My Secret Thirteen Years in Prison

Silver Creek

Recently my wife, Peggy, and I listened with rapt attention to a CD recording of the John Grisham novel, The Racketeer.  The 2012 Doubleday publication was a page turner from the very start. It caused us to miss a turn on the highway on our way to our Michigan lake house.

The Racketeer is the story of an African-American attorney, Malcolm Bannister, unjustly disbarred and jailed for an alleged and complicated money laundering scheme. It’s about his escape from a federal prison near Frostburg Maryland by means of an equally complicated and fascinating scheme of his own.

Such an interesting novel deserves a separate review. My point here however is different. It’s autobiographical and theological. It’s about the reflections on my own life and on God that The Racketeer stimulated.

You see, Malcolm Bannister’s life in his prison reminded me of my own time served in a similar institution under an infinitely worse warden. It caused me to remember my own escape and the way I finally told the warden off.

From the age of 14 to 27, my life featured the same restrictions as Bannister’s. There was the same dull prison food, interactions with a self-absorbed overseer and redeeming friendships with fellow prisoners. Only, since I was so young, life in prison meant minimal contact with women – nothing at all romantic, much less sexual. The warden had this weird attitude towards sex.  He didn’t care for it at all, and didn’t want us to either.

Like my own, Malcolm Bannister’s prison was minimum security. It had no walls or razor wire. There were no gun towers or barred prison cells. Inmates lived large dormitories or in single rooms with a cot, desk, chair and window. Everyone wore the same uniform. But prisoners were free to roam about the paths winding across the institution’s wooded acres. Escape would be easy, but few “walked off,” because capture would bring reassignment to a real hell-hole. That was my experience too.

The similarities between Bannister’s warden, Robert Earl Wade, and my own were uncanny. As mentioned, both were self-absorbed. But mine was far crueller – the most sadistic person I’ve ever met.

Offending the warden in my prison wouldn’t merely bring reprimands, punitive labor assignments or restrictions on free time. Ultimately, it would result in real torture that was almost unspeakable. We quaked in the warden’s presence. And, no more than children ourselves (at least at the beginning), we had to mouth his praises unceasingly. He was to be our first thought on waking in the morning, and the last before retiring at night.

The warden thought he was God; and so did we. He had ways of knowing everything. We were convinced he could read our minds. And just in case he couldn’t, we were forced to declare forbidden thoughts and deeds to him once a week. (That’s where the warden’s sexual hang-ups played a central part. Yes, we were required to fess up to entertaining sexual thoughts.) As a result, we prisoners were entirely self-regulated in an extremely repressive way.

Almost nothing we did (apart from the prison’s compulsory athletic events) displayed the freedom and spontaneity of the children we were and the young men we became.  For those not athletically inclined, even the requisite “play” was torturous, I’m sure.

As for me (apart from the sports), what saved it all were friendships with fellow internees. That was Bannister’s experience in Frostburg as well. The inmates I lived with were uniformly smart and unusually witty. As a result, they lightened the sameness of our daily life with unrelenting humor – mostly of the inside gallows variety.

Finally, I had enough. I did the forbidden thing. I just walked off. But before leaving, I told the warden what I thought of him.  Who did he think he was . . . God? “You’re not God,” I told him. “You have nothing to do with God. You’re just a projection of a system of absolute control that keeps young people from growing up. It keeps us all children! And once those you have ‘schooled’ in your prison are released, they inflict your hang-ups on others. That’s a big reason our world is in such a mess.”

_____

Of course, the system I’ve been describing is the one that trained priests for the Roman Catholic Church. It’s the seminary I experienced from my early teens till ordination at the age of 27. And its warden (the one we thought was God) is a fraud. Unfortunately, he’s still at work in the world – still torturing people.

No, I don’t regret the time I spent in the seminary. Moreover, I’m sure others would see life on the inside much more positively than I’m expressing here. Sometimes I do too. After all, life there gave me discipline and some valuable academic training – absolutely free through my doctoral studies. Without those gifts, my subsequent life as a professor of Peace and Social Justice Studies would have been impossible. For all of that, I’m eternally grateful. Who wouldn’t be?

