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Byline: Mark Whitaker

When he was a smart-aleck 12-year-old in confirmation class at his local Episcopal church, Jonathan Darman asked his minister: "Was Mary Magdalene really a prostitute? Did Jesus know?" Flustered, the minister looked at him uncomfortably and changed the subject to the Good Samaritan. Even when he was in college doing research on the historical Mary Magdalene, Jon had to make an effort not to think of her as a woman of ill repute, since that was the image he had as a boy. Now, he wonders what the long-term impact will be of the conspiracy theory that lies at the heart of the bestselling novel--and now much-debated movie--"The Da Vinci Code." "Most children growing up today will almost certainly first learn about her as the supposed bride of Christ," he says.

After all the hoopla (including a NEWSWEEK cover in December), the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" finally arrived last week to mixed reviews, including a lukewarm one from our own David Ansen. Yet the sensational plotline raises a larger and still fascinating question: who was the real Mary Magdalene? As Darman points out in our cover story, she appears only 13 times in the Bible--and was never believed to be unchaste until Pope Gregory the Great declared her so in the year 591. …

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