Conclusions about “The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess”

To say the least, Lynn Picknett’s The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess makes a distinct contribution towards a fuller understanding of the “woman called Magdalene.”  Picknett helps us see beyond the prostitute stereotype to a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry;  the African priestess (from Egypt or Ethiopia) who anointed Jesus as Christos; his lover and perhaps his wife;  the holy one who prepared him for crossing over to the other side; the disciple who first perceived that Jesus had risen from the dead;  first among the women who stood by Jesus in his darkest hour;  the “Apostle of Apostles” enjoying primacy among those within the Master’s inner circle; the mystic whom Jesus called by names originally belonging to the goddess, Isis; the real founder of the church, and an object of jealousy, hatred, and threat by the patriarchal Twelve. Picknett indeed helps us see how we know those things.

In addition, the book’s clear exposition of the identity of Mary Magdalene and her primacy among Jesus’ followers is invaluable for a more complete understanding of the earliest traditions within the Jesus Movement where women were not only prominent but preeminent.  Those traditions, it turns out, prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. For they highlight the way female disciples of extraordinary talent and charisma were not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. They were the victims of an extreme misogyny that continues in church circles to our very day. Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, Picknett’s “secret history” exposes the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical patriarchs in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. It also uncovers the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

As noted previously, Picknett is especially strong in her willingness to effectively question and turn upside-down long-accepted “truths” about the focus of her study. To reiterate, “Magdalene the whore” is the prime example. Examination of extra-biblical and especially historical sources revealed the sixth century origin of that smear. That revelation evidently led Picknett to better understand the smear’s source in the biblical texts themselves. As she indicates, those texts lose no opportunity to denigrate the woman from Bethany. In other words, regarding the Magdalene, Picknett’s methodology is that of scripture scholars over the last hundred years and more: she distinguishes the historical Magdalene from what biblical traditions on the one hand and patristic glosses on the other made of her. Like the good scholar she is, she peals back layer after layer till she gets to the historical woman.

It is here, however, that a curious inconsistency surfaces in the final third of Picknett’s work. There she deconstructs the person of Jesus of Nazareth, finding him, as noted earlier, to be self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. She is able to do so only because she ignores the findings of scripture scholarship over the last one hundred years – especially the findings of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Form Criticism is the branch of biblical study which has pointed out that not everything in the Bible, not even most of its contents, is history. Instead, there are many literary forms there including myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, genealogies, parables, allegories, law, letters – and Gospel. If one mistakes the literary form and reads legend, for instance, as history, the reader will miss the intended meaning of the text. And yes, Gospel is its own literary form distinct from history. And so the work of the evangelists cannot be treated as “lives” or biographies of Jesus. Instead (and Picknett is correct here) they are religious propaganda. This however does not mean, as Picknett often implies and even states, that they are lies, deliberately disguised half-truths, or outright deceptions. They are “Gospel” and as such express not what happened, but the meaning of what happened for those who already recognize Jesus as the Christ. Picknett however often crossly dismisses the gospel authors as charlatans and deceivers. And she reads their portrayals of Jesus as though they were falsified histories. And so she reports that believers have been deceived into believing in a virgin birth, that Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, and that his corpse was resuscitated three days after his death (which, she points out may have been only apparent). At the same time, however, Picknett takes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as though they were his very words. Thus she finds him bad tempered when he curses a barren fig tree, a braggart, when he calls attention to his union with God, and in general a human failure when he fails to live up to the traditional image of “Jesus meek and mild” (186, 208).

It is here that Picknett overlooks the insights of “redaction criticism.” Redaction critics are the scholars who have helped us realize that the gospels are thickly “layered,” and as such rather far removed from what Jesus actually said and did. That is, the words and deeds of Jesus were one thing; how they were remembered in oral tradition was another, how they were written down another still, and how they were interpreted by later generations something else again.  To sharpen the point, the works of the evangelists are post-resurrection compositions (whatever the resurrection might have been).  As such, they reveal an understanding of Jesus that was not apparent, and therefore impossible before the resurrection event. Accordingly, one must distinguish between the pre and post-resurrection Jesus; one must separate the pre-resurrection Gospel of Jesus from the post-resurrection Gospel about Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God, not Caesar were king. The Gospel about Jesus (the product of the emerging church) was indeed about Jesus. So according to that latter gospel, Jesus is made to say what would have been both impossible and highly improbable for him to utter before his death. Consequently when Jesus apparently says, “I and the Father are one,” that is not Jesus boasting about himself, but the early church “boasting” about Jesus, i.e. expressing its post-resurrection faith.