And I haven’t lost faith. It’s just that my idea of God has changed radically.  No more Prison Warden. Only the Supreme Self in whom we live and move and have our being. Only the God of love. Only the God embodied in his prophet, Yeshua. Yeshua’s God breaks down separation walls of all types. That’s the one who liberated me from prison.

I just wouldn’t want to experience that jail time again. It was the dullest, most restrictive and spiritually wounding period of my life – formative years that (apart from the goodness of my fellow inmates) were little different from Malcolm Bannister’s prison camp. (The picture at the top of this post shows the high school seminary I attended in Silver Creek, New York from 1954 through 1958.)

Those dark years [and (ironically) the academic legacy they gave me] have always stimulated my resolve to help others escape from the confines erected by the false idea of God-as-prison-warden.

That’s been the thrust of my life as a college teacher. It’s what I’m attempting to do on this blog site.

School-Is-Prison-63787456510

 

Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)

Islamic World

I remember as I was finishing my teaching career of 36 years at Berea College in Kentucky that I experienced a spectacular failure regarding Islam.

In the light of the then-recent events of 9/11/01, I had moved that all students be required to study Islam either in a separate required course or as part of an already existing course (on writing or Western Civilization). After a brief discussion, my proposal was put to a vote. It received two (!) “Yeas” and about 148 “Nays” from a faculty of 150. “Next order of business . . . “

Despite going down in flames like that, I still think my proposal was a good one. That’s because ignorance of Islam lies close to the heart of our country’s highly questionable (not to say bogus) “War on Terror.”

Even more importantly, as a liberation theologian, I see “Islamists” as part of world-wide movement of poor people to use their religious traditions as a force for freedom rather than control and slavery. In fact, I consider this movement as the most important intellectual and social development since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Grasping that fact and the true nature of Islam should be Job #1 for teachers and peace advocates.

Perhaps, like the Berea faculty, you find that assertion difficult to buy. And why shouldn’t you? Even in its Christian form, “liberation theology” has been misrepresented and distorted beyond recognition. Why shouldn’t we expect even more of the same for its Islamic counterpart?

So let me explain. Begin with the context of my proposal.

Once again, it came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On all sides Islam was being vilified as foreign, primitive, terrorist, and anti-female. U.S. military personnel regularly desecrated the Koran.

And their leaders like Lt. Gen. Wm. G. Boykin, were asserting the superiority of “our God” over “their God.” Republicans who otherwise ridiculed feminists as “femi-nazis” suddenly became champions of women’s liberation as they attacked Islam for preventing women from driving cars and wearing mini-skirts.

All of that made me suspicious. I knew a little about Islam from my poor attempts at teaching an introductory course part of whose intent was introducing freshman students to “world religions.” We had read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. If nothing else, Smith taught me that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are sister faiths. There is no distinction between “their God” and “our God.” All three were “religions of the book.” At the very least, all recognized Jesus as a great prophet.

I had also taught Malcolm’s Autobiography. His embrace of Islam had called my attention to the attraction of Islam for poor people as an alternative to enslaving interpretations of Christianity. Malcolm’s passion for the Nation of Islam easily connected with my own for liberation theology – i.e. with the reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the perspective of those committed to the welfare and destiny of the world’s poor.

I remembered that somewhere in the literature of liberation theology, I had read that Islam was today’s most prominent example of a ”religion of the poor and oppressed.” As such Islam was influencing far greater numbers of the world’s poor than had Christianity’s liberation theology which was largely defeated by the U.S. military in what Noam Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” That religious conflict had pitted the U.S. government against the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Understanding Islam as today’s foremost expression of the liberating power of faith made the 1979 uprising in Iran a movement inspired by “liberation theology.” It did the same thing for other movements for liberation throughout the Asia and Africa. With all their triumphs and distortions, they too were movements against colonialism and its neo-colonial aftermath. In the name of God, they all stood against the exploitation and oppression of the East by the West.

That’s true, of course, for our contemporary “Arab Spring.” After all, did you think all those students and others protesting in Tahrir Square had suddenly left behind their devotion to Islam? What do you think motivated them? Had they suddenly become secularists? More obviously, what moved the “Islamic Brotherhood” to oppose the U.S. puppet Mubarak? Or why do you think the Egyptians elected the Brotherhood to lead their country?

