When God Had A Wife: Ashera, Magdalene & Modern Biblical Scholarship

Why is the world in such trouble?

Biblical scholars Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince present a compelling answer in their 2019 gem, When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

We’re all upset, they tell us, because our patriarchal universe is completely unbalanced. Politically it is overwhelmingly run by members of a single gender. It’s a man’s world whose arrangement excludes almost completely more than half the human race.

That’s true even spiritually. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.3 billion members has a hierarchy composed entirely of men. Outrageously, it holds officially that women are divinely excluded from its ruling elite. Other Christian denominations as well as the Jewish and Islamic communities are not far behind in their patriarchal orientation.

How could we expect balance and harmony in a world like that? No one can.

Of course, none of that should come as a surprise to anyone – especially to women. What is surprising and extremely important in Picknett and Prince’s exposition is their argument that our culture’s spiritual imbalance stands in sharp contradiction to earliest biblical traditions. There in both its Jewish and Christian Testaments the sacred feminine was originally honored as much as the sacred masculine.  

To demonstrate the truth of their position, Picknett and Prince reinterpret the concept of monotheism itself. They take readers on a tour of often-overlooked and downplayed middle eastern biblical sites, expose them to goddess-centered texts, and centralize the figures of Simon Magus, his lover and inspiration Helen, as well as Mary Magdalen who fulfills the same role for Jesus himself. It’s a mind-blowing trip with momentous implications for those committed to solving the world’s problems at their patriarchal and profoundly religious roots.

Monotheism and Patriarchy

Begin by considering the connection between patriarchy and monotheism itself. For the authors of When God Had A Wife, monotheism does not represent a sophisticated advance over a “primitive” polytheism. Quite the reverse. Monotheism instead embodies a drastically narrowed impoverishment of human spiritual experience. It entirely excised the divine feminine which humans across the planet have always thirsted for, recognized and honored. In fact, according to our authors, monotheism is synonymous with “the menfolk.” It is itself a patriarchal project. 

To develop that point, Picknett and Prince show readers that even the Bible is not basically monotheistic in its alleged identification of a single Old White Man in the Sky watching and judging our every decision. It’s not that other gods are merely pretenders who do not exist. It’s not even that the biblical tradition is devoid of goddesses. The latter are evidently visible for scholarly detectives like our authors who have been seeking clues for her presence in primary source manuscripts and secondary scholarship for more than 30 years. (The result has earned them world-wide recognition that even includes a cameo appearance in Hollywood’s version of “The Da Vinci Code.”)

Actually, within Judaism, monotheism (exclusive recognition of one God alone) was a late development. In a tradition that reputedly began about 1200 BCE, monotheism emerged exclusively only around 530 BCE – after the Babylonian exile. It was then that Judah’s elite represented by Ezra, Josiah, and Nehemiah reformulated the nation’s longstanding traditions. Their patriarchal work removed, downplayed, and/or reinterpreted all references acknowledging the existence and power of “foreign” gods other than Yahweh, Judah’s national deity. The reformulators took special pains to erase references to goddess worship.

Ezra’s reforms obscured, for instance, the fact that the people’s origin traditions identified an entire family of Gods as the ones responsible for the creation of the cosmos. Headed by the Great God, El, the family was called Elohim. It included 70 sons. Israel’s Yahweh was one of them – an inferior subordinate of El. His assignment was to protect the nation of Israel. (Note El’s name in the term Yisra-El itself.) Only at the beginning of the first millennium BCE was El replaced by Yahweh as Israel’s particular God.

More importantly for Picknett and Prince, El had a wife. The arrangement was only natural to the ancient mind – divine families mirrored human ones complete with father, mother, sons and daughters. It was just like the Greek and Egyptian myths familiar to all acquainted with classical literature. In fact, El’s wife sometimes had names drawn directly from cultures surrounding the Hebrew nation (Egypt’s in particular). Thus, she was variously identified as Anat, Qadesh, Isis, Sophia, and (the favorite) Asherah. As the quintessential shape shifter, the Hebrew goddess was variously a lustful, raunchy and sexually insatiable seductress, a fierce warrior, a loving wife, a beloved mother, and a wise crone.

