For our final student essay from the 2015 Bible and Popular Culture course, it seemed fitting to focus on one of the most popular biblical characters from this course: Mary Magdalene. Despite the fact that the biblical traditions about this character reveal little about her, Mary of Magdala has remained a figure of intrigue within popular culture over the centuries. Artists, literati, musicians and filmmakers have taken these scant biblical sources and conjured up (with more than a little creative licence) a plethora of colourful cultural afterlives for Mary, some of which have become so ubiquitous in the collective cultural consciousness that they are frequently conflated with the biblical traditions to the extent that the Mary of culture and the Mary of the gospels become indistinguishable from one another.
To discuss this further, I’ll hand you over to our guest blogger for the day, Sally Finegan-Dodds. Sally is a ‘new start’ student who is studying for a conjoint degree in Law and a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in psychology and sociology. After completing her studies, she hopes to work in the prison system and wants to help make New Zealand a better place for everyone. Sally tells me that she ‘absolutely loved’ doing the Bible and Popular Culture course, and would highly recommend it to other students, given its applicability to everyday life.
So, enjoy our final student essay for 2015. Next week, the season of Advent begins and I will be commencing Auckland TheoRel’s annual Advent Calendar. Something to look forward to.
Who was Mary Magdalene?
by Sally Finegan-Dodds
The afterlives of Mary Magdalene have taken many shapes and forms throughout history and in contemporary society. While the New Testament offers a number of different traditions about Mary, there are also many silences surrounding her character. Popular culture has therefore filled these silences. In this essay, I will focus on two particular cultural texts that have constructed an intriguing afterlife for Mary Magdalene: Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code and the film adaptation by Ron Howard (2006).
According to the New Testament Gospel traditions, Mary is a follower of Jesus, travelling with him and the other disciples. These Gospels place Mary at significant events in Jesus’ life, such as his travelling and ministry with his disciples, his crucifixion and his resurrection (Chilton, 2005). Yet Mary is only mentioned throughout the New Testament thirteen times, which proves problematic when tracing her historical and narrative background (Kennedy, 2012). This is important to remember when analysing how Mary’s character has been constructed over time, as much of her character is left silent (King, 2005). Thus assumptions have inevitably played a part in the construction of Mary’s portrayal in popular culture (Kennedy, 2012).
Throughout much of history and popular culture, Mary has been portrayed as a sinful prostitute from whom Jesus expelled seven demons (De Boer, 1997). She is compared frequently with Eve, the biblical woman in Genesis 2-3 traditionally associated with sinfulness and temptation (King, 2005). However, the tradition of the ‘Penitent Magdalene’ has also been used as an explicit example of the good that prevails from repenting for sin (King, 2005). These assumptions about Mary Magdalene the ‘sinner’ are commonly understood as the reason for her having become involved with Jesus and his disciples (King, 2005). Yet this character portrayal of Mary as a prostitute has no biblical basis (Ehrman, 2006). In reality, there is a scarcity of information about Mary in the Gospels, and the information that is there is not always consistent (Ehrman, 2006). The only fragment of information that in any way hints at a dark or negative past for Mary is that she had seven demons exorcised from her by Jesus (Luke 8:2). The seven demons have in the past been associated with the seven deadly sins (King, 2005).
This construct of Mary as a sinner has shaped many portrayals in popular culture. It is important to analyse how this construct came to exist. An amalgamation of the four New Testament Gospels have manifested with time to create the prevalent ideology of Mary as a prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). There are sixteen women called Mary named in the Gospels, as well as several unnamed women (e.g. in Luke 7.36-50; John 8.1-11), who have been conflated to produce the common image of Mary as a ‘sinful’ prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). The label ‘sinner’ has also deviated from the realm it originally belonged to; a sinner in first century Jewish thought traditionally meant one who did not keep to the Torah law rigorously whereas this label, when applied to women, has been associated with sexual sinfulness, and thus used to claim Mary was a prostitute (Ehrman, 2006). Confirming this conception, Pope Gregory the Great in 591 CE issued a Homily affirming Mary as a sinful prostitute and an embodiment of the seven deadly sins (King, 2005).
