Fact, Fiction, and Faith
part 4

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I just found out that Mary Magdalene has her own website. Magdalene.org. The webmaster for the site is Lesa Bellevie, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene. Lesa has been interested in Mary Magdalene long before the DaVinci Code. Part of her fascination comes from the fact that there are plenty of differing ideas about Mary Magdalene and many more misconceptions. Some of these misconceptions are deeply rooted in church tradition. Mary Magdalene is at the center of the DaVinci Code. Lesa Bellevie has tracked the media interest in MM from almost nil in 1997 to overwhelming in 2006. I don’t agree with Bellevie on everything, but what I appreciate about the Magdalene website is her rational and historical approach to the subject. Her resource helps wade through a growing variety of views on a woman, who though important, is mentioned just briefly in the New Testament. It seems we do need an Encyclopedia Magdalena or at least a Complete Idiot’s Guide.

What Are They Saying About Mary? (Just as you find different versions of Jesus, so it is with Mary).

  1. Mary in the Gnostic texts – There is interest in Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic texts, just as there is interest in all of the lesser known historical figures in the New Testament and Old Testament. Gnostics love to fill in the blanks. That’s why there is a Gospel of Judas and other disciples that we don’t hear much about like Phillip. Of course they take on the big names too, so if Peter didn’t write a gospel the Gnostics did it for him. Mary Magdalene has her own gospel. It survives just in fragments. From it and from a line in the Gospel of Phillip there is the notion that Mary was the companion of Jesus. A lot has been made of this to claim a sexual relationship between Mary and Jesus and a conspiracy involving Peter. The text of the Gospel of Mary says, “Surely the Savior knows her very well. This is why he loved her more than us.” And the Gospel of Phillip seems to say that Jesus kissed Mary often. This is very little and very fragmentary data to create a theory about Jesus and Mary being married. The Gnostic texts also say that Jesus kissed James on the mouth. What would that suggest?
    The Gnostic views on Mary are not uniform. Aren’t always favorable towards her. Sometimes (and this is true in the Gospel of Phillip) they apologize for the fact that Mary is a woman. In Gospel of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to him, '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.'" According to Gospel of Thomas, Mary gets to be a sort of spiritual tomboy. They let her play on the Gnostic team because Jesus taught her how to not act like a girl.
    Bottom line: It is so easy to read multiple meanings into the ambiguous and fragmentary Gnostic texts so people find what they want in these texts. We could come up with a thousand other interpretations of what is meant, but recall that these texts don’t have the same credibility as the New Testament.

  2. Mary Magdalene the Goddess – She is a token for goddess worship. She is a female counterpart to a male messiah. She is saved from gender oppression and sexual repression. Aside from Dan Brown, there is a movement of feminist scholars in the 20th century and 21st century who intend to demonstrate how Mary was marginalized by the patriarchal church. Well, the Christian church didn’t invent patriarchal society. Women have not always been treated right in history and that is part of the sinfulness of the world that God aims to redeem.
    To understand the veneration of Mary as a Goddess we have to understand that there are women and men who have a difficulty related to a Father God. For a “new age” a Father God is too patriarchal and unenlightened. Mary is the “saint” for their cause – to recast Christianity with neo-pagan, feminist religion. We need to understand those who have difficulty relating to God as a Father and Jesus as a divine MAN, but Mary Magdalene as a goddess is not the solution - it also keeps us from understanding who Mary truly was and her continuing significance.

  3. Mary the Holy Grail – Well if she cannot be a goddess, then why not make her all of the above. Just make her the Holy Grail. This is the contention of DaVinci Code and the conspiracy books Dan Brown relies on. Very simply, Mary is the wife of Jesus and the mother of their child. Mary is a descendant of royalty and she and Jesus are a royal union that gives birth to the rightful rulers of France and the church. Mary is the sacred feminine. (Strangely, Mary is a royal demi-goddess, but Jesus is just a mortal man. This sounds like a bad sitcom). Next week we’ll address the notion that Jesus was married and why there is way too much controversy on both sides. We’ll talk a little more about Mary as the Holy Grail, but it is misguided history to take a medieval legend (The Holy Grail) and use that to understand a first century Palestinian woman.

