An Inconvenient Woman; She Witnessed the Resurrection, Then Vanished, Leaving Popes and Painters and Now 'The Da Vinci Code' to Tell Her Story. in Search of the Real Mary Magdalene

By Darman, Jonathan | Newsweek, May 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

An Inconvenient Woman; She Witnessed the Resurrection, Then Vanished, Leaving Popes and Painters and Now 'The Da Vinci Code' to Tell Her Story. in Search of the Real Mary Magdalene


Darman, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Darman (With Anne Underwood)

She was with him to the end, and beyond. As Jesus hangs in agony on the cross, his life ebbing, Mary Magdalene is there, beside his mother, Mary, watching. The Passion has been tumultuous and frightening, and crucifixion is slow, but still she stays. Finally the hour comes. "It is finished," Jesus says, and bows his head. His body is bound in linen, carried to a garden, buried in a tomb.

Before dawn on the day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene rises to anoint Christ's body and makes her way to the grave. It is empty. The Lord is gone; she is confused, and terrified. She races back to tell the others, returning with them so they can see for themselves. The male disciples come and go again, unsure what to think; Mary, paralyzed, stays in the garden, in tears.

Then comes a voice, and a question. "Woman, why are you weeping?" she hears from behind her. "Whom do you seek?" She turns and, thinking she sees the gardener, answers, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Then, in a recognizable voice, Jesus says, "Mary." Crying "Rabboni," she leaps up in joy to embrace her teacher.

"Do not touch me," Jesus says, distancing himself from her, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Her words to the disciples are simple and few, yet transform the world: "I have seen the Lord."

I have seen the Lord: such is the story of the Resurrection, as told in the Gospel of John. With it begins the history of Christianity, and with it ends the New Testament history of Mary Magdalene. Peter and Paul form the new church, Stephen dies a martyr's death, John the Divine envisions the End Times. But Mary Magdalene--a critical figure in his earthly circle--is neither seen nor heard from again.

Yet the Magdalene--that part of her name derives from Magdala, her hometown--lives on in another tradition that can be found in an obscure second-century text. Dubbed "The Gospel of Mary," it depicts Mary as a leader of Jesus' followers in the days after his resurrection. Written by Christians some 90 years after Jesus' death, Mary's is a "Gnostic gospel"; the Gnostics, a significant force in the early years of Christianity, stressed salvation through study and self-knowledge rather than simply through faith. The text was lost for centuries until found in fragments by a collector in Cairo in 1896. In its telling, Jesus rises and vanishes after instructing his disciples to "preach the good news about the Realm." The exhortation makes them uneasy: Christ had died preaching that gospel. What was to save them from a similar fate?

Mary, however, is serene. "Do not weep and be depressed nor let your hearts be irresolute," she tells them. "For his grace will be with you and shelter you." Jesus, she says, has appeared to her in a vision where he gave her special knowledge of the soul's journey through mystical realms. She tells the men she will help them understand the true teachings of Christ: "What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you."

Her words seem to sting the others. Peter, "a wrathful man," takes particular offense. "Did he really speak with a woman in private, without our knowledge?" he asks. "Should we all turn and listen to her?" Mostly, he is jealous: "Did he prefer her to us?"

It is a question that is shaking Christianity after two millenniums. To many feminists and theological liberals, the Gospel of Mary suggests that the Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, was the "apostle to the apostles," a figure with equal (or even favored) status to the men around Jesus--a woman so threatening that the apostles suppressed her role, and those of other women, in a bid to build a patriarchal hierarchy in the early church. To others, shaped by orthodoxy, Mary was an important player in the life and ministry of Jesus, but subordinate to the men who followed him.

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An Inconvenient Woman; She Witnessed the Resurrection, Then Vanished, Leaving Popes and Painters and Now 'The Da Vinci Code' to Tell Her Story. in Search of the Real Mary Magdalene
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