The Wife of Christ

And the companion of [the Saviour] is Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] by it [and expressed disapproval]. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The Gospel of Philip, 3rd century AD [1]

In 1945 a cache of ancient documents was discovered in a jar in the Egyptian desert. A collection of religious texts, now known as the Nag Hammadi library, it had lain undisturbed for over sixteen hundred years. It was buried in the later fourth century, almost certainly to preserve it from a book-burning purge ordered by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD, and backed by state force - Christianity was by then the official religion of the Roman Empire. Among these texts there are many which give a prominent role to Mary Magdalene, as leader of women whom Jesus sent out to preach and superior even to the twelve male apostles. One goes so far as to name her Christ’s ‘companion’ a word which some would translate as ‘wife’.

This shocking notion of a marriage between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene now has a very wide currency, thanks to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a novel woven around the conspiracy theory advanced by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors of this non-fiction work claimed to have uncovered evidence of a bloodline descended from the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, perpetuating itself in secret over the last two thousand years to avoid extermination at the hands of ‘official’ Christianity. Conspiracy theories obviously have great appeal to many people, but what lends this one credence is the stark contrast between the Church’s treatment of Mary Magdalene and the known facts. The Roman Church has for centuries portrayed this woman as a penitent whore, and this is the view of her most Christians in the west have been brought up with. But leaving aside the Nag Hammadi texts and the high status they accord her, there is actually nothing in any of the canonical scriptures to suggest that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene is presented in all four canonical gospels as the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In three of them she does not appear until the crucifixion, but Luke introduces her earlier in the story. In Luke 8.1-3 Jesus is still in Galilee, travelling around its towns and villages in the company of the Twelve and a number of women whom he had freed from evil spirits and infirmities and who provided for the party out of their own resources. The women are clearly wealthy. Luke names three of them, Mary “who was called Magdalene”, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna. He also tells us that seven evil spirits had come out of Mary, but he nowhere implies that this multiple haunting was a consequence of any sin she had previously committed. And he puts her in the company of a female courtier. Now a high class courtesan might conceivably be found in the company of a male courtier, but surely no-one would imagine that the wife of King Herod’s steward would be travelling around in the company of a whore. Mary Magdalene, in Luke, is not a prostitute.

The other three gospels make no mention of Mary Magdalene until the crucifixion. In Matthew and Mark she heads the list of women who witnessed Christ’s agony from a distance. They place her in the company of two other women: in Matthew they are Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and in Mark, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. As we learn elsewhere that Zebedee’s wife was Salome, these may be the same individuals. Luke does not specifically tell us that Mary was present at the crucifixion, though he says that the friends of Jesus who watched from a distance included women, specifically those who had accompanied him from Galilee.

John tells quite a different story. He also puts Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion in the company of two other women, but his are both Marys - Jesus’ own mother and her sister,[2] the wife of Clopas. These are the same three women listed in The Gospel of Philip: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary."[3] John adds another individual to their company, a man, the Beloved Disciple whose witness underpins John’s story. And he puts them not at a distance, but so close to the cross that Jesus is able to converse with them.

All four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene, alone or in company, was the first to bear witness to the resurrection, and three of them make her the first to see and speak to the risen Christ. In Matthew she does so in the company of “the other Mary”, but in Mark and John she is the solitary, first witness, and it is she alone who carries the good news to the other disciples, and to the Twelve. John’s account is the most detailed. He says Mary rose while it was still dark and went to the tomb Seeing the stone had been removed from the entrance she ran to tell Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” that the body had been taken. All three hurried to the tomb but found only the linen in which the body had been wrapped, with the cloth which had covered the face lying folded by itself. The two men left, but Mary remained weeping beside the tomb. Jesus himself came beside her and asked her “why are you weeping” but at first she mistook him for the gardener, and begged him to tell her, if he knew, where the body had been taken to. He called her by name, Mary, and only then did she recognise him.

