"The woman to Jesus’ right was young and pious-looking, with a demure face, beautiful red hair and hands folded quietly. This is the woman who single-handedly could crumble the Church?” Readers are more than halfway through Dan Brown’s thick best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, before they find this paragraph, complete with author’s emphasis. This power-wielding woman is Mary Magdalene.
Will scholars’ revelations about this woman crumble the Church—or make it stronger? That and other questions about this rehabilitated Magdalene were posed to Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. Her students at Fordham University know her as Professor Johnson; her peers as Distinguished Professor of Theology and past president of the Catholic Theological Society.
Sister Elizabeth is an oft-published theologian whose books are considerably heavier than The Da Vinci Code in content if not in pages. One of her special interests is applying a responsible feminist perspective to theological investigations. Mary Magdalene has a place in Johnson’s 1999 book, Friends of God and Prophets—and a prominent place in her heart.
St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Sister Elizabeth at length during a break from her class on Christology. During this telephone interview, we learned more about St. Mary Magdalene’s treatment in Scripture, in the Church and in The Da Vinci Code.
This Mary has a respected place in Professor Johnson’s Contemporary Christology classes. She explains, “We look at the Gospel story of Jesus, the events of his death, resurrection and the beginning of the Church. We look at the role of the disciples. Mary Magdalene certainly warrants some attention at that point.”
Dan Brown's Blockbuster
St. Mary Magdalene, a.k.a. Miriam of Magdala, the Magdalene, prostitute, adulteress, temptress, penitent, follower, companion, wife, mother, disciple, witness, apostle, leader: Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?
Professor Johnson read Dan Brown’s blockbuster with interest. “Frankly, I enjoyed it. It’s a very good book for times when you’re stuck in the airport or on vacation. He writes in a very engaging style,” she says. But she also had some academic interest because both students and journalists approached her with questions.
What was true? What was not? What should believing readers make of the surprising appearance of a saint in a contemporary thriller replete with chases, intrigue, innuendo, death, extrabiblical allusions and ancient history?
“It’s a novel,” says Johnson, “but the author declared that the history behind it was factual. It is not.” Yet, she contends, the author did make a real contribution. How’s that?
“Research on Mary Magdalene has been going full steam ahead for about 20 years. Books have been written and so have scholarly essays, which get buried in scholarly journals, and nobody but scholars knew that these different angles were being explored. Then The Da Vinci Code bursts a hole in the ceiling, you might say.
“The novel has focused all this attention on the issues around Mary Magdalene. She’s been on the cover of Newsweek and Time, on the TV news and was one focus of ABC’s documentary, Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci. What a service to get everybody’s attention and say, ‘There’s a real story here!’”
But it’s not the one told by Dan Brown, Johnson cautions. “That’s a distorted picture.”
Does Johnson subscribe to the novel’s view of Mary Magdalene as wife of Jesus, mother to his children and intended head of the Church? No. “That is not history. It’s legend.
“I’ve seen drawings of Mary Magdalene and Lazarus landing at Marseilles, preaching and founding the Church there. The churches of southern France hold many statues, stained-glass windows and other visual references to Mary Magdalene. Nations often reach for such a connection to the early tradition.” Another French legend tells of Martha, Lazarus and Mary Magdalene arriving by boat on the coast of Provence.
Johnson recalls that Catholics in India call themselves Thomas Christians, to emphasize their connection to that apostle. The Apostle Andrew is similarly linked with Scottish Christianity. “In my view,” Johnson continues, “none of these Jewish followers of Jesus ever went to the places where they’re now claimed to be the founders of the local Church. People didn’t travel like that in those days. Truthfully, once Acts of the Apostles was written, we don’t know where they went!”
Johnson is nonetheless aware of the living French tradition that “considers Mary Magdalene the great preacher of the news of Christ and the converter of the tribes there.”
Great she may be, but Mary Magdalene is not, as Dan Brown writes, “the female womb that carried Jesus’ royal bloodline,” nor can she be proved the ancestress of French Merovingian royalty, explains Johnson. Such fictional assertions make for an interesting novel—and only that. Art critics doubt Brown’s interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as well, believing that the figure on Jesus’ right is John the Apostle. Artists have traditionally portrayed him as the Beloved Disciple, young, clean-shaven and close to Jesus.
Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is not a Scripture scholar but a systematic theologian who relies heavily on biblical scholarship. Asked about the extrabiblical texts cited in The Da Vinci Code, she offers some insights.
