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The Magdalene Connection

As the key female figure in the religious striving of humanity, Mary Magdalene impacts the usual story of Jesus Christ at three levels. Understanding of the "Passion of Christ" as a shared drama in the mythology of romantic love, might change forever our beliefs about sex and love, suffering and redemption.(Rodin, plaster study, Christ and Magdalen, Musee Rodin, Paris.)



Considering the unique importance of Mary Magdalene in our venture, we at Metahistory.org have been closely watching the debate raised by Dan Brown's bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code. It seems that something almost primordial has been triggered by his book. Through a rift in the collective psyche some kind of revelation is taking shape. But a revelation of what? And to whom? For whose benefit? In our reflections on this fascinating controversy, we discern three levels of impact where a new and startling recognition of Magdalene has registered, with repercussions that are still unfolding. These levels are:

LEVEL ONE: where the Alternative Story of the life of Jesus emerges.

LEVEL TWO: where the Backstory, the hitherto unknown background of Jesus' life, including Pagan and non-Christian elements, begins to be evident.

LEVEL THREE: where the Love Story of Jesus and Magdalene unfolds to reveal the full-blown myth of the Lovers, a powerful archetype that carries an option to conventional religious views on sex, suffering, death, redemption and resurrection.

Connecting to Mary Magdalene, we discover the myth of choice, a myth for love enlivened in human imagination by her mystique, the honeyed wisdom of her amber gaze. The essay explores the three levels of discovery that lead to that choice.

LEVEL ONE: The Alternative Story

At the first level of impact, the episodes involving Mary Magdalene, originally prefigured in Gnostic texts and developed fictionally in The Da Vinci Code (DVC), introduce an alternative story about the life of Jesus. The key incident in this altered script is the meeting in the garden on Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in his "resurrected" form. Scholars debate several passages in the Gospels that may or may not refer to MM, but they are unanimous about this episode. This decisive meeting establishes a special and intimate connection, hinting at a profound complicity between Jesus (or "the "Christ" in his divine, superhuman aspect) and Magdalene. This incident suggests that she, a mortal woman, is nevertheless the equal and counterpart to what is seed as divine in Jesus.

The Alternative Story: the meeting in the Garden, painted by Fra Angelico 14th C. The risen Jesus is depicted as a blonde with Aryan features, and Magdalene is a strawberry blonde, a convention adapted by other artists. From early on, the revision of the Jesus story involves a purge or whitewash of the Jewish elements, but in the "Sion Scenario" the racial factor is reinstated. The mystical factor holds, no matter what racial coloration is given to the story.

There are at least two ways to go from this momentous scene, two main directions in which the complicity of Jesus and Magdalene can be developed, and these directions diverge almost diametrically. In exploring the alternative story, it is crucial to understand which narrative direction we are following.

For convenience of reference, I will call the ensemble of story elements, mythic and legendary allusions, and textual passages relating to Mary Magdalene the MM material. The Da Vinci Code is controversial because it injects the MM material into the life of Jesus, producing an altered version of the familiar story told in the New Testament. Those who object to the alternative story argue that it is a distortion, or a downright lie, that it does not accord with the historical facts of the time, it contradicts the authority of the Gospels, it blasphemes the divinity of Jesus, and so forth. Those who endorse the story argue that it presents a more human view of Jesus, includes women in the founding events of Christianity, it presents a more balanced model of spirituality. And so the debate continues, escalating, so it seems, by the day.

Whatever the arguments for and against the alternative story may be, the mere fact that it is an alternative story enforces the primary impact. The story about Jesus is changed by putting Magdalene in the picture, and consequently, our beliefs about the main character of the story, who may arguably be regarded as the central figure in human history, are also subject to change.

The Sexuality of Christ

As explained on the home page of this site, the core beliefs that drive human behavior are rarely transmitted in a direct manner, in plain and open language. Rather, they are encoded in stories, scripts, narratives. Metahistorians look into these narratives to examine the beliefs they carry, in order to look beyond, and go beyond, the unconscious conditioning effects of those beliefs. Metahistory is not an academic chess game with style and genre categories (cf. the work of HaydenWhite). Nor is it an "interfaith" debate over the relative value of different beliefs, or an appeal to accept the uniity of all religions. It is a flesh-and-blood quest for liberation from belief-driven behavior. The effect that beliefs exert upon us can best be fathomed if we recognize how they are encoded in story-form, for it is through identification with a story that we take on beliefs and make them basic to our own identity. Once scripted beliefs are exposed and examined, we are free to adopt or reject them, based on enlightened choice. (It is amazing that enlightened or informed choice is so urgently desired on many issues, from investing in profitable stocks to buying the right toothpaste, yet it is completely ignored in regard to the beliefs that shape our identities and direct our lives!)

