"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.

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