Obviously, the motivation was largely found in Islam and in the realization that their faith as exemplified in the life and writing of the prophet Muhammad champions the Arab world’s poor in their struggle against the rich who have hijacked both Christianity in the West and Islam in the East.

It’s that liberationist understanding of Islam that the West must distort and vilify just as it did Christian liberation theology when it threatened to radically alter the political landscape of Latin America from the Medellin Conference of 1968 to the assassination of El Salvador’s most prominent liberation theologians in 1989.

It’s time to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. (That after all was the thrust of my proposal that evening on the faculty floor.) Reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time can help. In fact, Armstrong’s book would be required reading in the course I proposed. Without ever mentioning liberation theology, it reveals Muhammad as the champion of the poor and oppressed that Christianity’s liberation theology shows Jesus to have been.

(More about this in next Monday’s post.)

Move Over, Pope FrancIs, and Bring on FrancEs I!! (Fathers’ Day Sunday Homily)

Anointing

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time:2 SM 12:7-10, 13; Ps. 32: 1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal. 2: 16, 19-21; Lk. 7:36-8:3. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061613.cfm

Today is Father’s Day. So, happy Father’s Day to all of us who merit the title “father.”

However, I must observe that despite the male focus which our culture gives this June 16th, today’s readings end up being quite critical of men and patriarchy. They reveal the misogyny of western culture and of the Christian tradition right from the beginning. Unwittingly, they also make a strong case for female leadership in the church even to the point of suggesting female leadership for the entire enterprise. Sorry, dads!

Start with the first reading. There Nathan condemns the great father-figure, David for his own male chauvinism and for his disregard of all the gifts the prophet says he himself gave David in God’s name.

Nathan recalls that as prophet he himself anointed David king over both Israel and Judah. Nathan rescued David from his rival, Saul. The prophet gave him the Lord’s dwelling and a harem to live with David in his palace. All these including David’s many wives, Nathan says, were gifts from God. (So much for Yahweh’s “traditional family values” allegedly favoring domestic arrangements with one father and one mother.)

And what was David’s response to all the favors conferred by Nathan? Adultery and murder. He used his power as king to steal the wife of one of his generals, Uriah the Hittite. Then in effect, he “rendered” Uriah to the Ammonites to have him killed, while preserving his own “deniability” for the crime. But neither Yahweh nor Nathan was fooled.

Of course, the woman’s in question was the famous Bathsheba who eventually gave birth to King Solomon, who ended up succeeding David as King of Israel instead of David’s eldest son, Adonijah.

In fact the section of 2nd Samuel in which this episode is found is referred to as “the succession narratives,” because it answers the question “why is it that Solomon is sitting on the throne instead of David’s eldest living son, Adonijah?”

Solomon is on the throne, the story says, because of David’s theft of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah, and the curse of Nathan which resulted: “The sword will never depart from your house.” That is, all of David’s sons, but Solomon were condemned to die violent deaths. According to this tradition, God’s sole “blessing” for the eventually penitent king is limited to the boon that he himself will not be killed. Father-rule – the patriarchy – does not come out well in this first reading.

Neither is today’s gospel selection kind to patriarchy. Jesus has been invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. For Jews Pharisees were defenders of the father-rule system But in this case, the “host” proves to be an inhospitable man in terms of Jewish custom. He obviously sees the carpenter from Nazareth and his uncouth fisherman friends as riff-raff. He omits giving them the traditional greeting, and doesn’t even offer them water to wash their feet. Evidently he considers the band from Nazareth unclean – dirty people who won’t even know the difference.

Then the hero of the story appears to set things right. She’s a woman whose gender relegated her to unquestionably second class status. She is Mary of Bethany (whom scholars identify with Mary Magdalene). And she does something extraordinary. She does what Nathan the prophet recalled in today’s first reading that he did for David. She anoints Jesus as the Christos – the Christ, designating (and making) him God’s chosen one.

This is extraordinary, since the term “Christos” (or Christ) itself means “anointed.” And in the gospels there is only one anointing of Jesus the Christ. And it occurs at the hands of Mary Magdalene, not of some male priest. In other words, the Magdalene in today’s gospel acts as prophet and priestess on a level arguably above Nathan’s role recalled in the reading from 2nd Samuel.