This is all we learn of Mary Magdalene from the canonical scriptures. We learn nothing of her actions or her whereabouts before the crucifixion, aside from that brief mention in Luke 8, and though she plays such a major role in the Christian drama her part lasts a mere three days. After that, the Apostle to the Apostles simply leaves the stage. Acts knows nothing of her, and the most famous Church historian Eusebius seems intent on writing her out of the story altogether, informing us, on the authority of Paul, that the first witness to the resurrection was a man, Cephas.[4] Among the Gnostics, however, she became an important figure. The Gospel of Philip, as said, makes her the ‘companion’ of Christ. The Dialogue of the Saviour elevates her above the Apostles and describes her as “one who knew the All”[5] and in the Pistis Sophia Christ himself describes her as “she whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all thy brothers".[6] There is even a gospel attributed to her, The Gospel of Mary, in which she teaches the disciples hidden mysteries Christ had revealed to her alone. In this work and in others Peter is portrayed as trying to silence Mary on the grounds that she is a woman. Her right to preach is defended by Christ himself in the Pistis Sophia[7] and by Levi in The Gospel of Mary: “If the Saviour made her worthy, who indeed are you to reject her. Surely the saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.”[8]

In the orthodox scriptures Mary Magdalene has no further role after witnessing the resurrection, but these are the records of a Church which excluded women from all priestly and preaching functions. It has been suggested that Mary Magdalene was deliberately denigrated as a whore during the struggle to exclude women from the priesthood. But it is important to note that she never suffered this fate in the Greek east. In Greek Orthodox legend she is best remembered as preaching before Tiberius Caesar and his court that Christ had risen from the dead, the emperor’s incredulity assuaged by witnessing the egg in her hand turning bright red in an instant - the first Easter egg. It was only in the Latin west that Mary was remembered as a penitent whore, giving her name to sanctuaries for reformed prostitutes and houses of correction for other sexually deviant women, like the infamous Magdalen Laundries of Ireland.

The blame for this state of affairs is usually laid at the door of Pope Gregory the Great - the same who sent Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the English and impose his authority on the Church of their British enemies. In a homily dated to 591 AD Gregory equated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, and an unnamed sinner in Luke, who anointed Jesus and whose sins he forgave. As the sinner was a woman the sin would obviously be sexual. Gregory explained that the ointment with which she anointed Christ she had previously used to “perfume her flesh in forbidden acts”, and the seven demons cast out of her were “all the vices”,[9] that is, the seven deadly sins. Even the Roman Catholic Church has come to admit, since 1969, that there are no grounds for believing Mary was a prostitute. But that doesn’t mean Gregory deliberately defamed her. The issue is more complex than that.

There is a confusion of Marys around the person of Jesus. One Syrian tradition combined all three Marys who stood at the foot of the cross into one single character.[10] Pope Gregory supposedly confused two, and then added a third individual to the mix because this unnamed sinner had anointed Christ, as had Mary of Bethany.

The story of the Bethany anointing occurs in three gospels, but the woman is only named in John, who gives the fullest account. Matthew and Mark appear to tell us it happened two days before the Passover, but John 12.1-2 says it was six days before, and that the occasion was a supper given in Jesus’ honour at the house of Lazarus. We have already met Lazarus and his two sisters in John 11.1-4, when Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus saying “he whom thou lovest is sick”, and we were told back then that “it was that Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.” There is, of course, no Lazarus in Matthew, nor in canonical Mark as it now stands, and according to their accounts the venue was the “house of Simon the leper”, who plays no part in the story. But their testimonies and John’s are not in conflict. If we combine the three, then Simon would be the absent head of the Bethany household, presumably the father of the siblings, forced by his disease to live separate from them. At any rate all agree that the incident occurred as Jesus was dining, and John says Lazarus sat among the guests, and “Martha served”. This is an aristocratic household, Lazarus himself, the Beloved Disciple, was “known to the high priest”. There can be no necessity for Martha to serve at table, her action must be intended to honour Jesus. Her sister Mary “took a pound of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.”  At this Judas Iscariot objected, saying the precious ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor, but Christ told him to leave her alone, that Mary should be allowed to keep the ointment for the day of his burial, for “For the poor ye have always with you; but me ye have not always.”

