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Who was Mary Magdalene? The buzz goes mainstream

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Many see her as a central character in the church's marginalization of women over several centuries. The perception of Mary as a prostitute originated in 591, when Pope Gregory the Great falsely identified her with an unnamed sinful woman in the Bible. Almost 1400 years later, in 1969, the church officially corrected its error, though it lingers in public consciousness.

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Often-fantastic legends about Mary traveling from Jerusalem to France, pregnant with Jesus' child and giving birth to a line of kings, spread in medieval times and reappeared in books in the 1980s, to be folded into "The Da Vinci Code." The novel depicts Christianity as based on some fabrications. "The greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold," declares a key character. \Praised by critics as a "brainy thriller" with "intellectual depth," the book reveals its secrets so skillfully that readers are caught up in the debate, wondering just how much of the story might be true.

"America is a Jesus-haunted culture, but at the same time, it's a biblically illiterate culture," Witherington says. "When you have that odd combination, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus."

For the most part, historians and theologians interviewed on the TV special and elsewhere see no historical evidence for the legends - the novel should be seen strictly as fiction, they say. Those scholars who argue that Jesus was married do so largely on the basis that Jewish men of the time were all expected to marry.

Sexuality and the body

King sees something else at play in the debate: The question of Jesus' marriage resonates, she believes, with the complex issues that churchgoers are facing today in discussions about sexuality and the body, including the contentious homosexuality debate. "We have such a medicalized view of the body," she says. "The real issue is how do we think theologically about the body and sexuality."

The "Gospel of Mary," for instance, takes an approach to the issue that is distinct and startling from a traditional perspective. In the teaching Mary receives from Jesus, King writes, people are spiritual beings, sin is not real, the material world will dissolve, and salvation lies in "discovering within oneself the true spiritual nature of humanity and overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions."

Over the past 15 years, a stream of books have appeared about Mary Magdalene by feminist theologians, seeking a heritage for women within the church. Meanwhile, new books on the gnostic gospels have captured public interest. Elaine Pagels's recent "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" has been a bestseller.

Ms. Tickle sees this interest in Gnosticism and Mary Magdalene - and the willingness of many to look afresh at the Christian tradition - as going beyond the role of women in the church. "This is the pursuit of the divine feminine, a kind of yearning that infects both genders; it wishes to find in the divine parent that wholeness that is the feminine and masculine together," she says. "Scripturally speaking, Mary is our best shot at showing that there was in Jesus the recognition of that."

"The Da Vinci Code" ties that yearning both to Mary and to pagan beliefs of the goddess. "What I would hope is that when the hullabaloo settles, it will cause people to go back and read the biblical narratives for themselves," Witherington says. "A text without context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to be."