"First, no scholars think that Mary Magdalene or Peter or Philip wrote the apocryphal gospels that bear their names. Their authorship is by people in the Church of the second and third centuries, who took the name of leaders in Jesus’ day to lend authority to their writings. This was a common, well-understood practice, not intended to deceive,” Johnson explains.
"Second, biblical scholars and experts on the apocrypha do not give historical credence to the events described,” she says. “The books were written at a time when there was strong controversy over women’s ministries and reflect this.
"From biblical scholarship, we can see that women had a leading role in Jesus’ ministry. Read Chapter 16 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” she urges. “It provides a picture of men and women in ministry together in the Church. Paul speaks of Phoebe, of Prisca and her husband, Aquila, ‘beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord,’ plus other people’s mothers and sisters.
"You get a picture of the Church looking like an average parish on a Sunday morning—men and women together. The author of Romans is recognizing certain people among them as the leaders of that Church.”
Johnson continues, “From letters like this, biblical scholars conclude that, in the first-century Church, women took key leadership positions. The question became: Should they continue to do so?” And thereby hangs the tale of the apocryphal sources cited by Dan Brown in his novel.
"These extrabiblical gospels reflect,” says Professor Johnson, “what’s happening with women and men in the Church in the second and third centuries. Mary Magdalene and Peter stand for those two groups: one favoring women in leadership, one not. They are ‘snapshots,’ if you will, of the period in which they were written.”
These incomplete extrabiblical or apocryphal gospels were not written by people who had witnessed events as they happened—or even heard from eyewitnesses later. They were composed centuries after the four Gospels included in the New Testament.
How About Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
The four Gospels tell us about Mary, but about more Marys than we’ve been led to imagine. “Conflation” is one word for it; confusion is another. Conflation is a fusion of various stories into one composite. The Lent-released film, The Passion of the Christ, conflates or fuses biblical Marys, just as Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, Pope Gregory in the sixth, and many artists, writers and Scripture commentators have also done.
Mary the Mother of Jesus retains her individual status and reputation. But Mary of Bethany and several unnamed women—more than one who anoints and one identified as an adulteress—are all fused into one sensual young sinner.
Because Pope Gregory the Great did not have the benefit of the various strands of scriptural scholarship available today, Sister Elizabeth Johnson allows that his identification of Mary Magdalene with the repentant prostitute, the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50, may have been more “unconscious than deliberate.” He probably reflected the popular understanding of his day—and the needs of his flock for a cautionary tale.
No biblical justification exists, either, for Mel Gibson’s identification of Mary Magdalene as the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53—8:11).
Professor Johnson cautions, “If we go on making Mary Magdalene a prostitute when we have clear evidence to the contrary, that would be deliberate. There’s no excuse anymore.” St. Augustine (354-430) meanwhile espoused a far different view: “The Holy Spirit made Magdalene the apostle of the apostles.” At the time, however, the provocative Mary became the Church’s poster child for penitence, her leadership as recognized by Augustine all but forgotten.
Says Johnson, Scripture scholars and theologians alike received a renewed mandate in the words cited in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “The study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of theology” (#24). In those sacred pages, women have been buried, conflated or ignored—including Mary Magdalene. The current buzz about her is an invitation to return to the sacred page as primary source (see Gospel Passages Guaranteed to Be About Mary Magdalene).
What Today's Scholars Say
The Da Vinci Code mentions by name some of the sources to whom its fictional characters owe homage: Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1983) and Margaret Starbird’s The Woman With the Alabaster Jar (1993). Both these books equate Mary Magdalene with the legend of the Holy Grail, seeing her as a literal vessel.
In 1995, Paulist Press published biblical scholar and teacher Mary R. Thompson’s book, Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader (unfortunately, now out of print). Elizabeth Johnson points to Thompson’s scholarship as a fairly succinct, readable and more accurate rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene.
Thompson “disentwines” her from the other Marys and from the “sinful woman,” a link undoubtedly created by Luke 8:2, which reports that “seven demons had gone out” of “Mary, called Magdalene.” Since the demons possessing scriptural men are not associated with sin, it’s a misreading, assert both Johnson and Thompson, to apply that interpretation to Mary Magdalene. Demons—especially seven of them—more likely indicate a severe illness, from which Mary Magdalene was healed, not forgiven.