Oil of nard is the ointment used by the unnamed woman in Matthew and Mark, and in these gospels also there are objections on the grounds of cost, not from Judas but from “the disciples” in Matthew, and “some of those present” in Mark. In both these gospels, however, the unnamed woman simply anoints Jesus, there is no mention of feet: But there is in Luke.

Luke’s story is apparently quite distinct. The event occurs long before the crucifixion when Jesus is still in Galilee. He is at supper when the unnamed sinner enters. Standing behind him weeping, she drenches his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with ointment from an alabaster jar. Again there is an objection, but on entirely different grounds. Jesus’ host thinks to himself that his guest can’t be a prophet, or he would know that this woman was a sinner, and Jesus responds with a story. Two men are in debt to a moneylender, who forgives both their debt. Which one will love him most. Of course, the one forgiven most. Just so with the woman: “Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefor I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”[11]

We are never told what the woman’s many sins were, and this speech could just as easily be used to justify Paul, who once persecuted Christians to their deaths but was later so confident in his apostleship that he ‘withstood’ Peter ‘to his face’.[12] But if Jesus ever told the parable recounted here, it was not in this context. This anointing incident in Luke is simply a garbled, misplaced interpretation of the Bethany anointing. The give-away is the name of the host. Matthew and Mark say the unnamed woman anointed Jesus in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. Luke says it was in the house of Simon the Pharisee. That a woman anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair in Galilee, and then the same thing occurred again in Bethany just outside Jerusalem, in both cases in a house belonging to a man named Simon, is beyond coincidence. Three gospels agree together. The incident occurred in Bethany shortly before the crucifixion, and there was no public stain on the woman’s character.

The defamation of Mary Magdalene hangs on this incident in Luke, but that is not to say Luke is responsible for the nature of the insult. Luke never labels any of the three women a prostitute; not the unnamed sinner, not Mary Magdalene, not Mary of Bethany. Of course there is no Mary of Bethany in Luke’s gospel, as such, since there is no Bethany supper and no Lazarus. But the sisters Mary and Martha do make an appearance. It happens as Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem with his followers. He comes to an unnamed village where a woman called Martha, but otherwise unidentified, welcomes him into her home. She has a sister named Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching, leaving Martha to do all the domestic work. Martha appeals to Jesus, but he sides with her sister: “The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her.”[13] Luke’s gospel endorses Mary’s right to reject the traditional role of women and dedicate herself to the spiritual life. Exactly the same judgement is presented at the end of the Gospel of Thomas: "Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’" Clearly Luke did not invent his story to discredit female discipleship, but he did invent it. His Martha, “cumbered about with much serving” is a distorted memory of the incident recorded now only in John’s gospel, that at the Bethany supper given in Christ’s honour “Martha served”.

Pope Gregory is not entirely to blame for confusing two women to the detriment of a third: Mary of Bethany and Luke’s unnamed sinner are indeed the same woman. And no matter what use a misogynist Church was later to make of it, the original intention behind this confusion clearly had nothing to do with the spiritual denigration of women. Luke had some other reason for breaking Mary of Bethany in two and obscuring our understanding of her role.

It is a fact well known to biblical scholars, though not always acceptable to believing Christians, that the New Testament texts have gone through a process of editing which has effectively obscured some individuals and incidents that were well known and understood by the earliest Christians. When John speaks of the disciple whom Jesus loved he is not trying to disguise the man, he expects us to know already that this is Lazarus of Bethany, the subject of Jesus’ greatest miracle. But there is no Lazarus of Bethany in the Synoptic gospels, though a version of Mark once contained his story. And John himself has suffered a severe editing at Luke’s hands. In Acts 19 Luke tells a story of some Jewish exorcists, sons of a high priest, who took it upon themselves to cast out evil spirits in the name of “Jesus whom Paul preaches”. One spirit replied to them “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you”, and attacked them through the demoniac he controlled, so that they were forced to flee the house wounded and naked, and all of Ephesus heard about it. John son of Ananias the high priest once did flee naked, an event long remembered throughout the Christian community. But it was not from a failed exorcism in Ephesus, where he lived into old age, but from the garden of Gethsemane when he was still a child, in apparent fulfilment of the prophecy of Amos.[14] Luke’s story is a defamation. John of Ephesus, author of the fourth gospel, was a highly respected Church father who, unlike Luke’s hero Paul, had known Jesus personally.