It is always instructive to consider a different version of a familiar story, such as the life of Jesus told — episodically, with numerous gaps and contradictions — according to the New Testament. The usual version shows a Jesus who is celibate and unmarried. Even if we disallow Saint Paul's claim that Jesus was a superhuman being (a claim Paul makes in the narrative setting of his encounter with the Risen Christ, independent of the stories told in the Gospels), the NT narratives vaguely support the belief that Jesus was somehow more than human. As the incarnation of a divine being, and the model of perfect humanity, he could not and would not have dabbled in the down-and-dirty business of human sexuality. The belief encoded here is that sex is sinful and shameful. Sexuality both causes and characterizes our separation from God, from the Divine. This belief is initially scripted in the story of the Fall in the Old Testament: upon discovering their sexuality, Adam and Eve are rejected from Paradise (i.e., the blissful state produced by the direct presence of God). Both of these familiar narratives, OT and NT, encode the belief that Jesus, being divine, could not and did not indulge in sexual acts.

At the first level of impact, the alternative story raises the sexuality of the man Jesus into high profile. And this issue does not merely concern a man, at least not an ordinary man. If we believe that Jesus is "the Christ," a divine being, there is a further impact, a double whammy in the alternative story. The notion of a god who assumes human form and engages in sex with a mortal woman is outrageous, totally unacceptable to conventional religious views, and not only Christian views. Yet this notion iss widespread in ancient mythology and indigenous lore from around the world. Both Asian mysticism and Pagan religion present the theme of theogamy, intercourse of humans and gods, as a stock element of many narratives. Theogamy is a universal mytheme (mythic theme), a recurrent motif that generates endless stories. The mere suggestion that Jesus, if divine, could have loved a mortal woman sexually is an explosive mythic element that emerges through the MM material early on, at the first level of impact.

The alternative story presents a man who is intimately involved with a woman he considers superior to his disciples and prefers before them. Hence the much-cited passage from the Gospel of Philip (NLH II, 3, 63.32 64.5):

And the companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene. He loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended. They said to him, Why do you love her more than us? The savior replied in this way: [You had better ask] Why dont I love you the way I love her?

The kissing incident dislodges the old belief that Jesus was chaste of carnal love, and allows for other options, other things to believe about the savior.

Under the impact of this new material the mind reels and we are left speculating wildly: either Jesus was divine and carnally active, or he was not divine after all, or if he was carnally involved with Mary Magdalene and was indeed divine, their sexual relation may have been somehow sacred, or she herself may have been a divine incarnation; or, on the other hand, if both she and he were mere mortals, they may have been man and wife, a married couple who shared a spiritual mission, or she may as a mortal woman have offered her sexuality to Jesus in a sacramental act with an incarnated god, if Jesus was indeed such a god, or even if he was merely a man, but a man blessed with a special mission by God, then his intimacy with Magdalene may have been instrumental in his fulfilling that mission....

The mind toggles rapidly between narrative (Jesus kissing Magdalene) and belief (carnal love is sinful, or it isn't), back again to narrative (Jesus prefers Magdalene above his male followers) and again to belief (women can be spiritually superior to men, or they can't), again to narrative (God sent his only begotten son from heaven) and to belief (the Incarnation did not involve human sexuality, or it does), and so on through many issues. There are literally dozens of toggles to negotiate at every point in The Da Vinci Code where Dan Brown introduces one of another element of the MM Material.

Divergent Scripts

The sexuality of Jesus is the denial of his divinity, according to some arguments, yet it may be the proof of his humanity, according to others. (Diligent readers may look for the rare monograph, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion by art critic, Leo Steinberg, for startling and graphic evidence of the belief that Jesus' sexuality was essential to his divinity.) At the first level of impact, the collective imagination of Jesus, the way of picturing his life and mission in conventional terms, splits on a fracture line that runs in two distinct directions.

