Byline: Kenneth L. Woodward
Pity poor Mary Magdalene. For nearly two millenniums she was loved and honored by Christians as the archetypal reformed sinner. Then, a half-century ago, Biblical scholars recognized that she was a victim of mistaken identity: the "real" Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute. In truth, she was so faithful a follower of Jesus that she was chosen to be the first of his disciples to behold the risen Christ (Jn 20:11-18). Now, at the hands of some feminist revisionists, Mary is undergoing yet another cultural face-lift.
Relying on Gnostic Gospels rejected by compilers of the New Testament, these revisionists claim that Mary was actually Jesus' intimate female partner. After the Resurrection, she became a leader within the early church and a rival of Saint Peter's. All this, they argue in books such as Jane Schaberg's "The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene," was suppressed by patriarchal authorities who favored a males-only clergy. The implication is that gender warfare lies at the heart of Christianity, and if Mary and her faction had triumphed the history and structure of the church would be radically inclusive.
No one, of course, denies that both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures--like the God who rules the Biblical heavens--exhibit an overarching androcentric outlook. Few women are mentioned by name, fewer yet get their stories told. The promise of feminist Biblical scholarship is that it can alter this imbalance by interpreting the Bible from the perspectives of women's experiences. The danger is that feminist ideology will overreach the text.
One important goal set by feminist scholars such as Prof. Carol Meyers of Duke University is to uncover the roles and status of women in ancient Israel. Already, some have found--surprise!--that then, as now, women exerted considerable, sometimes controlling, power within the household, despite an officially patriarchal culture. Others, however, are in quest of a grander holy grail: proof that sometime before the institution of kingship, there was an ideal era when Israelite men and women lived as public equals. But without a lot more archeological evidence, the real world behind much of the Hebrew Bible will never be recovered. "We just don't have the information about some historical periods," acknowledges Susannah Heschel, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, "so there is a temptation to resort to fantasy."
That temptation especially bedevils those who employ "historical imagination" to fill the Bible's gaps. For instance, the Book of Exodus calls Moses' sister Miriam a "prophet," leading some feminist scholars to imagine that "the party of Moses"--presumably males--suppressed stories of her prophetic acts so that none survived in the written scrolls. …