Everybody loves Mary Magdalen. That’s true for me especially.
As I’ve shown in previous articles (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) I’m intrigued by recent attempts by Magdalene scholars like Lynn Picknett to restore the Magdalene (whatever the term might mean) to the status accorded her in the Gnostic Gospels as “the apostle of apostles.”
Traditionally identified by a hostile Christians patriarchy as a forgiven, humiliated, and groveling former prostitute, the Magdalene of the new scholarship would even further rehabilitate her into an Egyptian priestess and quasi-goddess.
That’s the case with Clysta Kinstler’s 1989 novel, The Moon under Her Feet. The book was recently recommended to me by a dear friend and fellow Magdalene admirer. The Moon was reviewed early on in the New York Times. It is beautifully written. Its endnotes alone are worth the book’s purchase. They reveal the author’s careful research and startling ability to make overlooked connections between relevant scholarly pursuits including history, mythology, and biblical interpretation.
Nevertheless, as a liberation theologian, I must admit my disappointment with Kinstler’s tale. It indeed provides intriguing insights about main character, the Magdalene. But as for her ultimate lover, Yeshua of Nazareth, Kinstler’s novel falls prey to the trap set by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.
The trap transforms Yeshua from a prophetic working-class revolutionary into a socially harmless Egyptian “dying and rising” god with little relevance to the world he sought to replace – one dominated then and now by imperialism, oppression, and unnecessary poverty all obscured by a justifying set of myths supportive of ruling classes and their self-serving social order.
Let me show you what I mean by first describing Mary Magdalen as portrayed in The Moon under Her Feet, second by doing the same for Yeshua her ultimate consort, and third by contrasting that figure of Yeshua with his portrayal in liberation theology. My conclusion will underline the importance of making such contrast.
The Moon and the Magdalen
Throughout The Moon under Her Feet, its main character, Mari Anath, gradually assumes her role as head of the Jerusalem Temple’s priesthood of women. According to Kinstler’s account, these holy women still represented an essential part of the Jewish tradition. “Mari” was an extremely popular name in first century Palestine. “Anath” was the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek warrior-goddess, Athena. “Magdalene” signified the high priestess’ office. For Kinstler, the term actually meant “high priestess.”
The holy women in Magdalene’s cloister resided inside the Temple’s entrance, just beyond the location of the currency exchange services where the despised Roman denarius was traded for the ritually more acceptable Jewish shekel.
Mistrusted by the patriarchal Pharisees and Jewish high priests, the women within the Temple convent enjoyed the reverence of ordinary Jews who still honored Ashera, the traditional but officially suppressed spouse of Yahweh. From Israel’s earliest origins, peasants, craftspeople, fishermen, the poor, beggars, and social outcasts insisted on worshipping Ashera alongside Yahweh. In fact, their devotion meant that no king could enjoy popular support without the blessing of the High Priestess – without her anointing and union with her in a ritual marriage called Hieros Gamos.
Therein lies a major theme of The Moon under Her Feet. For as the high priestess, Mary the Magdalene had to negotiate marriage invitations from her first husband, Phillip the Herodian, and from his brother Herod Antipas. Philip sought Mary’s blessing on his tetrarch rule over his four Jewish provinces. The quest of his brother, Herod Antipas, was to validate his claim to a Goddess-blessed kingship of the Galilee, the region of Palestine where Yeshua was born.
Accordingly, the Magdalene joined Philip’s harem as a teenager thus confirming the legitimacy of his tetrarchy. Later, after securing an amicable divorce from Philip, Mary found herself the object of his brother’s quest for Goddess confirmation of his own reign over Galilee which his subjects were loath to recognize, since he was so obviously a mere puppet of Israel’s Roman occupiers.
To escape her fate, Mari Anath induces a near death experience in which she travels to the underworld and thereby achieves a vastly intensified spiritual enlightenment which subsequently serves her well as the consort of Yeshua. Her famous anointing of his feet with tears and precious ointment officially designates Yeshua as God’s Christos (messiah). The consummation of marriage with him represents the Hieros Gamos required of any valid king. Without the Magdalene, Jesus is no messiah. He is no king (Kinstler 260).
The Moon and Yeshua
Before assuming her duties as head priestess, Mari Anath’s role model was her namesake, Almah Mari. As reigning high priestess, Almah became the mother of Yeshua who precisely as her offspring, had been pre-designated to be Israel’s expected Messiah – its liberator from Roman domination.
“Almah Mari” meant “pure maiden,” or “virgin.” However, the latter term did not connote asexual abstinence, but independence from male claims to spousal ownership.
For the Magdalene, her mentor was the very incarnation of Isis-Ashera, “Queen of All the Worlds; Mistress of Heaven, Earth and Hell; Mother of all things; eternal Wisdom, Truth and Beauty; keeper and protectress of all who call upon” her (14, 148). Those titles reflected Almah Mari’s love for Egypt to which she (and her son) often returned for inspiration and study.
