WHY SHE MATTERS
Published in January 2007
Mary Magdalene: A Biography
By Bruce Chilton
New York, New York
Mary Magdalene: Bride in Exile
By Margaret Starbird
Bear & Company (2005)
Resurrecting Mary Magdalene:
Lisa Paul Streitfeld
The Jungian scholar, Marie Louise Von Franz, said that something new comes to consciousness as a form of rumor. This is certainly true with the extraordinary phenomenon of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in which the popular culture seized on an idea that author Margaret Starbird had been investigating step by step for over a decade. The rumor arising from the thriller, now a matter of scholarly debate, is certain to heat up as the film is released this May.
In this environment, Bruce Chilton’s biography of Mary Magdalene is a well-formed missile striking at the heart of the larger debate – the role of women in the Church. Chilton, the Dean of Religious Studies at Bard College, is an iconoclast – a biblical scholar who dares to rattle the cage of tradition. He is well equipped for the challenge. His knowledge is not confined to the New Testament; he reads seven languages, including Coptic and Aramaic, which affords him a view of his Christian subjects – he has previously published biographies of Jesus and Paul – as arising from an ancient tradition.
Margaret Starbird, a comparative literature scholar, has broken many boundaries to uncover evidence for her belief that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were carrying the ancient mythology of the hieros gamos into a new era. Coming from opposite ends of a religious firestorm, these two authors build a solid case for resurrecting Magdalene during a time of rising religious fundamentalism.
Why does Magdalene matter? Chilton’s astute biography, which manages to humanize the icon despite having so little historical evidence available, establishes her as an empowered and knowledgeable woman with a crucial role in the development of early Christianity. Interestingly, Starbird’s search for “the lost bride of the gospels” began shortly after the religious right launched the Culture Wars. While postmodern heretics were deconstructing Christian iconography, she was compiling images and other evidence from heretics of earlier epochs to support her belief.
If the rumor was contained in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown had an unusual manner of pointing directly to the perpetuator: He places Starbird’s first two books “Woman with the Alabaster Jar” and “Goddess of the Gospels” in the library of the fictional English scholar in his book. Having presented her thesis in her first book; her personal journey in her second; and established the cosmology of the sacred marriage for Christianity through gemetria in her third; this new book “Mary Magdalene: A Bride in Exile” is lament to the Christian mythology that never was.
For now, we focus on the rumor. While Starbird insists that rabbis had to be married, she overlooks the fact that it was Jesus’ role as outcast stemming from his illegitimate birth that led to his taking the path of the iconoclast in forming a new religion. Why then, the need to follow Jewish mandates? Yet for Starbird, this traditional marriage, if it were to be proved, supports her alternate Christian mythology which establishes Jesus and Magdalene as partners in the hieros gamos, Greek for sacred marriage, and carrying the bloodline represented by the symbol of this icon, the Seal of Solomon, to the present day.
Chilton dismisses the idea of a legal marriage with a ready fact: Jewish laws explicitly stated that rabbis needed to be stable to support a wife and Jesus was too unstable to support a wife. His previous biography of Jesus portrays the man as a rebel overthrowing religious tradition; why would he need to conform by being married? He skewers the mythology surrounding the bloodline by dismissing as a hoax the dramatic unearthing the bones claimed to be Magdalene in the south of France, where they continue to celebrate her feast day on July 22.
Having established himself as a scholar without an axe to grind with his superb biographies of Jesus and Paul, Chilton accomplishes an even more difficult goal: to resurrect Magdalene in the flesh through the weaving of the traces of her silenced voice. He does this through a careful investigation of the language of the gospels and recently unearthed texts such as “The Gospel of Philip” and “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” In linking Paul’s misogyny with his fear of the flesh in his first biography, Chilton had an intriguing trajectory to investigate: Magdalene’s downward trajectory from serving a key role in the resurrection to the fallen woman of Christianity.
He begins by painting a vivid picture of Magdalene playing a crucial role in the development of the original Christian beliefs and practices: exorcism, anointing and resurrection. Her role in these areas was too essential to be written out of history. All three gospels include Magdalene in three crucial roles: Jesus’ freeing her of the seven devils; the anointing of Jesus with alabaster jar; and her witnessing the resurrected Christ at the tomb.
Utilizing the scant historical texts available, Chilton attributes the diminishment of Magdalene to early Christianity conformity to the patriarchal familial structures decreed by Rome. Moreover, Paul’s denial of sacred in matter supports the connection between the reduced role of Magdalene in the resurrection and the fundamentalist belief of Jesus’ body rising from the grave. The female was forever after linked with flesh.
Yet by resurrecting Mary Magdalene from both the rumors of marriage and the mythology of the fallen woman, Chilton questions the diminished role of women in organized religion. His scholarship illuminates Magdalene’s privileged position of knowledge of Jesus’ healing practice that no other disciple had. His research leads him to conclude that there would have been a role for women in the Church if Magdalene hadn’t been confined to the shadows. This analysis calls for a new look at equal partnership based on spiritual connection and mutual invention, spiritual roles women seek today outside the bounds of traditional religion. In resurrecting Magdalene’s role in bringing ancient rituals passed through Judaism into the development of early Christianity, Chilton is inviting us to look at the worthwhile spiritual partnership as we enter a new century.
Indeed, the feminine intuition or right-brain thinking associated with Magdalene has propelled Starbird’s personal quest, and this is what makes her contribution most valuable, the story of a woman’s quest for holism in our time. It is, in fact, a heroic Magdalene journey, achieved through intuition and spiritual guidance.
Yet, the two authors together form something of the sacred marriage for our time. Unintentional partners in a search for what has been lost, their contrasting paths meet at a central place of unity between left and right brain. Starbird and Chilton have gone a long way in reclaiming the sacred feminine for western scholarship, a marriage of intuition and intellect that serves to restore holism into western religion
While we will never know the truth regarding the rumor of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, these writers do present a solution to the collective need to rectify the religious polarization reflected by 21st century fundamentalism. Resurrecting the female pioneer at the heart of Christian theology goes a long way to restoring a much-needed balance.