The Common Good
March-April 1997

Revisioning Mary Magdalene

by Kimberly Burge | March-April 1997

An opportunity for more inclusive expressions in the church.

"Mary stood outside the tomb, crying" (John 20:11). My NIV Study Bible has a footnote for this verse: "Perhaps Jesus appeared first to Mary because she needed him most at that time." Apparently justification is needed by these scholars for Jesus' decision to share the good news of his resurrection with Mary Magdalene; after all, as a woman, her testimony could not hold up in a court of law. (I'm still searching the footnotes on why Jesus wanted to appear to Peter, James, and John.)

Rereading this passage recently, I was reminded of what a difficult time Christians have had for 2,000 years accepting and acknowledging the enormous role Mary Magdalene played in the Easter story, and indeed throughout Christ's ministry. Mary Magdalene has been canonized, revered, modeled, reviled, blamed, excused, feared, and dismissed by church leaders and the faithful alike. She has been idealized as the penitent prostitute (even though passages only refer to seven demons being driven from her); this for a woman who appears in only a handful of scriptural verses. Now several studies are taking a new look at this enigmatic woman and the complicated roles thrust upon her by the church and society.

Susan Haskins' book, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, presents an exhaustive study of the cult and mythology that has surrounded this "apostle to the apostles." Beginning with the references in each gospel, Haskins shows how Mary Magdalene's story became interwoven with other (often unnamed) women in the Bible, particularly Mary of Bethany and, in Luke's gospel, the woman—a sinner, assumed by many interpretations to be a prostitute, although again that is not at all clear—who anoints Christ's feet. Hence the subsequent, and inaccurate, depiction of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute.

Pope Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, did his part in creating the muddle by declaring that these three women were one and the same, thus reducing the number of women characters in the scriptures and re-creating them to serve the patriarchal needs of the church. From such a foundation, Haskins meticulously traces the development of Mary's public persona—and the general attitudes toward women's sexuality—in art, literature, church pronouncements, and public perceptions.

Perhaps most revealing of these social judgments are the artistic depictions of Mary presented in the book. Nearly 100 illustrations—from a wall painting, circa A.D. 240, of Mary approaching the tomb to a 1991 poster advertising a Louvre exhibit and featuring Gregor Erhardt's naked figure of the saint—comprise an extraordinary range of portrayals that allows Haskins further comment. Haskins pays particular attention to the frequency and ways in which Mary was depicted naked, most often with explicitly erotic overtones that occasionally, in the case of Victorian times, for example, degenerate into pornography.

The inclusion of all of these illustrations certainly augments Haskins' development of her subject. The detail from one in particular, Botticelli's "Lamentation," has particularly haunted me. In this painting of the Pieta grouping, Mary Magdalene "cradles [Christ's] head in her arms, her face pressed against his, her hair falling around him, an image both intimate and tender." Painfully so, I found. The image of Mary, eyes shut tightly, her mouth slightly open, exhaling slowly (I imagine), her breath resting on Christ's lifeless body, speaks to me about Mary's devotion, strength, and commitment to her Lord, in life and death and resurrection. That characterization is one I strive to emulate in my own life, perhaps far more than the weeping, repentant prostitute.

Haskins' study is both fascinating and illuminating. I learned here that the term "maudlin"—defined as "weakly and tearfully sentimental, especially when drunk"—crept into the English language as a variation of the medieval French pronunciation of Magdalene, although Mary Magdalene was never described as drunk in the scriptures.

While the academic and comprehensive nature of the work sometimes makes for a slow read, the dignity and intensity with which Haskins treats her subject made me want to continue on the journey to present times, when new revisionist studies of Mary Magdalene reveal "the true feminine model, one which, according to the gospels, embodies strength, courage, and independence." Haskins writes, "If the ‘victimization' of Mary Magdalene can stand as a metaphor for the historically subordinate position of women in Christianity, now that the woman so long regarded as a penitent sinner has been shown in her true light, then it may be that Christianity's view of woman in history itself requires some kind of radical revision."

While Haskins' book provides a solid grounding in the evolution of this pre-eminent New Testament figure, two other resources expound on the role played by both her and the other early women leaders of Christ's church. The Gospel According to Mary, by Miriam Therese Winter, tells the very familiar story, parables, and teachings of Jesus, but through the imaginary eyes of a first-century woman, using as her sources the female disciples, "women who had been transformed by Jesus."

The book remains faithful to the gospel message and parallels carefully the stories told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—with the explicit participation of the women highlighted. The healing miracles recounted here particularly illustrate both the determined faith of women who followed Jesus and his limitless compassion, as does his interaction with both women and men throughout this "gospel."

Jesus' reinstatement of Peter is especially poignant from this point of view. Questioning Peter about his capacity to love, Jesus continues to ask, "Peter, do you know that I love you? Forgive yourself, as I have forgiven you." Finally, Jesus pierces Peter's heart: "Can you love yourself as I have loved you?" This "evangelist" writes, "Relieved of his crushing burden of guilt, Peter broke down and wept, saying, ‘Help me to learn to love myself as much as I love you.'" In this version, the love of God flows freely and abundantly in unabashed form. Winter's retelling would weave beautifully into any liturgy or prayer service.

In Mary Ellen Ashcroft's The Magdalene Gospel, storytelling provides the forum for the exchange of these women's experiences. Again a fictionalized account, the women followers are gathered together the day after Jesus' death, grieving, hearing, remembering, and searching for healing. Their stories are told with emotion, raw and unchecked. We hear Mary Magdalene's account, but also those of Mary the mother of Christ; Rhoda, the name given to the woman bent over for 18 years, whom Jesus healed; and Mary and Martha of Bethany. Ashcroft honors these women by allowing their stories to be told from their own points of view.

The tone of the work is, understandably, dark, but occasionally creeps dangerously close to hopelessness. From the vantage point of knowing how the story ends, I found myself wishing that I could have listened to these women speak with the joy of the resurrection. I also found attempts to make the language contemporary sometimes left it stilted instead, while the italicized interjections relaying action and others' reactions to each woman's story was often unnecessarily intrusive. But I think this could make a beautifully staged dramatic piece, and I appreciate the inclusion of so many women usually left in the shadows.

I've just recently turned to Mary Magdalene—disciple of Christ, the woman of the scriptures, not the representation promulgated by the church—as a source of inspiration for my own Christian journey. I'm finding in her, and many other biblical women, characters that are complex and multidimensional, and faith that is both fierce and sustaining. Susan Haskins closes her impassioned book by asking, "Nietzsche wrote that every culture needed myth and was impoverished when it lost or lacked myth. In losing the myth of Mary Magdalene, however, has not our culture not only nothing to lose, but also everything to gain?" As I pray for and work in my own way to see Christ's treatment of women demonstrated more fully in my church, I need Mary the disciple, not the myth.

The Gospel According to Mary: A New Testament for Women. By Miriam Therese Winter. Crossroad Publishing Co., 1993.

The Magdalene Gospel. By Mary Ellen Ashcroft. Doubleday, 1995.

Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. By Susan Haskins. Riverhead Books, 1993.

Kimberly Burge was an executive assistant at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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