Mary Magdalene Understood

by Jane Schaberg with Melanie Johnson-Debaufre

New York and London: Continuum, 2006, 176 pp.
$12.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Amy-Jill Levine

This is a shorter, more popular version of Schaberg’s Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (Continuum, 2002). The detailed scholarly discussion is replaced with a question-answer format. The earlier volume engaged with Virginia Woolf; the later one more nearly with Dan Brown.

Yet both versions reflect an eloquent combination of personal investment and historical investigation and both compellingly detail the Magdalene’s depiction as penitent, whore, apostle, lover, etc., from Holy Writ all the way to Hollywood, reflecting a culture’s assessment of sexuality and gender.

The point is beautifully made in the opening chapter, which describes her hometown Magdala, like Mary herself, as “bulldozed, plowed over, owned by various men.”

Chapter 2 describes treatments of Mary before she became “harlotized.” An Ephesian legend reports that Mary was jilted at Cana—the prospective groom being the Evangelist John.

The sexual relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene has been a concern of the medieval Cathars and Albigensians in France, of Martin Luther, of Brigham Young, and even of a few scholars today.

In Chapter 3, the authors develop a composite role for Mary in gnostic texts where she is a prominent and even intimate disciple who has visions and is praised for her superior understanding.

The two final chapters reconstruct the first-century Mary Magdalene as a leader in the movement against “Roman domination, Herodian corruption, and the Temple system.” But the authors provide no examples of these social problems. Taking a conservative position, they argue for the historicity of the visit of the Magdalene (perhaps with other women) to Jesus’ tomb, which they find empty.

This fine volume does suffer a few missteps. For example, in John 20:16 “Rabbouni,” by which Mary addresses Jesus, is not, as the authors claim, a diminutive form of endearment meaning “my little rabbi.” Indeed the text itself says that it means didaskale, “teacher.”

The authors also leave underdeveloped the Magdalene’s positive roles as celibate, businesswoman, non-maternal leader and political activist.

They do describe the movement of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as “egalitarian,” having women as well as men as “full members and active participants.” The same description ironically fits the assessment of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the authors’ classification of its “official” identity as “patriarchy writ large” and “hideously boring” (digs at Catholicism do not advance the argument).

Also missing in this treatment are the contemporary voices of women from the numerous “Magdalene” programs that provide rehabilitation and job training. Many of the women in these programs find the image of “penitent sinner” and redeemed lover not simply meaningful, but life-saving.

All in all, Schaberg and Johnson-Debaufre offer a scholarly, engaging and provocative study that advances our knowledge of Mary’s history and legend, even as it raises new questions for the classroom, the church and the heart.

Amy-Jill Levine is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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