The most obvious distortion in the gospels is the whitewashing of Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. All four gospels represent this man as a reluctant executioner, forced by a Jewish mob to execute Jesus despite his own conviction of the man’s innocence. In all four gospels Pilate pleads with the crowd to let him release Jesus, in accordance with the Passover custom which required him to release one prisoner at their request, but no, they insist he release instead the ‘bandit’ Barabbas. This story is impossible. No Roman governor could have behaved in this way. There was no custom of releasing a prisoner. And we know of Pilate from other sources: He was a brutal and bloody tyrant even by Roman standards.[15] The reasons for this whitewash are well-established. After the Jewish revolt of 70 AD ended in disaster, it was expedient for the early Christians to distance their faith from revolutionary Judaism. Jesus was executed as an enemy of Rome. The gospels attempt to gloss over this fact with a distorted presentation of the trial before Pilate. Luke takes this process furthest. In the other three gospels Jesus before his crucifixion is whipped and beaten by the Roman guards, who dress him in purple and crown him with thorns, and mockingly hail him King of the Jews. In Luke’s gospel there is no crown of thorns and no flogging, and though Jesus is dressed in gorgeous robes to mock his pretensions as King of the Jews it is King Herod and his troops who are responsible for this indignity, not the soldiers of Rome.

It is Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, who preached a version of Christianity which offered no challenge to the Roman state, and which the Roman Empire was later to adopt as its state religion. Luke is Paul’s partizan, and his gospel goes furthest to divorce the incarnate Son of God from mundane politics. It is Luke’s gospel which does most to distort our view of Mary of Bethany and her actions. That in itself gives notice that the Bethany anointing is a political event.

Both Matthew and Mark stress the importance Jesus placed on this event. They both say that he informed those present that what the woman had done would be spoken of wherever in the world the gospel was preached, as a memorial to her. This despite the fact that neither of them name the woman.

Only John names her. We know from John that the Bethany household is rich and well-connected, and that it was at a supper in Jesus’ honour that Mary anointed him. The event was very public. A great number of ‘the Jews’ had gathered there, John tells us, not only to see Jesus but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Indeed so many had come to believe in Jesus because of Lazarus’ resurrection that the chief priests, who were already plotting to kill Jesus, resolved to kill Lazarus also.

The ointment was very expensive. This is stressed in all three gospels. All three say there were objections on the grounds of cost, but that Jesus himself defended the anointer. To my knowledge this is the only incident where Jesus, who is always on the side of the poor, appears to condone an act of aristocratic extravagance, warning Mary’s critics that the poor would always be with them, but he would not. In all three accounts Jesus associates this anointing with his forthcoming death, either by stating that the woman has anointed him in advance of his burial, or instructing that she be allowed to keep the ointment for use in his funeral rites. He was executed seven days later.

Neither Matthew nor Mark name those who objected to the anointing, but John does. He says it was Judas, the disciple who was later to betray Jesus. In both Matthew and Mark Judas’ decision to betray Jesus occurs immediately after the Bethany incident.

It was the following day, according to John, that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass, in fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass.”[16] John tells us that the holiday crowd gathered for the Passover, who clearly understood the gesture, came out from Jerusalem to meet him, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, blessed 'is' he who is coming in the name of the Lord - the king of Israel”[17] All four canonical gospels record this event, with slight variations in the chant of the crowd which only make it all the plainer that Jesus was understood to be announcing his own coming reign: “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who is coming in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” (Matthew 21.9). “Hosanna! blessed 'is' he who is coming in the name of the Lord, blessed is the coming reign, in the name of the Lord, of our father David; Hosanna in the highest.” (Mark 11.9-10) “blessed 'is' he who is coming, a king in the name of the Lord; peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.” (Luke 19.38) All four gospels agree that it was in Bethany Jesus acquired the mount that scripture required. The consensus among biblical scholars is that it was the Bethany household, the household of Lazarus and Mary, which supplied it.

