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Different Faces of Mary Magdalene – is a Goddess News’ piece intended to outline popular theories about Mary Magdalene’s life. I also address questions I often get after my talks on Mary Magdalene.
I normally cover only the theories that speak to me most which are based on the research of Jean-Yves Leloup (points 1 to 4) who focuses on the spiritual rather than political and dynastic interpretations of Mary Magdalene’s life.
However many people in the audience are fascinated by works of Margaret Starbird and their simplified representation in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Having said so Margaret Starbird looked into important paradoxes in Christian doctrine such as the idea of a ‘virgin Son being conceived by a virgin Mother’ and her intention was to enrich Christianity rather than discredit it. I would also love to share my own adventure with Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem Diary 🙂
- Mary Magdalene is one of the most fascinating and misunderstood women in Western history.
Unlike many other biblical figures the interest in her seems to grow rather than fade in popular imagination.
As a little girl I spent many punishing hours under my grandmother’s tutelage, as she hoped to instil in me some religious belief by showing me pictures of Biblical women. Whether she was right or wrong, she was unsuccessful; I could never relate to any of the scriptural women, the stories of suffering nuns and saints or even the story of the Virgin Mary – no matter how hard I tried.
I resented their constant self-sacrifice and martyrdom and the message they were sending as to how women should conduct themselves. When I grew up I noticed that men, too, were often trapped in a belief in the seemingly mutually exclusive archetypes of virgin (a good girl) and prostitute (a bad but sexy girl).
I felt that as a woman I could only be one or the other. But once I began to study early medieval history I was astonished by the richness of material on Mary Magdalene and I was instantly fascinated. Indeed, Mary Magdalene undergone an interesting evolution, as times and perspectives on the role of women change.
- Since the very beginning, Mary Magdalene was considered to be the central figure in the story of the resurrection.
She was the first one to see the resurrected Jesus and the person who brought the news to the rest of the disciples (John 20; Mark 16; Matthew 28). For that reason she was called the ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ by Saint Augustine, and revered in some Gnostic circles as the favoured disciple of Jesus, as Sophia, the woman ‘who knows All’.
- In at least two Gnostic Gospels, she is portrayed as the beloved and most advanced disciple of Jesus.
In the Gospel of Philip, for example, Jesus ‘kissed her often on her mouth’, making the other disciples jealous. She was called in that Gospel Jesus’ koinoinos which can mean either a ‘wife’ or ‘companion’.
In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, it is Mary Magdalene who enlightens the other disciples on Jesus’ more esoteric teachings which he has shared only with her. However, in the fourth century, during the Council of Nicea (325 CE), both the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip were rejected as heretical by the Church and were not included in the official version of the Bible. Since then the importance of her presence in Jesus’ life has declined in the popular imagination
- She was not considered to be a prostitute until the sixth century.
It was not until the sixth century that Pope Gregory I made a scriptural mistake in Homily 33 and confused her with the penitent woman sinner from Luke 7. From that time on in mainstream Christianity Mary Magdalene has been misconstrued as a prostitute, even though in 1969 the Catholic Church admitted Pope Gregory’s mistake.
Recently, Catholic scholars have begun changing the story of Mary Magdalene to one not of a prostitute but of an older woman of independent means who financially supported Jesus’ movement.
- Some authors believe she was Jesus’ wife
Margaret Starbird, in her book, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail argues that Mary Magdalene is the same person as Mary of Bethany – ‘the woman with an alabaster jar’ who anointed him with ‘a very expensive perfume’ (Mark 14).
According to Starbird, Mary’s family belonged to the once powerful tribe of Benjamin, and therefore a dynastic marriage between Mary and Jesus (who was said to belong to the tribe of David) was arranged and took place.
By using genealogies from the Old and New Testament, she concludes that their union was described in the Bible as the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.
- …And that Mary Magdalene was the holy grail.
Starbird argues that Mary Magdalene was, in fact, the ‘holy grail’ with which medieval troubadours, poets and knights (including the Templars) were so obsessed.
In that version of her story, on the day of the crucifixion Mary Magdalene, pregnant with Jesus’ child, escapes to Alexandria with the help of Joseph of Arimathea. From there, once a baby – a girl called Sarah – is born, they travel on to Southern France.
This is, they believe, the reason for the worship of Mary Magdalene as the mother of Jesus’ child (sang raal or holy/royal blood rather than san graal or holy grail) in southern France throughout the Middle Ages among the Cathars, a Christian sect that was later considered heretical and purged between 1209 and 1229.
Although Starbird’s ideas appear at times farfetched, apart from biblical passages, she also analysed the symbolism of medieval legends, poetry and paintings. And, if some aspects of May Magdalene’s story were repressed, she claims that its elements were preserved in the mythical and artistic imagination of human consciousness.
These are only some of the most well-known, alternative versions of the story of Mary Magdalene. Yet although the mystery of her ‘true’ story might never be solved or known, she is the haunting spectre behind Christianity.
She has not only survived the onslaught of historical speculations and papal misinterpretations but has evolved with the times more so than any other figure in western spirituality –and this, in itself, is noteworthy.
More importantly though, she presents to women a more holistic representation of the feminine as she crosses the divide between spiritual and sexual; mother and an object of sexual desire; saint and prostitute; a woman and favoured disciple in possession of secret knowledge.
Sending Love, Joanna
Dr Joanna Kujawa