Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mary Magdalene - the mystery woman

Passionate (1)
 Mary Magdalene is one of those figures in Christian history and mythology that has no set story to her. She's presented as the bad girl, the whore, as an early leader of the church, the Apostle to the Apostles, Jesus' wife and/or concubine, the carrier of the Holy Grail, and dozens of other things. Which one is right and which is wrong? Could they all be right? The mystery of Mary of Magdala is shared with us in the movie Secrets of Mary Magdalene (directed by Rob Fruchtman).

While the movie was not the most in-depth look at Mary of the New Testament, the presentation is entertaining and interesting. It's easy to follow, and contains enough information to allow you to do some decent research on your own, something most documentaries today do not bother with.

The documentary starts out looking at ancient sources and moves into the modern era, showing that very early views of Mary are fairly close to where we're at today. Those lost perspectives have been rediscovered and brought to life thanks to modern archeaology and  the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels.

There's a habit of conflating all the various Marys of the gospels, something that modern scholars are now trying to untangle. The name Mary was one of the most popular female names during the era of Jesus. We know of Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha from the Lazarus story), the Mary that washes and anoints Jesus' feet (often said to be the repentant whore who had demons cast out of her), Mary who was Jesus' mother, and another Mary who was possibly Jesus' sister. None of these are Mary of Magdala or Migdal, who is the one who first sees the risen Christ.

Penitent (2)
We know that Mary Magdalene followed Jesus, and that she and the other female followers provided for the needs of the men in the company. Likely this referred to cooking, cleaning, and mending as needed. We know that she was considered important because she is the first person recorded as seeing Jesus after his death. She is mentioned in all four Gospels as being one of the witnesses at the cross. The documentary notes, however, that Mary is not mentioned as being in the crowd that first receives the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Scholars are unsure if this was left out because everyone was aware of it, or because Mary did not play a vital role in the Pentecost tale.

Regardless, Mary has become a focus for women to rally around. She seemingly defies the gender inequality of her time. She follows a teacher and is apparently unattached to anyone as a wife, daughter, or sister. She's unusual, but not any moreso than the other women following Jesus.

As the documentary develops it delves deeply into the history behind the Holy Grail. There are myths and legends of Mary and a female child coming to France, bringing with them the grail. Some believe that "the grail" was Mary herself, bringing Jesus' sacred blood line in the person of her child (often identified as Sara). The most detailed exploration of these myths can be found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.

It was author Dan Brown and his book The DaVinci Code that brought Mary back into the spotlight. His fictional work highlighted the legends of the Merovingian kings of France, the early Templars, and later the Cathars, and where Mary of Magdala fits in. That spotlight is hotly debated, mostly because it touches on the idea that Jesus and Mary had more of a relationship than just that of teacher and student.

Mary washes Jesus' body (3)
There is some credibility to the idea that Jesus had a wife. During the time the New Testament describes, a male holding the title of Rabbi would have been required to be married, just as orthodox Rabbis are required today. It makes a certain sense that this strong female character would be Jesus' foil throughout his ministry. No other woman is mentioned repeatedly except for his mother.


One of the websites mentioned in the film is Magdelene.org, a site dedicated to education about and research on Mary. There, you can find all of the information that was in the film, and much more.

The most interesting point made during this documentary was that the current trend of seeing Mary as an independent woman actually takes away a positive figure that many women have clung to across the centuries. Mary as a penitent sinner, a reformed whore, was much more human and easy to acknowledge than a bunch of holier-than-thou disciples who lived a very ascetic lifestyle. Her sins were so grievous that she provided people with an "in" to Christ. If Mary the whore could repent and become a good and wholesome person, then so could anyone!

Mary Magdalene's elasticity as a character in the tale of Jesus and his disciples makes her an excellent leading lady in any and all of the myths and legends that exist. There is no way to tell for sure that she was one way or another, and so she bends and sways, taking on whatever traits are necessary to help people reach their goals. Sinner or saint, she has always been a central figure in Christianity.

I give this documentary 3 stars. It was quite good, but some of the information was out of date (for example, the information about the Gnostic Gospels found in Nag Hammadi neglected to mention that other Gnostic Gospels existed for a very long time prior to the Nag Hammadi ones being discovered). This is definitely worth a watch if you're interested in obscure church history, or are a student of the role of women in the Christian religion.

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1) Painting by Fra. Angelico (Wikimedia Commons)
2) Painting by Nicolas Régnier (Wikimedia Commons)
3) Painting by Vasily Perov (Wikimedia Commons)