Consider Ashera then. Despite patriarchal attempts to write her out of the Bible, and despite similar cultural obstacles obscuring the perception of most contemporary scholars, Asherah’s prominence for ancient Hebrews emerges unmistakably from:

  • The hundreds of female figurines unearthed from early iterations of pre-exilic Hebrew temples, i.e. before the end of the 6th century BCE. (That’s right: Asherah was officially worshipped in Jerusalem’s temple as well as in a Hebrew counterpart on the Nile Island called “Elephantine,” and in Samaria’s sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim.)
  • Their absence from similar sites following the 6th century reform
  • The presence of Asherah’s symbol [some version of a palm-like tree and/or mysterious (and always feminine) cherubim] inscribed on temple doors and other holy places closely associated with worship of El
  • Even more specific dedications sweetly referring to “El’s Asherah” or “Yahweh’s Asherah” on or near temple sites
  • Prohibitions by the anti-goddess prophets of outdoor worship associated with Asherah’s iconic trees
  • Indications in the oldest biblical texts that female biblical heroines like the Judge Deborah may have been priestesses of Asherah herself
  • Ashera’s reappearance as a domesticated “Sophia” in the Book of Wisdom (and elsewhere) redacted by patriarchs reluctantly responding to widespread popular demand for acknowledgement of the sacred feminine. Describing her as Sophia, even these conservative biblical texts identify the goddess as Yahweh’s first thought and co-creator with him. (More about this below. . .) 

The bottom line here is that goddess worship was central to ancient Israel’s past. Only heroic (not to say malevolent) efforts by the nation’s 6th century (BCE) reformers coupled with the cultural blindness of mainstream biblical scholarship has kept that powerful truth from penetrating the consciousness of Jews and Christians everywhere.

Jesus (& Simon Magus) as Feminist

Despite such obstacles past and present, our authors go on to explain the survival of goddess worship within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the process, they take us on a geographical odyssey from Judah to Alexandria and then to Samaria illustrating how recognition of the sacred feminine was advanced not only by the “proto-feminist” Jesus of Nazareth, but by two unexpectedly key figures: the arch-heretic Simon Magus (i.e. Simon the Magician) and John the Baptist.

As just indicated, even the best efforts of its scribal menfolk, could not keep goddess worship out of Judah’s public consciousness. Without honoring her actual name, popular pressure evidently forced the patriarchs to somehow acknowledge Ashera’s identity and influence. That pressure was increased by the spread of Greek (Hellenistic) culture especially as it emanated from Alexandria where fully 1/3 of the population was Jewish. (Greek culture was far more woman-friendly than its Jewish counterpart.)

Accordingly, as evidenced in the Book of Wisdom (produced at the end of the 3rd century BCE), the sacred feminine resurfaced under the title Sophia, a de-sexualized, sanitized, domesticated and abstract female principle called “Wisdom” and portrayed as God’s First Thought — his co-creator of the universe.

For its part, Samaria also proved central to the preservation of goddess traditions. Contrary to the impression given in the canonical gospels, the region was not a minor, out-of-the-way location. Instead, it covered a major swath of territory in northern Israel which was always more prosperous than its southern neighbor. The opposite impression comes from the anti-Israel and pro-Judah bias of the Jewish Testament in general and from a similar prejudice against Samaria itself in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

In any case, Samaria played a major role in Jesus’ public life as did its inhabitants. Scandalously, a Samaritan emerged as the hero of one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Additionally, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus made his first public declaration of his messianic identity to a Samaritan woman.

John the Baptist had Samaritan connections too. So did Simon Magus, who (as we’ll see presently) was both a disciple and rival of Jesus. And since Simon as well as Jesus were disciples of John, and since both of them ended up centralizing devotion to flesh-and-blood embodiments of Sophia, it makes sense to attribute similar focus to the Baptist.

In fact, all three – Jesus, John the Baptist and Simon the Magician had equal first century claims to the title of Christ or Messiah. (Well into the second century, John’s disciples invoked Jesus’ own praise of their master as “the greatest prophet” to argue John’s superiority to Jesus.) It’s therefore a fluke of history that today’s “Christians” are not Johannites or Simonists.  

As for Simon Magus . . . Christian polemic portrays him as a contemptuous minor figure not only in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles but throughout early Christian tradition. However, historically speaking, he himself was widely revered as the Son of God. He was a wonder worker on a par with his Nazarene rival. Both men presented themselves as prophets of Sophia. Both were besotted with women who for them embodied God’s Wisdom complete with all the sexual overtones reminiscent of goddess worship everywhere.

The latter is most evident in the case of Simon, a free thinker who, like Jesus, rejected the group consensus of his own time in favor of the Wisdom of God. Simon’s Sophia went by the name Helen whom he portrayed as God’s First Thought. She was a former prostitute whose status as such, Simon argued, incarnated the patriarchy’s degrading treatment of women in general. Accessing Helen’s wisdom involved daily sexual relations with the beloved.

Jesus’ relations with his own Sophia, Mary Magdalen, mirrored that of Simon the Magician. Clearly his favorite, Mary was Jesus’ link with his many female disciples. She was probably his sexual consort if not his wife and mother of his children. (It was simply a given, the authors argue, that any Jewish man above 20 years of age had to be married. So, at the age portrayed in the gospels, Jesus was either a widower or a divorcee.)

