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Book Review: The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene by Jane Schaberg

I have mentioned in previous posts that a developing aspect of my thinking revolves around the impact of religion on women’s economics. This includes the way religion structures economic life by dictating what you can consume and whether you charge interest and if you must work in the home. I also feel that religion is, at its most basic level, a way of thinking about how to be in the material world, thus structures all interactions with the physical (or economic) reality around us.  I am also interested in the interaction between various stages of economic development in history and the decline of goddesses in the world pantheon. The exclusion of women from the ranks of religious leadership–something typical of most world religions–points to their devaluation in spiritual terms (as in the notion that women do not have souls, can never attain Nirvana, and so on).

This summer I am following up on these interests and began with Jane Schaberg’s 2004 book about The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene. I expected this book to debunk the notion that Mary Magdalene was a whore.  I also expected the assertion that she was an important person in the Easter story, an “apostle to the apostles.”  Indeed it seems well accepted at this point that (1) there is no evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a harlot and (2) there is every reason to believe she had a special spiritual role among the nearest followers of Jesus.  Even so, I did appreciate the close reading Schaberg gave of the New Testament, as well as the gnostic gospels and the Nag Hammadi discoveries, in discussing the evidence in these matters.  She did not spend a lot of time on the question of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene had sex or were married–and I appreciated that, as well. Schaberg, who died about a year ago, carefully covered the positions of major biblical scholars on all these issues, which was helpful because I felt I needed a sense of what other people are saying in order to evaluate what I was reading.

Schaberg’s focal argument was about the early leadership of Christianity and what it has meant for the religion it became that Mary Magadelene was essentially shut out and then wiped clear from the record by the burgeoning Catholic church.  She makes a good case, through extensive and very painstaking scholarship, to say that Jesus actually passed the mantle of leadership to Mary Magdalene, but that jealousy from the other disciplines, especially Peter, caused them to reject her.  She shows that this jealousy had pre-existed the crucifixion, but because Jesus had been inclined to defend Mary against it, the men’s resentment had been contained until after his death.  Afterward, though, there was nothing to keep them from relapsing into the attitudes toward women that were typical of their day and their communities (in this regard, the story is much like the way Muhammad’s followers changed Islam by reacting against the Prophet’s egalitarianism toward women once he was gone).

Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion by Signorelli

After Schaberg has been through all this documentation, she goes back to the New Testament gospels and highlights the way that Mary disappears so loudly.  In comparison to the other discovered texts, it seems very obvious that she has been “disappeared” and the absence of her character glares.  The author goes beyond to speculate about what a Mary-led Christianity would have been like, as opposed to the “Petrine” Christianity that did develop.  Some of this is beyond my ability to grasp or assess, but essentially Schaberg argues that the Miriam Christianity would have been more inclusive and less hierarchical.

I mulled over these words, thinking of how the Christian church evolved into this all-male, extremely hierarchical form.  In history, the church has been as cruel and violent as it has been kind and gentle (think:  the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition, the Crusades).  In many ways, it has mirrored the military in its males-only, top-down, aggressive aspects.  Priests and generals have too often been allies (“God is on our side” only begins to tell the tale; think of the Spanish approach to colonization).   Indeed, over the 2,000 years that followed the formation of the early Christian community, the tightly-woven interests of army, state, and church–all male and pointedly hierarchical–was put to use conquering lands and dominating peoples everywhere.  Increasingly, I am seeing this phenomenon as “patriarchy”–that is, rule by warlike institutions–rather than merely equating the meaning of the word with “advantage to men.”  (In other words, “patriarchy” is not the nice men we know so much as it is the nasty ethos you see moving the pieces in Game of Thrones.)  So it is instructive to think about the key turning points that created such a reality.

This book is considered pretty authoritative at this point, as far as I can tell.  It is readable in places, but is mostly rather tedious textual analysis.  Nevertheless–and I think this says a lot–it gets 4.5 stars on amazon from readers.

Another review, more detailed and scholarly, by Professor of Religion Richard Walsh, can be found here.


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