In one direction, Mary Magdalene emerges as the woman Jesus loved, both carnally and spiritually. She is his beloved partner and equal, his companion and spiritual ally. In the other direction, she is the woman he loves personally, yes, but their personal bond is secondary to another connection: Magdalene is regarded as Jesus' primary disciple, the main person who carries out his message and preaches in his stead. In this role, she is regarded as the first apostle, the foremost mouthpiece for Jesus' teachings. Either of these two distinct narratives can be developed from the version of Jesus' life that arises with the MM material factored into the story. These two scenarios unfold in quite different ways and offer profoundly different insights on the character of Magdalene and the power she commands in the collective psyche.

In my review of Karen King's book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, I compare and contrast these two versions of Magdalene: the lover coequal with Jesus, versus the beloved apostle who preaches the message of Jesus. In doing so, I wish to make an observation which, as far as I can tell, has been entirely missed in the growing scholarly literature on Magdalene, and largely overlooked in the popular debate as well. Namely, if Magdalene is made into an apostle-like mouthpiece for Jesus' message, the alternative story collaspes. Consequently, the MM material is co-opted by orthodox believers, Magdalen becomes part of the conventional belief-system attached to Jesus, and the possible radical impact of the alternative story is nipped in the bud.

Along this line of fracture, collective imagination does not have the chance to develop a fresh story that might yield new insights — new and unorthodox ideas about the religious value of sexuality, for instance. Portrayed as the wife of the rabbi Jesus, Magdalene becomes a role model for marriage, the dutiful wife who has nothing of her own to say, but she faithfully expounds the message of her husband. Lacking a clear and specific idea of what Jesus' message was, we are left to assume that it comes down to the orthodox party line of Christian ideology and ethics. Consequently, the figure of Magdalene is played back into the old, familiar story, even if she gets a co-starring role. Lets consider for a moment the repercussions of this line of narrative development.

The Message of Jesus

Most people, even if they are not church-going Christians, have a vague idea of what the teachings of Jesus are. These teachings are inferred from passages in the New Testament where Jesus enounces brief sayings, parables and platitudes, and offers words of advice: love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, judge not others lest you be judged, and so forth. The verbtim of Jesus cannot be strictly considered as teachings (compared, for instance, to Buddhist teachings on compassion, or the teachings of Abraham Maslow on transpersonal psychology), for they are merely statements made without exposition or explanation — yet they assume enormous power and authority. Why? Because they are enforced by ideological factors routinely associated with the figure of Jesus: he is the Incarnation, the Son of God, he is resurrected from the dead, his body and blood confer magical power through the Mass, he redeems and judges the world at the end time.

This so-called "Christology," largely derived from St. John and St. Paul and appended to the Jesus sayings, fosters the belief that Jesus was someone very special, that he was in fact THE perfect human being, the Incarnation of the Logos, the representative of the best in humanity, and the sole example of divinity who ever walked the earth. If we believe all this, we will consider the ethics proposed by Jesus in a special way, because they originate from a unique source, an authority superior to all human standards. In that case, even if the sayings are spotty and banal, not to mention impracticable, they will nevertheless be relegated to the level of divine wisdom. This is one consequence, but only one, of the blind fusion of human ethics and transmundane ideology.

This compound unit, ethics and ideology, is a two-for-one package that comes in a narrative wrapping, the life story of Jesus. Conventionally, Magdalene is just part of the wrapping, a bit player in the New Testament scenarios. With The Da Vinci Code controversy, many people are beginning to wonder if she is not part of the package. This is a huge breakthrough, indeed, because it implies that people in our time might begin to re-imagine the most influential story of history.

It is impossible to hold the imaginative ground gained by incorporating the MM material into the life story of Jesus if we revert to the ethical-ideological notions attached to him. If Magdalene is truly the first apostle, as Karen King argues, the transformative potential of the MM material is radically reduced, the imipact is dissipated, and we revert to the conventional story. Navigating along this line of fracture, women of Christian faith find in Magdalene the image of an empowered female who commands authority on matters of ethics and scriptural doctrine — in short, an upholder of Christian tradition and a mouthpiece of orthodox views. This approach may produce a more enlightened, feminized, gender-balanced version of Christianity, but it will be more of the same Christianity, nonetheless. Co-opted to the service of the Church, Magdalene ends up in the straightjacket of dogma. The first-level impact of the alternative story is not only blunted, it is limited to a desired effect within the safe and secure context of conventional faith

The Sacred Prostitute

But what develops along the other line of fracture? What about a radically Gnostic profile of Magdalene, distinct from the assumptions of the New Testament? What happens to that dangerous, scandalous figure who stands on the sidelines of the Passion? She is widely regarded as a Gnostic figure because the main texts supporting the MM material are attributed to Gnostic sources, the Nag Hammadi codices discovered in 1945 and other materials.. Fine, but the significance of Gnostic texts is always biased by the intentions of those who cite them. Gnosticism is studied because of what it can tell us about the origins of Christianity. Bizzare as it sounds, scholars do not consider Gnostic texts to be significant for what they can tell us about non-Christian Gnostic teachings!