And there’s more. The Magdalene appears in public with her head uncovered and hair flowing – a condition appropriate for a woman of Jesus’ time only in the presence of her husband. And besides anointing Jesus, she performs what can only be described as an extremely intimate act. She continually kisses his feet with her lips and washes them with tears of love.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ.

That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods. These facts would have been evident to Jesus’ contemporaries.

Why has this history and the prophetic role of Mary Magdalene in identifying (and consecrating) the Christ been hidden from us all these years? Feminist scholars tell us that patriarchal misogyny – anti-woman sentiment – is the answer.

And negativity towards women is written all over today’s excerpt from Luke’s gospel. There the evangelist emphasizes the sinfulness of the Magdalene as that of the other women in Jesus’ company.

Luke describes Mary as “a sinful woman in the city,” and “a sinner.” He has Jesus tell those seated at table that “many sins have been forgiven her,” and say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” So we won’t miss the point, Luke gratuitously describes Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” And finally, women in Jesus’ company are described as formerly sick and possessed.

Nevertheless, Luke feels compelled to note what everyone in his community knew: women like the Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna and the “many others” who followed Jesus were his financial supporters of Jesus and “the twelve.”

But Luke doesn’t call the apostles “free-loaders.” Neither does he parallel his description of the women as sinners by recalling that one of the 12, Peter, was identified with Satan himself by Jesus. Nor does he recall that a key apostle, Judas, actually betrayed Jesus or that all of the twelve but one (unlike the Master’s women followers) abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Instead, Luke simply mentions “the twelve,” who by the evangelist’s omissions are implicitly contrasted with the “sinful” women.

Above all, Luke omits the description of Mary Magdalene which we find in the church-suppressed Gospel of Thomas. There she is described as “the apostle of apostles” – no doubt because of her key role in identifying and anointing Jesus as the “Christos,” and because she was the one to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared before showing himself to any of “the twelve.”

In fact the Gospel of Thomas describes says:

“. . . the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here 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?'”

Here the word for “companion” is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. Moreover in other suppressed writings, Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of his attention. He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries.” Additionally, following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus.

These words and the Magdalene’s functioning as prophet and priest should be extremely meaningful for contemporary women – and us patriarchs so fond of “Father’s Day. They highlight the way at least one female disciple of extraordinary talent and charisma was not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. And that denigration has continued in church circles and beyond to our very day.

Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, today’s readings expose the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical “fathers” in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. They also uncover the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

In short today’s readings help us see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males – the ones we call “father” – who are the interlopers and charlatans.

Mover over, Francis; bring on Pope FrancEs I!

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

Magdalene: Egyptian Priestess and Consort of Jesus (Fourth Posting in a Series on MM)

Last week we saw that the Jesus of Mark 14:4 saw Mary Magdalene’s anointing as somehow central to his mission and to preaching the gospel. But what could that mean especially about Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus?

For Lynn Picknett (author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess), it points to a pre-anointing intimacy between Mary of Bethany and Jesus. Were they husband and wife? Lovers?  Even more importantly however, Mary’s act has the character of a sacred ritual pre-arranged by Mary and Jesus – an extremely important one, far surpassing the spontaneous act of repentance and pre-burial ritual that ordinarily explains it.

The act says something important both about Mary of Bethany, and was intended to say something even more important about Jesus himself. It shows Mary to be the bearer of a type of priestly power. After all, there is only one anointing of Jesus (the Christos, i.e. anointed one) recounted in the Gospels. And the anointer is this woman who is acting like a priestess. Just before his death, her act finally designates Jesus as the One – the expected Messiah.  It’s like Nathan’s identification of David as king a thousand years earlier. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. The priestess has spoken. That’s what it says about Jesus.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ. That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods (58). This concept of sacred marriage, Picknett notes, would have been familiar to the pagans of Jesus’ day whose “dying and rising gods” were typically anointed by priestesses and assisted by them across the threshold of death while remaining conscious of the entire process (59).  Pagans would have recognized in Mary of Bethany such a priestess who in the Gospels anoints Jesus as “Christos,” especially if she were also involved in the burial of the anointed one.

