|By Fr. Gary Coulter||Go to Fr. Coulter's Homepage||Sign my Guestbook|
Some of you may know I have a web page of Resources and Critiques about The Da Vinci Code on my website at frcoulter.com, and I can monitor the popularity of my web pages by how many visits, or hits, they get. Throughout 2005 my Da Vinci Code page averaged 5-6 hits a day, but during May 2006 when the movie came out, it was more than 30 hits a day - in fact I got 5 times more hits on May 24 than other day this year. Fortunately, the hoopla over the movie seems to have died a quick death, because now I'm back to my pre-movie rates.
Probably the second most frequently asked question I get, after "Should I read the novel/watch the movie?" is "Why try to debunk a work of fiction?" Well if its just fiction, why can one now take European tours said to follow the "code" trail. Far too many readers - as well as Dan Brown and Ron Howard - have tried to have it both ways: giving or accepting praise for supposedly raising deep and important questions, but deflecting legitimate criticism by appealing to the fictional character of the book. But I think the number of visits to my website speaks for itself - many people have doubts and questions about their faith because of this "fiction" book.
Monsignor Angelo Amato (who worked closely with Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) noted that if the "slander, offenses and errors" found in The Da Vinci Code had been directed at the Quran or the Holocaust, they would have "provoked a worldwide revolt." But, he said, "because they were directed toward the Catholic Church, they remain 'unpunished.'" I agree. It contains blatant anti-Catholicism under the guise of freedom of expression, it lacks any authentic tolerance, respect, and artistic integrity. That is why I continue to critique The Da Vinci Code, even if it is "fiction".
But I know you didn't come here tonight to hear what I really think about the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, and the film based on it, which are full of blatant historical inaccuracies and theological errors concerning Jesus, the gospel and the church. Instead, the title of my talk is
To briefly summarize who Mary Magdalene is, there are two very different versions of the same story:
In this version of history she has been honored as the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation and women.
To protect the royal bloodline, Jesus' marriage and offspring were concealed from all but a select circle of royalist leaders, and after the crucifixion of Jesus, the protection of his wife and family would have been a sacred trust for those few who knew their identity. The pregnant wife of the anointed Son of David would have been the bearer of the hope of Israel - the bearer of the Sangraal, the royal bloodline.
Thus to protect the secret, Mary was a refugee seeking asylum, and traveled with Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, landing in a boat on the coast of France. The Sangraal or Holy Grail is therefore the royal bloodline of Israel rather than a literal chalice. The vessel that contained this bloodline must have been the wife of the anointed King Jesus.
Notice that both these accounts are based on the ancient French legend that Mary Magdalene lived out the rest of her life in France. The first version (from catholic.org is based on traditions and legends of the middle-ages, probably dating from the 11th century (see the classic Catholic Encyclopedia. The second version is from a 1993 book entitled The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird, and is based on a legend that was invented in the 1980s.
According to their version of history, Christ had chosen Mary Magdalene to rule with him as Queen. But after the death of Jesus, the patriarchal Church would not allow a woman to lead this new movement, so the apostles and Peter created a new image of Mary as the penitent prostitute, demeaned and degraded as they believed all women should be. Later the fathers of orthodox Christianity were so appalled by the notion that Jesus might have had sex and produced a child - let alone that he married a prostitute - that beginning in the 4th Century the church attempted to squelch the "heresy" and by the Middle Ages, the church had instituted the Inquisition. However, the harder the Inquisitors pressed these "heretics", the more clever they became at disguising their truth. In European fairy tales, in water marks on paper printed during the Middle Ages (including bibles), and in paintings of the Masters like Fra Angelico, the message of the heretics was hidden in plain sight. Again, if that story line sounds familiar, or you wonder where Dan Brown got his creativity - that is the "research" done by Margaret Starbird in "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" - by examining ancient goddess rites and anointing ceremonies she concludes that Jesus and Magdalene were united in a 'hieros gamos' (sacred marriage).
The problem largely stems from the fact that there are several people named Mary in the Gospels and there are also several unnamed women who seem to share characteristics with Mary Magdalene. So at different times in history, Mary Magdalene has been confused or misidentified with almost every woman in the four Gospels, except the mother of Jesus.
What we do know about Mary Magdalene comes from both Luke and John who say she was the woman from whom Jesus drove out 7 demons. Later commentators equated this with being a "sinner" and saw her as a penitent woman. Added to this is the fact that Luke introduces Mary Magdalene in chapter 8:1-3, just after the story of a nameless repentant woman who anoints Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair (Lk 7:36-50).
