A Feast for Mary Magdalene
The Christian Feast of St. Mary Magdalene is celebrated on July 22. Though many of us may have concepts of Mary Magdalene that differ from the official Christian version, I think we can take this opportunity to take a look at the large-scale recognition that finally is being given to this female religious leader.
Personally, I have mixed emotions about how the boost to the changed perception of MM occurred after the release of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code. My first response to the brouhaha over the novel's views of Magdalene was – where has everybody been? Spiritual feminist scholars have been writing about this for years – some for decades – and they got little attention! Certainly nothing on the scale of attention received by Brown's novel, and now film, incorporating some of the same theories. It reminded me of what sometimes happens in office meetings: a woman presents an idea and it is ignored, or even shot down. Then a half hour later, or maybe not until the next meeting, a man restates the same idea and he is praised. Maybe he even gets a raise. Sound familiar?
I think that's part of what happened. Another part may be that the material was set in a thriller/murder mystery, a type of novel whose appeal is usually greater to men than to women. (Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is included in an Amazon.com Listmania list called "Manly Fiction.") Earlier books on Mary Magdalene by feminists were either scholarly works, such as Elaine Pagels 1979 book, The Gnostic Gospels, or novels written in a way that appeal more to women than men, such as Clysta Kinstler's 1989 novel, The Moon Under Her Feet, whose footnotes showed the thorough research she did. Sad to say, the more recent appearance of the MM material as "man stuff" gave it a legitimacy in the eyes of the general public that it didn't have when coming from women, especially feminists.
But the other mix in my emotions is: If what it takes is a male-oriented thriller to get people to think about MM in a more empowering way, so be it! Maybe now, people will go back and read some of the previous material. Two great places to find annotated lists of earlier books are Deborah Rose's site, Magdalineage and Lisa Bellevie's site, Magdalene.org. Among the other books by women published before or at about the same time as the Da Vinci Code (2003) are: Venus in Sackcloth by Marjorie M. Malvern (1975), Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins (1993), The Woman with the Alabastar Jar (1993) by Margaret Starbird, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene by Jane Schaberg (2002), Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle by Ann Graham Block (2003), The Gospel of Mary of Magdala by Karen King (2003).
Alternative views of MM have also been expressed for some time by contemporary Gnostics and Essenes. The Order of the Nazorean Essenes calls her by her Aramaic name, Mirya, and worships her as the female messiah. The Gnostic Church of St. Mary Magdalene has MM prayer services and information about "How to Organize a St. Mary of Magdala Celebration." And the Church of Gnosis incorporates the Order of Mary Magdalene.
Still up for discussion among scholars is whether MM was married to (or sexually/romantically involved with) Jesus, whether they had children, and whether to view her as a historical person or as part of Ancient Near East mythology. In her discussion of the Newsweek article, "An Inconvenient Woman", Lesa Bellevie , in her blogpost "The Feminine Mistake" comments on Karen King's and other Christian feminist scholars' position on "...Mary Magdalene's newly-appreciated role as wife and mother. For feminist scholars everywhere, this seems to be anathema. Not only because it lacks historical merit, however, but also because it is sexual."
I want to believe that Bellevie slipped when she wrote, "feminist scholars everywhere." Maybe she meant Christian feminist scholars, or some feminist scholars in some places. Because further in the article, Bellevie refers to "more conservative feminists." She writes:
I agree with this, yet I can see both sides of the question. On the one hand, I can understand why Christian feminists would want to avoid the appearance that Jesus was interested in MM because she was his lover or his wife since this might imply that she was just a "sex object" or wife of the boss. OTOH, I can understand Bellevie's argument that being a wife and mother are important roles, and that the body can also be a source of power. Many of us on Goddess and other embodied spiritual paths believe sexuality and spirituality aren't mutually exclusive – that they are connected in a very positive way. We also believe that just because you have a vagina and a womb doesn't mean you don't have a brain and a soul. Since we lack conclusive historical evidence of exactly what the relationship was between MM and Jesus, we are in an area of mythology. As myth, wouldn't it be better if MM could be seen as sexual and intellectual and spiritual: a full being?
"While I agree fully with their assertion that there is no compelling evidence that Mary Magdalene was married, to Jesus or anyone else, much less that she bore any children, I have to step back when people are criticized for holding such thoughts because they are demeaning....
The source of female power appears to be acceptable only when it springs from the same sources as male power: authority, leadership, witness. When the source of a woman's power is her body, it is somehow viewed as illegitimate.Mary Magdalene, in her role as apostle and leader, is acceptable to more conservative feminists because it places her on equal footing with the male disciples. Mary Magdalene, in her legendary role of wife and mother (and prostitute), is problematic because she is being remembered as a woman."
Or, as Bellevie writes: "If viewing Mary Magdalene as a woman who could teach, lead, witness at the same time as being loving and nurturing, where is the harm? How is this demeaning?"
My quibble with Bellevie is that she sees her statement as being in opposition to the feminist position. I disagree. To me, the assertion that women be seen as whole persons is a feminist response. The fallacy that Bellevie seems to be laboring under is that there is only one view that can be called feminist, and that this view is disembodied and anti-sexual. This is simply not true. In actuality, this is a view held by only some – I'd like to say a few, but I haven't take a survey – feminists. Most Goddess feminists, for example, have no problem combining sexuality and spirituality; they also honor the various possibilities of women in relation to child-bearing and intellectual functioning in such mythologies as the triune Goddess of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. And many secular feminists today are just as concerned with the importance of mothering and empowered sexuality as they are with issue of equity in the workplace. In fact, a number of feminists call themselves "sex-positive feminists." It is because of this variety in feminist views that the masthead of Medusa Coils uses the plural term "feminisms" rather than the singular, "feminism."
Continuing our exploration of views of MM , Metahistory.org's The Magdalene Connection gives three "levels" of considering MM: (1) alternative story of Jesus' life, (2) backstory that includes Pagan and other non-Christian elements, and (3) a love story. And Miriam, the Magdalen, and the Mother, a 2005 book of essays edited by Deidre Good, explores, among other things, the mythological similarities between the prophetess Miriam (Moses was her brother) and MM.
I hope this gives you some idea of the variety and extent – the feast – of MM views and material. Whichever appeals to you, may you have a blessed Mary Magdalene Feast Day, and may her name be forever blessed.