It’s that association with the burial of Jesus that suggests a syndrome of connections between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. According to Picknett, the two women are identical. To see the author’s point, remember Magdalene’s importance. Luke listed her prominently among the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry. More significantly, she is the one who took charge of Jesus burial following his crucifixion. This suggests continuity with the priestess functions belonging to the agent of the Bethany anointing.  More importantly still, Magdalene was remembered as the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  That appearance alone conferred on Magdalene incomparable dignity and implies the type of special relationship the anointing story establishes between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  Additionally, John the Evangelist outright identifies Magdalene as a woman especially beloved by Jesus. Finally, there exists a long church tradition consistently identifying Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. On Picknett’s analysis, those characteristics taken together more than justify the conclusion that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person.

Why then the confusion? Why did the evangelists apparently split a single person into three: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed penitent woman? Here the plot thickens. It was because, Picknett says, the patriarchal evangelists wished to obscure the primacy of this woman whom Jesus loved more than them, and who, precisely as woman could not possibly be accepted as superior to men. The trouble was, the events at Bethany were so central and well known that none of the evangelists could omit the story altogether. So they transformed it from a messianic anointing into an act of repentance. Simultaneously, they converted the presiding priestess/paramour into an anonymous sinful woman “from whom Jesus had cast out seven evil spirits.”

And where is the proof for that? Here Picknett refers her readers to the Gnostic Gospels. In The Gospel of Thomas, for example, the tension between Magdalene and the male apostles and with Peter in particular is palpable.

. . . the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here 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 Saviour answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as I love her?’

As Picknett notes, the word for “companion” here is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. That description alone could easily explain the alienation of the disciples from Jesus’ companion as well as the desire of the evangelists and church fathers to demote her to an anonymous, penitent and distinctly fallen woman.  More reason for antipathy on the part of Jesus’ apostles emerges from the Pistis Sophia (Faithful Wisdom), a Gnostic source discovered before the unearthing of the 1945 cache of Gospels. There Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of attention (85). He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries” (89). Most gratingly of all, Jesus calls her the “apostle of apostles” (157). Jealousies arising from such preferences on the part of the Master are entirely understandable.  Moreover following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus (215). In view of all this, it is not surprising that again in the Pistis Sophia, Magdalene accuses Peter of threatening her because, she says, of his own hatred of women (86).

Additionally, in the light of Jesus’ praise of the “apostle of apostles,” it is not surprising that Mary of Bethany should be called “the Tower,” “The Great,” “The Magnificent” – possibly in itself another cause of jealousy vis-à-vis the apostles.  As Picknett argues, the real meaning of “Magdalene” might well refer to rank of this sort rather than to place of origin (82). For if this Mary came from Bethany, “Magdalene” would not refer to her supposed hometown in Galilee. In fact, no town with any name resembling “Magdalene” is to be found in first century Galilee. (There was, however, a place in Egypt by the name of Magdolum and also a Magdala in Ethiopia. So the term might have referred to either of those locations as Mary’s place of origin – adding additional credence to the theory that she was an Egyptian priestess and perhaps even black).  Picknett concludes however that the term “Magdalene” most likely refers to Mary’s preeminence among Jesus’ disciples. In any case, it has some connection with terms for “Tower” and greatness. Jesus’ own reference to her in the Gnostic sources as “the All” and the “One who know all” seems to support this.

Next week: Pulling It All Together

Who Was Mary Magdalene? Breaking the Magdalene Code (Third in a series on M.M.)

Last week we saw how Lynn Picknett, the author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, relies on suppressed “alternative” sources beyond the fours canonical gospels to reconstruct her “secret history” which we’ve been reviewing here for the past three weeks.   That emergent story reveals not only the centrality of Mary Magdalene, but also of John the Baptist.

This week, let’s confine our exploration to the identity of Mary Magdalene especially as she appears within the Sacred Canon.  There the confusion starts immediately. For in the gospel texts three women appear who over the centuries have been identified with “Mary Magdalene,” even though only one of them is so identified by name. There is the “Mary called Magdalene;” there is “Mary of Bethany” (the sister of Martha and Lazarus), and then there is the unnamed “penitent woman” who anoints Jesus in preparation, it seems, for his death.