Similarly, the Gospel about Jesus is full of symbol, which as Picknett well knows, is the normal language of faith. It is not denial or misrepresentation of fact; it is more than fact. So when Jesus is presented as cursing a barren fig tree, it is not a sign of his irritability, as Picknett would have it, but probably has something to do with “fig tree” as a traditional symbol for Israel itself. Yet, despite an entire book devoted to identifying layer upon layer of tradition and unpacking symbols (relative to Mary Magdalene) Picknett finds such unpacking and layer-identification as “unconvincing” when it comes to any positive view of Jesus’ words (193) . And while she had no trouble demythologizing the Magdalene’s traditional identity as a prostitute, Picknett scandalized by any gospel departure from the “Jesus meek and mild” image that has prevailed in understandings of the central figure in mainstream Christianity (186, 208). Any departure from that milk-sop image to show him politically engaged or prophetically outspoken is interpreted as somehow reprehensible. This is a shortcoming of her book and misleads her audience.

The misdirection would have been avoided had Picknett muted her book’s sensationalist tone to explain that under the leadership of Mary called the Magdalene (possibly Jesus’ spouse) the discouraged male apostles did not give up as they would have without her encouragement. Instead they pondered and discussed the words and deeds of Jesus. They realized that inspired by his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus had continued the latter’s ministry. Unexpectedly and scandalously however, Jesus too been executed – by Rome (rather than by its puppet, Herod as was the case with John). Meditation, discussion, and (as they claimed) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit led that first community of the Jesus Movement to realize that their martyred master had not really joined the ranks of the hundreds of failed Messiahs who regularly surfaced in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era. Instead, he was somehow more present among them than he was before his death.

But how were they to explain this to their contemporaries – to Jews first of all, and later to those outside the Jewish community? Their answer was to use one language set for Jews and one for Greco-Romans. The language set for Jews presented him in terms of a new Adam, or in reference to Abraham, David, or as fulfillment of inferences derived from the prophets. By modern standards, their connections seem forced, stretched and artificial. And no doubt, they invented some of the words and deeds they attributed to Jesus to make the point about his continuity with Jewish tradition. In other words, for the evangelists, the Jesus of faith sometimes took precedence over the Jesus of history.

In the same way, the Jesus story was reshaped for those outside the Jewish community for whom things like circumcision, the prophets, Abraham and David meant nothing at all. For these, Jesus had to be re-presented in religious terms understandable to Hellenistic culture. “Pagans” knew about Isis and the “dying and rising” gods. They knew about hieros gamos or sacred marriage with its priestesses and anointing. So Jesus was presented in those terms. We find them buried in stories like the anointing at Bethany.

Such retelling and refashioning of the Jesus story went on orally for many years. Then (beginning around 70 C.E.) the oral traditions were given written form. By then one could hardly distinguish what the historical Jesus had said and done from what was part of the retelling of his story specifically tailored for Jews on the one hand and for Greco- Romans on the other. Additionally each evangelist further reformulated the received traditions to address problems unique to his own community and its problems that Jesus could never have anticipated. This called for additional retailoring of Jesus’ words and deeds to fit the even newer circumstances further removed from the original consciousness of the historical Jesus.

Subsequently, church fathers and popes like Gregory I added their own layers of interpretation for their own communities now centuries removed from Jesus and his original intentions, words,  and deeds. In the process the Jesus of history was nearly swallowed by the Jesus of faith. However, that Jesus of history has to comprise the standard for soberly determining the essential elements of the Christian faith.

That’s what modern scripture scholarship has determined. Uncovering the Jesus of history is the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose members, it seems, would be open to most of the conclusions Picknett draws about Mary Magdalene. They would not however agree with conclusions based upon uncritical attribution of deeds and words to Jesus that fails to distinguish between layers of gospel texts.

Nothing said immediately above should detract from the fact  that Lynn Picknett is a wonderful reader, a diligent energetic researcher. She knows how to make the ever-present connections that in fact link everything that exists. Picknett is expert in applying the principle of analogy in both its negative and positive meanings. Negatively, that principle holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. According to that principle, she helps the non-academic community understand what scholars have been up to over the last hundred years and more. Positively, the principle of analogy says that the same natural and human forces and dynamics that are operative in the world today (especially in the realm of historiography) were also operative in the past. Those forces and dynamics indeed include lies, cover-ups, propaganda, and self-interest.  Applying that version of the analogy principle, Picknett’s Hidden History helps readers see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It’s the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.

I’m going to recommend this book to that friend of mine with all that rage to know “how do they know all of that?”

Next week: What Jesus Scholarship Tells Us about the Historical Jesus

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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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