The Straight Dope

I recall reading an article in the Bodega Bay Navigator by one of their staff columnists who is a minister. He said there is some evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife. This does seem to make sense. Is it true?

-- adorablyred, via the Internet

Now, Mary Magdalene -- there's a topic we can go to town on. For the benefit of you heathens, Mary Magdalene is one of only a handful of female figures in the New Testament. All that's definitely stated about her in the Gospels is that (1) she and two other women watched as Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:40) and later as he was laid in the tomb (15:47); (2) she and the other women went to the tomb on the third day to anoint the body but instead found a young man who said that Christ was risen and that they should tell the others, at which point they fled in terror (16:1-8); and (3) subsequently Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, "out of whom he had cast seven devils," and she told the others but they did not believe (16:9).

There are a few other details in Matthew and Luke, some of which conflict with the above account on minor points. The most interesting version, however, is in John, thought to be the last Gospel written. In it the empty tomb is discovered and Mary Magdalene keeps vigil beside it, weeping. Jesus appears, but she fails to recognize him and, thinking him the gardener, asks if he knows where the body has been taken. "Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say Master" (John 20:16). One of the most poignant scenes in all of world literature, this no doubt inspired much of the subsequent Mary Magdalene legend. As far as the Gospels go, there's a bit more in John, but that's about it.

You're thinking: Wait a sec. Everybody knows that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, that she washed Jesus' feet with her hair, that he forgave her sins, and so on.

Except we don't know that. Luke tells the story of a woman, "a sinner," probably but not certainly a prostitute, who throws herself at Jesus' feet, anoints him, et cetera, while he's having dinner at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Luke first mentions Mary Magdalene immediately following this incident (8:2).

Luke and John also tell us about the disciples Mary and Martha of Bethany, who are sisters. John adds that the women have a brother, Lazarus, who's later raised from the dead, and that Jesus loved all three.

For centuries many have assumed that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the prostitute were one and the same. Indeed, this was made a matter of Christian dogma in the Sixth Century. You can see what it all adds up to. Mary M. is a sexually licentious woman, but Jesus forgives her and loves her. She watches him die, finds his body gone, sees him but fails to recognize him. Mary. Master. Noli me tangere. Once I was a man, now I am thy God. It's a powerful story of erotic denial and spiritual redemption. A Mary Magdalene cult arose in the Middle Ages and flowered during the Renaissance, when artists depicted her as a beautiful woman, generally in various stages of undress. Only in fairly recent times have people speculated that Mary and Jesus were lovers, e.g., The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (Baigent et al., 1982), the dream sequence in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). But the suggestion has been there for a long time.

It's probably all crap. Scholars have believed for a long time that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the prostitute were three separate women. In some ways Mary Magdalene comes off better in this interpretation, since she's stripped of the erotic baggage and emerges as arguably Jesus' most devoted disciple, a witness till the end. But the story doesn't work as well on an emotional level. Hey, my job is popping bubbles, so consider this one popped. But writing at the remove of two thousand years, I can also say: Coulda been. For a beautiful retelling of the Magdalene story, from which the above is drawn, see Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor (1994) by Susan Haskins.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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