Finding Jesus Episode 6: Mary Magdalene

The final episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery looked at the role of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus. The relationship between the two is probably the most burning issue in contemporary popular discourse about Jesus; most recently, the topic has been brought o public attention via the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s controversial book The Lost Gospel—neither of which, with good reason, were discussed in the documentary. But viewers did learn about three other apocryphal texts: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary.

But first, what does the documentary say about canonical references to Mary Magdalene? They begin with Luke’s version of the story of the woman who anoints Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). Luke sets the story in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. There “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” anoints the feet of Jesus with ointment contained in an alabaster jar. The Pharisee says to himself (not aloud), “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Traditionally, at least from the time of Pope Gregory, this woman has been identified (or better: conflated) with Mary of Magdalene, who appears immediately after this story in Luke’s description of women who “provide for [Jesus and the twelve] out of their resources” (8:3). Mary is further described as someone “from whom sevens demons had gone out” (8:2).

For the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, the producers have conflated Luke’s account with the versions found in the other three gospels. They show the woman entering an unspecified house and the disciples, Candida Moss says, “are outraged” because she is a sinner. But no-one actually objects in Luke’s account, and though the disciples speak up in the other gospels (Matt 26:6-13//Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8, though here only Judas raises his voice), it is because they object to the wasting of the expensive perfume—only Luke calls her a sinner. Furthermore, in John the group is in Bethany and the woman is Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

Next we see a fanciful dramatization of the exorcism of Mary Magdalene. Ben Witherington states that Jesus’ typical exorcism method is to force the demons to reveal their names and then Jesus commands them to leave the possessed. Interestingly, two of the demons named by Mary are “Ialdabaoth” and “Sakla,” two names for the creator or demiurge in gnostic texts. A curious choice, made perhaps as an “Easter egg” for viewers “in the know.”

CNN Mary

Anna Shaffer (who played Romilda Vane in the Harry Potter films) as Mary Magdalene.

The producers go to great lengths to show that Mary Magdalene was not the prostitute of Christian tradition. Mark Goodacre points out that Mary, as a benefactor, would have been a woman of wealth and perhaps amassed that wealth from the fishing industry. Yet, in all of the dramatizations Mary is dressed in red—a typical iconographic feature that helps to distinguish her from the Virgin Mary. Essentially, then, Finding Jesus dispenses with the identification of Mary as a prostitute but keeps aspects of iconography that grew out of that identification. I was pleased to see that the commentators raise the possibility that Mary Magdalene was an older woman, not someone of Jesus’ age or younger; this idea fits much better the notion that she was an unmarried (perhaps widowed) benefactor able to follow Jesus in his travels.

The episode also discusses Mary Magdalene’s place at the crucifixion and the resurrection. “What the gospels tells us,” the narrator says, is that Mary was at Jesus’ side at the crucifixion. Well, not exactly. John 19:25 says she was there, along with the Virgin Mary, the Virgin’s sister, and the Beloved Disciple. But the Synoptics say only that she was among the women “looking on from a distance” (Mark 15:40-41 par.; though Luke does not name the women). As for the resurrection, the Synoptics have Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary (Mark 15:47; “and the other Mary,” Matt 27:61; “the women who had come with him from Galilee,” Luke 23:55) see the tomb in which Jesus was placed, and then (with Mary the mother of James and Salome, Mark 16:1; with the “other Mary,” Matt 28:1; or with Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women, Luke 24:10) return after the sabbath to anoint him. The documentary, however, again follows John, showing Mary returning to the tomb alone and being the first to speak to the risen Jesus (John 20:1-18). This same reliance on John is seen in other episodes of the series, particularly episode one on the Shroud of Turin. My only objection is that most scholars would discount John, particularly where it conflicts with the Synoptics, as a source for the historical Jesus. I would assume also that it is not reliable as a source for the historical Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip make their appearance about a third of the way into the episode. The Nag Hammadi discovery is mentioned in brief and then Nicola Denzey Lewis is shown examining first the concluding saying of the Gospel of Thomas and then the passage from the Gospel of Philip that calls Mary Jesus’ “companion” and the statement that Jesus often kissed Mary. She mentions that when a character from Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (the book, but not in the movie) quoted this portion of the text he said that it read “kissed her often on the mouth.” Denzey Lewis cautions viewers that the text is fragmentary at this point, so we do not know where, when, or how Jesus kissed Mary. Note, however, that Brown did not invent this emendation. Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures, for one, has “kissed her on the [mouth many times]”; also, he translates “companion” as “lover.”

