Monday, September 13, 2004

The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

Religion and history are very fascinating subjects indeed. So much of mankind's history--both good and bad--is shaped by the forces of religion. There are people like Bertrand Russell who even argued that religion has done more harm than good.

Even though I'm not a Christian, I consider myself an enthusiastic student of Christianity and its history. And typical of me, at certain periods in my life, my "enthusiasm" even bordered on obsession. I spent a lot time raiding the university library to quench this irrational obsession of mine. As a kid who went to a missionary kindergarten, I was also exposed very early to a lot of the biblical stories, and remember reading a rather well-illustrated children's version of the Old and New Testament.

Stories from the Bible have also been made into major Hollywood motion pictures, of which I am also a great fan of. The recent Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson--which I still haven't found the occassion to watch--is the most recent in a long line of such biblical movies. It was showing in Jakarta a couple of weeks back but bootleg DVD versions have been circulating around for quite some time already. I must try and catch it on the big screen if possible.

One of the most fascinating characters in the New Testament Bible to me, is Mary Magdalene. Non-Christian often confuse Mary Magdalene with the Virgin Mary--Jesus' mother. But that's understandable--because there are so many Marys mentioned in the Bible: besides these two, there're Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus and Mary, wife of Cleophas--mother of James.

In Franco Zeffrirelli's mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, as in popular Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene is shown as a repentent prostitute who became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene, according to the Gospels is also the first person who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. She must be someone special indeed for Jesus to choose her first to reveal Himself after his death on the cross.

Renaissance artists often portray Mary Magdalene as a rather attractive young woman with auburn hair; well, she was after all a prostitute. But the interesting thing is that there's no clear evidence in the Bible to indicate that she was a woman who sold her body for a living. There's mention in Chapter 7 of Luke of a "sinner"--a woman who came to weep repentantly at the feet of Jesus' feet and anointed them with oil. Then in Chapter 8, is the name Mary Magdalene mentioned as a woman whom Jesus cured from evil spirits. Medieval scholars somehow took the two to be the same woman.

Or did they do that intentionally?? There are theories among certain biblical scholars claiming that there were deliberate attempts to "harlotize" Mary Magdalene. Why? That's actually the exciting premise for the most talked-about best-seller fiction recently: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Many scholars believe that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus' wife. And why not? Jesus was a Jew and rabbis do not practice celibacy.

The claim is also not that far-fetched for there are a lot of references that support it in the apocryphal gospels--versions of Jesus' life that were not accepted as part of the "official" Church-sanctioned New Testament Gospels. Scholars claimed that Jesus had actually intended Mary Magdalene to be the one leading his church after his death, but this fact was supressed by the early male-dominated Church.

There are a awful lot of theories and speculations surrounding Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, the Knights of Templar and the Merovingians. All these themes were skillfully woven together by author Dan Brown to form a pulse-pounding, mind-twisting thriller in The Da Vinci Code. For those who have read this exciting piece of fiction, they will never look at Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper painting the same way again.

Was Mary Magdalene a common whore who repented for her sins or was she actually Jesus' favoured disciple--even loved one--originally destined to be the First Apostle? Well, you decide. Whatever it is, I don't think it undermines the Christian faith at all. History, especially religious history will always have an element of uncertainty--you can never tell which is fact, fiction, myth or divine revelation. Remember, history is always written by the victors, who are mere mortals.

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