Legacy Reviews

Mary Magdalene

The new film Mary Magdalene promises to reveal the true history of Mary Magdalene. This makes it sound very much like a high end Discovery Channel documentary. The reason “we” don’t know this truth is that Gregory the Great identified Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute.


The cast

Although it is Mary Magdalene’s story, it is really Jesus’ film. This is probably fair, given Christ’s centrality to early Christianities. Joaquin Phoenix plays an older Jesus, very unworldly, but with touches of Texan hippie crossed with Marlon Brando. It is an arresting performance but not the best in the piece. Chiwetal Ejiofor as Peter and Tahar Rahim, especially, as Judas are both excellent. Rooney Mara is very good with an intense gaze that is both inwardly spiritual and outwardly critical of the patriarchal society around her.


The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The premise of the film is that Mary Magdalene was a major disciple of Jesus. She was with him during his preaching, at his crucifixion, was the first witness of his resurrection and was a central figure in the early spread of Christianity. The “proof” for this can be found in the canonical gospels and in the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Philip.

The Gospel of Mary is a fragmentary text and so it is hard to gain context. We do not know which Mary the text refers to. It is presumably a Mary found in the Gospels, and there were several (which is where the trouble started). I would follow arguments that it is Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel appears to list the teachings of Mary and stresses her connections to Jesus.

Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.
Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.
Chapter 9, Gospel of Mary 

In this short text, Mary has an authority and knowledge due to her close relationship with Jesus. Yet Andrew and Peter doubt her words. Peter says “Did [Jesus] really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us?”

This is where much of the human drama of the film comes from. The struggle for authority and perhaps succession between the disciples drive the narrative in both the Gospel and the film.


Mary Magdalene in the gospels

Mary is mentioned in the New Testament at key points. It is therefore an open question whether the text of Gospel of Mary is based on a tradition that can trace its origins to Mary, or whether the text latched onto Mary as an identifiable Jesus follower. Mary is mentioned in the canonical gospels more times than some disciples. Crucially she was the first person to witness the resurrection and she was challenged on this by the other disciples.

Yet it is the divergences and absences from the Bible which are most telling. There is no Thomas character in this film. Thomas was central in both the canonical Gospel of John, as the one who doubted Christ’s bodily resurrection. Thomas was also the central figure in a group of texts found at Nag Hammadi. Many scholars have posited a specific group of Thomasine Christians from this. (The later St Thomas Christians of Kerala may or may not be linked to this group). Mary Magdalene is not the only neglected figure in Hollywood portrayals of early Christianity.

Although Thomas is not in the film his presence is felt. The film is bookended with the parable of the Mustard Seed found in the Synoptic gospels and Gospel of Thomas:

“The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like.”
He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.””
Logion 20, The Gospel of Thomas

There is something uncanny about this saying. In the film, it stands for a criticism of the patriarchal nature of first century of Palestine and perhaps modern society. Mary is that smallest of all seeds and (it is implied at the end) it is she who creates a network of women from which the church ultimately sprang. Yet it could mean something much more ambiguous “Unto you [the disciples] is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables” Mark 4.11

The Gospel of Thomas says it is a recordings of the “secret sayings of the living Jesus”. It may be an early text contemporaneous with the other gospels (written around the first century). There are many similarities in the teachings and parables of Jesus and many differences. There is no narrative (either miracles or the passion). In Thomas, as in the film, there are not twelve disciples (nor the 72 mentioned in Luke) but female students (which is what disciple means) are named. In the film there is only Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Thomas as in many Gnostic texts the male and female are combined.

Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Logion 114, Gospel of Thomas

Gender and early Christianities are more complex than is sometimes appreciated.


Women in early Christianity

There were several women mentioned in the New Testament as both followers of Jesus and as early community leaders. This includes “the women that followed [Jesus] from Galilee” mentioned in Luke 23:49. This makes it sound like Jesus had a sizeable following of women who wandered with him. From the film, which is ostensibly a feminist revision of the gospels, you would not know this.

An absence in the film which is perhaps easier to explain is that of Paul. Paul was not around until several years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and perhaps the establishment of the early Jesus movement. Yet the film is in constant dialogue with him. Paul, whilst acknowledging female Church leaders in some letters also argued that “ Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”. 1 Cor 14:33-35. This is a complex and much disputed passage and is often returned to in questions of equality and gender in Christianity.

In the film, the disciples do not question Mary’s ability to preach but the charges she makes them open to. These are charges of sexual immorality. The film seems more concerned to stress that Mary was not a former prostitute than it does to show that she was an early leader and figurehead of the nascent church.

At the heart of the film then is an anxiety about female sexual agency within the sphere of religious faith. Ultimately the central themes of the Gospel of Mary, what it meant to be a female Jesus follower in first century Palestine, are skirted over.


Christology and Hollywood

Although the film presents itself as revealing new information on early Christianities, it is doesn’t seem to understand current Christianity. Jesus is a very low church Christian. He neither institutes the church on earth nor the blessed sacrament. Peter tells the gathered disciples that they are all the rocks on which the church is built. The bread at the last meal is broken in silence by the several gathered disciples. Yet the film seems to draw on Catholic images and tradition. For example the film portrays Pietà: the moment that Mary holds her dead son’s body and the Romans come off very lightly.

More tellingly it is only in Western Christianity that Mary Magdalene was identified as a former sex worker. In Eastern Orthodoxy Mary wasn’t identified with the other Mary.



It is hard to understand who this film is aimed at. It plays fast and loose with both religious tradition and biblical scholarship.

I give this film 3 stars. If you are interested in the subject, it’s worth hunting out. If you want a sword and sandal film with a religious slant I’d recommend one of the classics instead like Ben Hur or Barrabas.

Promotional poster for movie

Read more

In Our Time: Mary Magadelene [podcast]

Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean [podcast]

Apostle by Tom Bissell

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew  by Bart D. Ehrman

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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