Monday, March 03, 2008

The divine Ms. M. M.

Bart D. Ehrman is one of the most prolific and energetic scholars currently working to disseminate the fascinating findings of research into the early Christian centuries. This research, widening the field to take full account of the great mass of gnostic and other extracanonical writings, has shattered the conventional view of the unity of early Christianity. The orthodoxy that triumphed at the beginning of the fifth century was by no means the inevitable victor in this panoply of religious possibility. I will return to this matter of early Christian diversity on another occasion.

Ehrman reports that he has had frequent opportunity to appear on college campuses, lecturing on several subjects in his field. The topic that attracts the most attention, however, is that of Mary Magdalene. This interest is only partially due to popular-culture success of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” and the subsequent film, which subsume the idea that Jesus and Mary M. were married and had children together. As Ehrman points out there is no evidence in any of the sources of such a marriage.

Ehrman does advance a claim that seems to me almost equally odd, namely that Mary Magdalene was the founder of Christianity. How so? Well, according to the gospel report Mary was the first to discover the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, reporting the fact to the other members of Jesus circle. This discovery is the basis for the doctrine of the Resurrection, a central element in the argument for Jesus’ divinity. However, it would not take a rocket scientist to conclude that either the body was stolen, or it was removed by supernatural means. Since the Roman soldiers were guarding the tomb, theft would have seemed unlikely. Moreover, it Mary had not discovered the tomb, surely his mother and/or some of the disciples would have done so. (These considerations appear in his book “Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend,” 2006.)

Ehrman also endorses the idea that Mary was the first apostle. This claim can only be supported by taking the word “apostle” in its broad, lower-case sense, as one who spreads information. The scholar admits that Mary does not enjoy the unique status of the Twelve, who would be specially honored by each ascending to a throne, there to judge one of the Twelve Tribes. In keeping with the patriarchal mores of the time, there was no room for a woman in the personnel staffing this tribunal.

Rightly, Ehrman opines that we must prefer historical truth to the lure of modernizing ancient documents and their message. To be sure, he rejects the effort of some feminist New Testament scholars to show that Jesus was planning a kind of unisex egalitarian paradise. But in the matter of Mary Magdalene he seems to have yielded to the tendency to find some redeeming elements of feminism in the earliest Christianity.


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