Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?

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The gorgeous female cryptographer and the hunky college professor are fleeing the scene of a ghastly murder they did not commit. In the midst of their escape, which will eventually utilize an armored car, a private jet, electronic-surveillance devices and just enough unavoidable violence to keep things interesting, our heroes seek out the one man who holds the key not only to their exoneration but also to a mystery that could change the world. To help explain it to them, crippled, jovial, fabulously wealthy historian Sir Leigh Teabing points out a figure in a famous painting.

"'Who is she?' Sophie asked.


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"'That, my dear,' Teabing replied, 'is Mary Magdalene.'

"Sophie turned. 'The prostitute?'

"Teabing drew a short breath, as if the word had injured him personally. 'Magdalene was no such thing. That unfortunate misconception is the legacy of a smear campaign launched by the early Church.'"

Summer page turners tend to sidestep the finer points of 6th century church history. Perhaps that is their loss. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, now in its 18th week on the New York Times hard-cover fiction best-seller list, is one of those hypercaffeinated conspiracy specials with two-page chapters and people's hair described as "burgundy." But Brown, who by book's end has woven Magdalene intricately and rather outrageously into his plot, has picked his MacGuffin cannily. Not only has he enlisted one of the few New Testament personages whom a reader might arguably imagine in a bathing suit (generations of Old Masters, after all, painted her topless). He has chosen a character whose actual identity is in play, both in theology and pop culture.

Three decades ago, the Roman Catholic Church quietly admitted what critics had been saying for centuries: Magdalene's standard image as a reformed prostitute is not supported by the text of the Bible. Freed of this lurid, limiting premise and employing varying ratios of scholarship and whimsy, academics and enthusiasts have posited various other Magdalenes: a rich and honored patron of Jesus, an Apostle in her own right, the mother of the Messiah's child and even his prophetic successor. The wealth of possibilities has inspired a wave of literature, both academic and popular, including Margaret George's 2002 best-selling historical novel Mary, Called Magdalene. And it has gained Magdalene a new following among Catholics who see in her a potent female role model and a possible argument against the all-male priesthood. The woman who three Gospels agree was the first witness to Christ's Resurrection is having her own kind of rebirth. Says Ellen Turner, who played host to an alternative celebration for the saint on her traditional feast day on July 22: "Mary [Magdalene] got worked over by the church, but she is still there for us. If we can bring her story forward, we can get back to what Jesus was really about."

In 1988, the book Mary Magdalene: A Woman Who Showed Her Gratitude, part of a children's biblical-women series and a fairly typical product of its time, explained that its subject "was not famous for the great things she did or said, but she goes down in history as a woman who truly loved Jesus with all her heart and was not embarrassed to show it despite criticism from others." That is certainly part of her traditional resume. Many Christian churches would add her importance as an example of the power of Christ's love to save even the most fallen humanity, and of repentance. (The word maudlin derives from her reputation as a tearful penitent.) Centuries of Catholic teaching also established her colloquial identity as the bad girl who became the hope of all bad girls, the saved siren active not only in the overheated imaginations of parochial-school students but also as the patron of institutions for wayward women such as the grim nun-run laundries featured in the new movie The Magdalene Sisters. In the culture at large, writer Kathy Shaidle has suggested, Magdalene is "the Jessica Rabbit of the Gospels, the gold-hearted town tramp belting out I Don't Know How to Love Him."

The only problem is that it turns out that she wasn't bad, just interpreted that way. Mary Magdalene (her name refers to Magdala, a city in Galilee) first appears in the Gospel of Luke as one of several apparently wealthy women Jesus cures of possession (seven demons are cast from her), who join him and the Apostles and "provided for them out of their means." Her name does not come up again until the Crucifixion, which she and other women witness from the foot of the Cross, the male disciples having fled. On Easter Sunday morning, she visits Jesus' sepulcher, either alone or with other women, and discovers it empty. She learns — in three Gospels from angels and in one from Jesus himself — that he is risen. John's recounting is the most dramatic. She is solo at the empty tomb. She alerts Peter and an unnamed disciple; only the latter seems to grasp the Resurrection, and they leave. Lingering, Magdalene encounters Jesus, who asks her not to cling to him, "but go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father ... and my God." In Luke's and Mark's versions, this plays out as a bit of a farce: Magdalene and other women try to alert the men, but "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." Eventually they came around.

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