Mary Magdalene: Christianity's Hidden Goddess
Reviewed by Theresa Welsh
Mary Magdalene has been portrayed many ways, from harlot to New Age goddess, and Lynn Picknett takes us on a personal quest -- sometimes revealing exciting new connections, sometimes speculating wildly, and sometimes moving into LaLa Land -- to find the real Mary. She bases her ideas on the same sources as the many other writers pursuing the subject of the founding of the Christian religion: the Bible and the ancient documents that have only come to light in the last hundred years, such as the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas and other ancient manuscripts found in the Egyptian desert. Her interpretations are often unique. She also draws heavily on the research she and Clive Prince did for their popular book, The Templar Revelation, particularly the material showing a connection between Jesus and the Egyptian mystery schools.
Sinful Sex or Sacred Sex?
She begins with her own indignation at the way the name of Mary Magdalene has been used to degrade and abuse women, citing the "Magdalene Laundries" in Great Britain where young girls guilty of sexual "sins" were forced to live and work in the oppressive laundries, under the cruel tutelage of nuns. Called "Maggies," these women were wrapped in the shame of Magdalene, the harlot. But Picknett tells us (as any of us who have looked into the subject well know) that there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a woman filled with shame. She may have had a sexual side, but there was no shame in it. As with other writers, Picknett concludes that Magdalene and Jesus were either married, were lovers, or were partners in a spiritual rite that included "sacred sex." Dan Brown, in The DaVinci Code, tells us about a custom called hieros gamos, ritual sex for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. Picknett traces this custom to Egypt and suggests Magdalene may have been an Egyptian priestess who practiced such rites, and Jesus may have been her student or partner.
A Black Woman?
Picknett also pursues the idea that Magdalene may have been black, and compares her to Helen, the woman who accompanied Simon Magus on his travels, who performed exotic dances in chains for crowds who came to see Simon's "miracles." Simon Magus was a favorite of John the Baptist who apparently had the same powers. Simon's companion, Helen, was a black woman from Africa, and Picknett speculates that Mary Magdalene may have had the same background. She cites places in Africa that have names that sound like "Magdalene" and stories connecting Mary Magdalene with these places. This evidence is pretty thin and appears to contradict other evidence that Mary Magdalene was a local woman.
Jesus vs. John the Baptist
But in Picknett's version of the story, Jesus is transformed into an Egyptian magician, and not a very nice person. Other writers have often compared Jesus to John the Baptist and cited evidence that the Baptist had a considerable following and may not have been the ragged, solitary wildman living on locusts and honey in the desert as he was traditionally portrayed. In fact, he may have been a rival to Jesus, with his own large contingent of followers. It is a fact that there are to this day sects that revere the Baptist and hold Jesus in low regard. The Mandaeans are modern remnants of such a group. In medieval times, the Knights Templar were believed to have revered the Baptist and their members were said to spit on the cross of Jesus as part of their rituals. And further evidence comes from the Cathars, who were wiped out by a papal crusade for their heretical beliefs concerning John the Baptist. The Cathars also believed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers.
But Picknett goes over the top when she tries to unite Mary Magdalene with the practices and beliefs of the Baptist. Here she is straining to incorporate the fascinating information she and Clive Prince presented in The Templar Revelation about the many churches in the south of France (former home to the Cathars) dedicated to Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist, along with many dedicated to the mysterious "black madonna." It seems that people who love and honor Magdalene also love and honor the Baptist. So what is their connection, if Magdalene was married to Jesus, not John? There is never an answer to this that makes any sense.
Who Killed the Baptist?
Picknett has plenty to say about the Baptist, who was beheaded by Harod -- but not because his stepdaughter's dancing so entranced him he offered her anything she wanted. Picknett does not believe that story and instead suggests there may have been a plot to do away with the Baptist. Who would stand to gain? She suggests that Jesus may have wanted to eliminate his rival and may have been involved in John's death. She makes much of the "head on a platter" and ties it in with the allegations that the Templars worshiped a head. Could the head of John the Baptist have been one and the same as the Holy Grail? These are interesting speculations, but what was there about the Baptist that caused followers down to this day to regard him as the true "son of God" instead of Jesus? We have no answer.