Less than a week after this jubilant acclamation by the multitude, Jesus was executed ‘under Pilate’. As was the usual Roman custom, a statement of his crime was publicly displayed over the condemned man: “King of the Jews”. The Jewish authorities objected to this, John tells us, and wanted it changed to say that the felon had claimed to be king of the Jews, but Pilate refused, saying “what I have written, I have written.” Jesus wasn’t executed as a claimant to the throne - he clearly wasn’t the only ‘son of David’, he had brothers and cousins after all. He was killed for actually being what the pilgrim crowd proclaimed him: their king, their Messiah. The word Messiah means, literally, the Anointed One. Jewish kings were inaugurated by an act of ritual anointing. The only anointing of Jesus Christ, Jesus the Anointed One, that we have on record is the one performed in Bethany the day before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, by Mary, very publicly in the house of her wealthy brother before a large crowd, using a shockingly expensive oil.

Luke has deliberately set out to obscure the significance of the Bethany anointing, and to this day the ceremony has not been understood. There is currently a small but lively debate among Christians, feminists and biblical scholars over the question of Jesus’ marital status. Traditionally Jesus has been portrayed as single. But scholars have argued that if Jesus were not married we should expect to find a statement to that effect somewhere, since it was exceptional for a Jew to be unmarried, and quite unacceptable for a Rabbi to stay single. (No-one has to my knowledge pointed out that an unmarried king would be even more of an anomaly). Against this those who are committed to the traditional view have argued that unmarried prophets were by no means unusual, and that Jesus, travelling throughout Judea to spread the good news, had “nowhere to lay his head” and was obviously unable to support a wife. The testimony of The Gospel of Philip is taken seriously by some, but others find it ambiguous, and traditionalists consider evidence outside the canonical scriptures to be late, concocted and irrelevant. In their view, Jesus must have been single, since the canonical scriptures do not specifically tell us that he was married. But the Gospel of John does tell us that precisely.

Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus Christ, but that is not all she did. Though Matthew and Mark say she poured the perfumed oil on his head, John says she also anointed his feet, and that she wiped his feet with her hair. John mentions this twice, and Luke also records it. The gesture is clearly significant, and to work out what it signifies we have only to consider Jesus’ genealogy. According to scripture an ancestor of his once performed the same gesture.

The book of Ruth tells the story of David’s great grandmother who fell on hard times but was eventually restored to prosperity. Ruth was the loyal daughter-in-law of Naomi, a widow robbed by death and misfortune of the lands and possessions she had once enjoyed. Returning home after her exile in the land of Moab, with the Moabitess Ruth who would not desert her, she had no means of support. Ruth was obliged to support them both by gleaning, for they had arrived at the start of the barley harvest. The fields where Ruth gleaned were owned by Naomi’s kinsmen Boaz, who instructed the harvesters to deal generously with the girl. Naomi determined to secure Ruth’s future, and to that end instructed her to wash, dress and anoint herself, then go to Boaz' threshing floor, for that night he would be winnowing barley. She was to note where he lay down, and once he was sleeping, to uncover his feet and lay herself down there. When he woke to find a woman at his feet and asked who it was, she gave her name and said “spread therefor thy skirt over thy handmaid, for thou art a near kinsman”.[18] This is a proposal of marriage. If there were any doubts on the matter, the words of Ezekiel would remove them. Ezekiel 16 describes Jerusalem as an abandoned infant which God saved, cared for and then married: “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, and, behold, thy time was the time of love, I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness; yea, I swore unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest Mine.”[19] With the same gesture Ruth claimed Boaz as her husband and protector. He honoured the claim, they married, and their descendants became the kings of Israel.

