Witness to Resurrection remains wrapped in mystery
The Journal Gazette
She’s been described as everything from the ultimate sinner to the divine witness, possibly a reformed prostitute or perhaps an apostle.
So who was Mary Magdalene?
There are few facts: She came from the fishing village called Magdala and might have been wealthy. Jesus cast “seven devils” out of her. All four Gospels note she was an eyewitness to his crucifixion and resurrection. She has a feast day, July 22.
But there aren’t any detailed accounts of her life, and after the Resurrection story, she isn’t mentioned in the Bible again.
That has left plenty of room for interpretation, especially in the past two decades, thanks to books such as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “The DaVinci Code,” which theorize she was the secret wife of Jesus and mother of his child – and perhaps she even was the Holy Grail.
That has led to a national debate about her role in the church that shows no sign of fading, one which likely will grow louder again next summer, when the “The DaVinci Code” movie hits theaters.
“You can’t put Mary Magdalene into a neat little box,” author Lesa Bellevie says in an e-mail interview.
“(She) is a deeply complex figure who appeals to diverse groups of people, and has been inspiring devotion during various periods for almost 2,000 years.”
Bellevie founded www.magdalene.org in 1998 and wrote “The Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene,” which was published this year.
“Now that ‘The DaVinci Code’ is on the scene, people are asking a lot of questions that may be irrelevant or based on poor scholarship, which adds a lot of confusion to the whole area of inquiry,” she says.
That very popular – and very controversial – novel has served to “bring awareness to a highly speculative version of Christianity that started in 1982 when ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ was published. In a way, this is unfortunate, because many people are largely unaware of the history that refutes the book,” she says.
“On the other hand, it’s sparking a lot of healthy dialogue between the laity and the clergy that perhaps wouldn’t have occurred otherwise,” Bellevie says.
The debate also has helped fuel a resurgence in Mary Magdalene’s popularity, as her story has been revisited by scholars, mostly feminist, to take another look at the role of women in the early church. There also are questions about whether there was a deliberate attempt to marginalize her, including labeling her a prostitute, by the later church leaders, who were men.
Some argue that it served the church to let the myth go unchallenged for so long, author Meera Lester says.
“Some scholars say she served as the leader of an early branch of the fledgling Christian church that embraced the idea of equality between the genders. I see her as the glue that held the early Jesus followers together. Just imagine if she had not told anyone about her vision. The Jesus movement might have fallen apart,” she says in an e-mail interview.
Lester, who converted to Catholicism as a teen, wrote “Mary Magdalene: The Modern Guide to the Bible’s Most Mysterious and Misunderstood Woman” and the upcoming “The Everything Mary Magdalene Book: The Life and Legacy of Jesus’ Most Misunderstood Disciple.”
Bellevie created her Magdalene Web site after she learned “there was nothing in the New Testament that said she was a prostitute.” After more research, she also discovered the woman was important in an early branch of Christianity called Gnosticism, and had a gospel named after her.
That’s still up for debate.
“All we really know for certain is that Jesus had to cast out seven demons from her. She was obviously involved in a sinful life that would expose her to demonic possession” even if she wasn’t a prostitute, says John Bequette, chairman of the philosophy and theology department at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.
Some have suggested demonic possession could have been mental illness, but he says that it’s not warranted in Scripture to equate the two.
Although he hasn’t read “The DaVinci Code,” he says it seems to be a “conspiracy theory” that has yet to be proved.
“There is a strain of the feminist movement who would love to see a story where women had a highly prominent role in the early church and it was ultimately suppressed,” Bequette says.
Regardless, Mary Magdalene also has been rediscovered as a spiritual role model for many contemporary women, including some non-churchgoers.
Lester was drawn to Magdalene after tragedy struck in her own life – she lost five family members, including her husband, in four years. She was intrigued, in part because Mary Magdalene “remained strong and resilient while the person she most loved in the world was put to death. … She had to be grieving and yet she worked from inner inspiration, doing what had to be done, in spite of a heavy heart,” Lester says.
And so she wrote her books in gratitude: “She inspired me to stay on my feet and keep moving forward with hope in my heart that brighter times were ahead.”
Others have found inspiration, and perhaps a new beginning, in her story as well.
“… (G)oddess spirituality has grown very rapidly in the last 20 years and viewing Mary Magdalene as a feminine face of Christianity has allowed many who are put off by the Roman Catholic virginal ideal to feel comfortable thinking about the Christian story again. So many people who had left Christianity are taking a fresh look at it through a new perspective,” Bellevie says.
“In addition to this New Age goddess spin, the more conservative Christians are acknowledging her as an apostle, perhaps the first apostle, which is profoundly inspirational for many women,” she says.
Of course, the virginal ideal lies with Mary, the mother of Jesus and mother of the church, who is the epitome of womanhood, Bequette says.
“The church views Mary as sort of a repository of divine revelation. … She’s the communicator of all graces that come from Christ.”
Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene represents “the epitome of the sheer ugliness of sin. Yet God can still reach down and restore her to purity,” he says.
But he agrees that women and men can find guidance and comfort in both of these women’s stories. In very different ways, they serve as “very real, very concrete” examples of faith and redemption and have widespread appeal.
In both Marys, we see “powerful spiritual exemplars,” she says.
“After all, both women lived in deeply patriarchal times of great unrest and social turmoil. … Women could not be legal witnesses and their testimony was not valued, yet Jesus chose Mary Magdalene to carry the message of his resurrection to others. So her voice – her gift of vision and the ability to articulate the Resurrection account – became imminently important.”
Bellevie is also struck by her timeless and universal story, which likely will outlast the debates and the literature that attempt to define her.
“Mary Magdalene has once again shown that she has a mythical staying power in Western culture. To me, that is an area of potentially far greater interest,” she says.