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

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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."

Related Stories and Online Features

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National Geographic magazine Online Feature and Gallery:
Abraham: Journey of Faith

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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