Denzey Lewis is shown also at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin viewing the Berlin Codex containing the Gospel of Mary. Following a dramatization of the purchase of the codex (an exchange we know very little about), Goodacre says “when it was discovered in the nineteenth century it was tremendously exciting,” but very few people knew about this discovery, since efforts to publish it were foiled by disasters—the 1912 edition by Carl Schmidt was destroyed by a burst water main at the publisher’s, and two world wars delayed further work on the text until 1955. The discussion of the gospel focuses on the argument between Mary and Peter at the end of the text. This is certainly the most exciting section, but as is often the case in the popular treatments of the text, nothing is said about the esoteric contents of the vision that Mary communicates to the apostles. Their negative reaction to Mary’s teachings—Andrew says, “I myself do not believe that the Saviour said this. For these teachings seem to be (giving) different ideas”—is understandable only within this context.

At this point, the commentary moves from trying to determine what happened to the historical Mary Magdalene to what the Gospel of Mary says about second-century Christian conflicts over the role of women in the church. A similar narrative turn was taken in the episode on the Gospel of Judas, where the discussion moved away from the historical Judas to the gospel writer’s indictment of developing orthodoxy. Both are welcome shifts that illustrate to viewers what these texts actually can tell us about early Christianity.

There are additional apocryphal texts about Mary Magdalene. Two other Coptic texts, the Dialogue of the Saviour and the Pistis Sophia, similarly portray Mary as very active in Jesus’ inner circle, asking Jesus questions and, in the Pistis Sophia, again vying with Peter. Another text in Coptic, the Encomium on Mary Magdalene, attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem (included in the first volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More New Testament Scriptures in a new translation by Christine Luckritz Marquis), says nothing about Mary being a prostitute. Instead it calls Mary a saint and says she was a virgin from birth to her death. The text goes on to portray Mary as actively trying to prevent Jesus’ execution, and after his death she receives a vision from Jesus in which he teaches her “many hidden mysteries.” Another text, the Greek Life of Mary Magdalene, also incorporated in the Golden Legend, conflates Mary with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. The three are born to noble parents and enjoy great riches. At her parents’ death, Mary is tempted by her newly-acquired riches, so much that “she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner.” After Jesus’ death Mary preaches and performs miracles in Marseilles. I don’t expect all of these texts to be mentioned in Finding Jesus, but it is good to be aware that the portrayals of Mary Magdalene in the Christian Apocrypha show much variety.

Finding Jesus has now come to an end. Overall, the series’ highlights, for me, were the episodes on Judas and Mary Magdalene, both of which I showed to my Gnosticism class this week as a lead-in to our discussion of these texts. I do find the simplification of the material from the canonical gospels troubling, and I suspect many scholars watching the series bristled at the harmonization and/or selective use of the accounts. We are trained to talk about these texts with precision, carefully highlighting what is unique to each account; so it is difficult to sit and watch them being presented in simplified or embroidered forms without screaming at the television “That’s not what it says!”  I also find the typical assembly of disparate commentators troubling—theologians and biblical scholars have different assumptions and approaches to the texts and to history, and having their comments stand side-by-side without indication of their disagreement is jarring and, I would expect, confusing to viewers. I am always happy to see Christian Apocrypha brought into discussions of Christian history and the series drew upon the expertise of several scholars of the field: Stephen Emmel, April DeConick, Elaine Pagels, Nicola Denzey Lewis, and Geoffrey Smith. For other video resources for the Christian Apocrypha see the list (in need of some updating) available HERE.

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One Response to Finding Jesus Episode 6: Mary Magdalene

  1. John Thomas says:

    I don’t think the woman who wiped and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume is identified as Mary Magdalene in any of the Synoptic Gospels. All of the 3 synoptics identifies her only as a “woman”. While in Gospel of John, there is a similar incident that the Synoptics says occurred in the house of Simon the Leper to have occurred in the house of Lazarus in Bethania, where the woman is identified as Lazarus’ sister Mary. But we don’t know whether that Mary is Mary Magdalene. First time, Mary Magdalene appears in Mark and Matthew (as you said) is as one of women watching crucified Jesus from a distance. On the other hand, Luke identifies her one time earlier in the story (as you said) as one of the women (others identified being Joanna & Susanna) from whom Jesus expelled seven demons. That is all the canonical gospels speak about Mary Magdalene. Hence there is no evidence from canonical gospels to assume that woman who anointed Jesus’ feet is Mary Magdalene, as far as I can see.Those seem to me speculation made later from the existing events.

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