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Mary Magdalen - Revised 

by James Hitchcock
September 14, 2003

This has been "the Summer of Mary Magdalen", according to Time magazine. One of the things that made it so is a best-selling novel called The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, which makes the biblical story into a thriller in which Mary Magdalen and Jesus were married, she was a rich woman who financed His ministry, and the Apostles conspired to suppress the truth in order to maintain male dominance.

Brown's fantasy is not entirely without foundation, since some of it is taken from some early books called the Gnostic Gospels, which in many ways are at odds with the four gospels of the New Testament. There was a debate over these documents in the early centuries, and the Church defined the canon of the Bible partly for the purpose of excluding those other "gospels".

Gnosticism was older and wider than Christianity, affecting Judaism and other religions. It was a "dualism", in which reality is thought to be composed of two irreconcilable principles -- light and darkness, spirit and matter. The heresy was its belief that the universe is not ruled by one God, but that there are two warring kingdoms which ultimately will be completely separated from one another.

"Gnostic" is a Greek word for knowledge, and the Gnostics claimed to possess secret knowledge which their followers used to free themselves from the world of darkness. Whereas orthodox Christianity preaches salvation as available to all who accept it, the Gnostics thought that only an elite could know the hidden truth.

There are things in Gnosticism that the modern mind finds repellent -- elitism, weird stories, peculiar rituals, above all its rejection of the flesh. If orthodox Christianity is criticized for not cherishing the body, Gnosticism rejected it entirely.

Gnosticism is now enjoying a vogue, however, partly because it was a religion in which women held leadership roles. This was consistent with its rejection of the flesh, which made sexual identity unimportant. The Gnostics did not accept the Incarnation of Jesus and treated doctrinal orthodoxy as being too literal-minded. The gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings.

Thus it was possible to write new "gospels", since the Gnostics were not bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. Mary Magdalen could become Jesus' intimate, and the New Testament could be dismissed as essentially false. (Modern people like Dan Brown, who treat the Gnostic gospels as history, miss the point -- to the Gnostics themselves it was irrelevant what actually happened when Jesus was on earth, if He ever was.)

For l50 years people have been calling the historical reliability of the New Testament into question. But now the Gnostic gospels, which were written later and were never taken as historical documents, are treated as at last giving us a true picture of the early Church. For example, Elaine Pagels, a scholar of Gnosticism, theorizes that Thomas is presented as a doubter in the New Testament in order to discredit the spurious Gospel of Thomas, a theory which is guesswork at best, not scholarship.

Brown's thriller has had some impact even within Catholic circles. I have heard of a pastor who found it necessary to warn against it from the pulpit, because it was being studied by some of his parishioners. Those intrigued by the book perhaps do not realize how much is being demanded of them. This is not merely another liberal "revision". It is nothing less than the claim that Christianity has been a deliberate fraud almost from its beginning, that the true story of Jesus was suppressed, and that only now are we finally learning what it was all about.

Pagels explains her attraction to Gnosticism because it teaches that "spirituality is essentially within oneself". She calls herself a Christian because Christianity "offers hints and glimpses of spiritual possibility". This is about as weak an act of faith as it is possible to make and, if such an understanding had triumphed two millennia ago, Christianity today would be nothing but a footnote in books written by historians like Pagels.


James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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