The Hebrew Talmud (Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 4:17) says, ³There are three crowns: the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name must be upon each.²
The story of Mary Magdalene, and the reclamation of her good name, is one branch of a tree that has its deep roots in the origins of what has become Christianity. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that her story is one tree in a forest, as there are currently 41,000 denominations of Christianity. These branches, or trees, include: the Essenes, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels, churches founded by other apostles, the Therapeutae of Alexandria, the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusades, the Da Vinci Code, monarchs of France, and the Bloodline of the Holy Grail, to name a few.
The trees that became a forest include the fates of the Apostles: Peter & Paul were martyred in Rome around 66 CE. Mark went to Alexandria and founded what became known as the Coptic Church. Andrew went to what is now called Russia and began what became the Russian Orthodox Church, related to the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches. Thomas went to Syria and as far as India. Mar Thoma Christians based in the state of Kerala in southwestern India revere him as their founder. Bartholomew is said to have gone to India with Thomas. Philip went to North Africa and Asia Minor. Matthew went to Persia and Ethiopia. John went to Ephesus with Mother Mary and is said to have died of old age‹the only apostle who tradition holds was not martyred. He was later exiled to Patmos and is credited with writing the last book of the Bible The Revelation.
What happened to Mary Magdalene is the stuff of legend and mystery. She was called Mary of Magdala and The Magdalene. In Aramaic Magdala means, ³elevated, great, or magnificent.² Sometimes it is translated as ³tower.² Therefore, some scholars believe that this was an honorific rather than her place of origin. Although the Church of Rome has maligned her reputation for fifteen centuries she is now a Catholic saint whose feast day is July 22. The Church recanted the words of Gregory in 1969, and the phenomenal surge of interest in her story may ultimately repair the damage done to her good name.
Mary Magdalene is the only woman to be mentioned by name in all four gospels–fourteen times–besides Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is usually listed first. The only reference to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute comes not from the Bible, but instead from a homily delivered by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE. That her reputation was defiled for fifteen centuries was based solely on his opinion that the unnamed woman in Luke 7 was Mary Magdalene. Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church admit their error and officially repeal Gregory¹s vicious and far-reaching indictment.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and His disciples, contributing to their support from her considerable resources. She was present at the crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint his body. She was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce his resurrection to the apostles. Accordingly, she is referred to in early Christian writings as “apostle to the apostles.” Only the Western church has said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. The Eastern Church has always honored her as an apostle, based on the account of the Gospel of John where Jesus calls her by name and tells her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.
So far, the only Christian gospel written in the name of a woman belongs to Mary Magdalene. Tragically, it is fragmentary and about half is lost. Perhaps the rest will surface, as more ancient documents are unearthed. The Gospel of Mary first came to light in Cairo in 1896, fifty years before the stunning discoveries in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, which are known as the Gnostic Gospels. In these texts the Magdalene is described as the companion of the savior, and the one he loved most. Early Christian writers called her ³Bride of Christ.²
Some researchers even believe she was an Egyptian priestess from Alexandria, connecting the story of her anointing him for burial before the crucifixion with the Egyptian rites for the dead. Regardless, or perhaps because of, her mis-identification, she has captured the imagination of many artists and writers. She has often been depicted in art with an alabaster jar, the vessel of a priestess. She is usually shown with long, red hair and often shown with an egg or a skull. The depictions vary, but she always seems powerful and enigmatic.
In 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman uncovered a three-foot terra cotta jar in a complex of burial caves that had been used for thousands of years. Hoping to find treasure, and with considerable apprehension about the jinn (genie) who might guard the treasure, he smashed the jar. Inside were codices, papyrus books bound in leather. After a series of cloak and dagger incidents, including a blood feud murder, and mysterious travels through the shadowy world of the black market of Egyptian antiquities, the codices were at last recognized for what they were‹priceless texts dating back at least 1800 years.
Thirteen codices ultimately survived the clandestine drama. After a great deal of intrigue and intense effort to safeguard the texts, an international team of scholars took twenty more years of posturing and power struggles to finally translate them. Among the priceless treasures in the Nag Hammadi Library are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Mary had surfaced fifty years before these stunning discoveries in the antiquities market in Cairo, but languished in the basement of a museum. Known as the Papyrus Berolinenis, the document also contained the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and a summary of the Act of Peter, all written in a Coptic dialect. Most experts believe that the original was written in Greek sometime during the second century.
