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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code does a disservice to Mary of Magdala


With the May 19 release of the movie “The Da Vinci Code,” speculation about the true role of Mary of Magdala will again take center stage. I believe Dan Brown’s popular fictional bestseller has actually done a disservice to the historical Mary of Magdala and other women leaders in the early church. While the book paints a compelling portrait of the underlying unity of male and female, it ultimately subverts women’s leadership by focusing on the fiction of Mary of Magdala’s marital status rather than the fact of her leadership as the primary witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unfortunately this reinforces gender bias that women are only important in relationship to the men in their lives.

In her book Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, German epigraphical scholar Ute Eisen details widespread evidence of titles for women priests and presiders (presbytera, presbytides, presbiterissa) who served in both the Eastern and Western churches from the second to the ninth centuries. Yet many churchmen dismiss the evidence, maintaining that these women were merely the wives of priests, not priests themselves. While this explanation works for some of the evidence, it does not explain why burial sites of single women had the presbytera inscription, nor does it explain why married women with the presbytera title are buried alongside husbands with no title. This evidence indicates that there were single women and married women whose husbands were not officeholders who were given the title of “priest,” as priesthood was understood at the time. Could another interpretation of burial sites in which the female “presbytera” is buried alongside her “presbyter” spouse be that there were Christian marriages in which both the husband and wife functioned as priests?

Another well-known example of gender bias is Junia. In Romans 16:7, Paul greets “Andronicus and Junia, my kinfolk and fellow prisoners; they are outstanding apostles ...” For centuries Junia was mistakenly translated as the masculinized “Junias” because it was thought impossible for a woman to be an apostle even if acknowledged as one by Paul himself. The mistake persists today though the name “Junias” is not found in any ancient text while the female “Junia” is common.

Scripture frequently portrays Jesus’ women disciples as understanding his mission better than the men. In Matthew, John and Mark, a female disciple anoints Jesus’ head with oil before his passion, just as the people of Judah anointed King David. The male disciples scold her, apparently impervious to her sensitive support. Jesus intervenes: “Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed what she did will be told in memory of her.”

Yet how many of us ever hear about this insightful woman when we worship at our churches?

Matthew’s Palm Sunday Passion account (Year A) omits these verses (26:6-13). The Gospel reading for Wednesday of Holy Week deletes the woman’s anointing. In Year B, the Palm Sunday Passion reading makes optional the Markan readings of Jesus’ anointing by a woman and the witness of women at the cross. John’s account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus at a banquet served by Martha is not included in the reading of the Passion on Good Friday but is only read on a weekday.

Our daughters and sons may never hear about the prophetic woman who anointed Jesus’ head to strengthen him in preparation for his Passion. Instead, the anointing story they do hear about is the penitent woman sinner who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then anoints and dries them with her hair (Thursday of the 24th week in Ordinary Time and on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C).

This reinforces the unfortunate notion that women and sin are invariably linked.

Yet how often do we hear about “Peter the repentant sinner” even though he surely qualifies, as would Matthew the tax collector and Paul the persecutor of the Christian community?

Many mistakenly associate the penitent woman sinner with Mary of Magdala, making her a prostitute even though there is no historical or biblical basis for the claim.

Neither is there any basis for Mr. Brown’s Da Vinci tale that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus. This idea is based on a 12th-century myth. The contention that ancient writers didn’t mention Jesus’ marriage and offspring for fear of Jewish persecution doesn’t really hold up because John’s Gospel and much of the apocryphal literature were written after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, when there would have been nothing to fear from Jewish authorities. If Mary of Magdala was Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child, it is improbable that such texts would have omitted such important facts, especially since both portray her in considerable detail as the primary witness to the resurrection and a female leader who, in many ways, understood Jesus’ mission better than the male disciples.

If Jesus was married, it wasn’t to Mary of Magdala because then she would have been known as “Mary the wife of Jesus.” Literary and social conventions dictated that if women were mentioned in ancient texts (a very rare occurrence), they were nearly always named by their relationship to the patriarchal household: for example, “Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chusa” (Luke 8:1-3). Atypically, Mary of Magdala was named according to the town she was from, not by her relationship to a man. Biblical scholars believe this indicates she was a wealthy woman of independent means who, with Joanna and Susanna, helped underwrite Jesus’ Galilean mission.

All four Gospels show her leading the group of women who accompanied Jesus through his crucifixion and witnessed his death, burial and resurrection. Biblical scholars see this as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had they been fabricated, women would never have been named as witnesses in a culture that did not accept their legal testimony.

Jesus’ inclusion of women in his itinerant Galilean discipleship and their prominent role as witnesses to the Resurrection provides compelling explanation for women’s experience of themselves as called and chosen to proclaim the Gospel and exercise leadership alongside their brothers in the early church.

Unfortunately, our church has yet to catch up to the vision of Jesus, who loved, empowered and accepted the ministry of women but was probably not married to one.

Rather than speculate on whether Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus, it would be better to imitate her generosity and courage in accompanying a condemned political prisoner through a torturous death and her faith in proclaiming the Resurrection, God’s own affirmation of all the values for which Jesus suffered and died.

St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk is the director of FutureChurch, a national coalition of parish-centered Catholics working for full participation of all Catholics in the life of the church. She holds master’s degrees in theology and midwifery.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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