Archived from The Magdalene Review on Tuesday 29 November 2005:
This article was posted today on the Minnesota Women’s Press website:
There’s Something About Mary
by Elizabeth Noll
[Elaine Pagels]: The Christian movement has always been diverse. That it was diverse in the beginning is very clear. It’s still diverse. I think that what that says is that if you’re going to participate in it at all, you make choices about what you participate in. What kind of groups, what kind of understanding. You have a wide range of choices. I do make choices about those things, quite consciously, and I think that most people are aware that they’re making choices about that.
This is a pretty good article, about Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic tradition. It addresses some very basic questions about Mary Magdalene and brings up a couple of points that I’d like to call out.
From the interview:
MWP: I read somewhere that the prostitute thing started with a pope in the sixth century.
EP: Yes. The stories get conflated so that the story of the prostitute who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair is interpreted to be Mary Magdalene when of course the story doesn’t say that at all. That’s church tradition, begun in the sixth century.
MWP: And then, in the 1960s, didn’t the Vatican officially announce that she was not a prostitute?
EP: Yes, because it was recognized by people working on the text, particularly Raymond Brown, that there’s no grounds for that, historically. And some churches, like the Russian Orthodox Church, have taken her always to be a saint.
But what [this debate] shows is that these issues about women are not invented by feminists in the 20th century; they’re issues that have been engaging Christians from the very beginning of the movement.
This demonstrates one of my hot buttons. Pope Gregory the Great didn’t invent the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, he merely reinforced it. Depending on where you lived in Christendom and who taught you about the religion, you might have learned that Mary Magdalene was Mary of Bethany or the anonymous sinner woman from Luke (who was also never called a prostitute, incidentally), or any combination of the three women. I believe that Susan Haskins discusses this briefly in her book, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor.
Pope Gregory the Great was a master administrator who took the throne during a time when doctrine and dogma was in chaos. One of the things for which he is remembered is settling long-standing questions and determining official positions that the Church would take on certain issues. In one homily delivered in 591 (XXXIII, I think), he established once and for all that:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.
Today, Gregory is getting credited more and more frequently as inventing the tradition, which is clearly not the case. Conflation of the women in the Gospels and confusion between the Marys was evident several centuries before Gregory.
Another thing that stands out in the section of the interview I quoted above is that Pagels comments that Orthodox Christianity has always considered Mary Magdalene a saint. What I’m sure she knows, and my guess is that she only misspoke, is that Mary Magdalene has always been a saint in the Western church as well. I think we should give Professor Pagels the benefit of the doubt here; I think she meant to say that Orthodox Christianity has always considered Mary Magdalene a distinct person separate from Mary of Bethany and Luke’s anonymous sinner.
Not a bad interview at all. I love to see Elaine Pagels in the news.