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The Case for and Intimate Relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene

By       Message Mike Rivage-Seul     Permalink
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Was Jesus married? The truth is we'll never know for sure. However, the evidence is mounting that he was, and that his wife or lover was Mary Magdalene. And I'm not just referring to the recent stir caused by the "Wife Papyrus Fragment" that just surfaced at Harvard. The reference is instead to the Gospel of Thomas, the Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) all of which came to light in 1945 with the Nag Hammadi discoveries of 52 mostly Gnostic texts that had been suppressed by Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4 th century.  

Those texts show an intimate and very special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Moreover, a close examination of the canonical gospels themselves supports the position of those so-called "heretical" gospels. Together the "heretical" and canonical gospels suggest a concerted effort on the part of early church leaders to erase the central role of Mary Magdalene and of women in general from the standard narrative about Jesus and the founding of the church. Of course, the ecclesiastical campaign against women continues down to our own day.  

Begin by considering the early second century Gospel of Thomas.   There we find the words  

". . . 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?' The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you as I love her?' "  

Here the word for "companion" is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature.   Moreover in the Pistis Sophia (Faithful Wisdom), 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."   Jesus even calls her the "apostle of apostles." 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.

But even apart from such "heretical" texts, consider Mary Magdalene's importance and closeness to Jesus as she appears within the "Sacred Canon."   In Luke 8:1-3 an apparently wealthy Mary Magdalene is listed as a financial supporter of Jesus' ministry. In the apocryphal ending of Mark's Gospel, she is 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 much later 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, we are faced with a Jesus and a Peter who were happy to live off the wages of a prostitute!

Scholars find good reason to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who interacts with Jesus in a way that can be appropriately described as intimate. She anoints Jesus with "spikenard" before his execution. The act speaks volumes about Jesus' relationship to the Magdalene. In any case, the anointer and anointed were on familiar terms. For one thing, this Mary disregards Jewish law restricting women and governing interaction between the sexes. For another, 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. The act she performs 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.

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What could that mean? For starters, it points to a pre-anointing intimate relationship 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 Magdalene, 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.

This concept of sacred marriage 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.   Pagans would have recognized in Mary Magdalene such a priestess who in the Gospels anoints Jesus as "Christos," especially if she were also involved in the burial of the anointed one.

All of these conclusions prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. Their omission from the standard Christian narrative highlights 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. Female leaders in the early church 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, the scholarship referenced here 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.

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In short the discoveries of Magdalene Scholarship help us see beyond the "official story" and even beyond the question of whether or not Jesus was married. They help us discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It is the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.


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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)

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