Those Male Chauvinist Apostles!
A lot of Picknett's thoughts derive directly from her feeling that the Church supposedly founded by Peter was led by men who wanted to suppress women. That did not include Jesus, who loved and honored Mary Magdalene. If you accept the Gnostic Gospels as authentic ancient documents, then you must accept that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and considered her his closest disciple, the one who really understood his teachings. It appears from these writings that Peter hated Magdalene and was jealous of her intimacy with Jesus. Not only did Peter try to downplay her role, but the church he founded asserted male supremacy at every opportunity and edited out any passages that honored Mary Magdalene. It was a later papal speech that introduced the myth that she was a prostitute. The church effectively used her for their own purposes, deliberately covering up the truth.
Picknett goes so far as to suggest that there may be more ancient documents that prove that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were sexual partners (married or otherwise) that the church has acquired and suppressed. She discusses the widely-circulated story about the Arab youths who discovered the Nag Hamadi documents, that they took them home to their mother who burned some as cooking fuel, not realizing their value. Picknett suggests this is a cover story for the disappearance of scrolls whose contents were too hot to handle.
Here Come the Conspiracies
Her ruminations here called to mind another highly controversial book, The Jesus Scroll by Donovan Joyce, published in the early 1970s, which alleges that Jesus did not die on the cross, but actually perished at Masada as an old man. Supposedly, the excavations of Masada conducted by Yigael Yaden (the same man who acquired the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel) turned up a scroll written by Jesus. The Jews who held out on the huge rocky summit were all found dead by their own hands when the Romans finally stormed the top. Among the dead was one "Jesus of Genesereth," author of the scroll that Joyce says he saw. The scroll has since disappeared, and among those suspected of concealing it is the Catholic Church.
Like Picknett who had her own personal emotional angst over religion driving her ideas, Donovan Joyce too had an axe to grind. He was denied access to Masada by Yigael Yaden for reasons never totally clear, but apparently because Israeli operatives thought he was involved in stealing the scroll. In his book, he writes in an acerbic and sarcastic manner about the life of Jesus. Like Picknett and other writers, he believes Jesus was married and his most likely wife was Mary Magdalene. He provides his own speculations on who she was and, like Picknett, points out that, according to the Bible, Mary Magdalene was wealthy and used her money to support Jesus and his work. Picknett gleefully notes that if Magdalene was a prostitute, then Jesus lived off her sinful earnings!
Donovan Joyce, also forcefully rejecting the "prostitute" idea, offers another explanation:
"Mary's village - whatever its name - has already been mentioned as the place where most of the sacrificial doves used at the Temple were bred, and earned their breeders a vast income. Mary might have been a member of a family engaged in this trade and might even have controlled it exclusively. This suggestion is based on the fact that 'breeder' in Hebrew is the word 'megadal' which, a solution or not, seems just as reasonable as others so far put forth."
Joyce goes on to suggest that the missing scroll might have contained information that Jesus was indeed married and that his wife was in fact Mary Magdalene, ample reason for the church to make sure the scroll never comes to light. The scroll would deny that Jesus died on the cross (demolishing the "Jesus died for our sins" doctrine) and it would show that Jesus had a sex life. It would also put Mary Magdalene back into his life as his partner.
Will We Ever Find the Real Magdalene?
Lynn Picknett has raised some interesting possibilities with her book, but mainly she chases her own demons in painting Mary as a black goddess who practiced exotic sexual rites with her companion, Jesus, who emerges as a clever magician. It's a mixed picture that doesn't hold together very well. Picknett is better when she writes with her usual collaborator, Clive Prince. While I share her indignity at the church's brutal and callous disregard for the spiritual power of the female side of humanity, I think Picknett needs to go back to her sources again and continue her search for the real Mary Magdalene. It's a search that may never end because the sources are so few and our understanding of the nuances of meaning of these ancient documents so subject to adding our own spin. But I hope the search goes on, for many of us will never stop wanting to know the truth.
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