Mary Magdalene is back.
Not that she ever really went away, but every now and then, she's thrust into the spotlight, the canon's cover girl for a lively debate about women, sex, feminism and the church. Her latest starring role comes in the blockbuster thriller "The Da Vinci Code
." The novel, which has topped best-seller lists for 16 weeks, poses the not-so-innocent question: What if Jesus
and Magdalene were husband and wife? It's not a new premise, but it never fails to rile the faithful, the faithless and the devil's advocates.
"I think Mary Magdalene is the most fascinating figure in the New Testament outside of Jesus himself," says Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus." As the first person to see the risen Christ, Magdalene is central to the Resurrection story. Other than that, the Bible
offers a few tantalizing clues.
Was Magdalene, as portrayed in centuries of art and literature, the penitent prostitute, the devoted follower, the woman with the alabaster jar? Or, as "The Da Vinci Code" suggests, was she Jesus' wife, partner, confidante, beloved disciple, the "apostle to the apostles"? All this and more, says "Code" author Dan Brown.
"I was skeptical, but after a year and a half of research, I became a believer," says Brown. "As soon as people understand that the few Gospels included in the Bible are not the only version of the Christ story, they begin to sense contradictions. Magdalene is most obvious." Her role, he says, was deliberately distorted, a smear campaign by the early church fathers -- as one of his characters declares, "the greatest cover-up in human history."
Does Brown believe Jesus was actually married to Magdalene? "I do," he says.
Nothing in the Bible says she was a prostitute. Magdalene is named by Mark (15:40-41
) and Matthew (27:55-56
) as one of the women from Galilee. Luke (8:2
) says seven devils (probably mental illness) were cast from her. The Gospels place her at the Crucifixion, watching from a distance. She might have remained a minor character, except the Bible says she was the first witness to Jesus' resurrection -- therefore a critical figure in the Easter story. But after telling the disciples what she has seen, she's never mentioned again in the Scriptures.
John describes Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair. In Luke, an unnamed woman does the same thing, but this one is called a sinner. In the next chapter, Luke tells of Mary of Magdala and her demons.
Magdalene's reputation as wanton was sealed by 591 when Pope Gregory announced that Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinner were the same woman. (In 1969, the Catholic Church
restored them to three separate individuals.)
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Enty in Smith's Bible Dictionary