Monday, November 13, 2006

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was born to a prosperous Benjamite family in Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the city of Tiberias. As with most Biblical figures, the portrait of Mary is incomplete. Her life is a puzzle, but it has intriguing pieces. Mary’s the (supposedly "red-haired") woman who was forgiven by Jesus, when He cast out her "seven demons" (a common metaphor for mental illness). Mary traveled the country with Jesus, and contributed money to his ministry. She was with Him during His final days in Jerusalem, one of the few followers to remain with Him at His moment of death. She was the first witness to the Resurrection, which solidifies her position at the center of Jesus' life.

But Mary's presence was always inconvenient. Although the New Testament Gospel authors can't avoid her completely (they mentioned her 13 times), they offer few details of her life. We never learn her occupation, her hair color, her age, or whether she was physically beautiful. This lack of information was no accident. Women were considered untrustworthy in the Roman world, and the Gospel writers – eager to make new converts – did not wish to highlight the fact that a woman was a key witness to their story of the Resurrection (a story that was already difficult enough to explain).

However, Mary wasn’t a prostitute. The New Testament never describes Mary Magdalene as an adulterer or a harlot. That (undeserved) reputation was the result of a sermon in 591AD, delivered by Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory intentionally mixed her up with the unnamed "sinful" woman who entered Jesus’ presence as He dined with a Pharisee (an event which occurred before Mary is introduced, in the Gospel of Luke. But even in the case of that sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh - in the first century, a woman could be considered "sinful" for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone). Yet, they are clearly different women, and Gregory created the prostitute persona from thin air. In 1969, the Vatican quietly but officially cleared Mary Magdalene of the accusation of prostitution. In 1988, in an official church document, Pope John Paul II noted that during early Christianity's "most arduous test of faith and fidelity" (the Crucifixion), Mary Magdalene "proved stronger than the Apostles."

Throughout history, Gregory’s slanderous misidentification has been the basis for accusations of an intentional, and occasionally sinister, conspiracy by the Catholic Church to hide the true nature of Mary's relationship to Jesus. And there are some tantalizing and very real clues -- some buried in sand for sixteen centuries -- that help explain Mary's relationship to Jesus and her connection to the Holy Grail.

At the end of World War II, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a peasant opened an earthenware jar and revealed more than fifty ancient “uncial” texts (written on parchment in all-capital Greek lettering) that had been hidden since the middle of the 4th century AD. They are actually leather bound books … part of a large collection known as the Gnostic Gospels. (The Gnostic sect, a significant force in the earliest years of Christianity, stressed salvation through study and knowledge rather than by simple faith alone). The Catholic Church has not officially canonized these books, but they contain revealing insights about Mary Magdalene.

These later gospels elaborate on what Jesus told Mary. They indicate that she was Jesus' most trusted disciple and advisor, and that she became a strong leader in the fledgling church, emerging as a kind of original feminist. In the Gospel of Thomas, she is called a "true disciple" of Jesus. In the Dialogue of the Savior, she is referred to as “the woman who understood all things." The Gospel of Mary depicts her as a leader of Jesus' followers after his resurrection. Written by Christians about 90 years after Jesus' death, it suggests that the Magdalene initially held favored status around Jesus - a woman so threatening that the apostles later suppressed her role, as well as that of other women, in order to build a patriarchal church hierarchy. The most compelling aspect of the Gospel of Mary is its radical ideas about gender. Mary is called the disciple that "the Savior loved, more than all other women," but she and Jesus consider gender distinction as irrelevant, something that will disappear in the next life. The text argues that the basis for leadership lies in spiritual development.

In particular, the Gnostic Gospel of Philip describes her as “foremost among the Apostles." According to this gospel, Mary was the disciple who best understood Jesus, and she was able to carry on His teachings. She is described as a threat to the early church’s male leaders (a dire situation in that highly-patriarchal place and time), who were envious of her. Mary became a direct rival to the Apostle Peter ("a wrathful and jealous man"), the fisherman who was later the first Bishop of Rome -- the leadership spot that eventually became the position of Pope.

Side note: Dr. Darrell Bock is an evangelical scholar and Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Bock admits that the above information is correct, and that “Mary Magdalene is a very important figure in the early church,” but he cautions against misreading the text. Even in Philip’s gospel, there is no indication or evidence that Mary actually held a formal office or had a formal teaching role within the male-dominated church.

The bond between Mary and Jesus was obviously strong, but nowhere in the New Testament (or in any other Christian teaching) is there specific mention of whether or not Jesus and Mary were married. Of course, the Catholic Church refutes the notion, arguing (seemingly plausibly) that such information would have been impossible to keep secret. The church insists that Biblical silence indicates no such marriage existed – a stance that ignores the fact that only the four canonic (not the hundred Gnostic) gospels actually are silent on the issue. There is a significant amount of support (Biblical and secular) to indicate that silence was not simply a flat denial of such a marriage.

