Maybe Dan Brown was on to something.
In his controversial 2003 novel The DaVinci Code, Brown builds a mystery thriller around the myth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants now live quietly in modern France.
Thousands of angry Christians condemned Brown for his heretical idea, but – as he is the first to admit – the idea had been around for years.
Many readers of The DaVinci Code were reminded of a 1982 volume called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which claimed the messianic descendants are protected by a secret society called the Priori of Sion.
The book is unconvincing and unintentionally amusing when it offers photos of the alleged grandkids of Jesus: pear-shaped, balding middle-aged hommes with bulbous noses and beady eyes.
Writer Anthony Burgess said the book’s far-fetched claims would make a great novel but he never got around to writing it. Dan Brown did.
And to be sure, The DaVinci Code is a page-turner. But apart from the fictional notion of a holy blood line, the novel’s main contribution has been to revive interest in a misunderstood biblical figure: Mary Magdalene.
Mary has been the target of so much derision, in fact, that one of Brown’s claims rings true. It seems plausible that the patriarchs of the church were so disturbed by the special presence of this mere woman in Jesus’ life that they went out of their way to misrepresent and dismiss her.
The most common calumny about Magdalene, of course, is that she was a hooker.
In Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1971 rock opera by Sir Anthony Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mary’s bawdy background torments her as she struggles with her love for Jesus. “I don’t know how to love him,” she sings.
I don't see why he moves me.
He's a man. He's just a man.
And I've had so many men before,
In very many ways,
He's just one more.
Mary’s profession is even more explicit in the 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same title. Portrayed by Barbara Hershey, Mary is actually shown turning tricks seriatim as sweaty customers line up at her door.
In the film and novel, Jesus is tempted on the cross by his love for Mary and his desire to break free from messiahship to start an ordinary family.
“Barbara Hershey is so beautiful,” a Baptist minister whispered to me after he saw the movie, “I’d have been tempted, too.”
And for the record, there is nothing heretical about Kazantzakis’ story. Jesus was indeed led into temptation, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 5:15
It’s logical to assume that being tested in every respect includes sexual tension, and most extra-biblical traditions about Mary Magdalene suggest she was uncommonly beautiful.
But she was no whore.
Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels more than a dozen times, and it is never stated or insinuated that she was a prostitute.
The notion that she was a sex professional originated with Pope Gregory I in 590 C.E.
Gregory, dubbed “the Great” and canonized a saint by popular demand as soon as he died in 604, was a monastic mystic. He devised an enduring style of Christian worship that included the harmonious chants that bear his name. He is the patron saint of musicians, and was a respected evangelist and church administrator. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer not known for his public relations sensitivity, called Gregory “the last good pope.”
Gregory was also a prolific writer whose cataracts of words were sometimes preceded by trickles of thought. In one of his homilies, he confused Mary Magdalene with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil in Luke 7:36-50, and also with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who performed a similar act in John 12:1-8.
Susan Haskins, writing in Mary Magdalen: The Essential History, quotes the pope’s dubious exegesis:
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” (Homily XXXIII).
What was clear to the brothers had no basis in logic, but the confused words of popes are remembered a long time. The church maintained for 15 centuries that the prostitute who went to Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were the same person. In 1969, Pope Paul VI – reluctant as he often was to question the infallibility of his predecessors – corrected the error. Still, millions still embrace the notion that Mary Magdalene was a reformed hooker.
And if she was not, what was she?
No one knows the nature of the seven demons Jesus cast out of Mary, and they could mean almost anything. One theory is that demons represent an illness or menstrual tortures that Jesus cured. Whatever they were, the point is that they were cast out, and Mary was sufficiently relieved by their absence that she became a faithful follower of Jesus.
She became, in fact, one of his leading followers. And in the most important events in Jesus’ ministry, she was the bravest, truest, and closest disciple Jesus had.
She was present at his crucifixion and refused to move from his side when all but one of the male disciples escaped into hiding from the Roman authorities.
She was present at his burial.
She was the first to discover early Sunday morning that his body was missing from the tomb.
She was the one to whom Jesus chose to appear before he announced his resurrection to the world.
She was the harbinger who sought out the male disciples in their hiding place to tell them the Lord had risen.
She was, as Augustine famously said, the Apostle to the Apostles, the first to whom the good news had been given and the first herald who shamed the boys out of their seclusion.
In patriarchal fashion, the boys promptly took charge of the gospel and Mary Magdalene faded from church history.
In fact, the church treated Mary badly. She was the one to whom the risen Lord first appeared while Peter and the boys were still trembling in isolation. When Mary came to Peter with the good news, he should have knelt and kissed her ring before be followed her to the tomb. And apostolic succession over the next 2000 years would have been very different.
But the boys did not give Magdalene the respect she was due, and we are left to wonder what happened to Mary, the first Apostle.
Did she marry Jesus?
No. That is certainly not the secret the old boys tried to cover up by dismissing Mary as a cypher and a whore. The secret they wished to cover up is that a Jesus had given a woman such an important role.
Did she love Jesus?
Of course she did. Her behavior during Jesus’ last hours was a testimony of love and caring that surpassed anything the male disciples did.
Did she love Jesus in a romantic sense? Did she want to marry him?
Perhaps. If so, her encounter with the risen Jesus at the tomb must have elicited both profound and conflicted emotions: incredible joy that the man she loved was alive, and unspeakable sadness that he would never be available to her in ways a woman might desire:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20:15-18
Those would have been difficult words to hear by one who yearned to embrace a loved one thought to be lost forever: “Do not hold on to me.”
But Jesus was alive, and now his circle had expanded beyond a few earthly apostles to the whole world.
The Lord had risen and death had been defeated and salvation was available to everyone who believed.
Mary would have known as soon as Jesus spoke her name that she was uniquely special to him and he wanted her to be the first to hear it.
She was the first evangelist of the good news.
She was the Apostle to the Apostles.
And despite the fact that salient details of her life were ignored by her contemporaries and distorted by early bishops, Jesus made sure the story of his resurrection could never be told without mentioning her name.
Hers was the first name to pass his lips as he stood in the garden outside the empty tomb.
And she was the first to utter the phrase Christians use to greet each other every Easter Morning:
“The Lord has risen.”
The Lord has risen indeed.
That's the good news the gospel proclaims. And we can never forget the woman who proclaimed it first.