Resurrecting Mary Magdalene

Historians, mystics and artists debate her significance amid a new surge of popular devotion

by Ed Conroy


Two years ago in France, shortly after my 50th birthday and two years after a painful divorce, I became a pilgrim. Though I did not put a scallop shell on the brim of my cap or walk with a staff, I asked Mary Magdalene to be the patroness of my quest for renewed faith and a healed heart.

Her unfailing love for Jesus inspired my attachment to her. The mystery of her identity, however, impelled me to study the growing debates over her identity and relationship with Jesus.

Mentioned more times in the New Testament than any other woman, she has arguably been the most misrepresented of all Jesus’ disciples. She is the subject of intense interest these days; indeed, I discovered a movement of devotees who for different reasons have turned to her as a muse, a champion and a spiritual friend.

Over the past two years, I have interviewed and corresponded with these followers as well as some of the leading scholars, writers and artists inspired by Mary Magdalene. As a result of those interactions, I see her now represented in four distinct faces, a woman of many epithets.

For centuries, she was considered “the woman with the alabaster jar”, a reformed prostitute, despite the absence of biblical reference to her as such. This Magdalene has few advocates today.

In early Christian communities, she was seen as a woman of courage and wisdom. Called “Apostle to the Apostles” for bravely bearing witness of Jesus’ resurrection, she was also known among Gnostics as “the embodiment of Sophia”.

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), she has been officially affirmed as “Apostle to the Apostles”, both in the new Catholic missal of 1969 and by Pope John Paul II in his 1988 encyclical Dignitatum Mulieris.

In medieval Europe, particularly among the Cathars and some aristocratic families, it was widely believed that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ lawful bride, a sister to Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, mother to a “holy bloodline”.

Some contemporary authors, such as Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett in The Templar Revelation, even assert Mary Magdalene was probably a priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis and a member of a still-existing sect known as the Mandeans, now located in Iraq, who believe John the Baptist to be the true Messiah.

Jane Schaberg, professor of women’s studies and religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, in her book The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, aptly describes Mary Magdalene as a mirror of “fundamental questions of sexuality and the spirit, guilt and transcendence, authority and love”.

Those questions were very much on my mind as I began my pilgrimage. 

The Magdalene in France

My quest began in the company of my sister, Mary, my two daughters and my niece at the centuries-old chapel of Mary Magdalene in the little French hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. It was Sunday, July 20, 2003, just two days prior to her feast day.

Outside the chapel, buses disgorged hundreds of curious French tourists eager to consume the stories told in Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code of the Priory of Sion and the alleged conspiracy to conceal knowledge of a royal Jesus-Mary Magdalene bloodline.

Rennes-le-Chateau is the nexus of that conspiracy theory, made famous by the internationally best-selling book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, published more than 20 years ago.

Located in the heart of the Languedoc, where the Albigensian Crusade pitted Roman Catholic Christians against Cathar Christians in the first half of the 13th century, it is not surprising that Rennes-le-Chateau’s very old chapel should be dedicated to the Magdalene.

She is the national saint of France, popularly believed to have landed near the town of Saintes-Maries de la Mer in company with Martha and Lazarus, and to have been that country’s first evangelizer.

I learned on my French travels that on July 22, 1209, Pope Innocent III’s army killed an estimated 20,000 people, Catholic and Cathar, in the town of Beziers. Stephen O’Shea in his brilliant book The Perfect Heresy called the sack of Bezier “the Guernica of the Middle Ages”.

It was the first massacre of that crusade. Over the course of the next 35 years, the marauding crusaders and the fires of the Inquisition killed thousands of other inhabitants of the Languedoc for the capital crime of heresy.

On July 22, 2004, little more than a year after I began my pilgrimage, I continued it by participating in a conference in Seattle called “Return from the Desert: Celebrating Mary Magdalene as the Beloved”.

Although it was attended by only 50 people, mostly women, they came from as far away as Seoul, Korea, and all over the United States. Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, was the keynote speaker.

