Mary Magdalene Matters

May 11-17, 2006
Mary Magdalene Matters
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Dr. Pheme Perkins Visits Spiritual Renewal Center, Offers Presentation on Apostolic Women

Before veering into a realm that intermingles conventional Christianity with one that is purely fanciful, the wildly successful 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code does bring to the fore the greatly misunderstood story of Mary Magdalene.

Thursday, April 27, at the Spiritual Renewal Center, Dr. Pheme Perkins, a celebrated theological scholar and professor at Boston College, made her most recent appearance in order to address the issue of Mary Magdalene made so pressing by the impending release of the film version of The Da Vinci Code. Mary Magdalene is a crucial figure in The Da Vinci Code’s skewed theology. In the novel’s world, which borrows heavily from several other unorthodox texts, Christ did not die but married Mary Magdalene and, together, founded a bloodline still alive in Europe.

“The consequence of all this is a focus on Mary Magdalene,” Perkins said. “There’s no plausible evidence from the first 400 years of Christianity that Mary Magdalene was a lewd prostitute nor was she the wife of Jesus. But she was a very significant figure.” Over 150 people were present for the lecture, entitled “Mary Magdalene and the Role of Apostolic Women in Early Christianity.” The attendance far surpassed the expectations of Spiritual Renewal Center Director James Krisher and office manager/development director Pat Williams, both of whom had expected roughly half that number. Krisher noted that the expanded attendance was due, at least in part, to the impending release of the movie based on The Da Vinci Code. With its dalliance among heretical texts and concepts, The Da Vinci Code prompted a strong response from Catholic thinkers. A cursory search reveals a host of polemics leveled against the mystery novel. Father Joseph Champlin has lectured on the book and, on Sunday, he included a discussion of it in his homily during Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Warners.

“Most people are in agreement that he is a great fiction writer, he really holds your attention. But his facts are totally wrong,” Father Champlin said. When Krisher was pursuing his master’s degree at Boston College, Perkins was his mentor and professor. She estimates that she has visited the Spiritual Renewal Center on “six or seven” occasions but noted, in reference to the unexpected turnout, “It just gets better every time.”

As is evident from the lecture’s title, Perkins underscored the importance of Mary Magdalene and other women as apostles. Perkins compared the task of a biblical historian to that of figuring out what a dinosaur looked like based on a few bones. “We don’t have adequate resources to figure out exactly what things looked like,” she said. One of the crucial roles of women apostles in the Gospels was their witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ while the male apostles fled.

“Women had to be there to witness crucial elements such as the death, burial and resurrection. This was a crucial role of apostolic women,” Perkins said. The Da Vinci Code draws a great deal of its inspiration from the Gnostic gospels, and contemporary biblical scholars have begun giving those same texts more privilege in the last two decades. Perkins, however, stressed that the canonical Gospels still retain authority, noting that those are the texts written closest to the actual lives of Christ and his apostles. Perkins presented five “stages” of texts, which reveal something about Mary Magdalene and the other women apostles. The first is the canonical texts; the second, collections of Jesus Christ’s sayings in texts such as the Book of Thomas; the third stage, mid-second century texts presenting Mary Magdalene as an enlightened Gnostic; the fourth, writings from the end of the second century, which offer pictures of conflict between orthodox Christianity and those who sought to sustain Mary Magdalene’s importance and the fifth stage, in which, during the third century, those who preserved Mary Magdalene are on the fringes of the Christian community.

Certain scholars have, in recent years, argued that Mary Magdalene was a “beloved disciple.” Perkins, however, asserted that there is simply no proof that she could be numbered among the “beloved disciples.” “It is perfectly evident that she is different from the beloved disciples,” Perkins said, citing Scripture. According to Perkins, the Gospel of John is key in enabling one to get a glimpse of Mary Magdalene’s role. “It shows why Mary Magdalene is the key figure among women Christians,” she said. In chapter 20, for instance, Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus by his voice, albeit belatedly. According to Perkins, this indicates that she is one of Jesus’ sheep.

In the “second stage,” the collections of Jesus’ sayings, women crop up considerably more. Along with the two Marys, Salome figures prominently. Perkins stressed that this shows that there were multiple women disciples. While the church dismissed Gnosticism as heretical, the so-called Gnostic gospels are useful in examining the ways people thought during the first few centuries. In the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas,” Mary Magdalene is portrayed in a way unusual for that era: She is depicted as someone capable of leading the ascetic life the Gnostics considered ideal. “Mary Magdalene is capable of attaining the highest spirituality,” Perkins said. “She is just as able to pursue an ascetic life as males are.”

As the stages progress, one sees interest in Mary Magdalene pushed further and further to the fringes of the Christian community, according to Perkins. After a brief break, Perkins’ presentation segued into a question and answer session with the audience.

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