The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament

By Schaberg, Jane | Cross Currents, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament


Schaberg, Jane, Cross Currents


From the Introduction:

The volatile figure of Mary Magdalene is so far too big for Hollywood, which sees her as a mix of lust, loyalty, belief, prostitution, repentance, beauty, madness, sainthood. She is the liminal and strange woman, silent, dominated by the great image of Jesus crucified, resurrected. She symbolizes the belief that women are made only deficiently in the image of God, and are ultimately a symbol of evil and of dependent, sinful humanity. But women can be forgiven; eros can be controlled. Male fantasies about the Magdalene have fired the imagination of artists, made her an instrument of ecclesiastical propaganda, and misshaped lives. We will trace here how through the centuries she is variously ignored, labeled harlot/demoniac/patroness, replaced, appropriated and left behind, conflated, diminished, openly opposed; how she is utilized, unsilenced, rediscovered, resurrected.

An explanation about the structure of this book is necessary. The chapters proceed in a way (backward) that is unusual in my field of biblical studies, and I trespass into fields other than mine. First, a description of my companion in this project, Virginia Woolf. Second, what little exploration is possible of the site of Migdal (Magdala) in modern Israel/Palestine. Third, analysis of the component parts and mechanism of the Magdalene legends, and of their major shapes, ancient and modern. Fourth, examination of recently available gnostic/apocryphal writings in which Mary (Magdalene) appears as a central character, startlingly different from her legends, praised and opposed as the woman who knew (too) much. (1) Fifth, a survey of major historical and literary difficulties regarding the Christian Testament sources that deal with her, and of the investigations of five contemporary scholars. Sixth, efforts to deal with these difficulties by constructing a set of possibilities, within the framework of feminist t hought. Seventh, on the basis of the set of possibilities, my reading of the crucifixion/empty tomb/appearance narratives in the light of Jewish mystical tradition. I end with a reading of John 20 as incorporating a source in which Mary Magdalene was seen as prophetic successor to Jesus.

The book moves this way because I look at the texts of the canonical Gospels through the lenses of their Nachleben or afterlife as well as their prelife. I used to think of the whore legends mostly as rubble that had to be cleared. Now I see as the archaeologist does that some stuff is rubble, some precious; a sifting is necessary. Sifting in this case involves self-defining: yes a whore, a prostitute, and yes a madwoman as all of us women are or are in danger of being labeled, and yes as we are redefining and claiming our sexuality and our sanity. The harlotization of Mary Magdalene means that the Christian Testament texts that were actually about her have been and still are read differently through the lens of legend. Her witness seen as romantic, emotional, crazed; her influence regarded as inessential, insignificant, minor. Even some modern historical research seems to me tainted with the subliminal thought: O so it all depends on the word of a whore? Anything to avoid it all depending on her word, the wo rd of a looney, a whore, or, in general, on the insight of any woman. Mary Magdalene is the madwoman -- angry mad -- in Christianity's attic. She was hidden there because of an open and not fully appreciated secret, and its implications, at Christianity's core: that the male disciples fled and the women did not.

I used to think of the apocryphal texts as a branching out of the canonical tree; I see now that both canonical and apocryphal go down to the roots; that their biology is interactive, radically symbiotic. The profile of the gnostic/apocryphal Mary Magdalene seems at first to bear little relation to that of the Christian Testament character. But we are learning that the sources of conflict between different forms of early Christianity, especially those under the names of Mary Magdalene and Peter, are deeper and older than was thought. …

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