Women in Church Leadership
Mary of Magdala
Mary of Magdala and the Da Vinci Code

“Too often we only use the biblical framework for understanding Mary of Magdala,” said Duke theologian, Dr Teresa Berger, at the Call To Action pre conference workshop given Friday November 4, 2004 on “St. Mary of Magdala: Fact, Fiction and Feminism in Popular Culture.” “If we do this, we may miss out on other important meanings she can have for us.” Berger presented four frames through which we can view Mary of Magdala...the biblical, the traditional, popular religiosity and current cultural trends such as the Da Vinci Code. She noted that while the canonical gospels all name Mary as the first witness to the empty tomb, Paul makes no mention of her in Acts and Luke doesn’t speak of her apostolic commission. In the extra canonical Gospel of Mary, the community viewed her as an equal colleague with the other apostles and a vocal and respected leader.

Therefore Berger believes that from earliest times, there were diverse interpretations of Mary of Magdala’s leadership. In later years, the Marys of Scripture became “confused” and by the sixth century the western Church variously equated her with the woman taken in adultery, the nameless woman in Scripture who washed Jesus feet with her tears, and the anointing of Mary of Bethany. The image of Mary of Magdala as respected apostolic leader was replaced with that of a repentant prostitute who loved much. This interpretation would become the traditional understanding in the western Church, though it never caught on in the east.

Berger believes the traditional interpretation still has value from a spiritual point of view. She made an impassioned plea in behalf of women and children forced into sex slavery. Mary of Magdala’s image as forgiven and beloved former sex worker can still have powerful healing message in our day. As for the DaVinci Code? “Why replace Mary’s apostolic leadership with the far more traditional image of Mary as wife and mother, that is, only viewed according to her relationship with a man?” she asked.

In the afternoon Church historian Dr. Joseph Kelly gave an extensive, rapid fire and often humorous presentation on the “facts and fiction” in the Da Vinci Code. He began by debunking the furor arising in traditional Christian circles: “It is a work of fiction. Novelists can take greater liberties with the historical data than academics can. What is important here, and is the question we should be asking, is why has this book so captured the popular imagination?

Here is an “at-a- glance” version of some of the “facts and fiction” described by Kelly:

  • The idea of the grail as a silver chalice was based on a 12th century myth. Jesus and the apostles probably used a wooden cup. Brown’s literary genius was to transform the notion of the grail from a cup to the underlying unity of man and woman.
  • The Knights Templar did exist. They were a sort of religious order at the time of the crusades. It provided an armed guard for money and pilgrims enroute to Jerusalem . They probably did have a treasure trove of secret documents but they were likely to be financial records, not the grail.
  • The Priory of Sion. There is no evidence that it ever existed. Kelly reviewed English, German and French articles and they are not a medieval group but a fabrication dating to 1956.
  • Even though Opus Dei is a somewhat secretive organization, there has never been a hint of violence in its operations.
  • There is good evidence that there was struggle over women’s leadership roles in the early church. It is probable that women’s leadership was suppressed so the Christians could fit in better with Roman culture. Not everyone agreed with this, and traces of women’s leadership, can be found in historical, biblical and extra canonical sources.
  • There is no biblical or historical data to support the idea that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and had a child. This idea dates to a 12th century myth. For author Dan Brown, Mary of Magdala is the symbol of the ancient feminine and the marriage to Jesus symbolized the union of male and female.
  • While it is true that Constantine called the Council of Nicea, it is not true that the vote on the divinity of Christ was hotly debated, or even close. The Gospels and Paul’s letters both show an early understanding of Jesus’ divinity, some 200 years before Nicea. By a nearly unanimous vote Nicea rejected Arianism which denied Christ’s divinity.

Prepared by Christine Schenk..FutureChurch Executive Director Emerita.