Archived post from The Magdalene Review: Saturday 26 November 2005
In March, 2005, John Allemang, of The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper, had this to say about my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene:
“The author of the Idiots volume on Mary Magdalene, Lesa Bellevie, also runs the website Magdalene.org. Yet the amount of detail the Bible supplies about Mary Magdalene could almost be written on the head of a pin. So you have to admire the sheer opportunism of a publishing company that can offer a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jesus’ favourite female follower, which explores ‘who she might have been.'”
I don’t hold a grudge, John, I promise, even though I know no one had access to an advance copy of the book. The reason I’ve included these comments is because it reflects the increasingly common belief that before The Da Vinci Code came along, there was nothing to say about Mary Magdalene. I have one thing I’d like to say in response:
Dan Brown didn’t invent Mary Magdalene.
Come to think of it, he didn’t even reinvent Mary Magdalene. Everything Brown wrote about Mary Magdalene had already been in circulation for at least a decade. But it took Brown to borrow these ideas, for better or worse, incorporate them into an easily-digestible plot, and publish with a house that marketed it aggressively, to bring Mary Magdalene to everyone’s lips.
The woman herself has been around for almost two-thousand years, not lingering in the shadows like a wallflower, but as one of the most popular Christian figures ever. At various periods in history she has inspired mass devotion or mass revulsion, sometimes both at the same time. Something Mary Magdalene has rarely been is a subject of no controversy. To suggest that there is little to say about her that isn’t related to The Da Vinci Code is naïve, at best.
Now that I’ve gone and made such a bold statement, it seems fair to share what I feel there is to talk about. Let me start by saying that as far as I’m concerned, there are no right or wrong views of Mary Magdalene. Some perspectives are more historically probable than others, some are more spiritually fulfilling than others, and some are certainly less offensive than others. But when it comes right down to it, everything about Mary Magdalene is relative; your view depends very much on where you’re standing. It’s impossible to quantify how many people of a given religious persuasion hold which views, so these are the categories I use to compare the ways people are currently approaching Mary Magdalene:
The traditional view of Mary Magdalene, of course, is that she was a penitent sinner. She may have been a prostitute, or an adulterer, or various other kinds of naughty woman, but Mary Magdalene’s presumed sins are almost always sexual in nature. (Take, for example, the fact that no one has ever talked about Mary Magdalene the thief.) It’s very difficult to find a significant written work that takes this point of view today; usually this is something you find in religious tracts, sermons, hymns, etc.
The more recent view of Mary Magdalene that even semi-conservative Roman Catholics can get on board with is that Mary Magdalene was the first, and perhaps most important, apostle. That is to say, Mary Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Christ, and the first person to spread the good news, and therefore, she was an apostle. (We can argue for days on the definition of “apostle,” which I’m sure will eventually be a subject covered in The Magdalene Review, but not today.) This group includes the writings of Karen King and Ann Graham Brock.
Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, it has become obvious that a woman named Mary, believed by many scholars to have been Mary Magdalene, was a very important figure in Gnostic Christianity. Gnostic Christianity itself can be viewed as a failed branch of early Christianity; the branch that emerged as the orthodoxy stamped it out by the sixth century. This group includes the writings of Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Marvin Meyer, and Annti Marjanen.
- Beloved Disciple
There are a growing number of people who believe that Mary Magdalene could have been the author of the Fourth Gospel, the one we typically call John. Scholarship in this area is gaining attention and momentum. Authors include Ramon K. Jusino, Esther de Boer, and Marvin Meyer.
- Holy Grail
There are actually two branches of the Holy Grail perspective of Mary Magdalene that I’ve decided to classify.
This group includes those who believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and conceived at least one child. Mary Magdalene would have then been a vessel for the blood of Christ and therefore a very literal Holy Grail. This subgroup of of the Holy Grail category believe that any surviving bloodline is of great importance, and often elaborate geneaologies are published as a result. Authors who have written from this perspective include Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh (authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail), and Laurence Gardner. If one wishes to include fiction, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code would fall into this category.
- Lost Feminine
In my opinion, this is the far more interesting of the two branches of the Holy Grail category. From this angle, Mary Magdalene served double-duty as an archetypal feminine face of God as well as being the literal wife of Jesus. The reason our culture and Christianity is so filled with problems is that we have “lost” Mary Magdalene, the bride of Jesus, who was an integral part of the real Christian message. Margaret Starbird is almost single-handedly responsible for forging this subcategory. “Lost feminine” thinking also had an influence on The Da Vinci Code, but was represented by a fast-growing movement even before DVC’s 2003 publication. Taking a look at the goddess spirituality movement of the last thirty years is extremely important when evaluating this perspective.
- Temple Priestess
It’s important to emphasize that there is a great deal of crossover among all of these categories; rarely does someone who is interested in Mary Magdalene adhere to only one view. The temple priestess perspective is a prime example; usually those who think of Mary Magdalene as a sacred temple prostitute/priestess also believe that she partnered with Jesus at some point, a union that may or may not have resulted in children. Frequently the temple priestess perspective is reinforced and confirmed by “received,” or channeled, messages from Mary Magdalene.
This took me by surprise for some reason. I’ve never been under the impression that we’re anywhere near finished figuring out what Mary Magdalene’s story was, but since the publication of DVC, more and more people seem to believe that it’s all sewn up. I had been thinking about setting up a blog for quite some time, and that question made it seem imperative.
In 1998, I founded Magdalene.org, a secular site with the goal of educating the public about the many views of Mary Magdalene in circulation. Websites are relatively static though. I want a place where I can dissect the various things that are being said of Mary Magdalene every day, in magazines, on television, in books, movies, music, the pulpit and the corner coffeeshop. To my knowledge, this will be the first blog devoted to the subject of Mary Magdalene (if there is another, please, I would love to hear about it!).
Before signing off on my first post, I have to acknowledge that you might now be wondering: what are my views of Mary Magdalene? That’s a difficult one to answer. I can start by pointing you toward my personal manifesto, which sheds a little light on the issue without directly addressing the question. In truth, I might never be able to answer that one even for myself; I find the answer changes frequently.
One thing I can tell you is that my goal isn’t to use this space for advancing my own spiritual views anyway. Sharing some new historical research, perhaps, interpreting academic research into plainspeak, hopefully. Passing along the latest media clippings, absolutely. What I’d like to do most, however, is help the public wade through waters that are becoming increasingly muddied by a lack of critical thinking and an almost frightening eagerness to discover and propogate the one, true identity of the woman called Mary Magdalene. I have to admit that I’m going to be hard on the more speculative claims that have been made lately, but I’ll have a few things to say about research done in institutions of higher education as well. This field is crying out for skeptics who aren’t basing their opposition on matters of faith or doctrine. Maybe there are folks out there who are better suited to respond to such a call, but it’s going to keep me up at night if I don’t at least try.