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The Legend of Jesus and Mary Magdalene

By Richard Edmondson

Out of the four gospels, it is the Gospel of John’s portrayal of the resurrection that has probably most captured the human imagination, mainly for its depiction of the encounter outside the tomb between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Hinting at a strong emotional bond between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the scene is—in a word—titillating.

Early on the morning of the third day after the crucifixion, we have Mary rising and making her way to the burial place where she discovers the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Mystified, she returns to the city and tells the disciples, two of whom go running to the tomb to see for themselves. The two disciples are Peter and a mysterious fellow who is alluded to several times in the gospel but never identified by name, being referred to only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”—and who today we refer to simply as the “Beloved Disciple.” Arriving at the tomb, they find it just as Mary has described—empty—and equally as mystified, they return to the city, leaving the Magdalene standing there by herself.

Reluctant to follow them back to the city, she begins to weep. And entering the tomb once more, she discovers it this time not empty but occupied—by two angels dressed in white—who inquire of her why she is weeping.

“They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him,” she replies, tearfully.

Still weeping but turning back to the doorway of the tomb now, she suddenly sees a man standing there whom she believes at first to be the gardener and only after a few confused moments realizes it is Jesus. “Woman, why are you crying?” he asks. “Who is it you are looking for?” (As if he didn’t know!)

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him,” she replies, still, incredibly, not recognizing him.

But then it finally comes to her: it is Jesus.

“Mary,” he says to her, in what we can imagine must have been the tenderest of voices.

The scene, as depicted, is extremely heart-rending and poignant, so much so that for 20 centuries now it has managed to fire the imaginations of artists, writers, poets, and composers, some of whom have depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene as lovers, as husband and wife, as having a child together, etc. One artist who obviously drew inspiration from the story is Lovis Corinth, whose magnificent painting, “The Deposition,” appears above.

Human emotions being what they are, it is natural for people to take the romantic view. But is there any actual historical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene herself may have been the mysterious Beloved Disciple? Some have looked to the large body of ancient Gnostic texts as providing an answer to this. Most of these texts date to the second century and a sizeable number of them—previously unknown—were discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, that discovery being known today as the “Nag Hammadi Library.” What we find in some of these writings is a greatly expanded-upon view of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. In the Gospel of Philip, for instance, the two are seen kissing, apparently quite passionately. In the Pistis-Sophia, Mary becomes “the inheritor of the light,” while in another text, Dialogue of the Savior—believed to be one of the earliest Gnostic texts, dating to the first century—she is elevated to “the woman who knew the all,” and who reveals the “greatness of the revealer.” There is even a text that bears her name, the Gospel of Mary, in which she is described as consoling the grieving, fearful disciples after the crucifixion.

The key question, of course, is did the Gnostics, being much, much closer to the time of Jesus, have some inside information that has been lost to us today? Or were they simply titillated by the same passage in John and responding to it precisely as have so many others—by allowing their imaginations to roam? Perhaps one way to get at this is by asking ourselves: Why was the name of the Beloved Disciple redacted from the text of the Gospel of John? Why, in the book’s final edit, was this person referred to simply as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”?

Some years ago, when I was doing research for my novel, The Memoirs of Saint John, I came across an article entitled Mary Magdalene: Author of the Fourth Gospel? , by Ramon K. Jusino. In examining each reference to the Beloved Disciple found in the Gospel of John (there are seven in all) Jusino comes to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene was indeed this person. He further posits that she was the “founder and hero” of what is referred to today as the “Johannine Community”—the group of first-century Christians which produced the Gospel of John. In other words, the fourth gospel was authored not by John the son of Zebedee, as church tradition has long held, but by Mary Magdalene, Jusino is saying. Of course, what we know today as the Gospel of John is very different from the gospel as it appeared in its original form. Redactors came along later, most likely after Mary Magdalene’s death, and rewrote portions of the text, in the course of which the Beloved Disciple’s real name was obscured—in Jusino’s view because male members of the sect were embarrassed at their community’s having been founded and led by a woman.

I believe the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi texts, particularly in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip, is consistent with the portrayal of her in the New Testament’s Gospel of John. In each case she is portrayed as the primary proclaimer of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

“A lot of people correctly point out that there is no biblical support for seeing Mary Magdalene as the “repentant whore.” And they talk about her great role in the founding of the early church. But what was that role? The New Testament and the Nag Hammadi Library both agree on this — she gave her life to Jesus as Savior. She was the first to proclaim the message of the Resurrected Lord. Every Easter, Christians celebrate the event that was first proclaimed by Mary Magdalene (John 20:18).

In other words, this woman not only loved Jesus, but she went on, after his death, to found one of the most important sects in the early years of Christianity, a sect which seems to have rivaled the churches set up and ministered to by the Apostle Paul. Yet as Jusino notes, the role played by women—not just Mary Magdalene, but all women—was deliberately minimized throughout history, and this, sadly, was especially true in the years of the early church.