As for the “Mary called Magdalene,” Picknett begins her process of identification with Luke 8:1-3. There an apparently wealthy Mary Magdalene is listed as a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry. As such she is classified with a group of women including Joanna, the wife of Chuza (the manager of Herod’s household), Susana and “many other” women as supporting Jesus work “of their own means.” The only distinguishing information Luke gives about this Mary is that seven demons had come out of her. The Magdalene’s name is cited again at the end of Luke’s story when its bearer comes out of nowhere intending to anoint Jesus’ dead body to give it proper burial. Meanwhile in the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene is named among the women who remained faithful to Jesus in his final hour after he had been deserted by his male followers.  In the apocryphal ending of that same Gospel, she is (significantly) the first witness of the resurrection (16:9). John’s Gospel also identifies her in this way. From this material alone, and to say the least, Mary Magdalene was the most prominent of Jesus’ women followers. Even more, as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, she might arguably be identified as the foremost of all disciples, male or female, and even as the legitimate head of the church. This is because ignoring women altogether, the patriarchy’s traditional argument for identifying Peter as “head of the church” has been that the risen Christ appeared first to him of all the (male) apostles.

By the way, nowhere in the “sacred texts” is the woman “called Magdalene” identified as a prostitute. In fact, that identification surfaces only in the sixth century in a homily delivered by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE. Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church repudiate Gregory’s defamation of the Magdalene. However, even apart from the tradition’s late origin and retraction, a prostitute Magdalene seems unlikely in the light of the role Luke assigns her as a financial supporter of Jesus’ work. Otherwise, as Picknett acerbically observes, “We are faced with the unpalatable suggestion that Jesus and the likes of Peter were happy to live off immoral earnings!” (42)

The second and third “Marys” traditionally conflated with the Magdalene are Mary of Bethany on the one hand and on the other, an unnamed “penitent woman” whom the Synoptics identify as anointing Jesus with costly spikenard from an alabaster jar. Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, good friends of Jesus who resided in that town. This Mary is famous for the argument involving her sister, Martha, about the relative merits of sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his words vs. serving at table. It is specifically this Mary (of Bethany) whom the Gospel of John has anointing Jesus just prior to his crucifixion (11:2).  Meanwhile, in the Synoptics the anointing woman is described as penitent, but remains unnamed.  However, both Mark and Matthew also record her act as happening in Bethany close to the time of Jesus’ execution (Mk. 14:3-9; Mt. 26:6-13). Only Luke locates the anointing in Capernaum and at the beginning of Jesus’ mission (7:36-50). For Picknett, John’s identification of the penitent woman as Mary of Bethany along with the locations cited by Mark and Matthew are enough for her to conclude that the penitent and Mary of Bethany are one and the same (50).

And what do the texts reveal about this woman anointer of Jesus? First of all, that her identity was not unknown (as the Synoptics would have us believe), and certainly no stranger to Jesus. Instead she was a member of a family which regularly offered Jesus hospitality. Significantly, the anointer and anointed were on familiar terms. Second, this Mary disregards Jewish law restricting women and governing interaction between the sexes. For one thing, she wears no head covering in public – an omission associated with sexual license in Jesus day (as it is today among Muslims and Jews in the Middle East). Moreover, she flaunts this disrespect of Jewish custom by appearing before Jesus (and those present at the event) as a woman was allowed only before her husband – with hair loose and flowing (55). Then she performs an act that could only be seen by onlookers as inappropriately intimate. She incessantly kisses his feet, wets them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. She finishes by breaking open an alabaster vessel of costly spikenard ointment and using its content to anoint Jesus’ feet. All of this Jesus approves. Far from rebuking her, Jesus is remembered as saying “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14:4). In other words, Jesus saw this woman’s act not only as appropriate but as central to his mission and to the preaching of the gospel.

Why then was Mary Magdalene not given her due or even clearly identified by the Synoptics? Why did Luke gratuitously say that seven demons had been driven from her? Was there some sort of early church vendetta against MM? Picknett thinks there was.

Next Week: Magdalene as Egyptian Priestess

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”