However, Dr. Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, believes it was actually written during the time of Jesus. King also defends the position of the gospel belonging to Mary Magdalene since ³It was precisely the tradition of Mary as a woman, as an exemplary disciple, a witness to the ministry of Jesus, a visionary of the glorified Jesus, and someone traditionally in contest with Peter, that made her the only figure who could play all the roles required to convey the messages and meanings of the Gospel of Mary.²
King further states:
³The Gospel of Mary provides an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years. It presents a radical interpretation of Jesus¹ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is‹a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women¹s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority.²
The Gnostic Gospels are what orthodox Christianity perceived to be a dangerous and insidious challenge, feared teachings that the Church Fathers reviled under many different names, but most commonly as Gnosticism. The discovery of the Nag Hamaddi texts has fundamentally revised understanding of both Gnosticism and the early Christian Church. Scholars believe the thematic contents of the Gnostic Gospels originated in Syria, where the Apostle Thomas went to teach. These gospels elevate the role of Mary Magdalene, perhaps even to wife, and criticize the idea of a virgin birth and bodily resurrection as missing the real point of the Master¹s teachings.
It¹s important to stress that the Nag Hammadi texts are Christian documents from the early stages of the movement. The Gnostics did not view themselves as heretics but rather as true believers. They felt they had profound insight into deep and spiritual truths about the divine, and their origins were likely the earlier Essenes, who were largely unknown in the modern world before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran, Israel in 1947. The Gnostics believed in direct revelation, without the intermediary of priests, but rather through the agency of ³Christ Consciousness.² It¹s a very UU idea and was threatening to a Church that was increasingly donning the vestments of the Roman Empire.
Gnostic communities existed in Egypt until the fourth century, along with still active temples to the goddess Isis, which survived in Egypt into the sixth century. For hundreds of years the philosophy we now call Gnostic was termed Manichaean, which was the final flourish of Gnosticism that survived through various forms until its fluorescence in the south of France in the Middle Ages when it was eliminated by Pope Innocent III in the bloody Albigensian Crusade.
The word Gnosis derives from Greek and means “knowledge” or the “act of knowing”. It is the opposite of agnostic, which literally means, “not knowing². The Greek language differentiates between rational knowledge, and a distinct form of knowing obtained by experience or perception. It is the knowledge gained from interior comprehension and personal experience that constitutes gnosis.
In the initial century and a half of Christianity — the period when we find first mention of “Gnostic” Christians — no single acceptable format of Christian thought had yet been defined. During this formative period Gnosticism was one of many currents flowing in the waters of the new religion, and Gnosticism was a seminal influence that shaped destiny.
In many of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts God is imaged is both masculine and feminine. Though their language is specifically Christian, Gnostic sources often use sexual symbolism to describe the divine. Gnostics honored the feminine nature. Author Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. She is best known for her studies and writing of the Gnostic Gospels and has argued that Christian Gnostic women enjoyed a far greater degree of social and ecclesiastical equality than their orthodox sisters.
Jesus himself, taught some Gnostics, had prefigured this mystic relationship: His most beloved disciple had been a woman, Mary Magdalene, his consort. The Gospel of Philip relates,
…the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended… 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 as I love her?
On April 10, 2014, it was announced that a small piece of papyrus, in which Jesus refers to his ³wife,² has been declared as authentic, further thickening the plot.
The name Mary is the English form of Maria, which was the Latin form of the Greek names Mariam, and Maria, found in the New Testament. The Greek New Testament names in turn were forms of the Hebrew Miryam, which is the same name in Arabic. The usual meaning in Hebrew relates to myrrh, meaning “bitterness”. It was most likely originally an Egyptian name, perhaps derived in part from mry “beloved” or mr “love”. The root of the name is ancient. Ma-Ri, which means ³to bear a child,² is from ancient Sumerian, and Mari-El is the same as the Egyptian Meri-Ra, which was the union of water and the fire of the sun. All of the versions of the name Ma Ri are related to the ocean and water. The word marriage comes from the Latin word Maritare, which means ³union under her auspices.²
While the male disciples fled, three women named Mary stood at the foot of the cross at the crucifixion: Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene and Mary Cliopas. After the Crucifixion, according to a powerful tradition in France, three Marys, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobi, and Mary Magdalene, were said to set sail from Alexandria, Egypt with Joseph of Arimathea. Their relics are the focus of the devotions of many thousands of pilgrims, Alexandria was the center of learning and culture, and there are intriguing links to Jesus¹ early ³flight into Egypt² and stories of his missing years.
The story says that Mary Magdalene¹s three children with her, which has given rise to the stories of the Merovingian monarchs of France and the so-called Bloodline of the Holy Grail. According to a longstanding French legend, the three Marys either sailed, or were cast adrift, arriving off the coast of what is now France. The location became known as Nôtre-Dame-de-Ratis (Our Lady of the Boat – Râ being used in ratis, or boat). The name was later changed to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, Our Lady Of The Sea, and in 1838, it was changed to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, The Saint Marys of the Sea.
