Mary Magdalene receives her due

In 2003, author Dan Brown published his sensationalistic novel The DaVinci Code, and three years later the book was followed by a movie of the same title starring Tom Hanks.  The DaVinci Code caused controversy by its supposition that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who then bore him children.  Because of this storyline, interest in the person of Mary Magdalene spiked.

As a result, many people developed a renewed interest in the apocryphal gospel accounts of Mary, especially in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1896 and 1945, respectively.  At one point, the Gospel of Philip mentions a kiss between Jesus and Mary, and some keyed onto that particular passage as real-life evidence of Dan Brown’s fictional thesis.

DaVinciCode

Alas, both the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip were written centuries after the events of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives (and at least a century after all four biblical Gospels.)  The Gospel of Philip is also a Gnostic text, and in Gnosticism the “kiss” serves as a metaphor for the transmission of sacred knowledge.  So, rather than Jesus experiencing a romantic interlude with Mary, the Gospel of Philip portrays Jesus passing along to Mary privileged and holy information about salvation and grace.

That actually tells us much more about the real Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus than any fanciful storyline in a cloak-and-dagger novel can do.  There are many problems with the apocryphal gospels, and good reason they have never been considered scripture by the Christian world, but what they get right is Mary’s portrayal as a leader among Jesus’ most important and trusted intimates.  For example, the Gospel of Mary portrays Mary sitting the apostles down and teaching them—even Peter—the meaning of Jesus’ message.  It gives her pride of place among the Twelve.  This is almost certainly a fair depiction of Mary’s stature among Jesus’ inner circle.

Gospel_of_Mary

A fragment of the Gospel of Mary papyrus

After all, the four canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all portray Mary Magdalene as the first eyewitness to the Resurrection.  She is first to reach the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, and she is the first to take the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the apostles, who, I might add, all still cower in hiding after the crucifixion.  As a result, Gregory the Great referred to Mary as the “first witness of Divine Mercy,” and Hippolytus of Rome called Mary the apostle to the apostles.

Giovanni_Bellini_Mary_Magdalene

Bellini’s Mary Magdalene

In Anglicanism, Mary Magdalene has often been studied and revered.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, last week Mary finally received recognition commensurate with her role in salvation history.  On June 10, Pope Francis declared that Mary Magdalene’s annual observance will henceforth be a full feast day on the Roman Catholic Church’s calendar, on equal par with the feast days of the twelve apostles.  Pope Francis titled his decree “Apostle of the Apostles,” to honor this singular woman who, first among all humanity, experienced the joy of the risen Lord.

It’s about time Mary Magdalene received her due.

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