Mary Magdalene is back - again. As Bruce Chilton argues in Mary Magdalene: A Biography, her irrepressible image shows "how much the Western imagination still wants a rich and powerful Mary to protect the poor, defenseless Jesus."
Chilton, who is Bell professor of religion at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has written earlier biographies of Jesus and Paul. He has won acclaim in some quarters for his scholarship, but also stirred controversy in others for his willingness to move beyond what is stated in the Scriptures and to offer theories about what might lie behind the events narrated in the Bible.
In the case of Mary Magdalene, there is very little information to be gleaned about her life, either in scriptural accounts or elsewhere. But the fact that the Magdalene left few biographical indications behind her does not lessen her importance in Chilton's eyes.
On the contrary, he says, hers is "the great untold story of Western culture, a figure who has been both reviled and revered, a goddess who has taken many forms." Chilton's Mary Magdalene makes other claims on our attention.
So who was this Mary Magdalene? The city of Magdala was not far from Nazareth. Mary had "seven devils" and came to Jesus because of his reputation as a healer (or, as Chilton says, "exorcist") and because he was known for his tolerance of disreputable women. In a word, Mary was sick and powerless. After she was healed, she became a disciple of Jesus.
Chilton builds a compelling portrait of Mary. He starts with her experience of Jesus. As someone who had undergone exorcism (healing) at his hands, Mary became the source for the healing narratives that thread through the gospels. Such healing or exorcism, Chilton says, brought together two aspects of Jesus's practice: anointing and the vision of the Kingdom.
Chilton argues convincingly that from her own experience with Jesus Mary became a key source for the vision that gave the early church its momentum.
In the canonical gospels, Mary's presence is more felt than heard. For example, Mark uses the narrative by which Mary's vision at Jesus' tomb became the source of the spiritual tradition of resurrection.
Yet her "insight into the ultimate significance of who her rabbi was and what his life and death truly mean" was ignored by other gospel writers in favor of a more materialistic view.
On the other hand, there's the Gospel of John. In John, Chilton says, "Mary's significance turns on vision alone."
In reconstructing the sources for the canonical gospels, Chilton draws on noncanonical works such as "The Gospel According to Mary" (discovered in 1896), which, he says, "clearly understands that, in portraying the Resurrection in trenchantly visionary terms (as the perception of 'mind' not of physical eyes or ears or hands), Mary directly contradicted a growing fashion in ancient Christianity that conceived of Jesus as resuscitated from the grave in the flesh."
Mary's unified vision of the Kingdom and the practice of using ointment in healing fell into disfavor. And yet, Chilton argues, no less a "source" than Paul draws on Mary.
In one of the moments of discovery that enliven the experience of reading this book, Chilton writes that Paul's use of the word "mind" - as in "we have Christ's mind" (I Corinthians 2:16) - and the vision behind this usage agree with the Magdalene's.
According to Chilton, Paul was indebted to Mary Magdalene for his vision of Christ.
In short, if, as Chilton believes, "Jesus' true genius lay in the transparency of his visionary experience," then Mary Magdalene is indeed "one of the prime catalysts and shaping forces of Christianity." For Mary represented the vision unrent by political correctness - Roman family values - or gnostic aversion to the flesh.
Mary's vision of Christ was whole. Chilton's work not only aids in bringing order to the chaos of possible interpretations of Mary, but also posits a new view of Jesus and Christianity. Graced by both power and wit, Chilton's book aims to reshape and reorient the imagination of a new generation.
• Tom D'Evelyn is a freelance writer in Providence, R.I.