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Scholars taking a new look at Mary Magdalene

By Victor Greto

The Gazette

What do you think about when you think about Mary Magdalene?

For the stereotypical Catholic schoolboy, she's an equal part of his two-fold dilemma concerning each woman he meets:

Are you another face of Mary, the mother of God, full of grace and free from sin - someone who could be my true love?

Or are you another face of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute and sinner who repented after Jesus saved her from being stoned by a mob - the same Mary who then saw the risen Christ first?

According to some Christians and scholars, it's time to rethink the Mary Magdalene part - at least the prostitute and stoning stuff, anyway.

Mary Magdalene is becoming a role model for women who expect more important roles for themselves in their respective churches. And scholars use Mary Magdalene as a symbol of the important role of women in early Christianity, as they work out the implications of recently-discovered ancient literature.

The current reform of Mary Magdalene has centuries of church and art tradition to overcome. The non-biblical image of Magdalene as a repentant whore is an image that had been officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the sixth century. And it's that image that has been perpetuated by dozens of Christian paintings and movies ever since.

The misreading of Mary Magdalene is almost as ancient as the Gospels of the New Testament themselves, if only because there are up to five different Marys in the Gospels and seven in the New Testament as a whole.

The greatest damage done to Magdalene's reputation, however, is only partly the confusion of these Marys, says Sister Evelina Belfiore, director of Catholic education for the Colorado Springs diocese. The main problem is the way some decided to identify an unnamed woman with Magdalene in the Gospel of Luke.

In 7:37-38, Luke tells the tale of a woman, "a sinner" who goes into a dinner party and anoints Jesus' feet. The following chapter immediately introduces "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. ..."

"In the early church," Belfiore says, "as people have placed her in art and legend and misinterpretation, they linked her with the sinner from the chapter before."

Take Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" as one of the more recent examples. In the film, based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, Magdalene blatantly is portrayed as a prostitute and is identified with another episode often included in the Gospel of John 8:3-11, where Jesus stops a crowd from stoning a woman for prostitution.

There is no indication in the text that either unnamed woman is Magdalene, but tradition has linked her with Magdalene.


That link, Belfiore says, came about in the early church of later centuries "and may have been associated with the oppression of women. Before that, women were ordained deaconesses. Then, there was a turnabout, excluding women from the sacred and from orders. Mary Magdalene had such a privileged role in the Gospels, that it seems there was an attempt to put her in a bad light."

Which is exactly what Sister Christine Schenk says she is trying to reverse. Schenk is executive director of the Cleveland-based FutureChurch, and in conjunction with another Catholic group, Chicago-based Call To Action, or CTA.

Two years ago, Schenk's group and the CTA launched the national observance of a July 22 feast of Mary Magdalene.

It has grown from 28 prayer services last year to a reported 100 services this past July.

"The Mary Magdala project emerged," Schenk says, "because it makes contemporary biblical scholarship available, and it provides woman ministers to preside at a prayer service."

Schenk says her group is not calling for women's ordination but is calling for "women's equal call to ministry in the Catholic Church."

Schenk says her group has about 1,700 members nationwide, 60 percent of whom are from outside of Ohio.

Schenk said the Magdalene services include a "brief reflection on Mary of Magdala," and what she calls "the right of naming." That is, when Jesus calls Magdalene by her name in the gospel passage, John 20:17, "she recognized him" as the risen Christ, and she was called as a disciple.

Schenk thus sees Magdalene as representing a woman's call to discipleship.

In the past, she says, women have internalized the idea that they weren't as holy or as good as men. The Magdalene services are "a real healing for many participants," she says.

The emerging self-consciousness of women in organized religion is not only a Catholic issue.

The Rev. Patricia Westlake of Trinity United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., says she believes Magdalene was present at the Last Supper. And she believes other women disciples were on a par with the more famous 12 male apostles. In two of his letters, St. Paul also mentions important women of the early church.

"For me, the Scriptures give (women) a prominent role," Westlake says. "Jesus gave them a prominent role. It's our culture that doesn't give them a prominent role."

So why are women not portrayed as part of the Twelve in the Gospels and are referred to only peripherally?

Because, some say, the Gospels were written by men.

"Who wrote the Gospels?" Westlake asked. "Men wrote the Gospels.

"I believe the primary Scripture is Holy Spirit inspired. But I find it difficult to understand how anyone can write anything - even when inspired by the Holy Spirit - without some of their own beliefs getting in there," said Westlake.

Feminist scholars of early Christianity see Mary Magdalene as indicative of what happened to women in general in the early church.

"In the last twenty years, the history of women in ancient Christianity has been almost completely revised," writes Karen King in a recent essay about women in early Christianity. King is a professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University's Divinity School.

King writes that the early Christian women we thought we knew have almost nothing to do with the revised portrait scholars are just beginning to unveil.

"Chief among these is Mary Magdalene," she says. "Discoveries of new texts have now proven that her reputation as a repentant prostitute is entirely inaccurate. She was indeed an influential figure,  a prominent disciple and a leader of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership."

Among the newly discovered texts King is referring to is "The Gospel of Mary," discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt more than a half century ago.

In that Gospel, Mary receives secret revelations from Jesus - much to the chagrin of Peter.

"The Gospel of Philip," also discovered at Nag Hammadi, shows yet another understanding of Mary's relationship with Jesus.

"But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth," that Gospel reads. "The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The savior answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you like (I love) her?'"

Scholars say they are not arguing that these are historically truer portraits than those of the New Testament Gospels. But they argue that these Gospels show there were early Christian communities that traced their beliefs back to a figure known as Mary Magdalene - which had nothing to do with the traditional figure of a repentant prostitute.

Even those women in established religions who do not accept the non-canonical Gospels as legitimate sources see hope for women in a closer reading of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

"I think she's a model for women today," Belfiore says of Magdalene. "That when Jesus spoke to Mary to go tell the other disciples he was risen, it shows that woman has a complementary role in the mission and that we need one another. It's not a man's church or a woman's church, but a church. Women have a specific dimension of the mission."

(c) 1999, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

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