The Method of Magdalene Scholarship: (Second in a series on Mary Magdalene)

Last Monday I was previewing the shocking conclusions Lynn Picknett draws in The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, London: Magpie Books, 2003. In this posting I promised to say something about Picknett’s method which leads her into forbidden territory. It strikes me that her method yields some insight into the way that modern scripture scholarship works. Those  interested in such matters should keep that in mind.

Basically, Lynn Picknett’s method is to reverse scholarship’s usual procedure. That method privileges biblical sources, while approaching extra-biblical and heretical fonts with a skepticism and suspicion bordering on contempt. Why should this be so, Picknett asks? Was Nicaea’s choice of the Synoptic Gospels and John over the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Philip or that of the Egyptians somehow inspired by God or specially guided by the Holy Spirit?

Actually, she observes, the choice was directed by the vested interests of an exclusively male patriarchy and by doctrinal convictions that were and remain completely debatable. In fact, The Gospel of Mary, with its brief for the Magdalene’s feisty leadership and power is as sober and apparently “inspired” as Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John. Church father, Clement of Alexandria admitted as much, but still chose to keep its teachings secret from ordinary Christians (51). The church similarly treated many of the other Gospels that came to light in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi discoveries.  In other words, Nag Hammadi’s 52 mostly Gnostic texts as well as Gospels which had earlier been unearthed have as much claim to “inspiration” as their canonical counterparts.

As for the heretics, why denigrate or exclude their voices? After all, the early Christian Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451) artificially reduced Christian belief to a single dogma. The Councils thereby proved false to decidedly pluralistic understandings of Jesus and his message that emerge from the official Christian Testament. Even excluding John’s idiosyncratic version of the Jesus story, there are distinctly variant perceptions found among the so-called “Synoptics.” The variations touch upon key items such as Jesus’ origins, family tree, his miracles, words, and the nature of the resurrection itself. Why not let a thousand flowers bloom now as they did then instead of uprooting all but one while anathematizing the rest as heretical and perversely deviant?

With such reasoning, Lynn Picknett replants and cultivates the flowers that over the ages have refused to die despite the poisonous herbicides so freely applied by the church’s malevolent gardeners. So she defers not only to The Gospel of Mary, but to The Gospel of Thomas, to the beliefs of the Cathars, the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, the Mandaeans and others.

Meanwhile Picknett classifies canonical sources as mere “propaganda” no more worthy of literal interpretation than the pamphlets that fill mailboxes just before election time (54). Accordingly, she treats those “official” sources with the same skepticism and “ideological suspicion” that orthodox apologists generally apply to heretics and their gospels. She does so without apology. After all, “the canon” was selected by a coterie of male patriarchs without any female input whatever.

Moreover, the old boy efforts at suppression have resulted in endemic deceit that has kept and continues to keep Christians ignorant not only of the Bible generally, but of Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the findings of scripture scholarship over the last hundred and fifty years.

Such “leadership” has resulted in ignorant congregations, the imperialization of Christianity, the violent persecution of “heretics,” the Inquisition, the Women’s Holocaust, innumerable wars, sexual scandals, pedophilia, and unrelenting misogyny. “By their fruits you shall know them,” Picknett soberly reminds her readers. It is time to change course.

Next Monday: “The Magdalene Code”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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