Thursday, November 6, 2003

One of Jesus’ most devoted followers has been smeared as a prostitute, biblical scholars say. Despite Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a “bad girl,” the Bible never even hints that she was an immoral person, let alone physically intimate with Christ.

Theologians say this false but common interpretation — including a best seller that depicts her in a sexual relationship with Jesus — rests largely on medieval legends and Gnostic writings.

Because many myths have surrounded Mary Magdalene, Liz Curtis Higgs, author of “Mad Mary: A Bad Girl From Magdala, Transformed at His Appearing,” has tried to distinguish fact from fiction. She read 107 books about the topic before writing her own.

“It’s easier for many of us to think of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute,” she says. “It fits the accepted worldview better. And there are those who want Jesus to have a romantic relationship with her because it makes him less than God.”

Pop culture has been putting its spin on “The Apostle to the Apostles” for years. Movies such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” portray her as Christ’s love interest.

More recently, Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” which has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for 31 weeks, proposes that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and bore him a child. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ,” scheduled to open in theaters on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, will add another perspective with actress Monica Bellucci playing the role.

As part of “Hero: The Rock Opera,” contemporary Christian singer Rebecca St. James depicts Maggie, another modern version of Mary Magdalene. Despite the folklore attached to the character, Miss St. James, 26, focuses on what the Bible says about Christ’s best-known female disciple. For example, instead of being sexually promiscuous, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus released her from seven demons.

Once delivered from demons, the Scripture says Mary Magdalene, a Jewish woman from Galilee, accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. She is mentioned by name 14 times in the Bible — a very significant number, especially for a woman. Another measure of her importance: When she is mentioned by name along with other women, she is listed first eight out of nine times.

In fact, while the male disciples abandoned Christ as he died on the cross, she was among the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, who remained to care for him to until his death. She also was present at his burial.

Miss St. James brings her interpretation of Mary Magdalene’s life to the Hylton Memorial Chapel in Woodbridge, Va., on Sunday night.

“From my performance, I hope that people understand the power of forgiveness and the transformation that God can make in a life,” she says. “Initially when Maggie comes to Jesus, she’s flailing and looking for answers and she’s hurting … but there’s a 180-degree turn she does.”

Even if Mary Magdalene was demonically oppressed, that does not necessarily correlate with being sinful, Mrs. Higgs says. Although the temptation to sin is a choice, possession by evil spirits is something that could have happened to Mary Magdalene before she met Jesus regardless of her attempt to withstand the forces.

The confusion about her character most likely began in 591 A.D. when Gregory the Great preached a sermon that combined three women — the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus feet with her tears in Luke 7, Mary of Bethany from John 11 and 12, and Mary Magdalene. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Second Vatican Council declared her a saint, “the one to whom Christ appeared after the Resurrection.”

“She is the first one to see the risen Christ,” Mrs. Higgs says. “We often get so wrapped up in her past that we forget this.”

In that era, Mary Magdalene would have been the least likely choice for a witness — women’s testimonies were not considered valid in a court of law. However, after finding an empty tomb, an angel asks her to tell the male disciples that Christ has risen from the dead. Later, Jesus rebukes them for not believing her message.

“In John 20:18, she says, ‘I have seen the Lord!’” Mrs. Higgs said. “Her kind of confession, an exuberant announcement, is mind-boggling. … She sticks with Jesus through all the time of uncertainty … that kind of courage, that kind of absolute conviction. … She is such a role model.”

Although the Bible records some of Mary Magdalene’s story, much is unknown about her, says Jane Schaberg, author of “The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha and the Christian Testament.” Miss Schaberg is a professor of religious studies and women’s studies at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Throughout history, the gaps in the life of the first Christian evangelist have been filled by imagination. For example, medieval legends of southern France depict Mary Magdalene as a wealthy child who fell into sin. The people believed she traveled in a rudderless boat from Palestine to the Les Saintes Maries de la Mer and lived in a cave in the Sainte Baume region for the last 30 years of her life, where she was fed by angels.

“People like the legends,” Miss Schaberg says. “They are very popular because they are sexy … but there is more drama in the search for historical elements and the story of the suppression and distortion of a powerful woman leader. It’s really reductive to see a figure like her simply in terms of her sexuality.”

The Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which was found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert, also is associated with Mary Magdalene. Aida Spencer, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., says the book mixes the philosophies of neoplatonism, stoicism and astrology. Gnosticism, an early heresy, held that matter was evil and that knowledge, rather than faith in Christ, was the basis of salvation.

Another Gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, often is used to suggest a romantic relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, because it says that Christ kissed her. However, a kiss in Gnosticism symbolizes spiritual rebirth. Further, many phrases from the text have faded, which makes the full sentence structures unclear.

“It almost seems like a lunatic writing these things,” Miss Spencer says. “What makes Christianity more wholesome [than Gnosticism] is that God creates matter directly. Matter is good, which means we’re good. … When you read the Bible, it gives you data, and there are very few interpretative comments. There is no historical data to the Gnostic materials. Most of it is almost incomprehensible.”

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