The reason that the Beloved Disciple was turned into a man in the text was because this disciple was clearly the founder and hero of the community that produced this Gospel. At some point after the death of Jesus, the emerging male leadership of that community simply became embarrassed about having a female founder. (Remember, we’re dealing with male attitudes towards women 2,000 years ago.) In order to “mainstream” their community, they suppressed some of the more radical practices that Jesus taught them through his example — such as treating everyone with equal dignity and respect, including the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and women. Jesus apparently did not object to men and women sharing power and positions of leadership. Some of his successors, however, were not courageous enough to be so radical. So, in the case of the Gospel of John, the female Beloved Disciple had to become male.

Jusino’s theory seems all the more credible when we consider an early Gnostic group known as the Naassenes—led by a woman named “Mariamne,” and which seems to have been centered in Alexandria, Egypt. All we know of the Naassenes comes to us from one of their chief critics, Hippolytus, an early third century bishop whose avowed purpose was to “exterminate the monster” of heresy—not, one would think, a reliable or impartial source of information on a group like the Naassenes. Yet in his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus does us the invaluable service of quoting extensively from a Naassene document that evidently had come into his possession. As he tells it, the Naassenes believed “the serpent is a fluid substance” and that “Eden is the brain, as it were, bound and tightly fastened in encircling robes, as if in heaven.” The bishop seems to have had little understanding of the words, dismissing them largely as the “crazy notions of fools.” Yet some people have theorized that members of the Naassene sect were practicing a discipline similar to Kundalini yoga—a fascinating thought, perhaps, yet of course entirely speculative. However, there are some things about the Naasenes that can be reliably gleaned from the bishop’s text: a) that they were a Jewish-Christian sect; b) that their teacher was named Mariamne; c) they were centered in Egypt, most likely Alexandria; and d) that they highly prized one gospel above all others—yep, you guessed it, the Gospel of John. Hippolytus has them quoting it at some length.

Another thing to consider is that when we read the New Testament, Mary Magdalene’s role seems to be deliberately downplayed in places. Her final appearance in the Bible comes in John 20:18, in which she tells the other disciples of having seen the arisen Jesus. After that, nothing. Did she simply drop from sight at this point? Curiously, she is never mentioned in the Lukan Acts or the letters of Paul, a conspicuous-by-its-absence kind of thing, not unlike Paul’s failure to visit Alexandria on any of his missionary journeys, also quite curious. Rome, yes. Corinth, yes. Athens, check. Ephesus, quite naturally. All great cities of the empire, all visited by Paul. The apostle even discusses his intentions, in Romans 15, of journeying to Spain, some 2000 miles distant from Jerusalem. But no mention anywhere of a stop in Alexandria, a city which lay, parenthetically speaking, “just around the corner.” Home to a world-famous library. A city that would have been regarded as one of the most advanced on earth. Yet for some reason, Paul felt disinclined to evangelize there. Why? Could it be because someone of equal or even greater stature was already there? If so, who? Might it have been the Johannine Community/Naassenes?

It’s hard to answer that for sure, but what is clear is that leaders in the early church had far different views toward women than those held by Jesus himself. Consider the words of early Christian author Tertullian (c. 160-225 AD), who in a discussion about the role played by Eve in the downfall, castigated the female sex as a collective whole:

“And do you not know that you are [each] an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.”

Contrast that to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—a remarkable address for a lot of reasons, though especially striking is the manner in which he completely overturns traditional thinking on the sin of adultery. Whoever looks upon a woman in lust, he tells the crowd, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. The upshot, as the Mary Magdalen scholar Susan Haskins has noted, is that it places the burden of the sin upon the beholder, rather than upon she who is beheld, essentially shattering the “woman as temptress” stereotype.

And of course we read of women followers, some of whom supported the group financially. From all the evidence, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would ever, in a million years, have issued a decree forbidding women from speaking aloud in his church. Yet by early second century this was precisely the direction in which the church was headed.

I would suggest, for those who are interested, reading Jusino’s article in its entirety. Judging from the copyright date, it would appear Jusino wrote the thesis in 1998, which, if so, would mean it predated Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by a good five years.

In summing up, I can only conclude that from all the evidence what we here is a man—Jesus—and a woman—Mary Magdalene—both of whom, regardless of what their relationship may have been to each other, were exceptional human beings in their own right.

2 thoughts on “The Legend of Jesus and Mary Magdalene

  1. I always hear about marry Magdalene but never about Mary the mother of Jesus . What was her roll after the death of Jesus ?. Shouldn’t she be the one discovering the absence of his body in the tomb?

    • The last mention of Mary the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament occurs in Acts 1:14. There is no mention of what happened to her afterward, her later life, or her death, but according to Church legend, she and John the Disciple went to Ephesus, and there is today a House of the Virgin Mary located there that is visited by many pilgrims to the shrine.

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