It was the first meeting of an Internet-based interfaith community organized by Lesa Bellevie, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene.

Most of the participants were originally Protestants. Many were critical of institutional religion but were developing a more personally meaningful spirituality through their veneration of Mary Magdalene.

Susan Smith, a social worker and psychotherapist from the San Francisco Bay area, told me at the conference that her devotion to Mary Magdalene grew out of her coming to know Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Raised a Mormon, Ms. Smith had first encountered pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the homes of Mexican migrant laborers she visited in her work in the Denver area, she said.

“I have committed my life to following the path of the Divine Feminine”, she said.

The conference also included a reading of the play Magdalene’s Mind by Gloria Amendola of Milford, Conn. In that drama, Mary Magdalene appears to three people in the Manhattan of our day, helping them find the courage their lives demand of them.

It became clear to me from that conference that there is an emerging spiritual movement that draws inspiration from conceiving of Mary Magdalene not as a reformed prostitute but as a strong, wise woman in a close relationship with Jesus.

A movement takes flight

This movement, moreover, has taken wing in cyberspace on numerous Magdalene-inspired Web sites. Lesa Bellevies www.magdalene.org and www.themagdaleneline.com, originated by Kathleen McGowan, author of The Expected One, are two of the most prominent. Ms. Bellevie, who opened her Web site in 1998, characterized her own Internet community as divided between historians and mystics, who differ over the question of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. In making that distinction, Ms. Bellevie is placing in the realm of mysticism the writings of Ms. Starbird, now the most highly recognized advocate for a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In October 2003, Dan Brown acknowledged to me that Ms. Starbird’s book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar was a significant influence on his novel.

Margaret George, author of the highly acclaimed novel Mary, Called Magdalene, concurs with Ms. Bellevie, saying that “there are two things going on” in this upsurge of interest in Mary Magdalene. “One is the attempt by serious church historians -- mainly but not exclusively feminist -- to rethink, rediscover, what the role of women might have been in the early church, using scholarly research. The other is a sort of New Age, touchy-feely, mystical channeling of Mary Magdalene, combined with a conspiracy theory. I think the first is valuable. I think the other is a passing fad that has caught people’s attention for this season”, Ms. George said.

Most of the participants in the Seattle conference I attended would probably disagree with Ms. George’s characterization of their new Magdalene-inspired spirituality. They would no doubt concur, however, that it is extremely important to the future of Christianity to re-examine, through Mary Magdalene, the role of women in the early church.

Jane Schaberg puts Mary Magdalene at a central place in the evolution of Christian faith.

“Focusing on the empty tomb narratives, my own view is that Mary Magdalene was a prophetic leader in the kingdom of God movement before and after the death of Jesus, and a creator of the Easter faith”, Ms. Schaberg said. “Her memory was important but downplayed in the Gospel of John, in which the Beloved Disciple is a corporate, symbolic character, perhaps based historically on a prominent figure or figures in the community, including her”. But Ms. Schaberg points out that it is vital to understand how the image of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute was constructed.

“If Mary Magdalene the Whore did not exist”, Ms. Schaberg said, “we who are interested in the history of man’s idea of woman would have to invent her, as complement and contrast to the Virgin Mother.”

The Gospel of John

Salesian Fr. Francis J. Moloney, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America, points out that the identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute “came in the Middle Ages, where every sinful woman in the Gospels is jumbled up and laid at the feet of Mary Magdalene.” Fr. Moloney emphasized the importance of the Gospel of John to our understanding of Mary Magdalene as Apostle to the Apostles.

“In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the risen Jesus encounters several women,” he said. “In the Gospel of John, he only encounters Mary Magdalene. John sees Mary as the one who announced to the Apostles the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and his return to our God and Father. This makes her the Apostle of the Apostles. This is lost in the other Gospels.”

Intriguingly, Ramon K. Jusino, who teaches theology at Notre Dame Academy High School on New York’s Staten Island, has won praise from major theologians for his research pointing to Mary Magdalene as the likely author of the Gospel of John.