The town is also a pilgrimage destination for the Roma (Gypsies), who gather yearly for a religious festival in honor of Saint Sara. Sara La Kali, Black Sara, is said to have been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys. In another version, Sara was a local woman who welcomed the three Marys on their arrival. A statue of Ste. Sara is in the crypt of the church, which also encloses a 4th-century BC pagan altar. Scholars have noted the remarkable similarity in the rites to Saint Sara La Kali and ceremonies in India to the goddess Kali, linking the possible origins of the Roma to India.
There is another fascinating legacy that is part of the story. Black Madonnas, or Black Virgins, are generally found in Catholic countries. The term refers to a type of Marian statue or painting of mainly medieval origin (12th to 15th centuries), with dark or black features. The statues are mostly wooden, but occasionally stone, often painted and up to 75 cm (30 in) tall. They fall into two main groups: freestanding upright figures or seated figures on a throne. The pictures are usually icons that are Byzantine in style, often made in 13th- or 14th-century Italy. There are about 450500 Black Madonnas in Europe, depending on how they are classified. There are at least 180 Vierges Noires in France, and there are hundreds of non-medieval copies as well. Some are in museums, but most are in churches or shrines and are venerated by devotees. A few are associated with miracles and attract numerous pilgrims.
Elsewhere, they may be called the “other Mary,” or the hidden Mary. Jung called her Isis, believing her presence indicated the continued hidden worship of the Egyptian goddess, while others claim she is the symbolic remains of a prehistoric worship of the Earth Mother. She is generally connected with Cybele, Diana, Isis, and Venus, as well as with Kali, Inanna, and Lilith. Historically she is connected with the Crusades, the Islamic occupation of Spain, the Conquistadors, as well as the Merovingians and Knights Templars, who viewed her as Mary Magdalene.
According to author Ean Begg, ³The Black Madonnas personify the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in a quest for lost feminine wisdom and the search for soul.² Ean Begg’s fascinating book, The Cult Of The Black Virgin, investigates the pagan origins of the phenomenon as well as the heretical Gnostic-Christian underground stream that flowed west with the cult of Mary Magdalene and resurfaced in Catharism at the time of the Crusades, especially with the Templars.
The Cathars formed an anti-sacerdotal party in opposition to the organized Catholic Church, protesting what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Church. Their beliefs were similar to the Gnostics and some believe sprang from the same source. The so-called Albigensian Crusade, directed by Pope Innocent, wiped out the Cathars through torture and wholesale mass murder of men, women and children.
Author James Carroll, writing in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2006 has said,
From the writing of the New Testament to the filming of The Da Vinci Code, her image has been repeatedly conscripted, contorted and contradicted. The whole history of western civilization is epitomized in the cult of Mary Magdalene. For many centuries the most obsessively revered of saints, this woman became the embodiment of Christian devotion, which was defined as repentance. Yet she was only elusively identified in Scripture, and has thus served as a scrim onto which a succession of fantasies has been projected. In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity¹s secret dynasty.
How the past is remembered, how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination‹all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman who was a central figure in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Mary Magdalene¹s identity has exploded into modern awareness in recent times, and the more we learn, the more we realize that her relationship with Jesus was unique and profoundly significant. The restoration of her good name is an essential part of the resurrection and re-membering of the fractured feminine principle.
In closing, I would say that however fascinating and compelling the excitement of this research and discovery may be, it is still an intellectual pursuit. We may never know the complete truth of Mary Magdalene¹s story. But I believe the deeper message of how these buried truths can and should impact our daily lives is that we are intended to have our own direct connection to the Divine. Teachers, messengers, and prophets can play a critical role to help us awaken and hear the call, but at the end, spirituality and redemption are intensely personal matters. We must each choose to light the inner fire of aspiration and step on the ancient path that has been described by every Great Teacher who has ever lived, and climb the steep path to the symbolic mountaintop of spiritual attainment. The way is long and the path is narrow, filled with perils, pitfalls, and temptations, but the reward at the summit is love, serenity, and wisdom.
About the Author: Julie Loar is the multiple award-winning author of six books and dozens of articles. She has a BS in Psychology, has done postgraduate work, and has been certified in numerous professional training and development programs. Julie was a Human Resources executive in two major corporations, and an independent training consultant, working with large companies. Her latest book, Goddesses For Every Day: Exploring the Wisdom & Power of the Divine Feminine Around the World, (available at Satiama) has won three national awards. Her popular astrology feature appears in ATLANTIS RISING magazine, and she is a featured contributor on John Edward’s web site, InfiniteQuest.com where she has her own internet TV show. She has traveled to sacred sites around the world, researching the material for her books and teachings. Each year she leads a sacred journey to Egypt. Visit her at http://www.julieloar.com.