The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, July 21, 2003  

And Revealing My Ignorance

Tomorrow, July 22, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast, or memorial, of St. Mary Magdalene, a fact mentioned in yesterday’s timely and fascinating Washington Post article, “The Mysteries of Mary Magdalene,” by Roxanne Roberts.

Roberts writes:

Mary Magdalene is back.

Not that she ever really went away, but every now and then she’s thrust into the spotlight, the canon’s cover girl for a lively debate about women, sex, feminism[,] and the church.

In the article Roberts engages in a stimulating and freewheeling discussion of the theological and literary interpretations of the Magdelene during the past two millennia, including the differing views of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and brings to my attention the contention in the recent bestseller, The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown (which I haven’t read), that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife, an apparently raging debate.

Jesus and the Magdalene, husband and wife? And this is a controversy dating back to the early days of the Church? Gee whiz, that’s news to me. I guess I had better widen my reading on the subject.

Further, Roberts declares, “Nothing in the Bible says she [i.e., Mary Magdalene] was a prostitute,” something many Christians will find surprising, including me. (No, I don’t do “chapter and verse,” but I know my way around the New Testament, thank you very much.)

I wonder why that is; why I didn’t know the Magdalene is not specifically identified as a prostitute. Upon reflection, I suppose I both was taught that and arrived at that interpretation on my own because of the physical depiction of her presented in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. I understood, perhaps incorrectly, that this description, from an anthropological perspective, sealed the matter. In the eyes of many scholars, apparently not.

According to Roberts, “Defenders of a Magdalene-Jesus union say that Jewish tradition would have accepted Jesus as a sexual being within a lawful marriage, but it was problematic when apostles tried to expand Christianity into the Greek world, where spiritual purity demanded a chaste Jesus. They say the church fathers effectively wrote Magdalene out of the official record, but her story was kept alive through myths, legends[,] and secret signs.”

I’m missing something here. (Time to bone up on Greek history as well, I suppose.) Wasn’t Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, sort of, well, boning everybody back in the day? Why and when did the Greeks have this change of heart?

Roberts goes on to reveal yet another gaping hole in my knowledge. She writes, “A flurry of biblical studies in the last 20 years has reexamined the role of women in the first days of Christianity. An increasing number of mainstream scholars now believe that women held positions of leadership -- deacons, teachers, preachers -- and that Magdalene was one of the most important.”

Okay, I’m with her so far. (There’s that unheralded woman in Acts who was a noted preacher and proselytizer. Sorry, I forget her name just now.)

But then Roberts adds, “Some of this is based on a rereading of the Bible. Some comes from non-biblical, ancient texts. The Gospel of Mary was discovered in 1896. The Nag Hammadi texts were discovered in 1945 and date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries; they include the Gospels of Philip and Thomas.”

Ignorance strikes again. I have not only heard of the Gnostic Gospels of Philip and Thomas, I’ve read them, but until yesterday I knew not a whit about the Gospel of Mary. I wonder why that is.

Based on Roberts’s essay, Mary’s gospel is worth examining:

The Gospel of Mary stresses Magdalene’s spiritual wisdom and closeness to Jesus. At one point, Peter challenges Magdalene to share a vision from Jesus, and then rejects it. “Are we to turn around and listen to her?” he asks the other men. “Did He choose her over us?” Levi jumps in to defend Magdalene, telling Peter that he is hot-tempered and that she is worthy to teach the male disciples.

Add it to the reading list.

So, no conclusion here, just an article worth your time and, as the great blog says, a lot more questions than answers.

(Note: The reading for mass tomorrow is to be chosen from among three selections: Song of Songs, 3:1-4b; the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 5:14-17; and Exodus, 14:21-15:1. The gospel reading is John 20:1-2, 11-18.)

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