The image of Mary Magdalene as a leader in the early church is an inspiration for the Cleveland-based organization FutureChurch, many of whose members are activists for the ordination of women in the Catholic church.

Members of FutureChurch will hold more than 300 celebrations of St. Mary of Magdala throughout the world this July 22, according to Sr. Christine Schenck, the organization’s executive director. In an interview, Sr. Schenck described a key moment of inspiration for her current work. While walking on a beach, despairing of seeing her personal dream of women’s ordination fulfilled in her lifetime, she remembered Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection: “Woman, why do you weep?” “I realized,” she said, “that the battle has already been won: Jesus has conquered death, and, like Mary Magdalene, we must tell the world!”

The increase of interest in the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, also known as the Gnostic gospels, has also fuelled interest in Mary Magdalene and even raised questions over whether she, not Peter, was Jesus’ chosen successor. In the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we are presented with Mary Magdalene as someone to whom Jesus gave secret teachings of how to achieve direct spiritual knowledge (called gnosis in Greek), and who argued with Peter over the validity of her knowledge.

Jacob Needleman, professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, has written the introduction to two translations of those texts by French Orthodox priest Jacques Yves LaLoup.

“We have to ask ourselves the question: What need do we have that is being reflected in this interest in Mary Magdalene?” Dr. Needleman said. “I believe we are seeing the recognition of not only a need for closer relationship with God and our inner selves, but also the Gnostic idea of the need to work on ourselves.”

Yet it is the theme of a loving relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that is perhaps most inspirational to Mary Magdalene’s contemporary devotees.

Esther de Boer, a minister in the Protestant Church of the Netherlands and author of The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene, advocates the view that the disciple Jesus loved (in the Gospel of John) could well be Mary Magdalene herself.

“This ‘loving’ has nothing to do with marital love, but with the love of the teacher for his pupils,” said the Rev. de Boer. “The Gospel of John calls Mary Magdalene “the disciple Jesus loved” as a way to make Mary Magdalene anonymous, since this beloved disciple in John appears to be the great thinker behind the Gospel and the Johannine community. It would have been embarrassing and not very convincing to outsiders to admit that this person is a woman.”

Ms. Starbird, however, said in a recent interview that she will continue to argue that the four canonical Gospels and the historical record present evidence for a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in her forthcoming book Mary Magdalene: Bride in Exile. Ms. Starbird explained that in her view the significance of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was cosmological, and intended by God to provide an example of equal partnership in human relationship. ”It was the sacred union of male and female principles, and the balancing of the masculine energy that has been dominant for too long,” Ms. Starbird said.

Ms. Starbird’s arguments build on the work of Riane Eisler, author of the cultural history The Chalice and the Blade. Ms. Eisler argues in that book it is time for humanity to evolve beyond societies based on domination through fostering a culture of partnership.

Neither the new feminist scholarship based on the Gnostic gospels nor the arguments of Ms. Starbird, Mr. Prince or Ms. Picknett concerning Mary Magdalene impress Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way.

“It’s tragic that modern attempts to recover that significance use absurd crank theories that no reputable scholar will take seriously, such as “pagan priestess” or “bride of Jesus”, or else we have more serious works that are massively over-optimistic in what can be recovered from very late and tainted texts like the Gospel of Mary,” Dr. Jenkins said.

Jean Houston sees wider cultural issues at work in the newfound popularity of Mary Magdalene. Dr. Houston, a well-known author who earned two doctorates in psychology and religious studies, calls Mary Magdalene a patroness for the liberation of women throughout the world and an icon for the ideal of a society where equal partnership, not domination, prevails in human relationships.

“The rise of Mary Magdalene in our time is part of one the most significant happenings in human history,” Dr. Houston said. “Fifty-two percent of the human race is about to join in as full partners in the business of human affairs.”

Ed Conroy is currently writing a book he titles The Magdalene Tales: Notes from a Mythic Journey.

This article first appeared in National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005