However, John's Gospel (12) clearly identifies Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus as the woman who anointed Christ's feet (cf. Matthew 26 and Mark 14). Therefore if Mary Magdalene was the one who anointed Christ's feet and wiped them with her hair, she must also be Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, the one Jesus complemented for "choosing the better part". Therefore in another homily St. Gregory proposes this connection and extols Mary Magdalene as a representing the contemplative life - something also seen in the legend that says spent the last thirty years of her life living in quiet contemplation in a cave.
For various reasons, the idea in Gregory's two homilies stuck, and all 3 women came to be identified: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the woman who anoints Jesus (in Luke 7). Of interest, all the Protestant reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all followed this unified theory of the Marys.
For those like Dan Brown who are concerned about interpreting artwork, Mary Magdalene's primary emblem in art is a jar. This jar is meant to remind the viewer of Mary Magdalene's role as the woman who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus after the Sabbath, only to find him resurrected. And to the extent that Mary Magdalene was believed to be woman who performed the anointing before the crucifixion, the jar was related to that scene as well.
Although most modern scholarship would say that Gregory was mistaken and these were three separate women, this was not because St. Gregory had any misogyny (hatred of women) or intention to demean Mary Magdalene. He was not emphasizing her sin to degrade her, rather if you read his homilies, Pope Gregory held her up as a model of penitence and conversion, an inspiration of one who is faithful at the cross, a reminder that we are all in need of redemption. It was most certainly not a plot to demean women, indeed he never even mentions her gender or even hint of her as the weaker sex. He does not call her a prostitute, nor identify her with the woman caught in adultery (as Mel Gibson did in the Passion of the Christ - cf. Jn 8:1-11). The renaissance era often depicted Mary Magdalene's primary sins not as sexual promiscuity, but sins of vanity and luxury. The image of Mary Magdalene as a repent sinner was clearly a medieval development, and not a political plot of the early Church.
If one is going to say the Church launched a smear campaign against Mary Magdalene, there are many unanswered questions. Like why the Church has always venerated Mary Magdalene as a saint, and why devotion to Mary Magdalene flourished after the time of Pope Gregory. And why she is presented in the four Gospels as not only a disciple of Jesus, but also one of the select few who remained faithful even to be present at the crucifixion. And of course, the gospels grant her the privilege of being one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. Indeed, she is even known by the title of "Apostle to the Apostles" because Our Lord sent her to tell the others that he had risen.
Then he says how he was teaching about Mary Magdalene to some children in the Bronx, and was trying to describe her - he didn't want to say she was crazy, but just couldn't find the right word - then one of the little black girls raised her hand and says: "She was hyper".
What the Gospels clearly tells us about Mary Magdalene, is that she was part of the group of disciples that traveled with out Lord, and helped provide for Jesus and the twelve. From the Gospel of Luke (8:1-3):
Soon afterward Jesus went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
From this many surmise that Mary Magdalene and these women were sufficiently well off, but it could also simply mean they assisted in ways such as helping to prepare the meals. The fact that she was a disciple is confirmed by both Matthew (27:55-61) and Mark (15:40-47) when Jesus was crucified:
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
I mentioned that the Church has always venerated Mary Magdalene as a Saint. Every year thousands make the pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of her relics at the shrine of Saint Maximin. And her feast is celebrated every year on July 22. But unfortunately, because of the confusion of the different Marys - until 1968 the Gospel that was read for the feast of Mary Magdalene was the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany. With the revision of the Missal and Lectionary, that was changed and now for her feast we read the Gospel of John (20:1-18):
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." ...
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God." Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
To be honest, such critics will try to use some scriptures as proof of their position. The central point of Margaret Starbird's "Woman with the Alabaster Jar" is that the anointing of the bridegroom/king was a sacred ceremony reserved to his bride. So she says when the Gospel narratives describe the anointing of Jesus by the woman, this was part of an ancient wedding ritual. And Bishop Spong will say that when Mary Magdalene was allowed to visit the tomb of Christ after his death, she was given a privilege granted only to the closest relatives of the deceased. I will allow you to decide if such arguments are convincing proof, when we don't know who it was that anointed Jesus, and recall how this woman's act was quite shocking to those who saw it - they would not have been so surprised if it had been his wife anointing him. And Mary Magdalene was not the only woman to go to the tomb on the Easter morning - were they all relatives of Jesus?
