Christianity's long, tortuous, frustrating and at time shameful history of how it views and treats women is, in certain respects, encapsulated in the various ways that it has thought about, denigrated and praised Mary Magdalene.
Enlightening because Haag, a historian, takes us from early gospel accounts that mention Mary Magdalene (in all four gospels, she is there at the tomb to discover Jesus' resurrection -- sometimes named, sometimes included in "the women") to Pope Gregory the Great in the late 6th Century declaring her to have been a whore to more recent speculation about whether she was married to Jesus.
Frustrating because there's not a single footnote in the book. There's a good index and a useful list of suggested further reading, but nowhere do we have a chance to learn about and test Haag's sources. In this kind of historical exploration, that's a shocking omission.
And repetitious because, well, Haag sometimes offers us the same information four or five times. Yes, yes, we get that the Apostle Paul never mentions Mary Magdalene. Let's move on. And yes, we just read those words in the text, so why do they need to be repeated almost verbatim in the captions for the mediocre-quality black and white illustrations?
Clearly there is much to admire about Mary Magdalene, though what we can reliably know about her is quite limited. And Haag admires her a great deal. As he writes, "As a woman and companion of Jesus she is the only person close to him at the critical moments that define his purpose, that describe his fate, and that will give rise to a new religion; she helps support Jesus in his works, she is utterly fearless, and she is a woman of vision."
Haag is not enamored of the way the Catholic Church, particularly, has defined and related to both Mary Magdalene and to Mary the mother of Jesus. But he concludes that "the future of Mary Magdalene looks secure in the public imagination, more secure than Mary the mother of Jesus."
The mysteries about Mary Magdalene are many, starting with the fact that there seems to have been no town named Magdala from which she supposedly came and moving on to the wedding at Cana, where Jesus is reported performing his first miracle. There, Haag says, there are clues in the gospel of John that the marriage was between Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself.
Well, over the centuries, particularly among the gnostics, Cathars and others, there has been rampant speculation about such marital matters, and it has led to such salacious and top-selling books such as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
But that's only part of the long, fascinating history (or myth) about Mary Magdalene.
Haag makes some rather unorthodox (and unsupported) assumptions about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, saying at one point that she "knew the courage of Jesus, his inextinguishable faith, she knew his love, she knew he was not offering himself as a sacrifice, nor to redeem anyone's sins -- no such notion as original sin ever entered his mind; for Jesus man was good and God was good. She knew that for Jesus his death was a pure act of acceptance and perfection of the Father's love."
How, exactly, Haag knows what never entered Jesus' mind is left unrevealed, but in the end Haag concludes that "Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene alone has a special relationship with Jesus." And that seems clear.
He also insists that there are grounds for believing that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) "were the same Mary."
After several gnostic gospels were turned up as part of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, speculation about Magdalene and about other ways of understanding early Christian history began to be explored and published by a variety of scholars, including Elaine Pagels. It's all fascinating stuff in many ways, but, in the end, the question Christians must ask is whether it makes any difference in the way they live their lives and in how they understand and respond to Jesus. Whether Mary Magdalene spent decades isolated in a cave, wound up on a boat that took her to southern France or became a favorite in Egypt is engaging to ponder.
And Haag walks us through all of that and much more. In fact, as he notes, Mary Magdalene "could be everything to everybody." Because of that, he says, "what became in the fourth century the established Church" felt it had to control Mary Magdalene: "She was too close to Jesus; she knew too much. And unlike Mary the mother of Jesus, there was nothing passive about Mary Magdalene." But even though gnostics lost the battle for control of Christianity, "Mary Magdalene did not die."
Which is why we're still pondering her and why, in the end, I'm glad to have Haag's book on her.
(A small addition: Haag incorrectly writes that Martin Luther believed the Eucharist "was merely symbolic." No. That's what Luther's contemporary, reformer Ulrich Zwingli, argued and why Luther disagreed with him so sharply, finally saying that he [Luther] would rather drink "pure blood" with the Catholics, whom he called "the papists," than "mere wine" with the Zwinglians.)
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DID SATAN WRITE THIS BIBLE?
Do you know about the "Devil's Bible"? Religion scholar Candida Moss writes about it here. "It is currently housed in the National Library in Stockholm, but it was created in the twelfth century in Bohemia," she writes. And then it gets weirder and spookier. So maybe you'll want to stick with Haag's book on Mary Magdalene.
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P.S.: And speaking of more books, I just learned yesterday that my next book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith, is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com here. It's coming from Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, Vt.