According to the Magdalene’s faith, Almah Mari’s son, Yeshua, followed the path of typical deities belonging to the Egyptian mystery cults so popular in Rome and its provinces during the first century of the common era. Characteristically, they were virgin born, descended to earth, lived there and taught a while, were sacrificially killed, journeyed through the underworld to conquer its forces of darkness, rose from the dead, and finally ascended to heaven. From there, they offered eternal life to devotees who participated in rituals where the god’s body was eaten in the form of bread and whose blood was drunk in the form of wine or ale (41, 73).
More specifically, the Magdalene understood Yeshua as the incarnation of Osiris and the very presence of Dumuzi, the oldest of the mystery cults’ dying and resurrected gods (306). According to the Magdalen’s mythically complex theology, Yeshua was his own father — the spouse of his mother impregnated by the Sacred King Sharon. [Soon afterwards, Sharon took his own life thus following the ritual prescribed for gods of the mystery cults in question (40).]
In Kinstler’s story, Yeshua was also the identical twin brother of Seth, whom Yeshua later renamed Judas Scarios (204). As Seth, Judas had won the heart of the Magdalene, fathered two children with her, and eventually married her as the last of her three husbands (following Philip Herod, and Yeshua himself).
Jesus in Liberation Theology
Rejecting such speculation and complex mythologies, liberation theology emphasizes what can be known of Jesus from history, archeology, written records, laws, and the predictable constants of class struggles across the centuries against imperialism and its exploitation.
It employs what Jesuit theologian Roger Haight calls the secular “principle of analogy.” It holds that “we cannot normally expect to have happened in the past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present.” This means that liberation theology is committed to demythologizing the religious understandings that Kinstler’s tale takes so seriously. It recognizes them for what they were – ideologies justifying relationships of royal classes over disempowered subjects.
To Haight’s analogy principle about the past, I always add the corollary, “we can expect to have happened in the past what normally occurs in similar circumstances in the present.” This recognizes for instance that one can justifiably assume that imperially occupied and oppressed people in first century Palestine normally responded the way their counterparts do in the modern world: they harbored deep resentments, formed resistance movements, attacked their oppressors, and suffered the brutal consequences at the hands of merciless occupiers who despised the insurgents. Extensive Roman records show that this was indeed the case in first century Palestine.
From that perspective, the Yeshua of liberation theology emerges as one of innumerable miracle-workers in Palestine claiming to be the “messiah.” In context, that term could mean only one thing: restoration of Israel’s independence from its Roman imperial occupiers.
Like all such would-be Christs, Jesus was executed by the Romans who killed criminals like him using the method they reserved for insurgents – hanging on crosses publicly displayed to discourage others tempted to follow suit. After consumption by dogs and vultures, what was left of executed insurgents like Jesus probably found final disposal in a common grave.
However, what separated Jesus from others like him was a distinctive belief that soon after his execution emerged among his female disciples. Led by an obscure figure called Mary Magdalene, the women gradually persuaded doubtful male disciples that their Master had somehow returned to life.
The belief spread and caused Jesus’ followers to reassemble in communities that lived according to Jesus’ “communistic” ideals. They sold their surplus possessions, distributed the proceeds to the poor, and held everything else in common (Acts 2:42-47).
In other words, Jesus’ followers continued to embody what liberation theologians describe as the divine “preferential option for the poor.” Awareness of that option coincided with Israel’s own national beginnings. Those origins revealed the Hebrew God, Yahweh, as the champion of slaves in their resistance to Egyptian slavers.
For Israel, Yahweh was the enemy of everything Egyptian, including Egyptian gods and their accompanying mythologies, the culture’s royal families, and (of course) its temples with their priests and priestesses.
With all of this in mind, liberation theology is highly critical of understandings that emerged with the emperor Constantine in the 4th century of the Common Era that transformed a working-class prophet into a Roman “mystery cult” God.
After Constantine, Jesus became interchangeable with those earlier-described dying and rising gods such as Osiris, Isis, and Mithra. To repeat, that’s pretty much what happened to Jesus. He became one of those gods – for Constantine and the Christian tradition he shaped – and now for Clysta Kinstler.
I remember reading somewhere that after Nicaea and its “definition” of Jesus’ identity as “fully God and fully man,” it became virtually impossible to distinguish Christian worship ceremonies (what became the “Mass”) from those honoring dying and rising gods such as Isis, Osiris, Mithra, or the Great Mother. I wondered how that was possible.
After reading The Moon under Her Feet, I find my question answered. I see how easily even a crucified peasant prophet like Yeshua – one said to have been executed and risen from the dead – could be transformed from a working-class hero to a harmless royal god.
Under Kinstler’s pen, the Master not only comes from the temple culture of which he was so critical, he even takes on royal appearance with “Hasmonean” features, reddish hair, and blue eyes that turned to hazel and then brown (146).
Yeshua ends up looking like this:
Meanwhile, contemporary forensic archeologists say Jesus probably looked like this:
In other words, by the process depicted in The Moon under Her Feet, the poor are once again robbed not only of a major hero, but of the God whose incarnation looks like them and champions their liberation and a world order structured in their favor.