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Who framed Mary Magdalene?

As a new film about her life emerges, scholars are arguing for Mary Magdalene to be deemed a prominent leader of the early church. Sarah MacDonald on this much maligned character


Misunderstood: Mary Magdalene, seen here in a 1635 painting by Guido Reni, was airbrushed out of the picture from the beginnings of Christianity

Misunderstood: Mary Magdalene, seen here in a 1635 painting by Guido Reni, was airbrushed out of the picture from the beginnings of Christianity

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film


Misunderstood: Mary Magdalene, seen here in a 1635 painting by Guido Reni, was airbrushed out of the picture from the beginnings of Christianity

For many, in the context of the #MeToo campaign's efforts to empower women, a new Mary Magdalene biopic for release this week is a must see. Those tempted to dismiss the film as a swords-and-sandals biblical epic lose sight of its radical portrayal of a strong, independent female challenging social and religious norms in the Holy Land in the first century AD. But it is also likely to provoke a knee-jerk reaction among conservative Christians determined to do down any tampering with Christianity's founding story.

A pity, because this is a film which could generate an important debate over why the woman, who was Jesus's most faithful follower and remained with him as he died, while the other apostles fled, and was the first witness to his resurrection, was airbrushed out of the picture from the very beginnings of Christianity.

She is, according to the film's director, Garth Davis, one of the most "misunderstood spiritual figures in history".

Mary Magdalene's character was traduced by Pope Gregory the Great in 591 when he declared her a prostitute, albeit a repentant one. That papal misreading of the gospel narrative and conflation of different Marys, including the one who washed Jesus's feet with her tears, into 'Mary Magdalene the prostitute' became an established myth, with artists down the centuries drawn by the dramatic potential of the sensual temptress.


Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the new film

As Pope Gregory so eloquently put it: "It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts..."

Epithets variously referred to her as 'penitent Mary' and 'great sinner'. This misconception about Mary Magdalene was somewhat corrected in 2016 when the Vatican finally conceded that as the first messenger of the resurrected Jesus, she was the 'Apostle to the Apostles'.

According to Irish academic Dr Sharon Tighe-Mooney, author of What About Me? Women and the Catholic Church' (Mercier 2018) which was launched on International Women's Day, the epithet 'Apostle to the Apostles' interprets Mary Magdalene's role as simply to tell the apostles what she had witnessed, thereby downplaying the significance of her witnessing Jesus's death and resurrection.

"This is because her role as witness, a major feature of priestly succession, would undermine the Church's position on the exclusion of women from the ministry. If Mary Magdalene is indeed an apostle, and the leader of Jesus's women followers, as she has the requisite apostolic attributes, the nature of the male-only priesthood would have to be reconsidered."

In an article titled 'Who Framed Mary Magdalene?', Heidi Schlumpf, former editor at US Catholic, noted that since scripture scholars have "debunked" the myth that Mary Magdalene and the infamous repentant sinner who wiped Jesus's feet with her tears are one and the same woman, "word is trickling down that Mary Magdalene's penitent prostitute label was a misnomer. Instead, her true biblical portrait is being resurrected, and this 'apostle to the apostles' is finally taking her rightful place in history as a beloved disciple of Jesus and a prominent early church leader."

Among those trying to "right a 2,000-year-old wrong" is Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a US-based church reform organisation. She believes reclaiming Mary Magdalene's reputation as an early church leader has implications for women's leadership in the Catholic church today, including the ordination of women.

The director and crew behind the new biopic hope Mary Magdalene will turn the tables on the received narrative and tell the story of Jesus from a female perspective. The film's aim, as the actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Judas, succinctly puts it, is to help people realise "it's not Mary the prostitute, it's Mary the disciple".

The film recounts how Mary of Magdala, an independent young woman - still unmarried despite being in her early 20s - leaves her family and small fishing village on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee to join a new movement, led by the charismatic Jesus of Nazareth.

