© 2004 Vincent Bridges
The Magdalene in the Mainstream
In the last year, something truly remarkable has happened. The idea that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene, perhaps even had children by her, has finally and firmly entered the mainstream of western consciousness. It took a rather simple and formulaic mystery novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, to manage the trick, mainly by selling almost as many books as J. K. Rowling. This feat caught the attention of the national press and ABC’s Primetime devoted a whole hour to the subject.
Academic awareness of the importance of Mary Magdalene in the events of the New Testament had been growing since the late 1940s when the Gnostic texts began to emerge. The idea that she might have been Jesus’ wife had been circulating in various esoteric and fringe circles for more than a century. Victor Hugo gave one of his heroes, in Les Miserables, the pseudonym of Monsieur Madeleine, and D. H. Lawrence, in his 1929 novella Man who Died, draws connections between Mary Magdalene and Isis. Robert Graves’ 1946 novel King Jesus addressed the issue directly by suggesting that not only was Jesus married, but also that the fact was kept secret after the crucifixion to protect his family.
A decade or so before Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, made its appearance in the early 1980s, Protestant theologian William E. Phipps published his book Was Jesus Married? This work explored the implications of Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene, but left the issue of their children open. Holy Blood, Holy Grail however made that detail the center of the story.
Based on a series of BBC television specials, Holy Blood, Holy Grail became an international best seller in the early 1980s, primarily for the assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that their descendants survived in the royal families of France. Naturally, this drew an enormous amount of fire from the Christian community, and made Holy Blood, Holy Grail into an international best seller.
Just as that controversy died down, Martin Scorsesse’s version of The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 re-ignited it. Dr. Phipps’ book was reprinted in 1989, and by 1992, when Dr. Barbara Thiering, an Australian theologian, published her Jesus the Man, the controversy had attained a new level. Even though authors such as Margret Starbird, with her 1993 Woman with an Alabaster Jar, began to move the controversy away from the red herrings of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and toward its historical connections in the heretical underground of Provence, the idea itself never quite entered the mainstream.
The Da Vinci Code accomplished this feat of by sheer dent of its readability and its simplicity. This novel makes the plot line as direct as possible: The Grail is the bloodline, and its documentation, guarded by the Priory of Sion. Much of Brown’s information is culled from superficial readings of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Woman with an Alabaster Jar, and therefore many readers come away from The Da Vinci Code wondering about the loss of the feminine in Christianity. Mary Magdalene, as the Primetime TV show demonstrated, is the key to the whole concept, and the hook for the mass consciousness.
Although the exact role of Mary Magdalene was somewhat downplayed, it was Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, that opened the subject of Mary and Jesus’ relationship for public discussion, although in a decidedly skewed way. Mislead by a group of jokers and occult opportunists, The Priory of Sion (now known to those who research the subject as the Pranksters of Sion), the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail focused on a variety of mysteries, only a few of which were related to the main theme of the Holy Grail and the Magdalene. Also, the Pranksters pointed the earnest British television researchers in the direction of one of the major “red herrings” of the whole plot, the non-mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau.
While this spawned an entire cottage industry of researchers and readers, all eagerly following a made-up trail of clues that circle around the obvious while dwelling, for the most part, on the incredible, it also meant that the entire subject could be discredited by pointing to the Pranksters of Sion’s attempts at mystification. It is all made up because the Pranksters screwed with the evidence. The obvious remains however, like the unwelcome elephant in the living room.
It is obvious that there is a hole, a gap if you will, in our perception of the events surrounding the origins of Christianity in the first century in Palestine and Provence, caused by the newly imperial church’s insistence on erasing all mention of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ spouse. Important details have simply disappeared, and, while the Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Mary show the basic reality of Mary Magdalene’s importance and her relationship to Jesus, we have only contradictory fragments about the rest of the story.
Why the persistent legends of a semi-miraculous voyage to France for instance? This is not just nationalist fantasy, the archaeological evidence clearly shows a Christian community in southern France by the middle of the first century. The how and why of this sudden conversion is left unexplained except by reference to what could only be considered the immediate family and retainers of Jesus. In addition to the three Marys, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome, we have Martha, the Magdalene’s sister, from Bethany, Lazarus, their brother, and such devoted followers as St. Maximinius, the Roman officer whose child was raised from the dead.
If, as seems likely from the evidence of the Gnostic texts, the charge to found the true church was given to Mary Magdalene, then this shift to France has profound importance. The apostolic tradition didn’t form until after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, so a “Christian” tradition dating to decades before that, and founded by the immediate family of Jesus, might just be considered to have primacy. No wonder that when the orthodox and apostolic branch of the church went imperial, the first thing it did was downgrade the influence of Mary Magdalene. The church in France was a real threat to the legitimacy of the newly universal Church of Rome, which just happened to be dependent on a celibate god-like Christ, an image far removed from the reality attested to by Mary and her descendents’ very existence.
The Da Vinci Code exploited this obvious gap. Choosing his threads carefully, Dan Brown wove a very convincing “what-if” tapestry. What if Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married? What if there really had been a secret society formed to guard the secret of their descendants? What if da Vinci and Newton were in on the secret? And what if that secret still existed and was in danger of being lost or stolen? From these threads you have a thriller. Unfortunately, very little of the simple redaction, the surface treatment given in Brown’s plot, is actually true; even though Jesus was married, there was a secret society involved, several of them, and Da Vinci at least did know something about the subject.
By following these threads however, we can arrive at something closer to the true story. As close as history and legend can come after two millennia, at any rate… When we do this, we find all the mystery and intrigue that anyone could desire.