By Jerry Filteau
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- St. Mary Magdalene was a leading disciple of Jesus and used her resources to support him and the apostles. She was a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons. She was a firsthand witness to his crucifixion and burial and the first person to witness his resurrection and proclaim it to the apostles.
That is what the Gospels say about her.
Was she also the unnamed repentant sinner (often thought to be a prostitute) in Luke's Gospel, who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears? Or the Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany?
In the West, Christian teaching and preaching made those identifications for centuries. But modern scholars say these were three distinct women, not one. Eastern Christianity has consistently regarded the three as distinct individuals.
Was she the wife of Jesus? Did she bear his child? Were she and Jesus ancestors of the Merovingian dynasty of early French kings?
Even ancient heretical sects and fantasy-laden medieval Christian legends that exalted Mary Magdalene did not make those claims, though Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code does.
When the book comes out as a movie in May, it will almost certainly draw new attention to Mary Magdalene, one of the most prominent women in the New Testament but an enigmatic figure about whom nothing is known apart from the references found in the Gospels.
Father Raymond F. Collins, a New Testament scholar at The Catholic University of America in Washington said in an interview that the Dan Brown version of Mary Magdalene is "two legendary steps away from" the real person found in Scripture.
But in interviews he and Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, concurred that the wide popular curiosity about Mary Magdalene generated by Dan Brown's tale has created a "teachable moment."
Father Collins, who wrote the "Mary Magdalene" entry in the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, said the first legends about Mary Magdalene come in some of the apocryphal gnostic gospels of the second and third centuries. There in addition to her role as the first witness to Jesus' resurrection, she is treated as receiving other special revelations from the risen Jesus. But even in the gnostic gospels she is not called Jesus' wife.
One gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, portrays her as Jesus' closest companion but not his wife.
Sister Elizabeth, a Sister of St. Joseph, has written extensively on the place of women's experience and female imagery in Christian theology. She said the legends developed in the gnostic gospels are interesting not because they portray Christ's life and times accurately, but because they offer insight into struggles in the early church. The legends about Mary Magdalene show struggles over the leadership role of women in the early church, she said.
In the Gospel of Thomas, another gnostic text, there is a competition between Peter and Mary Magdalene. Peter asks the Lord to send her away because "women are not worthy of Life." Jesus answers that he will lead her "in order to make her male ... a living spirit resembling you males."
Father Collins said novelist Brown goes well beyond such early legends by imagining the disciple from Magdala to be Jesus' wife and the mother of his child.
In the novel, Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ancestors of the Merovingian dynasty that ruled from about 500 to 751 in what is now France, and secret survivors of the royal line continue to the present day to guard (much like the gnostics of the second and third century) arcane secret knowledge about Jesus that the official church rejects and seeks to suppress.
Sister Elizabeth said those early gnostic texts -- 13 of which were only uncovered in 1945 when a farmer found them buried in a large jar near Nag Hammadi, Egypt -- show some groups in early Christianity "wanting to promote women as bearers of knowledge, as wisdom figures, as those whom Christ trusted" with special revelations.
"The fight over women's ministry in the early church is borne out in those apocryphal gospels," she said.
She said part of the argument in the church today is whether the advocates of all-male church governance won those early battles over women in ministry "because that's the way Christ wanted it" or whether there are other explanations.
She noted, however, that Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the Resurrection in all four canonical Gospels, and because of her role in announcing the good news to the rest, St. Augustine referred to her as "apostola apostolorum," the apostle to the apostles.
Another strand of legend behind Brown's novel is the fact that according to medieval pious legends that circulated in France -- which relied on identifying Mary Magdalene as being the same person as Mary of Bethany -- Mary Magdalene and Lazarus were cast out of Palestine and set adrift in an oarless boat that landed in southern France. They then became among the first to preach the faith there.
Father Collins said that legend, along with the one in Eastern Christianity that has Mary Magdalene accompanying John and Jesus' mother to Ephesus, is simply not credible.
Sister Elizabeth said there has been a great surge in scholarly study of Mary Magdalene in the past 20 to 30 years -- in part because of feminist theology and the efforts to take a new look at the role of women in Scripture and in the early church, and in part because of the Nag Hammadi find and the new insights those texts offer into church life in the second and third centuries.
"It was The Da Vinci Code that made people ask the question, 'Well who is Mary Magdalene really?' and it opened the door for all this scholarship ... to come flooding out into the public sphere, where it normally wouldn't show its head," she said.
Summing up the real Mary Magdalene with what she called the "w's," Sister Elizabeth said, "Let's get this straight: She was not Jesus' wife ... neither a wife nor a whore, but a witness."
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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