To the contrary, the early Church was unanimous that Jesus was unmarried. In addition, the authors of the New Testament regularly depict the Church as "the bride of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:21-33; cf. Rev. 21:9-10). This metaphor would not have developed or even be possible if a flesh-and-blood "Mrs. Jesus" was living just down the street. Only if Christ was celibate would the Church have come to be depicted metaphorically as his bride.
By the way, there is an entire website Magdalene.org, which claims to present all the possible different views about Mary Magdalene and then let the reader decide for him or herself. But even this website has to admit: "There is no evidence that they were married... It is entirely possible that they were married... but one must pretty much toss out much of the known history of the last 2000 years in order to accept it... we just don't have reliable, credible evidence to that effect."
A final argument from silence will claim that the earliest Christians saw marriage and sex as something dirty or evil, and that is why they won't portray Jesus as married. (By the way, this is actually the position of the Gnostics, who we will talk about momentarily, but never that of Christianity). Yet in several places scripture tells us that Peter and other apostles had wives (1 Corinthians 9:5). This shows that the church was not embarrassed to reveal that its leaders were married. The same would have been true of Jesus, if he had been married.
Gnostism was a heresy that became diffused in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was a system of thought that in general taught that the material world was evil, and that salvation came from freeing the spirit imprisoned in the body. They saw Jesus as the teacher the Gnosis, the secret knowledge which allowed one to be freed. The important thing is that the writings of the Gnostics date from two centuries after the life of Jesus, and have no connection with the actual events of his life. Yet the discovery of several of these lost texts in recent centuries have led some to the idea that the real story of Christianity was concealed and these alternative versions are seen as just as credible, if not more so, than the canonical gospels.
In the Gnostic gospels, Mary Magdalene is sometimes present in minor ways, used to embody their teachings. At times she is presented as one of Jesus wisest students. But if one actually reads these texts, they tell us nothing substantial about the real Mary Magdalene - indeed they tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Peter or anyone else either.
Most of the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers comes from the 3rd century gospel of Philip, in which Mary Magdalene is said to be a "companion" of Jesus, which for them means a sexual partner. And then it describes Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving, asking "Why do you love her more than all of us?" Yet Jesus answer does not imply a marital or sexual relationship; rather that she is more enlightened than they are - because in Gnosticism the kiss is symbolic, a sign that she has received the Gnosis, the secret knowledge.
In addition, the promoters of such an agenda will probably fail to quote for you the infamous passage from the 3rd century gospel of Thomas, where Peter asks Jesus to make Mary leave, and sneers that "women are not worthy of life." Jesus responds and says "I myself will lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." So much for using the Gnostic texts to support their claims that Jesus was promoting a sacred feminine and goddess worship.
One group has even suggested that not only was Mary Magdalene a leader of the early Church, but she was even the unidentified Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. This position began with Elaine Pagels, a feminist author who has written extensively about The Gnostic Gospels since 1979. Thanks to Dan Brown, you all know that the person pictured in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is supposed to be Mary Magdalene, not John the Apostle. But you probably didn't know that Mary Magdalene was the real author of the fourth Gospel. Elaine Pagels also argues that St. Paul was a Gnostic, Christianity developed out of religious myths, and numerous other creative ideas so full of rash generalizations, out-of-context readings, and even outright fabrications that she cannot be called an expert or scholar any more than Dan Brown.
By the way, there is author in L.A. named Karen McGowan who claims to be a direct descendent of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, hoping such a claim will sell a few more copies of her new novel. But surprisingly she rebuts that Mary Magdalene could not be in Leonardo's Last Supper because he was a mysnogist, he hated women.
Steve Kellermeyer, author of Fact and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code (also available in a Free PDF Version), makes an interesting point about this theory of two conflicting movements in an Audio Presentaion he gave. While we don't know if Mary Magdalene was of the tribe of Benjamin as some claim, we do know one person in the New Testament who tells us he was of the tribe of Benjamin, St. Paul. The man who never, never did anything to make anyone angry, because he was just interested in making sure that everyone got along. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and count how many times Paul the Apostle gets thrown out of the synagogues for arguing. This is a man, who in the letter to the Galatians (2:11ff), says he went up to Peter, and remonstrated him to his face. Why? Because Peter was eating only with the Jews, when they sat down for lunch he wouldn't eat with the Gentiles. And Paul says, 'Look, if you're going to share milk and cookies, you have to do so with the Gentiles just as much as you do with the Jews.' This is Paul, of the tribe of Benjamin.
