Religion: La Femme Coupee

Mary Magdalene, the repentant courtesan who followed Christ, is one of the most famed and least-known characters in the Gospels. Because of her early trade, some of the ancient church fathers, and later Christians of excessive scruple, have been embarrassed by her presence in the liturgy. On the other hand, her sinful past has been a never-failing godsend to novelists trying to put a little spice into stories with a New Testament setting.

A book published last week, Mary Magdalene (Pantheon; $3), is one of the most intelligent and provocative efforts yet made to...

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