Exploring Gnostic texts to learn about Christianity is the stated aim of top-level scholars such as Karen King and Elaine Pagels. King wants to abolish the term Gnosticism entirely, and Pagels favors the full absorption of Gnostic elements into mainstream Christianity. The unique character of Gnosis disappears, or it is merely preserved as an enhancement of Christian faith. The Gnostic teachings of Jesus are still just the teachings of Jesus. As for Gnostic teachings that cannot be attributed to Jesus, or might conflict with the accepted ideological-ethical package, who knows what they are, and who cares? Scholars such as King and Pagels certainly must know, for that is part of their job, but evidently they do not care to delineate such differences. Yet these scholars are the frontrunners who set the academic standard for the future of Gnostic studies. And it is from their work that knowledge of Gnostic ideas and practices trickles down to the mainstream.

The ever-increasing recognition of Magdalene by Christians, and the inclusion of women inspired by her image into the Church, may be a great step for the institution of Christianity, but it is bad news for Gnostics and those who hold a Gnostic view of Magdalene. At the first level of impact, the fracture clearly splits the argument into two camps. Those who would reintegrate Magdalene into orthodox Christianity, by scripting her as the first apostle and so forth, have the overwhelming majority so far, but they may not have the final say. Rehabilitating Mary Magdalene in the service of Christianity may look good at the first level of impact, but at a deeper level it will not hold together.

Those who wish to recover and restore the non-Christian aspects of the MM material are currently outnumbered, but they have the strength of archetypal and imaginal factors on their side. The deeper the impact goes, the less its favors the Christian rehabilitation of Magdalene. And the Gnostic materials go very deep, indeed. They confirm the Pagan tradition of the sacred prostitute, the priestess who anointed ancient kings in the original rites of theocracy, before it became an all-male club of petty tyrants and power-brokers. Consistent with Asian sexual mysticism, Magdalene represents the Tantric consort or dakini who initiates her male counterpart in magical acts and imbues him, body and soul, with moral finesse. If the intimate relations between Jesus and Magdalene are imagined to be Tantric, an entirely new scenario will open in the collective imagination. (It should be noted that The Da Vinci Code permutations of the MM material do not support this Tantric twist, because Dan Brown chooses to play on the Sion Scenario that portrays Jesus and Magdalene as married, child-bearing parents of a royal lineage. Tantric sex is non-conjugal and non-procreative.)

To Gnostics, Mary Magdalene was the human reflection of the Divine Sophia, a cosmic entity they called the Whore of Wisdom. In Venus in Sackcloth — a dissertation published in 1975, perhaps the earliest study of Magdalene, and still the best in most respects — Marjoria M. Malvern shows that Magdalen-Sophia is the single, most alluring and enduring figure of the Divine Feminine in history. Intimately linked to Divinity in her own right, Mary Magdalene becomes more than the co-star of Jesus. She is at once charismatic and transcendental, a woman whose authenticity as a numinous figure in human imagination well exceeds her authority as a retrofitted disciple of Jesus.

As the debate continues, the factors that associate Magdalene with Pagan spirituality, Gnostic initiation, and sacred sexuality (sexual mysticism) may prove far more potent than those that reconcile her to orthodox religion. Time will tell if the power of collective imagination is stronger than the opinions of scholars, but my guess is that it certainly is. Magdalene's fate has been more deeply affected by Dan Brown's bestseller than it was by Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels, also a bestseller in its time, yet the latter, a scholarly work aimed for the mainstream, prepared the way for the former. What is extraordinary in the current debate over The Da Vinci Code is that the fictional treatment of the MM material in Brown's bestseller is taking the discussion about Magdalene to places where the best scholarship, even as appealing that of Pagels, has yet failed to go, or dared to go. Thanks to Brown's book it might just be possible to salvage the genuine Gnostic elements in the life and mission of Mary Magdalene. This would be the most startling repercussion to result on the first level of impact, the level of the alternative story.


Ahead to Level Two: The Backstory.

Ahead to Level Three: The Love Story



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.