There’s Something About Mary
Fact, fiction and fantasy regarding Mary Magdalene
The Da Vinci Code purports to tell us a lot of things about various subjects: Renaissance art, the ministry of Jesus, the Emperor Constantine and geography of Paris, among others.
It is, of course, wrong about most of these things, as it is deeply wrong about one of the figures central to the novel’s plot: Mary Magdalene.
According to The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene was:
-the consort of Jesus,
-his chosen successor,
-the mother of his child,
-the real Holy Grail (because she literally carries the “blood” of Jesus within her in the form of that child),
-an embodiment of the “sacred feminine” and
-a goddess of some sort.
Further, the novel asserts that Christianity has been on the warpath against Mary Magdalene ever since the first century. Why? Because she was Jesus’ desired successor, and she knew the “real” truth about Jesus’ ministry (preaching the reunion of the masculine and feminine principles in reality).
Therefore, the story goes, the Christians who “won” the right to tell the normative Jesus story have been dedicated to demonizing Mary Magdalene ever since in an attempt to minimize her influence and hide her true role, mostly by identifying her as a whore.
Problem: If that was the “winners'” intent – they did a lousy job.
Of course, The Da Vinci Code version of early Christianity is wrong, period. There was no struggle for power between the “Peter” party and the “Mary” party. Any hints of such tensions are the result of ahistorical readings of Gnostic writings, set down centuries after the original events.
And besides, the scenario makes no sense. All four canonical gospels agree that the first person to discover the empty tomb was none other than Mary Magdalene. Odd way to diminish someone’s role: to make the credibility of the foundational event of your religion dependent on her testimony. Go figure.
Mary Magdalene is introduced by name in chapter 8 of Luke, in which she is described as a woman from whom Jesus drove out 7 demons, and who, in gratitude abandoned her former life and followed Jesus and the disciples, “providing for their needs,” along with some other women.
She is named again as being present at the Crucifixion and at the Tomb after the resurrection.
Was She a Prostitute?
Mary Magdalene is not identified as a prostitute in the gospels, or even as a “sinner.” (In the New Testament worldview, being possessed was not synonymous with sinfulness). But it is true that in subsequent centuries, this became part of her identity. Was it, as The Da Vinci Code suggests, part of a plot to demean her? No.
During the first few centuries of Christianity, various thinkers wondered, here and there, if Mary Magdalene might be the same person as a nameless repentant sinful woman introduced at the end of Luke 7, right before Mary Magdalene is named, or might even be the “Mary” who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great preached a homily in which he explicitly identified all of these women as the same. Note that he wasn’t inventing this from whole cloth. The possibility had been toyed with in previous centuries.
Also note his purpose. It’s not about Mary Magdalene’s sin, but about the great gift of grace she received through Jesus’ forgiveness, and the hope her example holds out for all of us.
This laid the groundwork for the next millennium of devotion to Mary Magdalene in the West (the Eastern churches never conflated these figures). She was honored for her fidelity, her witness (one of her titles was “Apostle-to-the-Apostles”), her contemplative life, her evangelization (medieval legends claimed that she introduced Christianity to southern France, along with Martha and Lazarus) and the peace she found in Jesus’ forgiveness.
The Magdalene Mode
Her identification with prostitution or sexual sin was most definitely not made or emphasized in spiritual writings. It came out, not surprisingly, in what we’d today call pop culture. Medieval mystery plays enjoyed dramatizing the story of her purported early life with great melodrama.
In the very late Renaissance and early Modern period, artists, pulling away from the influence of the Church, began painting depictions of Mary Magdalene that were less and less identifiably Christian and more florid and sensational. It became trendy in the 18th century for wealthy women to have their portraits painted as “The Magdalene.”
No, taking a clear, honest look at the devotion to Mary Magdalene during the past two thousand years reveals, not demonization or disparagement – but, well – devotion.
She’s a saint, people. Her feastday is July 22. That’s not “demonizing,” by any definition of the word.
That Marriage! Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married?
No. There’s no evidence. The gospels, which are forthright about Jesus’ familial and social relationships, do not mention any such marriage, and since such a marriage would not have been scandalous, there would have been no motivation to conceal it (not that the Gospels are in the business of concealing things anyway, contra Dan Brown’s scenario).
Nor do extra-biblical legendary materials, which popped up very early and from which we derive such nuggets as the purported names of Mary’s parents (Joachim and Anna) mention any such marriage. It’s a 20th century invention and fantasy.
In the legendary material that grew up around Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages, there is a marriage mentioned, in one thread of this material. There’s one story that you’ll find in some hagiography that suggests that the Wedding at Cana was between Mary Magdalene and…John the Apostle. Jesus’ miracle at that event converted John, which ticked Mary Magdalene off to such an extent she flounced off and led her profligate life until she, too, returned to Jesus and embraced discipleship. (This is just one of many fascinating legends about Mary Magdalene told and embellished in the Middle Ages.)
One final note about this marriage talk.
Some Christians blow off questions about a purported marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene by sniffing, “What would be the problem? It wouldn’t bother me if they were married. What? Are you saying sex, marriage and family are bad?”
No, we’re not saying that. In considering that “marriage,” historical evidence comes first, and of course, there isn’t any to support it.
But it’s good to take this to a deeper level, too. When we dither on about a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and how non-offensive that would be, we’re embracing an extraordinarily impoverished theology and understanding of what it was that Jesus comes to do in this world.
The Real Thing
For the fact is, Jesus is married. To us. As in the Church. As in the Bride of Christ. We’re all married to Jesus. We’ve all got that Holy Bloodline coursing through our veins.
God’s relationship to his people was frequently analogized as a marriage throughout the Old Testament, and we see hints of it continuing in the New, culminating in the final chapters of Revelation. Jerusalem, redeemed, approaches the Messiah, “as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband. “ (21:3). At the very end of the book, John concludes his vision by inviting all to be a part: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” (22:17). The Bride is, of course, the Church, inviting us to come be made whole, as the Messiah has made all of creation new and whole again.
Christianity tells a big story, so much bigger than the gimmick-ridden, titillating nonsense of The Da Vinci Code, which serves as an impoverished, crude fantastical exploitation of the real thing – a real thing that takes us all up into the embrace of God, reaching out to us in passion and fidelity. We’re all invited to the feast, and we all are called to intimate union with God. Inspired by Mary Magdalene, certainly, but as her sisters and brothers, sharing in that embrace, not as outsiders looking in to something that is closed off to all but a chosen few.