The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.
The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.
Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:
It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.
But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.
The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.
Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:
The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”
At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.