The Magdalene Connection
THE MYTH OF CHOICE
LEVEL TWO: The BackstoryIn the standard formulas of screenwriting, the backstory is the part of the script that presents background on the main characters. In The Silence of the Lambs we see a female detective, played by Jodie Foster, hunting a serial killer. The backstory concerns the detective’s loss of her father, a policeman. At his death she is placed in foster care with people who raise sheep for slaughter. In a skillful narrative manipulation, the serial killer Hannibal Lector, played by Anthony Hopkins, extracts the backstory from Foster’s character, Clarisse Starling, in exchange for information on the killer she is pursuing. The title of the film carries a special poignancy because it refers to the backstory rather than the main story.
Sometimes the backstory contains the hidden core of the main
story. In Star Wars the backstory about Darth Vadar
emerges to determine the profile of the main story when Luke
Skywalker discovers that the evil magician is his father. So
important is the backstory of Star Wars that it becomes
the germ of the entire narrative sequence of later films in the
trilogy. (In Hollywood the “prequel” is a gimmick
for making films from the backstory of a previously released
film.) In the Star Wars trilogy, the arc of the main
story leads to full-blown disclosure of the backstory.
At the first level of impact, The Da Vinci Code suggests an alternative story about Jesus, but the way Madgalene is scripted into this story is still wide-open to debate. As we have seen, she can easily be co-opted and reabsorbed into the conventional story from the New Testament. Scripting Magdalene as a faithful wife and disciple of Jesus is an option at the first level, but as the debate deepens there is another, more radical choice that effectively rules out a Magdalene who might be reconciled to the Church. At a certain point the alternative version of the Jesus story mutates beyond the Gospel narratives. This is where it veers toward the backstory, the part of the Jesus life that precedes and sets up the known version. In the backstory the Pagan and Gnostic elements come to the forefront of the narrative.
The Gnostic Magdalene is, by definition, a heretic. And so, by association, is Jesus. But what exactly is a heretic? And how could Jesus, the designated founder of Christianity, be a heretic who held ideas opposed to known and accepted Christian doctrines? Is the Christian message attributed to Jesus contradicted by another message, a Gnostic teaching half-concealed in the Jesus' story? These questions are baffling, but to the extent that we find Gnostic elements in Gnostic texts, contrary to the scholarly practice of finding Christian or proto-Christian elements in Gnostic texts, we can indeed discover a non-Christian Magdalene, and even a non-Christian Jesus, lurking in the background of the conventional Jesus story. Through the backstory Magdalene emerges as both an exemplar and exponent of Pagan, pre-Christian and explicitly non-Christian spirituality.
The teachings and practices of the Gnostics were branded as heresy by early Christian doctrinarians, the Church Fathers. Apparently, some Gnostics of the first centuries AD protested against certain Christian doctrines. They objected to both the divinity of Christ and the ethics of Jesus, but exactly how and why they did so, and in what terms they framed their protest, are extremely difficult to ascertain. Why? Because the Church Fathers not only sought to refute the Gnostic protest, they also attempted to eliminate all records of it, all first-hand testimony of what the Gnostic protest. To that end, Church authorities engaged in a centuries-long campaign to seek out and destroy all Gnostic writings.
The sad and shocking truth is, they succeeded. To this day no original Gnostic text survives. (Most scholars consider the codices discovered at Nag Hammadi to be original Gnostic writings, but I disagree.) Yet historians affirm that Gnostics were prolific writers who produced an endless stream of books, discourses and commentaries. The Church Fathers openly condemn Gnostics for producing ever new material on the gods, the cosmos and the human soul. In a concerted effort that continued for centuries, the defenders of orthodoxy managed to destroy countless original documents. The Da Vinci Code elaborates on secret underground traditions that preserve the lost heretical teachings, but this may be a purely fictional embellishment. What is not fiction, but the hard fact of history, is the enormous program of persecution that resulted in the elimination of all original textual evidence of Gnosis, the crown jewel of Pagan spirituality.
Lacking original and authentic textual evidence of Gnostic views, the Gnostic profile of Magdalene and her role in the backstory must be constructed from other materials that provide a picture of the pre-Christian world in which the Jesus story is set.
Were it told in full, the backstory of the life of Jesus would describe the rich panoply of pre-Christian spirituality including orgiastic cults of nature, the rites of divine mania (inspired madness), Eros and Agape, elaborate cosmologies of mating gods, devotions to the Magna Mater (the Earth Goddess, Gaia), and the vast mosaic of the Mystery Schools, the university system of antiquity. Tolerance and cross-cultural exchange were the norms of the ancient world. "The pagan gods, even the gods of the Mysteries, are not jealous of one another; they form, as it were, an open society." (Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, p. 48) The tolerant and multifarious religious movements of Mediterranean culture are the setting for the rise of Christianity. Scholars of Gnostic materials must be informed on all this, of course, but they tend to play it down, if not entirely dismiss it. What the well-educated lay person today knows about pre-Christian and non-Christian religion in Europa is practically nothing, because Pagan religion and culture are never considered in their own right, but only as they relate to Christianity, the movement that conquered, co-opted and eliminated them. Just as Gnostic texts are not valued for what they tell us about Gnosticism, the backstory of Jesus is not valued for what it can tell us about the vast and varied religious life of Pagan antiquity.
