Restoring Mary Magdalene

Ahhh…ignorance. Some people clearly find it blissful, or the Da Vinci Code would never have been a best-seller. You may have noticed in recent years, that if any matter related to Christianity is “interesting” enough to make it into the popular media, it is almost certainly based on a solid dose of ignorance wrapped up in a very thin veneer of scholarship which won’t stand up to genuine academic investigation.

The West Australian – a newspaper whose religious reporting tends to be so shallow and ill-informed that it can’t correctly identify the difference between “evangelism” and “evangelicalism” – put up an article last night titled, “Jesus had two children with wife Mary Magdalene, claims new book”. (I’m sure quantum physicists are equally disappointed in the inaccuracies of any newspaper reporting of their technical data too – any time a journalist reports on complex matters about which he or she lacks education, without clarification from more qualified commentators, inaccuracies are bound to occur.)

The article is based on one from the UK Daily Mail, a sensationalist publication not known for excellence in journalism. In this instance, the Daily Mail considerably out-performs The West Australian, presenting some views from reputable scholars as well as the theory presented by the book’s authors. On this occasion, the result is some pretty awful Chinese whispers. It is unclear whether the Daily Mail has actually seen the yet-to-be-released book, or whether it has simply obtained information from the publisher or authors. The West’s info is based only on what it has read in the Daily Mail, but it doesn’t even manage to communicate that accurately. No journalist’s name is appended to the online article.

It is tempting to say a lot about this, (oh, the self-control required in this instance!), but others will deal with the overall failings of this book better than I – just for starters, John Dickson expresses very succinctly some of the article’s major failings here (if the link does not take you directly to Dickson’s comments on this matter, you should be able to find it by scrolling down to 11 Nov 2014). I will make just three quick comments before moving on to one important point – the picture The West paints of Mary Magdalene. Among other reasons, this “discovery” should be treated cautiously, because:

  1. Neither newspaper mentions that one of the authors, Simcha Jacobovici, is also known for the supposed find of “the James Ossuary” and “the Jesus Tomb” in Talipot – which also claims to prove Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Unfortunately for Jacobovici, the tomb and the ossuary been convincingly been found to be fraudulent and unconnected to the historical Jesus. His work should be approached with a pretty decent grain of salt. He is far from being an unbiased commentator, which the Washington Post effectively outlines here.
  2. The basic rule of ancient history is to give greater weight to earlier evidence, and less to that of later provenance. The text in question is dated from the later 6th century, whereas the New Testament documents originate in the 1st.
  3. The authors’ theory relies on interpreting this document – which is a retelling of part of the life of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph – as a secret code, which apparently reveals that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, and Jesus and the children survived an assassination attempt. The words “secret code” should be enough to set your hoax radar flashing like mad.

So, what does The West say about Mary? (Note: the Daily Mail doesn’t make the claim we’ll be looking at here, but it does seem to be popping up in some other online stories about this issue.) The claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married doesn’t bother me. I’m not aware of any good historical evidence for it, but even if it were eventually proven true, it doesn’t affect my faith in the slightest. The Bible never says Jesus was unmarried, but neither does it present any suggestion that He was. That Jesus was unmarried is simply the more likely of the two ideas.

What I do want to correct is this persistent notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Some of you might be saying, “What? But everyone knows that’s true!” Let’s start by looking at what the Gospels say about her.

  • She was one of a number of women who followed Jesus during His Galilean ministry, and cared for His needs, which included supporting His ministry financially “out of their own means” (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:3). Luke adds that these women had been cured of “evil spirits and diseases,” and gives the specific detail that Jesus had driven seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (8:2-3, see also the disputed ending of Mark, 16:9). It is possible that the biblical language of “casting out demons” related to the curing of mental of physical illnesses, such as epilepsy, as expressed in a 1st century understanding.
  • She was present at the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).
  • She and “the other Mary” (Mark specifies she was the mother of Joseph) saw Joseph of Arimathea place Jesus’ body in the tomb (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:46-47).
  • In each gospel, she is present at the resurrection (Matt 28:1ff; Mark 16ff; Luke 24:1ff; John 20:1ff). In some gospel accounts (notably that of John), she has a longer conversation with Jesus. In John’s account, Mary – in the midst of her tears – is at first confused about His identity.
  • She is commissioned by Jesus to tell the disciples the good news of the resurrection – the first to proclaim the Gospel (Matt 28:8-10; John 20:17-18).

mary magdaleneThere you have it. That is, in a very brief summary, everything of significance the Gospels have to say about Mary Magdalene. The overwhelming picture is of her great faithfulness, gratitude, service and love for Jesus. When the male disciples have run away and are hiding in fear of their lives, Mary Magdalene is still courageously present in every scene.

Now, notice the bit about her being a prostitute? ………………Nope, neither did I. Simply put – it’s not there.

So how did this popular idea come about? This notion is present both implicitly and explicitly in popular culture, from mediaeval art to Jesus Christ, Superstar and beyond. Pope Gregory the Great was the first to put forward this notion, in 591 AD, fusing Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, the sinful woman of Luke 7 and the woman caught in adultery into one person whom he labelled a prostitute (none of these women are called prostitutes by the Bible). Mary’s reputation has been sullied ever since, with this myth perpetuated for generation after generation. The Catholic Church rescinded this view in 1969, but popular culture – and indeed many Christians – have been slow to catch up.

While Mary has long been considered one who had had an impure past, it is we who need to clean up our act by restoring her to her rightful place: Mary Magdalene, staunchest of Jesus’ disciples, most faithful follower in the heart of danger, and first proclaimer of the resurrection message.

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