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Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Book Review)

The historical Mary Magdalene turned out to be more interesting than the fictional.

I have never had the privilege of meeting Professor Chilton, but I am aware of his brilliant career and the influence of his writings. Bruce, if I may, has been a force in New Testament and Early Christian studies for the better part of the last 50 years. Anyone not familiar with his work should take the opportunity to read Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000), which I think has been his most far-reaching popular work.

Much of his published work has focused on the intertestamental period, Judaism, Jerusalem, the Targums, the interpretation of Isaiah, and some of the key figures in early Christianity such as Jesus, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. I mention this to say that his credentials are impeccable, his learning expansive, and his reach impressive.

When I sat down to read Mary Magdalene: A Biography, I was somewhat surprised by the deeply personal introduction, and I admit that I had some trouble digesting it—not because it was poorly conceived or written but because it felt out of place initially.

Some time had passed from the sensational depiction of Mary Magdalene in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), and I had not initially thought to connect this biography with Brown’s captivating fictional presentation. But the more I read, the more I became convinced that one important context for Mary Magdalene: A Biography was as a reasoned academic response to the Mary Magdalene of fiction. There was a need to show to modern readers what academic speculation—or more properly, informed speculation—would look like with regard to a historical figure.

This review also led me to read “Mary Magdalene and History,” also by Bruce Chilton, in Historical Knowledge and Biblical Antiquity (2007), which was written shortly after the biography. That article, written to academic peers, set out to establish the academic space in which a scholar of early Christianity might interrogate the historical Mary Magdalene and determine what conclusions could be reasonably drawn from the variety of sources that survive.

I think that both contributions need to be considered in any review of Chilton’s biography of the Magdalene.

Two other historical contexts seem important to mention:

  1. The possibility that scholars working with early Christian texts can do so creatively and with insights not available to the everyday reader; and
  2. Mary Magdalene, for better or worse (but probably for the best), carries the additional burden of representing an idealized feminine figure among Jesus’s closest circle of followers. And thus the conversation has drawn wide and often uneven attention.

General overview

Prologue

The prologue tells the story of Marguerite, a well-read and educated parishioner and “committed Episcopalian.” Marguerite challenged her priest, professor Chilton, to help her find a meaningful narrative in which women were “built into the fabric of revelation.”

By that, according to my understanding of the prologue, Marguerite wanted to recover and have articulated for her the historical situation for early Christian women. She was familiar with various scholarly theories and hypotheses. She was unsatisfied with some of the more outlandish claims, and wanted the unvarnished truth—if one were indeed available. Her questions pushed her priest to find answers, which in turn lead to the writing of the book.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 investigates Luke 8:2–3, the very verses that are used by New Testament scholars to establish the historical relationship that existed between Mary and Jesus. Historical dates for Jesus’s meeting with Mary are proffered, “prior to 25 C.E.,” and the reader is then given a map to help imagine this historical encounter between the two.

When the two of them met, Mary was “possessed” as described by Luke and interrogated by Chilton. The chapter explores what possession might mean, and it leaves no stone unturned in exploring the various theories that have been put forward on the subject.

Chilton suggests that Mary might have been a “mamzer,” like Jesus—a person for whom their paternity was doubtful or questioned. This gesture of describing Mary in this way puts her on similar footing as Jesus, thus giving them common ground for their encounter.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 explores the meaning of the nickname “Magdalene,” and Chilton suggests that like some of Jesus’s other followers, the name may have been given to her by Jesus in recognition of her discipleship.

The exploration for the meaning of the term follows expected routes, and Chilton notes that the word derives from the term for a tower (“migdal”), and within the context of the gospels, the term often functions as a means of distinguishing this Mary from the others.

The title Magdalene, according to Chilton’s inquiry, may reflect a parallelism to Jesus of Nazareth, thus giving both Jesus and Mary another access point to common ground.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 looks at the healing of Mary Magdalene and how it might have influenced her feelings towards Jesus. Both Jesus and Mary were considered by some to be possessed, Jesus by Beelzebub and Mary by seven demons.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 moves quickly to the aftermath of the healing event when Jesus healed her, and thus also signaling a change in Mary’s status to become a follower of Jesus.

In this chapter Chilton offers what may be his most important contribution, namely the idea that Mary might be the source for various stories about Jesus. Chilton’s logic is transparent in offering this hypothesis, and it is interesting at face value.

Like Peter, who came into the fold of Jesus through an early miracle, Mary entered discipleship through a personal healing thereby making her a conduit for stories about Jesus, his ministry, and resurrection.

The chapter is certainly worth reading for its creative analysis of exorcism stories that reflect the experiences of the Magdalene.

Chapters 5–6

Chapters 5–6 work through the stories of the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet, and they do so in a concise way that openly touches upon the tradition passed down by Pope Gregory I that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

Chilton, of course, rejects the notion of Mary being a woman caught in sexual sin—although he does note that various stigma would have attached to a woman accused of being possessed. Chilton draws attention to other people in the Jesus tradition who were also called sinners, but who are not assumed to have committed sexual sins (p. 58).

