By Jerry Filteau
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The fanciful fictions about Mary Magdalene in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code are not the only errors about the biblical saint that modern scholars are seeking to correct.
They are also trying to set straight centuries of erroneous Christian tradition regarding her that developed, especially in the West.
In A.D. 591 Pope St. Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he identified as one person the New Testament figures of Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears, and the Mary who was the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany.
Although he was only reflecting a tradition that had gained some ground in the West (and was resisted by many of the church's early theologians), the sermon became a reference point for later scholarship, teaching and preaching in the West, Father Raymond F. Collins, a New Testament scholar at The Catholic University of America, said in an interview.
The Greek Fathers -- the great theologians of the early church in the East, who wrote in Greek -- consistently maintained that Mary Magdalene, the unnamed repentant sinner and Mary of Bethany were three distinct women. That remains the tradition in the Orthodox churches.
The identification of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinful woman was solidified in the Latin Church for centuries by the use of that story, reported in the seventh chapter of Luke, as the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast, July 22. In fact, in the Roman Calendar before the Second Vatican Council, the day was called the feast of "Mary Magdalene, penitent."
Father Collins noted that this changed in 1969 with the reform of the Roman Missal and the Roman Calendar. Since then the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast has been Chapter 20, verses 1-2 and 11-18, of the Gospel of John.
The first two verses tell of her coming to Jesus' tomb early Sunday morning, finding it empty and running to tell Peter and John that someone has removed Jesus' body. The second part of the reading tells of Mary staying behind, weeping, after Peter and John leave, and the risen Jesus speaking to her and telling her to announce to the rest of his followers, "I have seen the Lord."
Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University and a Sister of St. Joseph, said the version of Mary Magdalene as "the prostitute to whom Jesus forgave much and who loved him ... took on a profound Christian ideal of a sinner who repents and therefore is a model for Christians in that way. But what got lost in the process was her actual role as a leader of witnessing to the Resurrection in the early church."
Of the repentant prostitute version of the Magdalene, she said, "What a lot of us who've done some work on her say is ... it's a wrong one and in the process it's robbing us of (appreciation of) women's leadership at a crucial moment in the early church. In other words, in a way it's easier ... to deal with her as a repentant sinner than as she emerges in the Gospels in her own right."
So who is the real Mary Magdalene? Father Collins, who wrote the "Mary Magdalene" article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, told Catholic News Service, "Luke describes Mary Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, and that characterization of Mary Magdalene is repeated in the longer canonical ending of Mark's Gospel."
But he noted that in Jesus' time it was not uncommon to attribute physical or mental afflictions to demonic possession and this did not imply that the possessed person was sinful. "Whatever affected Mary Magdalene was considered to be the effect of demonic possession so she would not have been considered a public sinner the way the medieval legends have made her out to be," he said.
He said she is called the Magdalene because she comes from Magdala, "a fishing village up in northern Galilee."
He said one also learns from Luke "that she supported Jesus from her resources," suggesting that she was a woman of some means, and that she was one of several women from Galilee who were disciples of Jesus and followed him.
Luke's Gospel is the only one that mentions Mary Magdalene by name in the narration of Jesus' public ministry. But all four Gospel writers place her as a witness to Jesus' death on the cross, a witness to his burial and the chief witness to his resurrection, making her one of the most significant female figures in the Gospels apart from Jesus' own mother, Mary.
Sister Elizabeth said that when one looks at the Magdalene's biblical role as the one the risen Christ appears to and commissions to announce the good news to the others it has "many implications for how we tell the story of the origins of the church. There is the typical story of where Jesus chose the Twelve and put Peter in charge and the women, you know, were accessories. When you put Mary Magdalene into the picture, you can't tell the story that way so simply anymore."
When asked for her own view of what that should mean for the church today, she said, "I would draw the implication that if the risen Christ saw fit to ask a woman to go and preach the good news of his resurrection, the church should do no less nowadays."
Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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