According to Dan Brown, Mary Magdalene of the tribe of Benjamin was supposed to be the head of the Church, but Peter, in a nefarious power play, usurps her place and kicks her out. And Paul stood by silently and said, yeah, go ahead, get rid of my fellow Benjaminite sister, she's of my tribe, yeah, go ahead and crush her into the ground. This is Paul, the same man who argued with Peter because he wasn't eating at the right table? St Paul believes that Jesus is God. He is willing to be beaten, scourged and stoned for love of Jesus Christ. So if Mary Magdalene had been appointed head of the Church by Jesus, would Paul not support her? No, Paul, would have crushed Peter for daring to fight God's will. Dan Brown's argument is logically absurd, it doesn't fit with anything we know of St. Paul.
The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on manís bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. Here is the Bible position of woman briefly summed up.
Such a view results in a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion, which dictates that the text of the New Testament, being the work of males, must be distrusted for that very reason. Dan Brown essentially accepts such a warped view of the Bible and Christian history, and The Da Vinci Code claims to correct the churchís view of women by offering an alternative, better Christianity. In it, not only was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, but true Christianity also includes worship of the "sacred feminine" with Mary as its leader. Unfortunately, this view totally misses the value the Bible ascribes to women, as well as the point of Jesusí ministry - he came to save everyone, both male and female. Yet Brown seems to suggest that the church today offers women a choice: accept second-class status or get out.
In his Apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II dedicated beautiful pages to describing Christ's relationship with women, and women's relationship with Christ. Women clearly have a special religious sensitivity; perhaps because they, in God's provident plan, bear in their womb the mystery of life, they protect and foster it. It was women, as we have mentioned, who were faithful to Christ unto death, and it was to women that Christ first entrusted the task of spreading the message of his resurrection.
In the Gospels, we know that Jesus is not afraid to break the social conventions of his time in regards to women. The Samaritan woman at the well is surprised he would even speak to her. Women ordinarily were not taught the law or the word of God; and for a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Jesus was known for association with tax collectors and sinners, including women who probably were not regarded as very respectable. If Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons, she would have been ostracized in Jewish society. But Jesus breaks all barriers of class, status and gender - as St. Paul would later say: Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Woman or Man.
This, by the way, also discredits one of the arguments used for ordaining women as priests. They will say that Jesus would have wanted to name women as priests, but since he lived in a culture which didn't accept women as teachers and leaders, he had to choose male apostles. In my mind, it is clear Jesus didn't care what anybody else thought, if he wanted to, he could have had female apostles as his first priests - but he chose not to, and instituted a male priesthood - not because women were any less than men or not capable of being priests. But rather because this was his decision, by divine law, priests are to act in the person of Christ, and therefore he chose male priests to be his representatives on earth.
Obviously I don't have time to cover the Church's reaching on the role and dignity of women, which could probably be a whole talk. But allow to be borrow once more from Steve Kellermeyer's Audio Presentaion. He says one of the reasons The Da Vinci Code has been so popular is not just its anti-Catholicism, but that its message resounds with its readers and viewers, especially women. Dan Brown actually got something right. The message throughout the book is that sex is sacred, marriage is holy, and women should be treated like goddesses. Now he probably won't admit it, but this borrows from three Catholic teachings: sex is sacred, marriage is holy, and women should be treated in the image and likeness of God. Women do not need a goddess religion to raise their own stature. Jesus offers women the highest honor, an honor he also offered Mary Magdalene: the opportunity to become children of God.
Obviously, Mary Magdalene has always been a popular subject: in artwork, in literature, in preaching, and in the devotion of Christians everywhere. Perhaps one sign of this popularity I discover in researching this talk is the large number of books and novels written about the life of Mary Magdalene, both before and after Dan Brown. Indeed, this is not a new phenomenon. For example, there was an extensive play written in 15th century England, which used over 50 actors and 19 different sets to retell the life of Mary Magdalene. Most of these are simply imaginative speculation; several are fairly traditional describing the story of her conversion to become a disciple of Christ; all of them, like Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels and Michael Baigent are complete fiction.
"The story of Mary Magdalene reminds everyone of a fundamental truth: She is a disciple of Christ who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him, and has followed him closely, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love, which is stronger than sin and death."
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.
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