Newton, Massachusetts, she earned an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Harvard Divinity School, where she studied ancient Greek religion, Hellenistic Judaism, and early Christianity. She has served Unitarian Universalist congregations in Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. She served two terms as president of Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness and is a contributor to Jewish Voices in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House, 2014).
An astronomer’s big legacy in miniature
LEGO set features Unitarian Universalist astronomer Nancy Grace Roman.
Othering and belonging
Unitarian Universalism is my theological home, but it doesn’t speak to my black identity.