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Who was Mary Magdalene? The buzz goes mainstream

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2003

A blockbuster novel, a controversial TV special, and a just-released book on a long-hidden gospel bearing her name: The woman known as Mary Magdalene is again at the center of a swirl of speculation.

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Long portrayed in Christian tradition as a repentant prostitute out of whom Jesus cast seven devils, Mary is having her own resurrection in the popular imagination as history is corrected, and new, sometimes explosive, claims are asserted about her relationship to the Master.

This is not, though, just about setting the record straight on an intriguing historical figure. In an era when "God talk" has moved convincingly into the media/entertainment arena, observers say, her story is captivating because it encapsulates major unresolved issues facing Christianity - the role of women in the church, the place of human sexuality, and the yearning for the feminine aspect of the Divine.

All these issues are tantalizingly injected into the bestselling thriller "The Da Vinci Code," which set off the latest debate this summer by positing that Jesus and Mary were married.

"I don't think [author] Dan Brown knew the bull's-eye he was hitting, nor set out to be heretical," says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion at Publisher's Weekly. "He was aware of the questions boiling in the cultural soup and found them fascinating."

Yet Mr. Brown says that on the basis of documents about secret societies and legends of the Holy Grail that he presents as fact in the novel, he believes they were married. ABC-TV was so taken with the premise that it sent correspondent Elizabeth Vargas globetrotting to explore the evidence, and aired a special Nov. 3. A movie of the novel is now planned by the Hollywood team that made "A Beautiful Mind."

Mary as an apostle

A nonfiction book out this month - "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala," by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School - strikes a different chord. An eight-page fragment lost for 1,500 years, this gospel, written in the second century, tells of a conversation among Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi about a teaching Jesus gave to Mary on the end of the material world and the nature of sin. It highlights Mary's role as an apostle and Peter's resistance to her role.

The gospel "shows us there was a tradition of Mary Magdalene as an important apostle of the church after the resurrection," says Ms. King in an interview. Several other gnostic works (gospels not chosen for the New Testament and termed heretical by early church fathers) similarly support her in that role.

For some, the Bible hints at the same idea in John's Gospel, which depicts Mary as the first to see the risen Jesus and then to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples. "Since she was commissioned by Jesus to be in essence an apostle to the apostles, she provided the most crucial precedent in the New Testament for women to be teachers, preachers, or evangelists," says Ben Witherington III, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

An expert on women in the Bible, Dr. Witherington says that "what happened on Easter morning involving her is really what triggers all of this [debate]." It's now clear that the debate about Mary has gone on from the early church through the Middle Ages right up to today.