Scholars setting record straight on Mary Magdalene

Modern biblical scholars are trying to set straight centuries of erroneous Christian tradition regarding Mary Magdalene, and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is the least of their concerns.

According to Catholic News Service, in 591 AD Pope St Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he identified as one person the New Testament figures of Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears, and the Mary who was the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany.

Although he was only reflecting a tradition that had gained some ground in the West (and was resisted by many of the church's early theologians), the sermon became a reference point for later scholarship, teaching and preaching in the West, Fr Raymond F Collins, a New Testament scholar at the Catholic University of America, said in an interview.

The Greek Fathers - the great theologians of the early church in the East, who wrote in Greek - consistently maintained that Mary Magdalene, the unnamed repentant sinner and Mary of Bethany were three distinct women. That remains the tradition in the Orthodox churches.

The identification of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinful woman was solidified in the Latin Church for centuries by the use of that story, reported in the seventh chapter of Luke, as the Gospel reading for Mary Magdalene's feast on 22 July. In fact, in the Roman Calendar before the Second Vatican Council, the day was called the feast of "Mary Magdalene, penitent."

Sr Elizabeth A Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University and a Sister of St Joseph, said the version of Mary Magdalene as "the prostitute to whom Jesus forgave much and who loved him ... took on a profound Christian ideal of a sinner who repents and therefore is a model for Christians in that way."

"But what got lost in the process," she said, "was her actual role as a leader of witnessing to the Resurrection in the early church."

She said that the repentant prostitute version of the Magdalene is "robbing us of [appreciation of] women's leadership at a crucial moment in the early church. In other words, in a way it's easier ... to deal with her as a repentant sinner than as she emerges in the Gospels in her own right."

Fr Collins said: "Luke describes Mary Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, and that characterisation of Mary Magdalene is repeated in the longer canonical ending of Mark's Gospel."

But he noted that in Jesus' time it was not uncommon to attribute physical or mental afflictions to demonic possession and this did not imply that the possessed person was sinful. "Whatever affected Mary Magdalene was considered to be the effect of demonic possession so she would not have been considered a public sinner the way the medieval legends have made her out to be," he said.

He said she is called the Magdalene because she comes from Magdala - a fishing village up in northern Galilee.

He said one also learns from Luke "that she supported Jesus from her resources," suggesting that she was a woman of some means, and that she was one of several women from Galilee who were disciples of Jesus and followed him.

Luke's Gospel is the only one that mentions Mary Magdalene by name in the narration of Jesus' public ministry. But all four Gospel writers place her as a witness to Jesus' death on the cross, a witness to his burial and the chief witness to his resurrection, making her one of the most significant female figures in the Gospels apart from Jesus' own mother, Mary.

Sr Elizabeth said that when one looks at the Magdalene's biblical role as the one the risen Christ appears to and commissions to announce the good news to the others it has "many implications for how we tell the story of the origins of the church."

"There is the typical story of where Jesus chose the Twelve and put Peter in charge and the women, you know, were accessories," she said. "When you put Mary Magdalene into the picture, you can't tell the story that way so simply anymore."

Scholars seek to correct Christian tradition on Mary Magdalene (Catholic News Service 2/5/06)

The battle of 'The Da Vinci Code' (Associated Press/CNN 1/5/06)
Da Vinci bosses veto Opus Dei viewing (Irish Times 1/5/06)
Vatican official suggests Catholics boycott 'The Da Vinci Code' film (Catholic News Service 1/5/06)
Scotland's Churches Enjoy Da Vinci Code Boom (Christian Today 1/5/06)
Boycott Da Vinci film, Vatican official urges (Catholic World News 28/4/06)
With Movie Due, 'Da Vinci' Debate Persists (Leading the Charge 30/4/06)
Movie raises ire across the globe (Sydney Morning Herald 30/4/06)
The Da Vinci Code: Christianity fights back (Sunday Herald 30/4/06)
Cinema ads tackle Da Vinci claims (The Australian 30/4/06)
"Da Vinci Code," as Seen From Rome (Zenit 27/4/06)

3 May 2006