CNN special delves into the two Marys

Stories about the role of women in the early Christian Church come to television with CNN's provocative special, "The Two Marys: The Madonna and the Magdalene." The show, (which airs Dec. 18 and is repeated Dec. 24 and 25, is riding a wave of interest in how the two women in Jesus' life have been honored, vilified, and treated by history.

A large part of this fascination has been fueled by "The DaVinci Code," the bestselling novel by Dan Brown that's being made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, and by other recent books that challenge traditional views of women in the founding of Christianity. Brown's book supposes Mary Magdalene to have been the wife of Jesus.

"For us, it was a natural story to do," says producer Jody Gottlieb. "It was Mary Magdalene and Jesus' mother, Mary, who [were] at the foot of the cross. They are the two central figures, the two people who [were] closest to him." Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife may be a far-fetched fiction, but it speaks to a new assessment of women's place in Christian churches - not only to the ordination of women, but to the way women are treated by the churches, says Ms. Gottlieb.

"These are the two roles women have been placed in," says co-producer David Gibson, describing the traditional orthodox consignment of women to either the Madonna or prostitute stereotype. The film shows that feminist and other theologians have learned more about first-century Christian women. Far from "keeping silence," they are now thought to have preached, taught, and advised the churches, working alongside male disciples to spread Jesus' teachings.

Just as there has been a rehabilitation of Mary Magdalene's reputation, "There is a new effort among Protestants to reevaluate Mary [Jesus' mother], and a new effort among Catholics to humanize her," says Ms. Gottlieb, "to see her as a role model, a Jewish peasant woman who was a trusted disciple."

Discipleship of women has been hotly contested by some conservatives among Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy. This film offers an intriguing alternative to the view of exclusively male-dominated discipleship.

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