This illusory image of Mary Magdalene is raised in Howard’s (2006) film The Da Vinci Code in which Howard draws upon explicits retelling of the New Testament Gospels as well as additional sources, particularly the Gnostic Gospels. The film first introduces the common belief about Mary Magdalene as a prostitute (Ehrmann 2006). However, as the story progresses this depiction is challenged dramatically. Using Brown’s (2003) narrative, Howard (2006) portrays Mary as Jesus’s favourite disciple with whom he has a deep connection. Mary was not a prostitute but rather the most important person to Jesus, one of history’s best-kept secrets and a person imbued with holiness (Kennedy, 2012).
This portrayal of Mary Magdalene draws some of its support from the historically iconic image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, used by Brown to give veracity to the claim Mary was the chosen disciple – the only woman present at the Last Supper and seated on the right hand of Jesus. The novel and film suggest that she is chosen for this position because she was Jesus’ most faithful and loyal follower. In the New Testament, Mary does undoubtedly have a special status, given that she is one of the first witnesses to the risen Jesus (John 20.1-2, Mathew 28:1-8 and Mark 16:1-8). Brown, however, has filled the gaps around these biblical traditions by claiming that such a status indicates she is Jesus’ ‘chosen one’. Such a claim challenges the misogynist patriarchal framework of Christianity, which has insisted on viewing Mary simply as a sinful follower of Jesus and his disciples (Chilton, 2005). In The Da Vinci Code, this challenge is made explicit, as the accusation is made that Mary’s position has intentionally been obstructed by the patriarchal Church, who deliberately tainted her image through the (erroneous) allusions to her prostitution (Kennedy, 2012).
Additionally, The Da Vinci Code also suggests that Mary was Jesus’s wife and lover. Brown draws upon the Gnostic Gospel traditions as evidence of this claim. The Gospel according to Philip 220.127.116.11-9 is the most widely known text in relation to this notion (Chilton, 2005). This text refers to Mary as the ‘companion’ to Jesus, and according to Brown, the term ‘companion’ conveyed the meaning of ‘spouse’ during the first century (Chilton, 2005). The Gospel of Phillip 64.1-10 also suggests that Jesus reserved a special love for Mary in contrast to that felt for other disciples, a favouritism that Chilton (2006) suggests has consolidated Mary’s reputation in popular modern culture as having been more than just a disciple to Jesus. In addition to these threads, Philip’s Gospel also mentions Jesus frequently ‘kissing’ Mary Magdalene, which again, Brown leaps upon to facilitate the idea that Mary was Jesus’s wife (Chilton, 2006). Although the exact location of this kiss is unknown (the manuscript is damaged in the crucial spot: ‘[Jesus] used to kiss her often on the____’), many have sought to fill the gap with the word ‘mouth’, thus further propelling the idea Mary was Jesus’s wife (Chilton, 2006). Yet the nature and significance of the kiss is unclear and does not by necessity imply a sexual relationship between the couple. Moreover, the term ‘companion’ conveys other nuances of meaning beyond that of spouse. It is also important to acknowledge there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically cements the notion of marriage between Mary and Jesus.
The Da Vinci Code novel and movie adaptation both refer to the idea that Mary was not only Jesus’s wife but also the mother of his child. Brown’s story fills the gaps in the canonical Gospels with the idea that Jesus was both divine and mortal (Kennedy, 2012). This retelling suggests Mary Magdalene was far important in the formation of Christianity and much more than just a disciple (Kennedy, 2012). The idea that Jesus’s bloodline carried by Mary Magdalene, is still in existence is the film’s central premise (Howard, 2006). This premise is based on the many silences in biblical texts concerning Jesus’ and Mary’s relationship, as well as the evidence from the Gospel of Philip, described above. This combination supports the claim that Mary was a mother and wife who was deliberately hidden from the world (Howard, 2006), and whose true status as Jesus’s wife and a mother was obstructed in Christianity by those seeking to keep woman separate from ecclesial power (King, 2005).
Dan Brown’s reference to the mystery of the Holy Grail and the suggestion that Mary’s womb was indeed the Holy Grail, is insightful if not challenging (Kennedy, 2006). The Da Vinci Code concludes that Jesus’s bloodline is still existent within the character of Sophie Neveu. She is then regarded as the Holy Grail as she is a woman carrying on the secrets of Mary’s true identity and heritage (Howard, 2006). This representation utilises the theme in popular culture of Mary as a protector of pregnant woman and the matron of fertility and childbirth (Chilton, 2006). However, this more positive portrayal of Mary is still draped in patriarchal constructs as Mary is still subordinated by her gender (reduced to the status of ‘carriers’ of divine seed), while the religious male figures in the film still attempt to render her status unknown (Kennedy, 2006). Brown’s storyline, replicated by Howard in the movie, is thus an amalgamation of assumptions loosely linked to the biblical Gospels, and relying on biblical silences to portray Mary as one of the most important woman in Christianity.
Another piece of evidence presented in The Da Vinci Code as evidence of Mary’s status as Holy Grail is Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which records that after Jesus’s death, Mary continued to have a huge influence in the early Church as Jesus’ chosen teacher (Chilton, 2006). This Gospel claims was Peter was hostile about the fact that Jesus chose Mary. These fragments are used in The Da Vinci Code to support the idea further that Mary was suppressed by dominant patriarchal Church forces, who objected to her special status (Chilton, 2006). Brown and Howard both present the Gnostic texts as ‘true’ accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, which were omitted from the New Testament intentionally to hide Mary’s significance.
Thus, from the discussion above, we can suggest that Mary Magdalene’s character has been warped and misshaped consistently within popular culture, adapting to suit the cultural ideologies and beliefs of whomever is telling her story. The Bible contributes to these creative afterlives for Mary with its vague references to her, which leave ample room for creations of counter-memories (Kennedy, 2006). The Da Vinci Code novel and film portray an explicit, more rounded and fleshed-out Mary. However, it is essential to analyse how these various afterlives of Mary Magdalene are constructed. As the Gospel of Philip 69:7 -11 states ‘Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. The world will not receive truth any other way’. Truth is inevitably accompanied by human subjectivity and cultural influences. Thus, when examining Mary’s portrayal in The Da Vinci Code, we need to bear this in mind.
In conclusion, both the New Testament and Gnostic Gospels allow us some insight into the portrayal of Mary Magdalene within early Christianity. However, this essay has highlighted the silences surrounding Mary’s character within these texts, and has considered how these silences have been filled in popular culture. The Da Vinci Code fleshes out Mary’s character by acknowledging the inherently patriarchal stigma that has surrounded Mary due to her reputation as a prostitute; the novel and movie seek to dispel this stigma by generating more inspirational notions of who Mary was. Brown employs the notion of Mary as a wife and mother furthering the depiction of Mary’s significant status in Christianity. Yet, like all of Mary’s afterlives, this is perhaps more subjective than based on historical or textual evidence. The ‘real’ Mary Magdalene may simply have to remain the best kept secret of all time.
All Biblical references are sourced from RSV.
Brown, D. (2003). The Da Vinci Code (1st Ed). United Kingdom: Transworld Publishers.
Calley, J. & Grazer. B (Producers), Howard, R. (Director). (2006). The Da Vinci Code. America: Colombia Pictures.
Chilton, R. (2005). Mary Magdalene: A biography (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday.
De Boer, E. (1997). Mary Magdalene: beyond the myth (1st ed). Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International.
Ehrman, B. D. (2006). Mary Magdalene in Popular Culture and History. In Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, pp.179-92. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kennedy, T.M. (2012). Mary Magdalene and the Politics of Public Memory: Interrogating The Da Vinci Code. In Feminist Formations, Vol.24 (2), pp. 120-139.
King, K.L. (2003). The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle (1st ed). Santa Rose, CA: Polebridge press.