The book by Dan Brown, “The DaVinci Code,” claims that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Brown argues that a Jewish man of Jesus’ age would have taken a wife. But before we concede that Jesus put a ring on it, it is worth mentioning that many scholars contend that Brown’s claim does not have the benefit of historical verification. Dan Burstein, author of “The Secrets of Mary Magdalene,” argues that many of the claims Brown makes appear to have been drawn from another book entitled “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” This book suggests Mary Magdalene left Palestine and went to France to hide her pregnancy, and that her daughter with Jesus, Sarah, was the proverbial “holy grail.” Burstein argues there is no mention of the holy grail in the Bible at all; in fact, he states the holy grail myth is a medieval invention.
Bottom line, there is no verifiable proof that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter with her. “The DaVinci Code” also argues that the canonized Gospels of the New Testament are not the most reliable source of information about Jesus. Which brings us to the Gnostic writings. You probably already know there are 27 books that comprise the New Testament. However, those 27 books were not the only books written about Jesus and the early church—there were other Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament for various reasons. The guidelines that rejected certain writings were decided at early church councils over a thousand years ago. Over the years, many copies of ancient writings have been discovered, and one of them is the Gospel of Mary, which you can read online here.
The Gospel of Mary provides important information about the role of women in the early church. Karen King argues the Gospel of Mary reveals Mary Magdalene was exalted over the male disciples and that this was a source of friction. Many of the ancient Christian writings that did not make it into the Bible as we know it today bear witness to the tension between Peter and Mary Magdalene. Scholars may argue over whether or not these documents were suppressed in an attempt to preserve church leadership as male only, but it is very interesting that it was Paul’s writings that were selected to comprise the bulk of the New Testament, and he does not mention Mary Magdalene at all.
And this is another reason why I suspect Mary Magdalene was a sista: there seems to be an effort to render her role as leader in the early church invisible. If we only see Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, it can narrow the way women are viewed in the church and beyond because prostitutes are often dismissed as not worthy of respect. Just this week, Pastor Jamal Bryant compared the Black pastors who met with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to prostitutes.
This is not the first time that Pastor Jamal Bryant has used a sex-shaming metaphor as a put down. Using the word “prostitute” to demean the decision to meet with Trump is a very poor choice of words when you consider the number of women and girls are being sex-trafficked against their will, the economic realities that make prostitution an option, and all of the other ugly reasons prostitution exists in the first place. When you use the word ‘prostitute’ to shame someone, it creates an escape that allows us to avert our eyes from trauma. And Mary Magdalene knows quite a bit about trauma.
Far too many of us are acquainted with losing someone we love to state-sanctioned execution. Imagine witnessing someone you love being crucified. To hear the pounding of the hammer, the clang of the nails, the smell of the blood, the knowledge that once someone is on that cross, there is no reprieve: they are not coming down. In every single Gospel, Mary Magdalene is present at cross of Jesus; she is there when spirit leaves Jesus’ body. She is so devoted to him that she will not leave him, even in death…for in every Gospel, she is present at the tomb where his body is laid.
One of the most poignant scenes in the Bible is Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. When she encounters the risen Christ, she mistakes him for the gardener. Perhaps blinded by her concern for where his body may have been taken, Jesus calls her name. And in that sweet moment she recognizes his voice. That voice that, when water heard it, blushed into sweet red wine at a wedding in Cana. The voice that commanded Lazarus “come forth!” from a grave in Bethany. The same voice that she heard scream in agony from a cross on Calvary. Mary Magdalene is the first to both hear the voice of and see the risen Christ. Not Peter and the other disciple who, in the account in John 20, peek their heads in the empty tomb, shrug their shoulders, and go on home.
And let’s look at how dismissive they were of her. Mary runs to tell them the body of their Lord is missing from the tomb. And when they get to the empty tomb, Mary seems to be the only one concerned about where Jesus’ body is. In the account in the Gospel of John, the male disciples come to check out the tomb, then leave. And they leave Mary there, visibly distressed. No one attempts to console her. She gets no emotional support from Simon Peter at all. No “there, there everything will be all right.” No “we will figure out what happened to Jesus.” They just leave her there in an empty tomb. Think about that. This woman witnessed Jesus being tortured. She witnessed him being nailed to a cross, she heard the people mocking him, and she saw the life go out of him. And Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus and got in the wind when he was arrested doesn’t even have a hug for her.
Mary is in pain. And she is left to carry it alone. But Mary Magdalene is the embodiment of pure devotion to Jesus. She does not leave the tomb. Peter does not see the two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been. It is Mary the angels inquire, “why are you weeping?” If we can’t see Mary Magdalene, if we look past Mary Magdalene, if we dismiss Mary Magdalene, we might miss that it is she who is the pivotal witness to the Christian faith: “he is risen.” This is why we should see Mary Magdalene as more than just someone Jesus liberated from sexual sin. But even her depiction as a prostitute, even though it is incorrectly ascribed to her, can be helpful to women. That will be the topic in part three of our look at Mary Magdalene.