Episcopal priest and prolific author Chilton (Rabbi Paul, 2004, etc.) argues that Mary Magdalene influenced early Christianity—but not by sleeping with Jesus.
When they hear the name Mary Magdalene, most people imagine a prostitute or, if they’ve read The Da Vinci Code, a secret lover of Jesus. Here, Chilton (Religion/Bard College) sets the record straight. The New Testament, he reminds us, tells us that Magdalene was possessed by seven demons, and Jesus healed her. The Gospels also depict her as the first person to get the news that he had been raised from the dead. Chilton further argues that Magdalene was the nameless woman who anointed Jesus just before his arrest and crucifixion. In his account, her early shaping of Christianity (in particular, its understandings of healing) was as crucial as that of Peter and other personal followers of Jesus. Because of its deep ambivalence toward women, the church—from its earliest days through the medieval period to the present—either ignored Magdalene or reduced her to a licentious vixen. No one knows when people started passing around the story that she was Jesus’ concubine, though heretics were punished for holding that view in the early-13th century. Chilton contrasts medieval church leaders, who were uncomfortable with the idea of a powerful woman shaping the faith, with Jesus himself, who embraced “the full feminine force of divinity.” The author not only examines orthodox Christianity’s treatment of Magdalene, he also looks at the Gnostics, some of whom held sacred a Gospel ascribed to her. But that legacy is ambiguous: The Gnostics’ Magdalene is both wise and hysterical, strong and submissive.
Straightforward, bold, easy reading. The author’s careful survey serves as a useful corrective to Dan Brown’s fiction, which seems to be taken as truth by an alarming number of people.