This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

Mary Magdalene: A Biography MARY MAGDALENE: A BIOGRAPHY
By Bruce Chilton
Doubleday, 220 pages, $23.95
The uncertain history of a Christian pioneer


As the world awaits the film version of The DaVinci Code and its controversial portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton has added a volume to the growing library of works on her life and historical significance.

Mary Magdalene: A Biography draws on canonical and noncanonical scriptures and the work of other researchers to present a portrait of Mary as a woman who influenced the teachings and practices of the early church regarding exorcism, anointing and vision. Dr. Chilton’s assertion that Jesus himself had learned about such things from Mary may startle some readers who aren’t familiar with his human-centered portrayal of Jesus in two of his previous books, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000) and Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (2004).

The author, a professor of religion at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., brings to his work his background as an Episcopal priest, a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a specialist on the relationship between rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament. “Mary’s role in the development of the Gospels has been passed over,” he writes. “The time has come to put that right, and to understand that she was a principal source in understanding Jesus’ legacy.”

One problem in so doing, Dr. Chilton acknowledges, is the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in early writings and subsequent traditions, making her both a goddess and a vixen. The author finds that the synoptic Gospels are ambivalent in their depictions of her and that her role in John’s Gospel “is both truncated and enhanced.” In contrast, he says, Gnostic works such as the second-century “Gospel According to Thomas” and the third-century “Gospel According to Mary” display a “tension” between showing the Magdalene as a model of visionary mysticism to be emulated in order to know Jesus personally and a symbol of female sexuality to be condemned as the source of the corruption of the world.

Although Dr. Chilton cautions against “dressing up yesterday’s piety as today’s revisionism,” he sometimes relies on the apparently contradictory portrayals of Mary Magdalene in early sources for asserting such things as her having been an authority on dealing with unclean spirits, “the single most important conduit of stories concerning Jesus’ exorcisms,” and a significant influence on the teachings of Peter and Paul. This may reflect Dr. Chilton’s perspective that “history is flexible, a work of inferential imagination rather than deduction from scientifically ascertainable data.”

Dr. Chilton’s latest book challenges both fundamentalists and feminists to reexamine their conclusions. It’s a helpful resource for exploring the differences in the Gospels’ descriptions of the resurrection and the question of whether Mary Magdalene was also the sinful woman whom Luke described as having anointed Jesus. It would be interesting to see what the author might come up with if he were to write a biography of still another hugely influential figure in Christian history -- Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: