Could there be a distinctly Magdalene Christianity?
And is it relevant today? To answer these questions, I felt the need first to go back to her times when her experience would be fresh as the dawn.
Although Hebrew women once participated fully in community life, by the first century their circumference had been greatly reduced, to the extent that a Jewish man considered it a blessing to have been born male. In this culture boys sat daily at the feet of a rabbi to be taught the holy Law called the Torah, mostly by memorising large parts of the text. Females rarely received that kind of education. But on the day of rest they too listened to readings of the sacred works. To be Jewish meant knowledge of the Law, and women made sure it was practised in the home, their sphere of influence.
A revolutionary message and what subsequently happened
Then came the revolutionary teachings of Jesus that did not exclude women from full and active participation. They travelled with him and contributed to his ministry, as described in the four gospels that became part of the New Testament canon. In some of these accounts you can pick up a certain reluctance to give credence to the witness of mere women. But they couldn’t be left out, and among the early Christians we see a radical, inclusive way of life where women – for example those addressed in the letters of the great evangeliser Paul – were organizers, teachers and leaders.
A woman preaching or leading the Eucharist - drawing on a wall in the Roman catacombs where Christians met in secret
Equality wasn’t to last. As the church became established as an institution females were again relegated to insignificance in the important affairs of a male world. Although memories of the sacred feminine adhere in many spiritual philosophies, (e.g Gnosticism) the high place of the feminine has rarely been reflected in earthly behaviours and structures. This imbalance became a major motivation for the current wide-ranging investigations into ancient goddesses. Mary Magdalene has been swept up in the momentum as a kind of popular icon of ‘the return of the goddess’. Finding her is like ploughing through an overgrown field.
But what a powerful woman she must have been! That’s the picture arising from my researches. Her title rightly comes from magdal, ‘the tower’. And distinct from countless goddesses, she was a real woman. She lived in historical time. She walked the earth, in the body, in first-century Palestine and was personally involved in the life of Jesus. She would have spoken about him from her own experience. And she would have recounted events from her feminine vision. That’s why I needed to dig deeper into what a first-century Jewish woman might have understood about the feminine aspect of the divine.
What Mary Magdalene knew
Mary Magdalene lived at a time when the idea of the deity as a ruling patriarch had gained prominence (its grip would go on to be almost immoveable). Yet from time immemorial there have been heavenly counterparts of humanity – male and female – as on earth, so it is in heaven. When Ezra and the fifth century BCE scribes consolidated the religion of Israel, they wanted to expunge the Canaanite goddesses with their ecstatic rites from the land. They respected ancient knowledge, however, and goddesses remained hidden throughout the Hebrew Bible. But they were lost in Latin and later English translations, the languages of the church. These are abstract languages that dilute or erase the evocative pictures of the Hebrew. For example, wisdom for us is a worthwhile value and in the book of Proverbs that’s how it is interpreted. But Wisdom (hokhmah) is the Tree of Life (Prov. 3:18) and a divine being, and she was active alongside the creator ‘. . . before the beginning of the earth’ (Prov. 8:23).
Even the story of creation has been drastically simplified and glossed over by translations. In the first chapter of Genesis the Hebrew word elohim is translated as God, although it is a plural noun and not specifically gendered. The word elohim is sometimes used for a goddess, as in 1 Kings 11:5 ‘Ashtoreth the elohim’.
In English, verse 1 of Genesis starts with ‘In the beginning’ (bereshith). That’s a general, non-specific term. When those Hebrews of old heard the creation story read to them, every word and every letter evoked a picture. Bereshith evoked a seed-head, that is the archetypal world-egg. And it was from within this world-egg, fertilised by the masculine divine aspect, that the heavens and the earth were to be born. Then verse 2 states that ‘the spirit (ruach) of God (elohim) was moving over (m’rachephet) the face of the waters’ – m’rachephet has also been translated as ‘brooded like a bird’, which captures something of the original imagery.
