"Da Vinci Code" Spurs Debate -- Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
Updated May 17, 2006
The runaway best seller The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown—to
be released as a Tom Hanks movie on Friday—resurrects a 2,000-year-old secret
it says has been concealed by the Catholic Church.

Spoiler warning: This report reveals a key point of The Da Vinci Code. If you are not concerned about spoiling the surprise, read on.

The supposed secret? Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, they had a child, and their descendants walk among us today.

It's an intriguing contention. Not that it's necessarily true. Many scholars scoff at Brown's appeals to scholarship, arguing that the bloodline theory has been around for centuries and thoroughly discredited as a fraud.

But the unrelenting hype surrounding the movie and the phenomenal success of the novel—more than six million copies have been sold—has cast light on controversial and forgotten Christian texts, some of which challenge the traditional narrative laid out in the Bible.

More specifically, The Da Vinci Code has resurrected an old debate about one of the most elusive figures in Christianity: Mary Magdalene.

Depicted by the Church as a prostitute, Mary Magdalene was an intimate disciple of Christ. She is described by all four Gospels in the New Testament as being present at both the Crucifixion of Jesus and the empty tomb on the morning of his resurrection. Yet the Bible doesn't reveal much about her.

But additional clues about Mary Magdalene can be found outside the Bible, in the controversial gospel of Mary. Apparently written in the second century by a Christian sect, it is the only existing early Christian gospel written in the name of a woman. The gospel of Mary is generally accepted as authentic, even by the Church, though its veracity and importance are very much up for debate.

According to Karen King, a history professor at Harvard University's Divinity School and one of the world's leading authorities on the subject, Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ never married—for one thing, no text identifies them as man and wife. But Mary was actually an apostle to whom Jesus revealed deep theological insights, and she may have played an important role in the development of early Christianity.

"This gospel changes the understanding of the tradition of Mary Magdalene and the Church," said King, whose recent book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle is the first English-language study of the gospel of Mary. "It argues that Mary understood Jesus' teachings better than the other disciples and was able to preach them," King said.

A New Path

The major manuscript of the gospel of Mary is found in a fifth-century papyrus book, written in the Coptic language, that appeared on the Cairo antiquities market in 1896. It was purchased by a German scholar and first published in 1955.

Other pieces of the gospel of Mary, which date back to the third century and were written in Greek, were also found in Egypt. King estimates that the original gospel of Mary was written between A.D. 125 and 175. In contrast, the Gospels in the New Testament were written in the first century.

Because approximately ten pages of the gospel of Mary are still lost, only about half of the text is known. The existing narrative presents a radical interpretation of Jesus' teachings as a path to "inner spirituality." Parts of the text contradict teachings found in the New Testament.

"There are some things in the gospel of Mary that strike deeply heretical chords," King said. "For example, there is no physical resurrection in this text. Instead, we see the resurrection of the soul, in which the body is dissolved back into matter or into nothingness."

The gospel of Mary argues against a second coming of the Christ. It rejects Jesus's suffering and death as a path to eternal life. In this gospel Jesus even says there is no such thing as sin.

"The centrality of the death and resurrection in Christian theology is sin and atonement," King said. "That's absent in the gospel of Mary."

Early Debates

Most Christians stick to the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and are dismissive of non-canonical texts, like the gospel of Mary, which many view as an attack on the New Testament.

King says she's not arguing that texts like the gospel of Mary should be included in the New Testament. But, she says, there are things we can learn from it.

"To a historian, all this is authentic information about Christianity," she said. "This simply shows that views were under intense debate in the early church."

In A.D. 325, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine, gathered a group of bishops to promulgate a creed, which was to become the founding statement of Christian doctrine in the West. Constantine did not, as suggested in The Da Vinci Code, invent a doctrine of the divinity of Christ—Christ's divinity was already described in the New Testament.

Magdalene the Feminist

Some people say Mary Magdalene is popular today because she introduces a stronger feminine element in the spirituality of Christianity.

"As a feminist, I'm certainly delighted and intrigued by the idea of a gospel attributed to a woman," said King, who leads a Bible study at her Episcopalian church.

Some men, however, may have been threatened by Mary Magdalene. In the gospel of Mary, the male apostles are shown to be hostile to Mary when she tries to cheer them by revealing some of the teachings that Jesus imparted to her alone before his death. "Did he choose her over us?" an incredulous Peter asks.

Beginning in the fifth century, Catholic leaders began referring to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, perhaps because they wanted to undermine the capacity of women to appeal to Mary Magdalene for legitimacy and leadership.

As for a marital relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, suggested by The Da Vinci Code, King dismisses the idea. "Looking at the history of early Christianity, there's no evidence at all that they were married," she said.

Still, King says she enjoyed The Da Vinci Code—but as a fast-paced mystery novel, not a history lesson.

"As a historian, I'm delighted that people are actually interested in finding out more about the history," she said. "I don't think they're going to find any conspiracies or things that have been kept away from them purposely. But we have a larger repertoire of early Christian literature than we once had. Much of this is taking people by surprise simply because they didn't know there was other literature."

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National Geographic magazine Online Feature and Gallery:
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Related Web Sites:
Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown
The Gospel of Mary Magdala (Polebridge Press)
Karen L. King—The Gospel of Mary Magdala
Read a translation of Mary's Gospel

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