1) Undeniably, most Jewish men got married. It was the cultural norm … expected behavior … and exceptions were rare. It was incumbent upon all fathers to find a wife for each son, prior to the son’s twentieth birthday. And in fact, Rabbis were specifically required to marry. As a religious leader, Jesus would have shouldered enormous social, cultural and religious pressure to marry. As an unmarried man -- even one who performed great miracles -- Jesus would have had particular difficulty retaining the attention of the general populace (and His credibility with them).

2) New Testament women are invariably identified by their relation to men (Mary the mother of James, and Joanna the wife of Cuza, for example). Yet the Magdalene is distinguished by her hometown. No husband ever appears (perhaps an explanation of how she was able to travel freely with Jesus), but it was highly unlikely that she never married at all. A freewoman in that society who never married would have been an extreme rarity.

Side note: Most Americans scoff at those two ideas, because they have no concept of the strength with which (the depth to which) cultural norms and social behaviors were ingrained into the daily lives of the Jewish people of that era. Nevertheless, the social requirement to marry really was “carved-in-stone” absolute.

3) According to the canonic Gospel of John … after the crucifixion, Mary went to the burial garden, to mourn for Jesus and to perform His final anointing. There she found Him resurrected (and the fact that He appeared first to her – rather than to Peter, James or John – must be considered significant). She was overjoyed, and attempted to hold Him. But in that culture and era, if she weren't married to him, she wouldn't have dreamed of embracing him. Under harsh Mosaic Law, simply touching a man not her husband was punishable by stoning.

4) The Gnostic Gospel of Philip says Mary Magdalene "always walked with the Lord, and is called his companion" (or, legitimately, “spouse”). Other verses read that Christ “loved her more than the other disciples” and that He “kissed her often."

The DaVinci Code is a popular and controversial piece of work. It is classified as fiction, but it certainly is thoroughly researched. Like all good fiction, it contains a great deal of verifiable fact. It makes a well-supported case for a marital relationship between Jesus and Mary, but it isn't the first book to do so. Nor is it the first book to identify The Priory of Sion, a European secret society founded by the Crusaders in 1099 (after they captured Jerusalem). The Priory’s military arm, the Knights Templar, was entrusted with protecting what the Priory considers the truth about Jesus and Mary –- facts that could prove devastating to the church.

A similar story was published in 1982 in a nonfiction book entitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. That book was as controversial in Britain in its time as The DaVinci Code later proved to be worldwide. The true story at the heart of Holy Blood, Holy Grail began more than a century ago, in the tiny French village of Rennes le Chateau. It involves a man named Sauniere (the same name that author Dan Brown assigned the curator in The DaVinci Code). The real-life Berenger Sauniere was a young, penniless priest. But soon after he began renovating the local church, that situation changed. He quickly and inexplicably became quite wealthy.

Sauniere’s church renovation was bizarre (including demonic figurines, multiple altars and a chapel tower devoted to Mary Magdalene, rather than to the Virgin Mary), which initiated a running feud with Rome. The Vatican publicly accused Sauniere of selling mail order prayer services - a scandal that resulted in his suspension from the pulpit – but the local residents insisted that Sauniere had found documents (old parchments) hidden in the church's original altar, and that he had resorted to blackmail. There was general consensus that Sauniere was not at all unhappy with his forced “retirement,” and that he had extorted money from the Vatican … a contention that is supported by the fact that Sauniere was denied absolution and last rites (an incredibly serious decision by the church). The local police consider Sauniere’s death in 1917 suspicious, and they found that a coffin had anonymously been ordered in advance.

In their research efforts, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail visited the French National Library, where they found a collection of papers blandly called Le Dossiers Secret (simply, “Secret Documents”) that had been “rediscovered” in the late 1970s. Analyzing the parchments, they found that Sauniere had stumbled onto evidence of The Priory of Sion. The papers included a directory of Priory leaders, called grand masters. The list begins with obscure French noblemen, but it later includes some of the most notable and powerful men in Western civilization (Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Jonathan Swift, etc). Men whose mission was to first hide what they considered the secret of Mary and Jesus, then to pass it down through the ages.

Leigh carefully examined these enigmatic papers, matching them point-by-point to documented French history and even comparing them to local legends. According to the documents, the secret the Priory so vigorously protected was that Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene produced a child, a girl named Sarah (Hebrew for “princess”), whom the Priory considers to be the real Holy Grail. All early manuscripts that referred to the “Sangraal” did so as a single word. Around 1400 AD, an unknown cleric split the word into “San Graal,” meaning sainted vessel (holy cup), and the church formally adopted that interpretation. But the Priory of Sion was convinced (not unreasonably) that the word is more properly split into “Sang Raal,” meaning “blood royal,” which they apply to Sarah.