In disassociating Mary Magdalene from other scriptural Marys, this oversimplification may nonetheless prove helpful: Since Mary Magdalene is so often called by name and place (more than any other woman in the Gospel narratives, including the mother of Jesus), when Mary and Magdalene (or “of Magdala”) are not linked or the woman is not named at all, it’s a case of mistaken identity to conflate the woman being described with Mary Magdalene! This would mean she is not the “woman with the alabaster jar,” mentioned in all four Gospels.
In summarizing her conclusions, Mary Thompson writes, “To have been the only person, male or female, listed in all four Gospels as the first to realize that Jesus had risen and to have announced that message to the other disciples was to have reached undeniable prominence.”
'Smear Campaign' in the Church?
In The Da Vinci Code, Sir Leigh Teabing, one of its “stars,” attributes Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a penitent to a “cover-up.” He says, “[T]he early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible....[O]ne particularly troubling earthly theme kept recurring in the gospels. Mary Magdalene...more specifically, her marriage to Jesus Christ.”
This shocks the novel’s Sophie Neveu—and it shocks many believing readers as well, largely because there’s not the slightest allusion to Jesus’ marriage or to his wife (or child) in the New Testament. But The Da Vinci Code persists, also asserting that the Crusades were an organized attempt to search out and destroy evidence of this relationship in the Holy Land.
Professor Johnson does not rise to the bait. In her view, Mary was neither whore nor Jesus’ wife; she was witness. The scriptural basis for her conclusion has already been surveyed. Is there more to support this view?
The theologian explains that most distortions about Mary can be laid at the feet of men. She says, “In the past, who women are has largely been defined by men. And women’s voices have not been allowed to be part of the definition. Women today are reclaiming the right to identify ourselves.”
Professor Johnson adds, “Women’s history has not been well told. The stories of many women have been either forgotten or distorted—like Mary Magdalene’s. Consider the women in Mary Magdalene’s company like Joanna and Susanna, and the women standing with her [Mary Magdalene] by the cross.” About such women, little, if anything, is known, despite such particular references to them by the Gospel writers.
Mary Magdalene’s reputation fell on some pretty hard times. Dan Brown’s novel contends that the degradation of her character is “to cover up her dangerous secret.” She is the living Grail, the mother of Jesus’ child, which seems to pull Jesus down to earth along with his consort.
Professor Johnson speculates that the mudslinging Mary Magdalene has suffered is among the reasons the Church, especially its women, now champion her “with enthusiasm and vigor.” She continues, “It reminds women of what has been done generally in the Church and in the world. We’re going to shake the dust off here and tell the truth in a way more honest to Mary Magdalene’s real life.”
She allows that this may seem more significant to women than to men, “but I would say that those men who are desirous of partnership with women in the Church also find this a joyous rediscovery. Partnership is a different view of the beginning of our history as a Church, which then gives a different view of what our future could be as well.”
Company of Women
Sister Elizabeth Johnson is excited about a Church in which women are respected leaders—as Mary Magdalene was. She rises to find her nearby Bible, and pages to the Acts of the Apostles. She describes Acts as Volume II of Luke’s work, telling the history of the early Church. It is Acts 1:14 that she cites: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.”
Biblical scholars, explains Johnson, ask who these women are. “The only logical answer is that they’re the women Luke [author of Acts] named as those present at the tomb, at the cross, at the Resurrection. Reviewing the ministry of Jesus, these would logically be the same women who had followed him earlier. Then in Acts 2:1-4, “[T]hey were all in one place together...Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire....And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” And that would include the women? Yes, says Elizabeth Johnson.
So is it Mary Magdalene as proclaiming witness that so appeals to a teacher and theologian at Fordham, a Jesuit university? Indeed! “Mary Magdalene is a founding mother of the Church. She ministered to Jesus during his own ministry, sharing things with him, was one of his followers in Galilee. She was a faithful disciple during the last hours of his life,” says Professor Johnson.
“If the women had not stood by and witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross, then followed his body, accompanied it to the tomb, returned on the first day of the week in the morning to anoint again and found the tomb empty, then announced to the disciples their experience of the risen Lord,” she pauses for emphasis, “—if they hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t know what happened! They are the thread of continuity through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
This is a vital thread indeed in the Christian story. It is part of the true hidden code that needs to be revealed in today’s Church. Adulterers can be forgiven and penitents can be honored, but the Church also needs prophets and witnesses who can announce to today’s confused and weary disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast is celebrated July 22, can inspire today’s apostles in the Church.