This extraordinary woman is at the heart of Marriages of the Magdalene. Yet she was not the inspiration behind my novel – at least not at first, although when she entered it felt inevitable and right.
A story often emerges as an impulse after you have spent time with a subject, years sometimes. I had been trying to rediscover lost Christianity by scraping away centuries of overlaid dross, while finding that even so-called heresies that had to flow underground had been diverted by various interpretations. The impulse came with my conviction that early Christianity was a mystery, and the writings of those first followers of The Way were and are initiatory documents about love that cannot be limited by human minds. My story became a personal manifesto combining mysticism and feminism.
In a spiritually focused ancient world, the mysteries (from Greek musterion, ‘hidden’) offered paths of initiation, leading serious seekers into deeper layers beneath the surface. The message of the Christ needed to be readily accessible to newcomers. The gospels and the letters of Paul speak of hidden teachings behind the literal sense. Not available to those who did not yet have ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’, the keys to decode this sense would be given after a time of preparation. In other words Christian groups continued the tradition of Judaism and the pagan mysteries where only those who were ready could know the secrets. It was a new mystery.
The image-filled stories of the original disciples were passed on orally at first by those with direct personal experience of the man called Jesus. These remembrances were written down and kept within particular closed circles. All gospels would have been attributed to a disciple or apostle. By the mid-second century Irenaeus of Lugdunum (Lyon) was insisting that only four among the many gospels were authentic: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In time these four formed the official gospel canon or ‘rule’. Three of these gospels, called synoptic, coincide at most points. ‘John’ tells a different history. Yet it was included in the canon for its cosmic vision − Clement of Alexandria called it ‘the spiritual gospel’ because it speaks of the incarnation of the mighty spirit called Logos or Word.
Unlike the other gospels, there is no institution of the Eucharist at the last supper. Instead Jesus is portrayed sharing long discourses. Given the hidden levels beneath external events, these would be expositions of post-resurrection awakening experienced by the anonymous author, teachings for those ready for deeper understanding and entry into the mystery.
I had found my leading character, although not his identity. I needed to get to know him. The writing reveals an erudite man with wide knowledge. But by the late second century, to tidy up loose ends he was being merged with one of the twelve disciples, a simple fisherman called John Zebedee from rural Galilee. More recently efforts have been made to decipher his identity from clues in the gospel. Despite continuing debate, the hidden author is generally recognized now as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, commonly called the Beloved Disciple. Internal evidence also suggests that he was Lazarus, who underwent the death-like trance of initiation at Bethany. I would discover more.
Yet as I explored his story another voice kept intruding, like a whisper at first but becoming stronger. It was the Magdalene. Of course, her story was essential to unfold the mystery of the Way in which there is neither male nor female but rather the undivided self.
She appears in all four gospels but has her most significant roles in ‘John’, as a leading disciple, also loved by Jesus, the first person to see the risen Christ, the apostle to the apostles. In a real sense she is the female counterpart to the male initiate portrayed there.
If misinformation has disguised the gospel writer, Mary Magdalene has been treated abominably as she came to be sidelined along with the other female disciples and leaders of the early communities.
The male domination of the church has long been a bone of contention for feminists, including those who are Christians. The church as an institution emerged within a patriarchal society and through the centuries, while wars were fought over which version of Christianity was correct, the church’s misogyny would increase.
Pope Gregory the Great had a lot to do with the trashing of Mary Magdalene. He combined a number of women appearing in the gospels to build a composite character. In 591 the pope declared in his homily number 33:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be Mary from
whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?
Those vices came to be known as the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth and lust. The Magdalene had them all.
Gregory adds, ‘It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.’ The ‘forbidden acts’, sexual ones, meant she was a prostitute. Then healed of her sins and repenting, she became a second Eve, compensating for the sin of the first Eve who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation.
By the thirteenth century Mary Magdalene had been adopted by the Franciscans and Dominicans as the most repentant sinner ever. She became a tortured symbol of penance. This is what Renaissance sculptor Donatello was trying to convey in his astonishing expressionistic Mary Magdalene, eternally penitent in the wilderness. Here is a detail.
Today there are excellent, well researched feminist reassessments of the Magdalene story, for example by Jane Schaberg and Susan Haskins. I called on this information in creating the truth of my Magdalene. Rediscovered documents support a rethink of her significance. The Gospel of Mary, a Coptic text that came to light in 1896 (the Greek original may have been written in the early second century) depicts her as closest to Jesus and the recipient of his deeper knowledge, in contrast to the ignorant male disciples.
More of the Magdalene’s original importance as a major disciple and apostle reappeared in the cache of gnostic writings discovered in an urn in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Dating from the third and fourth centuries, they are expositions of gnostic philosophy rather than historical records. Gnostic belief focused on the ‘real’ spiritual world unlike this flawed created one. The human Magdalene was inevitably absorbed into that story – as the Gnostic’s perfect guide to knowledge of the Divine, or the soul reunited in the heavens with her divine counterpart to become a ‘bride’ on a spiritual level.
Marriages of the Magdalene is about that spiritual union, discovered inwardly, and the kind of relationships this might open up in the world. Yet charismatic Mary Magdalene, the Beloved Disciple’s equal partner, was forgotten. Or was she? Legends that grew up around her ran parallel to orthodoxy. And pilgrims still folow her legendary trail. Mary Magdalene is still a potent inspiration, for women especially.