We do not know what words Mary of Bethany spoke when she uncovered the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair, but his skirt was over her. This is clearly a proposal of marriage. Jesus cannot possibly have misunderstood the gesture. He knew his own genealogy, as events of the following day were to prove. Boaz was asleep when Ruth approached him, and as Naomi had planned, could not prevent it. But Jesus was awake, and did not, instead correcting those who rebuked Mary. Yet he knew this marriage would cost him his life.

There would always be some danger in being a descendant of King David in the days of the Roman Empire. The gospels accurately record, in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, how the Jewish masses pinned their hopes on a God-sent saviour of that lineage who would deliver them from Roman oppression. Eusebius tells a story, derived from Hegesippus, that after the first Jewish revolt the Emperor Vespasian ordered the extermination of the entire Davidic royal house, and in the reign of his son Domitian two great-nephews of Jesus were hauled before the Emperor or no other reason than that they were descendants of King David. But he released them unharmed, because their poverty proved they posed no threat to Rome. Davidic descent united with wealth would have constituted a threat.[20] Six days before the Passover Jesus married into a wealthy, aristocratic family, was hailed King of the Jews the following day and executed for precisely that offence within a week. But Mary’s wealth may not be the only reason marriage to her must lead to the cross. It has been suggested that Mary herself was of royal blood, that the marriage was dynastic.[21] Given what followed, this seems probable.

But now we are faced with a puzzle. After the Bethany anointing Mary, sister of Lazarus, disappears from the story. In all four gospels it is another woman, Mary Magdalene, who witnesses the crucifixion and the resurrection. There is no mention of this Mary before the Passion, except in Luke, who tells us she was a demoniac from Galilee who, having been cured by Jesus, became his disciple and helped finance his mission from her own resources. Hence it is widely accepted that the name Magdalene refers to her origin in Magdala, a fishing port on the Sea of Galilee. But this story is only found in Luke. True, Mark 16.9 says Mary was a demoniac cured by Jesus, but this statement appears in his gospel apropos of nothing, tagged onto the claim that Mary, whom Mark has mentioned twice already, was the first to see the risen Christ. There is no previous mention of this exorcism in Mark, and the statement would do nothing to clarify which Mary we are talking about if Luke’s gospel did not exist. This is not independent confirmation of Luke, it is a spill-over from that gospel, an interpolation from the pen of a later scribe. It is only Luke who puts Mary in the company of other women whom Jesus had freed of infirmities and evil spirits, precisely seven of these in Mary’s case. Who counted?

Pope Gregory equates Mary’s seven demons with the seven deadly sins - it was apparently he who compiled the list. But he did not invent the significance of the number seven, which derives originally from the seven visible planets. To the ancient world the planets were gods. In Hermetic belief they gifted the incarnating spirit with their attributes as it passed through their spheres on its way to our earth. In Gnostic belief, of course, these ‘gifts’ were a pollution which served as a chain to bind the descending spirit to this fallen realm. On the ascent back to its true home it would have to confront these planetary demons, releasing itself from their power by shedding the ‘garment’ they had imposed on it. Numerous Gnostic texts deal with this spiritual ascent and confrontation - including The Gospel of Mary, in which Mary Magdalene herself testifies to its reality. Mary Magdalene was revered among the Gnostics as “the woman who knew the All” and as the highest initiate among Christ’s disciples. The seven evil spirits which went from her are not evil spirits which plagued her, they are the seven demons of the planetary spheres which she overcame. Luke has edited the Magdalene just as he edited John of Ephesus. Then the Gnostic view of Mary is at least as old as Luke 8, and that is generally dated to the first century.