As repercussions unfold at the second level of impact, the MM material may change this situation for good and all. It may finally bring widespread attention to the backstory, the epic tale of the lost Pagan heritage of Europe. The alternative version of the life of Jesus could expand into an entire scenario in which both figures, Jesus and Magdalene, might be imagined as spiritual teachers in the pre-Christian setting. Since Christianity arose in a pre-Christian setting, it is perfectly legitimate to view Jesus without the filter of conventional attributes. At least one scholar, Gnostic specialist Morton Smith, has made major inroads in this direction. In Jesus the Magician Smith shows that people in the time that Jesus lived would not have viewed him as Christians do today, but in quite a different manner, as a miracle-worker and Pagan faith-healer.
Romantic and spiritual love were often identical in Pagan morality.
With the male exclusivity of the Jesus story, the gender-balanced
options of the backstory are blocked out. To imagine Jesus and
Magdalene in their non-Christian roles is not difficult, however.
They resemble many noble and magnanimous people of their time,
such as this Etruscan couple pictured on a sarcophagus lid.
(Ponto Rotto necropolis, Vulci. 4 C CE. Haynes, Etruscan Civilization.)
The period when Jesus lived was pervaded by a particular Zeitgeist, a spirit of the times. In many respects, the spirit of that historical era resembles the New Age counterculture of our time. Through the ancient world a paradigm shift was in effect, due to a number of convergent factors. This overall development is too complex to analyze here; suffice it to say that it was mainly triggered by a change in the idea of fate. The main catalyst of this shift was public disclosure of the precession of the equinoxes by Hipparchus around 150 BCE. Obscure as this matter might seem to us today, the revelation of precession carried a powerful message for the mainstream: namely, the realm of the fixed heavens, identified as the source of fate, was subject to change, and so fate also could be changed. This idea broke like a tidal wave across the ancient world.
The idea that one’s personal fate could be changed, changed the face of the ancient world. Many people were convinced that a New Age was dawning. In fact it was: the Piscean Age, computed by astronomical methods, began around 120 BCE, precisely times to the rise of the Messianic movements that set for the stage for Jesus of Palestine. In the rush of anticipation, thousands of New Age teachers and preachers, including many charlatans, appeared to explain the shift, exploit the attendent social chaos, and guide people through the transition. The key theme of the Piscean Age was liberation of the personal self into its own frame of destiny. There was a catch, however. People who lived under the rule of fate accepted their given roles in life as set, predetermined, but when the rule of fate was suspended people were cut loose from the framework that defined them, social and spiritually, and determined the course of their lives. With the dawn of the Piscean Age many social and spiritual control-systems began to disintegrate. Liberation of the personal self brought social chaos, and with this chaos, the universal call for guidance.
Initiates at Large
This Piscean shift threatened the status of those revered Pagan institutions of spiritual development, the Mysteries. For centuries humanity had been guided by the initiates of the Mysteries, but this guidance was intended for transpersonal aims, rather than personal ends. The telos, sacred purpose, of the Mysteries was twofold: service to the Great Goddess, Gaia-Sophia, and education of the human race. With the Piscean shift, the masses were desperately in need, not of spiritual training in experimental mysticism, but of guidance in their mundane personal lives. Responding to this crisis, teachers in the Mystery Schools considered how to “mainstream” their work, even though the intense accent on self-concern (that is, concern for one’s personal fate) was contrary to their long-standing program of transpersonal service.
In the backstory, Jesus and Magdalene can be imagined as guru-type teacher-healers among the many who emerged from the inner sanctum of the Mystery Schools and went public. Although their work was normally carried out in anonymity, confined to the inner sanctum of the Schools, they were compelled to go against tradition to meet the needs of the time — their purpose, after all, being to serve humanity, not pander to human egotism.
The example of Simon Magus and his companion, Helen, is apposite. Simon is considered to be “the first Gnostic,” simply because he was the first Mystery initiate to be identified by name. In reality, he was merely one of the first adepts who came out in the open. Simon was a true Gnostic version of Jesus, a defiant mystic who opposed the doctrines of Jews and Christians, a kind but ruthless teacher, a wizard who exhibited occult powers. He regarded his companion, Helen, whom legend said he found in a brothel, as the embodiment of the Divine Sophia. This is an exact parallel to the Pagan model of Magdalene, the sacred prostitute, also identified with the Sophia.
The backstory of Jesus is immense, encompassing the full spectrum of events and movements that marked the start of the Piscean Age. Books like Jesus the Magician by Morton Smith and The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker present sections of the story, but so far there has been no adequate treatment of this complex historical picture. To tell what happened to the Pagan world in the Piscean Age, we need identifiable characters who can be shown to have lived out that decisive moment, whose repercussions we are still feeling. (Technically, the Piscean Age does not end until around 2800 CE, but a tentative conclusion may occur around 2200 CE.)
In their non-Christian profiles, Jesus and Magdalene could be the central actors in an epic story of the Piscean Age. Regarded as a sexual icon, Magdalene may just be the “strange attractor” who draws attention to the backstory. Gnostic texts portray her as a female initiate of the Mysteries, a Gnostic mistress “who knew the All,” practiced sexual initiations, taught beside her male counterpart in the egalitarian system of the Mystery Schools, and, perhaps, emerged into public life a healer and guide.
Dan Brown’s book has whetted the appetite of the world to learn about the heretical and non-Christian background of Christianity. The taboo on the Pagan past has been lifted. Perhaps the prequel to Jesus’ life will eventually be written some day, if only as fiction. We are also learning from The Da Vinci Code that fiction can be a vehicle of truth as potent as fact, or perhaps even more potent.
Back to Level One : The Alternative Story
Ahead to Level Three: The Love Story
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.