More important than resolving the late misrepresentations about Mary is Chilton’s work on the woman whom Mark tells his readers was memorialized for having washed and anointed Jesus’s feet. He identifies her as Mary Magdalene and mentions other acts of anointing she may have been involved in.

This gesture signals to the reader Chilton’s strong reliance upon the Markan account. This heavy reliance upon Mark as history is standard for New Testament scholars, but it does force Chilton to press Mark in ways so that it might yield new insights about the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’s feet.

Chapters 7–8

Chapters 7–8 constitute discussions of Jesus’s resurrection and Mary’s position in both the promulgation of the narrative about the resurrection and her unique experience that Chilton describes as the “women’s visionary discernment,” calling it a “deep perception rather than ordinary vision” (p.83).

By this framing, Chilton seeks to position the female disciple in relation to Jesus, his resurrection, and the stories that circulated about Jesus after his death.

Mary perceived Jesus, and notably she was the first to do so, thus she became an informed disciple, one who had experienced a revelation of the risen Lord.

Chapters 9–13

Chapters 9–13 engage the legacy of the Magdalene, and they trace the history of misinterpretation that has surrounded her. This was one of the primary points of focus mentioned in the introductory materials. However, her legacy is far outside my area of expertise and beyond my ability to adequately adjudicate, so I offer only a few items by way of summary.

In chapter 10, the compositional settings for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are discussed in their presentation of the stories about Mary and women generally. Chilton sees Matthew as having a deep interest in physical resurrection while sidelining women’s voices.

The situation is similar for Luke, who intentionally suppresses stories about Mary. Chilton sees the handling of Mary’s legacy developing along two distinct trajectories: (1) An orthodox Christian suppression of female priests, deacons, and servants in the church and (2) the Gnostic elevation of her as someone who had a more intimate relationship with Jesus and who knew him through revelatory experiences.

These topics were certainly interesting and seem to have been forced into the discussion of the historical Mary because of the original context of writing the book, namely the publication of Dan Brown’s fictional presentation of Mary Magdalene.


Conclusions

I was surprised that I was able to locate only one rather terse review of the book. Furthermore, the author treats the book critically, seemingly misunderstanding the purpose and context of the book.

One can easily see why scholars might push back against the theoretical Mary presented by Chilton. But in defense of the project, Chilton certainly set it out for the reader that this was a recovery project, a rebalancing effort, to bring Mary back into conversation.

Academic minimalism has over the years been seen as an effort to push interesting topics to the periphery because minimalists argue that little can be known about historical figures for whom few sources exist.

Mary as a historical figure often falls into this space: she is relegated to the periphery because we have few sources that mention her, fewer that have any claim to historicity, and none of her own thoughts or opinions. Chilton acknowledges this challenge, particularly in his academic article, and he is correct that something can be said about her if one is interested enough to look at the sources again with a fresh set of eyes.

For anyone wishing to read a balanced, well-written, and engaging treatment of Mary Magdalene by a respected historian, then this is an excellent option.

To me, the experience was challenging and rewarding. I’m not typically used to reading scholars speculate, hypothesize, and offer creative solutions. I expect footnotes, signposting to existing academic debates, and a rather narrow theoretical framework in which the author develops a razor-sharp thesis in ways that I have grown accustomed to seeing.

Having said that, reading this work was genuinely enjoyable and rewarding. I came away with a deep appreciation that when a scholar known for publishing in the most respected journals and renowned presses produces a speculative vision of Mary Magdalene, he does so in a manner sharply at odds with the peculiar, fantastic version portrayed in fiction.

I suppose that the historical Mary Magdalene turned out to be more interesting than the fictional.


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About Thomas Wayment

Thomas A. Wayment is a Professor and Section Head of Classical Studies in the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters at Brigham Young University. He holds a PhD in New Testament Studies from Claremont Graduate School and is the author of several related books and articles. Wayment has also published two editions of a translation of the New Testament designed for Latter-day Saints.


Further reading

Mary Magdalene / Bruce Chilton resources

  • Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Penguin Random House)
  • Historical Knowledge in Biblical Antiquity (Brill)
  • Misreading Mary Magdalene: A Critical Review Of Bruce Chilton’s Recent Book On Mary Magdalene (Bijdragen)

One reply on “Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Book Review)”

Correction: In Mark’s gospel the anonymous, prophetic anointing woman anointed Jesus’ head not his feet. See Mark 14:3-9. The only prophetic anointing woman who anointed Jesus’ feet is Mary of Bethany in John 12:1-8.

The “sinner from the city” in Luke 7:38 anointed Jesus’ feet. Jesus says “… she has shown great love.” (Lk 7:48b) He does not say she did this in preparation for my death so Luke’s unnamed woman is not a “prophetic anointing woman”.

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