Side note: The Secret Documents file also contained papers filled with elaborate family trees and genealogies, which directly tie a line of French kings and queens to the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The authors painstakingly followed all the genealogies (even those that seemed irrelevant to the main story), and the family trees were accurate back to the first century AD. In doing research for their book, the authors then followed the documented genealogies forward as far as possible, and continued through contemporary records, until they established contact with current members of the Priory. The Priory’s official spokesman was a charming and eccentric Frenchman named Pierre Plantard, the soft-spoken son of domestic servants. He had lived an unremarkable and low-key life as a mid-level governmental bureaucrat. During a 1979 documentary BBC interview with the authors, Plantard quietly told a grand story confirming the existence of the Priory. And (from memory) he itemized the same genealogy of royal lineage – all the way back to the Merovingians – that appears in the Secret Documents. For the rest of his life, Plantard declined to identify the current grand master. He passed away in early 2000.

The documents also indicate that at some point shortly after the crucifixion, Jesus' pregnant widow seriously invoked Peter’s wrath, and fled (in the company of Mary’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, along with the Virgin Mary’s sister, Mary Jacoby). They initially traveled through Egypt.

Sometime prior to 42 AD, an oar-less boat carrying refugees from the holy land (who “brought the Holy Grail with them”) washed ashore at France’s Mediterranean village of St Marie de la Mare. Among those onboard were Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, who settled in one of the local Judaic communities and raised Sarah. At the time they arrived, Sarah was “pre-adolescent,” meaning between 9 and 12 years of age. According to the Priory, Sarah eventually bore children of her own, carrying on her father's bloodline (Mary and Jesus were, after all, legitimate Jewish nobility of the Houses of Benjamin and David). In 496 AD, this bloodline intermarried with the French royal family, producing the sacred Merovingian lineage. The Priory claims to have been guarding the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for centuries.

The DaVinci Code is an amalgam of truth and fiction, fact and hoax (both sacred and profane), and has enthralled millions of readers. It freely used, and greatly expanded upon, the above information and placed heavy emphasis (obviously) upon the role of grand master Leonardo DaVinci. However, the preceding information -- regardless of how it may have been used in presenting a fictionalized story -- is itself entirely accurate and verifiably factual. The Priory of Sion does exist, for instance, as do the file of Secret Documents, the French villages, the Gnostic Gospels, etc.

Of course, any credence given to a secret society that has endured (and remained true to its mission!) for a thousand years is a matter of personal faith. So, on a personal note … whether or not Jesus married Mary Magdalene has no effect on the tenets of my faith. Nor does it affect the strength with which I hold to those beliefs.

It is a staple of all Christian denominations that Jesus was truly the “perfect sacrifice.” All those denominations necessarily define Him as simultaneously both fully human and fully divine. That dichotomy is rather difficult to grasp, and it presents significant challenges to believers (especially new Christians). Those difficulties usually result in believers becoming uncomfortable with – and, generally ignoring – the “fully human” aspect, as they prefer to dwell on the more distant but more easily admired “fully divine” portion of Christ’s existence.

However, Jesus unquestionably enjoyed life. He went for nature walks, took sailboat rides, drank wine, attended parties and weddings, and participated in discussions at synagogues. Additionally, He was clearly capable of feeling hunger, thirst, anger, disappointment, impatience, anxiety, fear, and pain. It may make believers quite uncomfortable, but Jesus experienced the same desire to have a family, to share intimacy, and to become a parent that God deliberately instilled in the human psyche. Interestingly, Jesus (as a human) would have been subject to God’s instructions to all mankind to “be fruitful and multiply.”


Blogger robina said...

Your blog is fascinating. Can you name some of your sources, I would like to do some research of my own.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Juhani said...

Many syncretistic religions formed gnosticism. Gnosticism was rivaling against Christianity and gnosticism held itself better religion as Christianity was. Word gnosticism comes from Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism was various effects, for instance, some Gnostics taught that divinity can be achieved through unity of the man and woman. This thought led some Gnostics to reach for divinity through sexual intercourse between the man and woman. There existed also some Gnostics, who abstained from sexual intercourse. When we know the fact that Gnostics held Christians as their enemies and that Gnostics held themselves better as Christians and that Gnostics wanted to show in every way that Gnosticism was better as Christianity, so Gnostics made so called gnostic gospels were they twisted, slandered and misrepresented the real gospels. Gnostics went so far in this misrepresent that they wrote "new gospels" by faking the real gospels. In these faked gospels Gnostics wrote that Jesus Christ was an ordinary man who has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.

3:46 AM  

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