Mary Magdalene, Ancient Texts and The Da Vinci Code
Mary Magdalene plays a very central role in The Da Vinci Code, as well as in many of the nonfiction books Dan Brown used as sources. This article evaluates the factual-sounding statements in The Da Vinci Code related to Mary Magdalene's portrayal in ancient documents by examining the text of both biblical and Gnostic gospels.
Overview of Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code and Reality
In The Da Vinci Code
Mary Magdalene in the Bible
Following are all the references to Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, in chronological order of events:
Luke 8:1-3: Afterward [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
Mark 15:40: There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome.
Matthew 27:56: Among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. John 19:25: But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
Mark 15:47: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where He was laid.
Matthew 27:61: And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.
Matthew 28:1: Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
Mark 16:1: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.
John 20:1: Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
Mark 16:9: Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
John 20:18: Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and that He had said these things to her.
Luke 24: But at daybreak on the first day of the week [the women] took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, "Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day."
And they remembered his words. Then they returned from the tomb and announced all these things to the eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.
Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary, not part of the Nag Hammadi find, was discovered in a Coptic codex in 1896. In addition, two small fragments of it in Greek were found at Oxyrhynchus in Northern Egypt.
The text is incomplete but substantial, and consists of Mary Magdalene telling the other apostles about revelations she had received directly from Christ (it seems these were mainly in visions after his resurrection). Most of the teachings are Gnostic in character and deal with things like matter and spirit, sin and salvation.
The Gospel of Mary is not claimed to be written by Mary, but Mary Magdalene is the prominent figure throughout, and the other (male) apostles beg her to teach them her special knowledge of Christ's teachings. Some, especially Peter, initially reject what she tells them until rebuked by others. Following are the most relevant passages for Mary:
Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather, let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into Men. When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior. Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. (Chapter 5:2-6)
He [Peter] questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us? Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior? Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered.Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said. And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach. (Chapter 9, 4-10)
Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip
The Gospel of Philip dates from the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD. It consists mainly of esoteric Gnostic teachings about Christ, sin, salvation, matter and spirit, but includes the following tidbits about Mary:
There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.
...As for the Wisdom who is called "the barren," she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them,"Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness."
It is easy to read romantic significance into this passage, and of course that meaning cannot be disproven, but it should be noted that the Gospel of Philip also teaches, "it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth" and "for this reason we also kiss one another." The Gnostic gospels are very allegorical and purposefully speak in puzzles, and they should be interpreted as such.
Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is not mentioned by the characters in The Da Vinci Code, which is understandable. Although it is one of the earliest Gnostic gospels - perhaps written around the time of the canonical gospels - its message is not as supportive of the novel's theories of Jesus as "the original feminist" and the importance of balance between male and female in the universe.
Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life."
Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven." (114:1-3)
Although this passage is unsuited to Brown's purposes, it is interesting that the Peter-Mary conflict appears again in this gospel, one of the earliest.
A full English translation of the Gospel of Thomas is online here (and elsewhere).
Secondary Sources and Comments on Mary in the Gospels
Karen King, a feminist professor of Christian history at Harvard, writes:
In these newly discovered books, Mary is the apostolic guarantor of a theological position that lost out in the battle for orthodoxy. The Gospel of Mary, for example, presents a radical interpretation of Jesus' teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge, not apocalyptic revelation; it acknowledges the reality of Jesus' death and his resurrection, but it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it also rejects the immortality of the physical body, asserting that only the soul will be saved; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women's leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimage power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our romantic views about the harmony of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.
...While the texts do not show a "raging gender war" in the early churches, they do provide evidence that one issue being debated concerned women's leadership. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter is portrayed as a hothead - just as he is in many episodes in the New Testament gospels. Here he is jealous of Mary and refuses to believe that Jesus would give her special teaching. This portrait seems to suggest that Christians who, like Peter, reject women's right to teach do so out of jealousy and lack of understanding.
...[The Gospel of Mary] expands our understanding of the dynamics of early Christianity, but it does not offer a voice that is beyond criticism. For example, the Gospel of Mary's rejection of the body as one's true self is highly problematic for contemporary feminism which affirms the dignity of the human body.
...An accurate historical account will not ensure that the figure of Mary Magdalene won't continue to be prostitued by polemical purposes as she has been for centuries - but it does restore some dignity to this important woman disciple of Jesus. (Beliefnet article, 2003)
The Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code explains:
Gnostic writings are not conventional narrativees; like the Gnostic creation myths with their dozens of descending divine pairs, and their abortion-universes, everything operates on an allegorical plane, so that the kisses on the mouth are the imparting of the gnosis.
If the Gospel of Mary Magdalene is to be believed, Dan Brown is effectively saying, then the entire institution of the Church is built on a lie. But the lie is Dan Brown's, and deliberate, for he states that this passage describes a conversation between Jessu and Mary Magdalene before Jesus' death. In fact the Gospel of Mary Magdalene says the opposite: Jesus has already been crucified and he now appears to her after the resurrection - in other words, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene is saying that Jesus is divine.
...the Gnostics were unhappy about women; if proto-orthodox Christians preferred their women to be submissive, the Gnostics preferred that they were not women at all. One Gnostic gospel that Brown does not cite is the Gospel of Thomas, where... the female is 'not worthy of life' and the male alone can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (pp. 75-76)
An article on "The Real Mary Magdalene" from BBC Religion & Ethics states:
Although we know something about Jewish society in ancient Palestine, 2,000 years ago, we know very little about Mary herself. The Bible provides no personal details of her age, status or family. Her name, Mary Magdalene, gives us the first real clue about her. It suggests that she came from a town called Magdala. There is a place today called Magdala, 120 miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We do know there was also an ancient place called Magdala from literature. The name occurs in the New Testament, and also in Jewish texts. Its full name is Magdala Tarichaea. Magdala seems to mean tower, and Tarichaea means salted fish. If the name of the town was 'Tower of Salted Fish', it's no surprise that its main business was fishing. As a woman living in Magdala, Mary may have worked in the fish markets.
- Time Magazine (Aug. 11, 2003) - "Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?"
- PBS - "The Gospel of Mary" - English translation from The Nag Hammadi Library in English by J M Robinson
- BBC Religion and Ethics: Bible Mysteries - "The Real Mary Magdalene"
- Image: Mary Magdalene announces the ressurection to the apostles - St. Albans Psalter, England, 1100s