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Mary Magdalene: The Struggle for Authority

By Ann Graham Brock, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003
Review By: Brian Emerson

book reviewIn an era where questions, misconceptions, and even controversy surround the person of Mary Magdalene, the need for clarity and thoughtful reflection on her life is strikingly necessary.  Today, more than ever, people are seeking trustworthy sources on the life and role of the woman who came to be known as the ‘apostle of the apostles’.  At this year’s Cleveland FutureChurch Mary Magdalene celebration we will hear from Ann Graham Brock, author and lecturer on the New Testament and the origins of early Christianity.  Her book: Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: the Struggle for Authority deals with questions surrounding her role as an apostle.  Specifically, the central point Brock grapples with is how and why Mary Magdalene’s authority was suppressed, while the leadership of Peter prevailed.  It should be noted that Brock’s work is quite scholarly and is highly footnoted, as it is an adaptation of her doctoral dissertation at Harvard University.  The caliber of research done in the book is of the highest quality, and because of such research it stands as an excellent historical resource to anyone interested in the study of Mary Magdalene and the early church.  

The book opens with an examination of apostleship in the early church.  Drawing upon New Testament and early church qualifications for apostleship, Brock examines the essence of what it means to be an apostle with a keen eye toward whether women, specifically Mary Magdalene, could be considered to be one.  Brock then turns her attention to the question of apostleship and how various writers portray church leaders in the canonical gospels, Gnostic texts, and other literature from the first century church. Specifically, Brock compares the portrayal of Peter and that of Mary Magdalene.  In the latter portion of the book, Brock returns to her examination of apostleship and specifically the role that Mary Magdalene had as the first apostle. 

At its most basic level, Brock’s work deals with the struggles of apostolic leadership and gender in the early church. She concludes that the apostleship and leadership role of Mary Magdalene was suppressed while the person and leadership of Peter were intentionally brought to the fore in order to establish without competition, one body of leadership within the early church.  She states on page 141, “An examination of early Christian texts reveals that Mary Magdalene’s prominence had to be dealt with, her position either as an apostle or an eyewitness of the resurrection is often altered, weakened, or eradicated from the narrative altogether.” The basis for such a conclusion lies in her interpretation of the texts she examines in the book and what she considers the intentional emphasis and elevation of Petrine leadership over the role of women leaders – specifically Mary Magdalene.

Brock explores a fascinating topic about the presentation of male leadership in the person of Peter, and the possible suppression of women’s leadership in the early church, in the person of Mary Magdalene.  Her conclusions easily lead to speculative questions of “what if” and “why”; questions that I’m sure many readers of this newsletter ask on a regular basis.  This book, born from an initial rejection of Brock’s ordination to ministry in one synod of the Lutheran church (she later transferred to a different synod and was ordained), provides a heart-felt motivation to an accomplished scholarly work.  It is Brock’s hope that her work will “give inspiration and authority to all Christians who, regardless of their gender, may be strengthened by her [Mary Magdalene’s] example to pursue their callings to teach and proclaim the good news of Jesus’ love for all.”

Reviewer’s Note: the choice to use “Mary Magdalene” over “Mary of Magdala” was to remain consistent with Brock’s own writing. 

Brian Emerson works in Campus Ministry and lives with his wife in South Euclid, Ohio.  Most of the time you can find him fixing up his home or enjoying life in the greater Cleveland area.

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