Luke makes Mary Magdalene a Galilean. No other source confirms this. The other three gospels do not mention her until the crucifixion, when she comes suddenly to prominence. She is the first named among the women who witnessed the crucifixion in Mark and Matthew, in John she stands at the foot of the cross beside Jesus’ own mother, his aunt, and the disciple he loved best. She it was, alone or in company, who observed where Joseph of Arimathea laid the body, and she, alone or in company, rose early on the Sunday morning and went to the tomb with ointments and spices to perform the most intimate service, the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. And meanwhile Mary of Bethany remained at home, in a village just outside Jerusalem, with the remainder of the very expensive ointment which Jesus had instructed she should be allowed to keep “against the day of my burying”. This story simply doesn't fit.

There is only one possible solution: Mary of Magdalene is Mary of Bethany. She is called Mary Magdalene only at the time of Christ’s Passion because it is only then that she is the Magdalene. It must be remembered that the earliest Christians, the Jewish followers of Jesus, regarded the fulfilment of prophecy as proof of his Messianic claims. And they believed that the prophet Micah, the same who prophesied the saviour would be born in Bethlehem, had also prophesied of Mary: “And you, O tower of the flock (Migdal-eder), Ophel of the daughter of Zion, to you it will come, even the earlier authority, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem. Now why are you crying so loudly? is there no king in you? has destruction come on your wise helper?[22]

Pope Gregory must be exonerated, at least from this charge. He was not mistaken in identifying the three women as one, he was simply wrong about her status. The confusion was already there in the canonical gospels, introduced deliberately, as early as the first century AD. It was Luke, Paul’s partizan, who fragmented the companion of the saviour into three separate individuals, and so disguised her true role. With Mary restored to wholeness, the Easter story begins to make a lot more sense.

The Mary who anointed Jesus six days before the Passover is the same Mary who rose early on Sunday morning and made her way to the tomb to perform that last service for her husband, hastily buried on the eve of the Sabbath. She was the Mary who stood at the foot of his cross, with his mother and his aunt, and her own brother, Lazarus. When Jesus gave his mother into the care of this Beloved Disciple - Jesus, who had brothers - it was to no outsider but to his own wealthy brother-in-law, who had a house close by and was in a position to care for her. When his followers had fled in terror and confusion, appalled that their Messiah, instead of saving Israel, was himself tortured to death by the hated Romans, it was his kin, by blood and by marriage, who stuck with Jesus to the last.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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Footnotes

1. 63.32- 64.5 The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M Robinson

2. Sister-in-law, since Clopas, or Cleophas, was the brother of Joseph according to Hegesippus. Jesus’ cousin Simeon, who succeeded James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem, was their son. see Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3.11

3. The Gospel of Philip, 59.6-12, The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M Robinson

4. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 1.12. Cephas is, of course, Peter, but Eusebius prefers to believe there were two men of this name among the earliest Christians, rather than admit that the Prince of the Apostles and the Apostle to the Gentiles clashed at Antioch, as Paul himself claims in Galatians 2.11

5. The Gospel of Philip,139.12-13, The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M Robinson

6. Pistis Sophia, Book 1, chapter 17, trans. Carl Schmidt and Violet MacDermott, on Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha and Sacred Writings

7. Ibid., Book 1, chapter 36; Book 2, chapter 72

8. The Gospel of Mary ,18, from the Berlin Gnostic Codex, published in The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M Robinson

9. Gregory the Great's Homily 33

10. The Twentieth Discourse of Cyril of Jerusalem, in The Apocryphal New Testament, Montague Rhodes James, p87

11. Luke 7.44-47

12. Galatians 2.11

13. Luke 10.42

14. See above, Appendix 1.

15. He was eventually removed from office for a mass murder deemed excessive by his own superior. See Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 4.

16. Zechariah 9.9

17. John 12.13

18. Ruth 3.9

19. Ezekiel 16.8

20. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3.12, 3.20

21. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln suggested in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that Mary was a Benjamite heiress, and that the marriage reunited the lines of King Saul and King David. But given that Mary was wealthy it seems to me likely she descended from a royal house which had lost power much more recently, namely the Hasmoneans, the Jewish line which preceded Herod the Great, and into which he married to strengthen his claim to the Jewish throne.

22. Micah 4.8-9