  4. Mary the Prostitute – Now everyone knows the truth as it has been taught in church circles for centuries – Mary Magdalene is the prostitute who Jesus forgave and she anointed him and washed his feet with her tears. That’s the way Mel Gibson told it in the Passion of the Christ. That’s what we all know. But it is all wrong.
    The DaVinci Code gets this right. Pope Gregory combined Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman in a sermon in 591 and the idea stuck for 1400 years. (Of course it wasn’t for a conspiracy that Gregory did this. He wasn’t trying to discredit Magdalene. He just didn’t do his homework and combine the sinful woman of Luke 7 with Magdalene in Luke 8. If there really was a conspiracy to defame Mary by the church – it failed miserably! A feast day in honor of Mary was celebrated in the middle ages. Hippolytus called her the Apostle to the Apostles.)
    One of the reasons this notion stuck is that it made good drama. It also allowed artists to get away with painting loose women and still claim it was religious art. It preached. Pope Gregory used it in his sermon keying in on the seven demons and the seven deadly sins and making the point that Mary used that perfume she anointed Jesus with as part of her prostitution business. It made good story and brought a scandal into the gospel story. In Passion of the Christ she is the redeemed Prostitute. In Jesus Christ Superstar she even sings about it – her sense of love redeemed. It is touching and dramatic and even a bit racy, but there’s absolutely no evidence for it.
    Jesus showing grace to Mary Magadalene the scandalous woman is a great tale of grace and forgiveness. And Jesus did show grace to the woman who anointed him and cleaned his feet with her tears – but there’s no evidence that this is Mary Magdalene. And it does us no good to hold this view because we miss the real significance of Mary ...

Who Was Mary Magdalene? [Read Luke 8:1-3]

  1. Jesus freed her from demon possession. (Luke 8:2) Mary experienced more than deliverance from bad cultural attitudes. She was tortured and enslaved by real evil. It may be hard for us to understand demonic possession, but Mary is tortured by seven demons. That is the Hebrew number for completion – seven!
  2. She was a disciple and a provider for the ministry of Jesus and Apostles. (Luke 8:3, Matthew 27:55) – Notice that in the ministry of Jesus, in the kingdom breaking in, women were involved in important ways. The first century world was not always the kindest culture for women. A lot like the rest of the world. Here we see that it is different in the kingdom.
  3. Known by her hometown, Migdal (Luke 8:2). She probably wasn’t married because she is known by her town.

    Read John 20

  4. Eyewitness of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:55). Unlike the male disciples who flee because the cross represents failure, Mary is dedicated to her teacher. She is dedicated to the one who freed her from evil. She and the other women are there to mourn and weep for the injustice of the cross. The rest of the world revels in it, but thanks be to God that there are some like Mary whose tears declare that this is not right.
  5. The first to see risen Christ. (John 20; Mark 16:9). How special it must have been to be one of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection. Paul says there are over 500 of them (1 Corinthians 15) but who was the first? It was Mary.
  6. The first evangelist of the gospel. [Hippolytus: The “apostle to the apostles.”] She is a witness to every part of the gospel story – the ministry of Jesus, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection. Jesus entrusts her to proclaim the good news to the other disciples.
    Mary does show God’s affirmation of women. Jesus was more inclusive than Jewish society and even Gentile society. In first-century Judaism the testimony of women would have been suspect. Gentiles, especially the Romans, disregarded Christianity as a religion for women and slaves. Women were not respected and often abused in the ancient world (and they still are, yes). But Christ demonstrates a long tradition within God’s mission of calling women to participate in the activity of God (for example, Sarah, Hannah, Rahab, Ruth, Naomi, Deborah). God chooses those whom the world considers weak to shame the strong. He reverses what the world has done and he lifts them up.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 4 June 2006

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