At the same time, Mary Magdalene was a rival of Peter the apostle who according to Magdalene’s Gospel and other recently discovered texts was an extreme misogynist and enemy of the one Jesus saw as the embodiment of the divine feminine – God’s First Thought. Jesus’ identification of Mary as “the apostle of apostles” wounded Peter to the quick.

All of this has evident implications not only for questions about the sacred feminine in general, about goddess worship and church leadership, but also for “the contemporary rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition” and for restoring balance in our increasingly troubled world.

Conclusion

Reading When God Had A Wife was like taking a short course in biblical studies. Thankfully, it recalled for me what I had learned more than half a century ago in the most important courses I took in preparation for priestly ordination in the Catholic seminary. And that recollection made me wonder why the knowledge communicated in When God Had A Wife has not yet filtered down to those who occupy the pews in churches and synagogues, and prayer mats in mosques.

It’s as if there were some conspiracy to keep everyone ignorant, naïve and childish in their approach to faith. For instance, our authors reminded me that in the seminary well more than 50 years ago, I had learned about text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. I wonder why all of that isn’t common knowledge.

The answer of Picknett and Prince is that there has indeed been a conspiracy by the ruling elite to keep everything secret. The goddess had to be removed from the Judeo-Christian pantheon to more firmly establish patriarchal monotheism, which, remember, has always been about “the menfolk.”

It’s that latter insight that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the wonderfully detailed and exquisitely documented work presented in When God Had A Wife. The interests of the menfolk explain more convincingly than anything else the reluctance of those who should know better to share with the rest of us the rich fruits of biblical scholarship.

After all, if “the faithful” knew about variant texts, literary forms and redacted interpretations, they might call into question the exclusive right claimed by priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, rabbis, and imams to explain their Old White Man up in the Sky. They might embrace instead female leadership and Yahweh’s Wife – Ashera, Anat, the Cosmic Mother, or Isis.

For that matter, they might demand ecclesial leadership modeled on the discipleship of Mary Magdalene or Simon Magus’ Helen.   

It’s because Picknett and Prince have the courage to forcefully and convincingly suggest such revisions that I cannot recommend more highly their supremely accessibly and wonderfully popularized When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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”

“Everyone’s Talking about Mary Magdalene” (First in a Monday Series on Mary Magdalene)

Not long ago a friend asked me about Mary Magdalene. Yes, Mary Magdalene. Thanks to Dan Brown and others, she’s been cropping into conversations lately much more than she used to. In any case, the observation had been made in this particular exchange that there existed animosity between the Magdalene and Peter the apostle. From there it was a short step to sharing opinions about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Were they married? Were they lovers?

After a while, my friend asked in apparent frustration. “But how do they know these things?” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was mentioned, and then the conversation trailed off into more mundane topics. As a theologian, I was left wishing I was more informed about the Magdalene part of the discussion. I knew there were plenty of recently published books on the topic, but I hadn’t read them. Shortly afterwards, almost by sheer chance one of those books dropped into my lap. It was written by esoteric researcher Lynn Picknett and called The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess.  I devoured the volume immediately finding it every bit as interesting and just as much a page-turner as The da Vinci Code.

Unlike Daniel Brown’s work however, Picknett’s work is a largely successful effort at serious scholarship. Though not writing for academicians, she uses non-canonical gospels and heretical sources as well as their biblical counterparts to substantiate her surprising conclusions. Basically, they are that far from being a reformed and eternally penitent prostitute and sinner, Mary Magdalene was actually the spouse or lover of Jesus, possibly an Egyptian priestess, and very likely black.  She is the one whom Jesus often “kissed upon the mouth,” and whose intimate relationship with the Christ enraged Jesus’ male companions, especially Peter who actually threatened to kill her. Even more, in words attributed to Jesus in that Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), she was “the All,” “The Woman who knows all,” the “apostle of apostles.” Such apostolic primacy makes the Magdalene the true founder of the church and rightful possessor of Peter’s throne. In fact, as the anointer of Jesus, Mary Magdalene may have been his equal – a true Egyptian goddess, an incarnation of Isis. Possibly, she was even Jesus’ superior.

According to Picknett, such pre-eminence even over Jesus should not astonish, for a close reading of the Synoptics and John show that even those Christian propagandists present a Jesus with feet of clay. He was often self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. The Jesus hidden in those “sacred texts” was a bitter rival of John the Baptist, and may even have been part of a plot which ended in the Baptist’s beheading. In any case, on Picknett’s analysis, Jesus was not the Messiah; John was. And although branded as heretics, John’s followers survive to this day as bitter  opponents of the Jesus Movement. Most prominent among them was Leonardo da Vinci.

Even readers of The da Vinci Code would find such positions not only surprising but shocking. But how does Picknett arrive at such conclusions, what are the details of her argument, and how is one to evaluate the evidence she marshals?

Tune in next week to find out. . . .

Next Monday: “The Methodology of Magdalene Scholarship”