M’rachephet brought forth an imaginative picture of a female bird on a nest, warming her eggs, brooding – a word originally associated with incubation (we still hear of a hen being ‘broody’) – although this was never a literal bird; it was the spiritual power of heat. The profound story of creation includes a feminine aspect of deity radiating this power, warming the archetypal world-egg, and hatching creation.
In later rabbinic literature the feminine spirit could still be found. Shekhinah, the manifestation of God in the living world, is a feminine noun from a root word meaning, ‘dwell’ or ‘settle’. It was also used for nesting birds, which focused an alert reader towards the brooding spirit present at the inception of creation.
In churches, old and new images of the Holy Spirit as a dove are placed over a sphere – an echo (possibly unconscious) of the divine feminine brooding over the world-egg
Of course, Mary Magdalene would have known about the divine feminine and experienced it intuitively as she listened to readings from the Torah. Many of my findings on this subject were woven into the novel Marriages of the Magdalene. The following is one such passage. Naphtali, Mary’s cousin is the narrator. Here as a rather literal minded lad, he is reacting to some of the unexpected things she has told him. He questions his learned (and quite a bit older) brother Nathanael:
Nathanael smiled at my worried face and said, ‘You can trust what our cousin Miryam (Mary) says.’
‘But a goddess …’
‘That doesn’t deny our teachings, Naphtali. I suggest you put your curiosity to better use. Then one day when you’ve learnt enough you’ll be able to look more deeply into our sacred writings. You’ll find that the old goddess has not been rejected but only disguised. She has many expressions. She is our Torah, the vessel for our sacred covenant. She can be found in Solomon’s wise Proverbs …’
‘I know; as Hokhmah. Her name tells us she is all wisdom. In the Proverbs she brings us discernment, integrity, understanding and justice,’ I said to show him I was learning already.
My brother looked mildly impressed. ‘Yes, Hokhmah is in fact Divine Wisdom. She was with the Creator at the beginning when he established the shape of the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth. It follows that the goddess must be hidden within the story of creation itself. Think about it, Naphtali. Erets is the earth, from whose body we gather all vegetation, all plants and trees with their seed and fruit. Erets is not dead matter but a living being and she’s imbued with Hokhmah’s wisdom. Solomon was called wise when he learned the secrets Hokhmah wove into the kingdoms of nature.’
He paused. Then with the thoughtful questioning familiar to me he began to move along his own trail. ‘So, in various ways our scribe does honour the goddess, although he has made her dependent on our Lord. Yet some say she was originally an equal authority in the oldest layer of the Torah. I wonder what such a relationship might bring to our religion …’
I wondered about that also, although the relationship had not been lost completely. And echoes of the archetypal goddess lingered in Greek translations of the Hebrew. In the first century, Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria was aligning the Torah with Greek philosophy. He described Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) as the inseparable counterpart of the power of creation called Logos, the Word. The scholarly and profound Gospel of John is imbued with this philosophy. So when the author speaks of the Logos (Word) incarnating into the world, in a famous Prologue that sums up the whole gospel, he assumes the presence of Sophia.
In the Gospels Sophia is there as Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan. A holy spirit hovered over him like a dove. This feminine image of the spirit directly references the goddess of primal creation. It begins a story that is not about churches or doctrines but rather a spiritual reality, both cosmic and within the individual, that must incorporate the feminine. This is often forgotten by the patriarchy.
The goddess of creation, the world-egg and the Magdalene
One of the attributes associated with Mary Magdalene is an egg, which she holds in many of her images. I have included one such picture. Attempts to explain this gave rise to some silly stories. In truth, she holds the symbol of the world-egg that is incubated by Hokhmah/Sophia the goddess of creation. The Magdalene is speaking to us and reminding us. She represents an all-encompassing spirituality. She stands as the courageous visionary and a model for all women who still today must walk a tightrope through a male dominated world. Yet although born from a woman’s experience, as woman is mother to us all, what she understood is relevant to all seekers. We cannot restore wholeness until ‘she’ takes her place in external society and the inner life of the soul.
There's a whole lot more to explore about a distinctive ‘Magdalene Christianity’. I'll continue her exraordinary story in further posts.