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Mary Magdalene in Popular Culture

Georges de la Tour
Georges de la Tour

Mary Magdalene has had quite the interesting biblical afterlife. As many scholars have noted, over the centuries scriptural interpreters have both morphed her character and merged it with others. In a sixth-century address, Pope Gregory the Great stated that the anonymous sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany in John 11 were all the same woman. This combining of the three into one had the result of making Mary Magdalene known as both sinful and closely aligned with Jesus and his movement, to the point where many readers imagined an amorous relationship between Magdalene and Jesus.

Popular culture has perpetuated this merged identity for Mary of Magdala and has drawn on intriguing gnostic texts to embroider her story.

This trend has taken many forms, including art, literature, and film. Currently, the most popular example is found in Dan Brown’s highly successful 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code. In the novel, Magdalene’s reputed relationship with Jesus is the focal point in the quest for the Holy Grail—neither of which is mentioned in either the Bible or gnostic literature. Rather, Brown seizes upon several legends and apocryphal stories to build a plot around the descendants of Jesus and Mary of Magdala, the Catholic Church, and a massive historical cover-up of women’s roles in Christianity. In the wake of Brown’s book, several scholarly reassessments of Mary Magdalene were published in order to counter his grandiose claims.

Given the last fifty years’ revolution in feminist thought and the rediscovery of women’s place in history and religion, it was somewhat inevitable that people interested in religion would seek to recover important images of women in various traditions. In terms of Christianity, Mary Magdalene—along with perhaps the women mentioned in Paul’s letters and the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla—represents the pinnacle of female participation within Jesus’ movement. As such, it’s natural that Mary of Magdala would speak to women and feminists in our time, as she provides a historical paradigm for women’s participation in Christianity.

In sum, Magdalene has travelled far from the few texts that mention her in the New Testament. She serves, though, as an interesting example of the malleability of biblical characters: she may be shaped and shifted by numerous interpreters, yet still she retains something of her core as a contributing member of the early Jesus movement.

  • Dan W. Clanton

    Dan W. Clanton, Jr. is assistant professor of religious studies at Doane College. He is the author of Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music (T&T Clark, 2009) and The Good, the Bold, and the Beautiful: The Story of Susanna and Its Renaissance Interpretations (T&T Clark, 2006).