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Rooney Mara, who plays Mary Magdalene in the film, explains: "We first meet Mary while she's living in Magdala with her family and she is very different to everyone in her family. They are pushing her to get married and have children, as she's already considered old, and to do what a woman is expected to do.

'Forgiven for her sexual sins'

"She feels very connected to God in a way that she can't really understand and that she wants to explore more. So, when Jesus comes along, he's the first person who understands what she's feeling. She's brave enough to leave her family behind and follow him."

One of the most dramatic scenes in the film depicts an exorcism carried out on Mary before she leaves Magdala at the behest of her family. Director Garth Davis explains: "They can't understand Mary's personality or her choices - they just see it as a demon."

In Dr Sharon Tighe-Mooney's opinion: "It is significant that Mary Magdalene is not attached to any man, which is most unusual for a woman of her time.

"As a result, she became a particular target for early Church writers who speculated about her identity and role in the Bible. A woman forgiven for her sexual sins by a benevolent Jesus was a much easier character for the male hierarchy to deal with than a woman in whom Jesus placed the important mission of witnessing his death and resurrection."

So, what do we know about Mary Magdalene? In her film role, Mara follows in the footsteps of Barbara Hershey, who played Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese's 1988 adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. Setting aside the film's controversial denouement in which Jesus, in a dream sequence, is spirited from the cross to marry and father children with Mary Magdalene; the film depicts her as a prostitute, whom he saves from a mob threatening to stone her. Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ featured Monica Bellucci in the role of Mary Magdalene.

The idea for the film was sparked when Davis learned about ancient fragments in Coptic and Greek from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. That got the production team thinking about how Mary Magdalene had been marginalised for centuries. "We wanted to restore her to her rightful place at the centre of the Jesus story, as a key apostle. Mary recognises that the 'kingdom' ... needs to start within ourselves.

"Our spirit lies within, and it sits in the same place as love and kindness. Mary's message is as revolutionary today as it has ever been," producer Emile Sherman explained.

In her book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, Rev Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian priest, seeks to reclaim Mary Magdalene's legitimate role as a teacher and apostle. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she highlights, is the only existing early Christian gospel written in the name of a woman. "Mary Magdalene earns her place among the apostles because of all Jesus's students, she is the one who best catches the full unitive meaning of his teachings and is best able to 'walk the talk'."

Mary of Magdala is mentioned 12 times in the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, making her the second most mentioned woman after the Virgin Mary. Luke's gospel recounts how she accompanied Jesus on his journeys (Luke 8:1-3) "The Twelve accompanied Him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and maladies: Mary called the Magdalene, from whom seven devils had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who were assisting them out of their means."

But most of the references to her are found in the crucifixion and resurrection narratives. Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion (Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56 and John 19:25). In St John's gospel she is recorded as the first witness to see the risen Lord (20:1-18).

She goes to the tomb alone, sees that the stone has been rolled away, and runs to get Peter. Professor Karen L King of Harvard's Divinity School in her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle explains that no complete Gospel of Mary Magdalene is known to exist.

St Peter's ire

Fewer than eight pages of the ancient papyrus text survive, which means that about half of the gospel is missing, perhaps lost forever. The significance of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene is, Professor King believes, its argument for the legitimacy of women's leadership; it shows that Mary Magdalene received revelations from Jesus, and that St Peter wasn't very happy about that because she was a woman.

The new film shows this conflict over Mary's role among the disciples over her emotional, intellectual and spiritual intimacy with Jesus. Peter believed that Jesus would lead people to a new world order, whereas Mary puts the focus on the need to change oneself from within in order to bring change to the world at large.

Opposition to Mary Magdalene's leadership within the early Christian community in time gave way to a male-dominated, hierarchical model of leadership. In tandem with this development of Christianity, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene got lost and a pope began to teach that the woman, who was second only to the Virgin Mary in terms of gospel appearances, became a whore. Is it mere coincidence?

Actress Rooney Mara on helping to restore the reputation of Mary Magdalene in her new film: See Weekend magazine

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