Women in Church Leadership
Mary of Magdala
What the Da Vinci Code Owes to Women

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

by Christine Schenk

For more than four years Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has topped The New York Times' bestseller list. While church hierarchy, historians and theologians variously denounce, debate or debunk his reworking of a 12th-century myth that Jesus was married to Mary of Magdala, few have speculated about why this engaging work of fiction has so captured the popular imagination.

Mr. Brown's masterful weaving of the medieval and the modern into a suspense-filled thriller would hold anyone's attention. For a while. But for four years? The book's popularity shows little sign of diminishing. Hollywood plans to shoot the movie version and travel agencies are booking tours to favored Da Vinci Code sites in France, Rome and Scotland.

Mr. Brown struck a chord in popular culture because people are more knowledgeable about the leadership roles held by women in early Christianity, roles eventually suppressed by male church leaders. For example, by the sixth century the preeminent first witness to the Resurrection, Mary of Magdala, was remembered not as the "Apostle to the Apostles," as early church fathers called her, but as a prostitute. The Vatican finally withdrew this label in 1969, but few people heard about the withdrawal until recently.

For the past 50 years, a critical mass of feminist historians, biblical scholars and archaeologists, both male and female, have been studying ancient texts and excavation sites. Thanks to their painstaking work, we now have proof that Jesus included women in his closest discipleship, that women probably underwrote his Galilean mission and that women held leadership and ministerial roles in the early church identical to those held by men.

Inscriptions and images, found on papyri, tombstones, frescos and mosaics in Rome, Sicily, Jerusalem, Northern Africa, Egypt, Belgium, Jordan and Spain show early Christian women serving their communities as apostles, prophets, teachers of theology, priests, stewards, deacons and bishops.

These early women officeholders were eventually suppressed by a philosophical system that viewed them as defective males and by a culture that accepted female leadership at home but not in public. When Constantine used Christianity to consolidate the crumbling Roman Empire, worship moved away from house churches where women's leadership was accepted, to public venues, often Roman law courts, where women's leadership violated cultural norms of honor and shame. A woman leader speaking publicly was viewed as outside her husband's control and therefore dishonorable.

That early male church leaders suppressed women's leadership is a known fact: "Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong," said Pope Gelasius in 494. Despite the witness of Jesus, who welcomed women into his close discipleship (Luke 8:1-3), most churchmen did not follow St. Paul's practice of accepting women such as Prisca, whom Paul called a "coworker in Christ" (Romans 16:3). Instead, they sought accommodation with the dominant culture in order to both spread the Gospel and avoid persecution. Not only were the significant contributions of female leaders lost to history but so was Christianity's first bright witness to the God in whose image both women and men are made.

Feminist biblical scholarship entered our cultural awareness because for the past 20 years, colleges, universities and high schools have routinely offered it as part of their religious studies programs. Knowledge about the suppression of information about women leaders such as Mary of Magdala seems to have lent a certain dubious credibility to the central "secret" of Brown's book: that she was married to Jesus and bore his child, beginning a royal bloodline that continues to this day.

Eminent scholars are unanimous that there is no real biblical or historical evidence to support this claim and other factoids in Mr. Brown's fictional universe. But popular culture easily overlooks this, perhaps seeing it for what it is: a literary carrier for the far larger truth that the new "holy grail" is the mutuality of love meant to exist between women and men--perhaps the first and best gift given by the God who loves us all.

[St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk is the Executive Director Emerita of FutureChurch, a national coalition of Catholics working for full participation in the life of the church. In 1998 she initiated international celebrations of Mary of Magdala's July 22 feast.]

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