Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Times Review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene by Michael Haag

Mary Magdalene — companion of Jesus, goddess, whore and icon — is surely one of the most fascinating figures to have ever lived. In scholarly writings, paintings, prose, theatre and film she continues to exert a hold over the imagination.

Michael Haag’s lively book asks questions that continue to excite our curiosity. Who was the historical Mary Magdalene? What do we really know about her and why has she had such an influence in high and popular culture for thousands of years — from Leonardo’s painting of a sexy bare-breasted femme fatale draped in a lurid red robe to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where Mary and Jesus are married with children?

Haag addresses the many myths surrounding her, starting from the most potent of all, the beautiful whore reformed by her love for Jesus. We can’t resist a penitent prostitute, and nor could the great Renaissance artists who saw in Mary Magdalene an opportunity to paint a female nude who combined earthy sensuality with divine grace. As Haag says: “Paintings of undressed Mary Magdalenes proved popular in the 16th century as they allowed artists and their secular patrons to combine eroticism and religion without exposing themselves to threat or scandal.”

There is, however, no biblical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute. It was only after the teaching of Pope Gregory in 591 and in the writings of theologians during the Middle Ages that she was perceived as a sinner.

Pope Gregory’s key move was to conflate the Mary Magdalene who, according to all four canonical gospels, was present at the crucifixion with the sinning woman who anointed the feet of Jesus. This has led to a blurring of biblical sources and later interpretation. Confusingly, the “composite Mary Magdalene” has also been aligned with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

Extricating the fact from the myth is a delicate process. Not the least of the problems is that so many of the women in Jesus’s life were called Mary. But Haag achieves an admirable clarity of thought and cohesion in his account. He reminds us that in the canonical gospels Mary is presented as an independent woman of means, supporting Jesus throughout his three years of ministry. Haag’s Jesus is quite a dude; a man who hung out with the sick and sinners, who liked children and “loved food and drink and good talk; he was witty and sharp; he was at ease with women; and he was self-deprecating but had an intensity and aura about him that was very attractive”.

Jesus included women in his entourage, something that would have been perceived as extremely radical. Yet, for Haag, the true radicals were these extraordinary women who followed him throughout his ministry. We learn of the other women in his circle, Joanna and Susanna, and the possible wives and children of the disciples. Haag reminds us (rather too often) that Mary Magdalene is mentioned more times in the gospels than any of the disciples, she travels with Jesus, witnesses the crucifixion, anoints his dead body and is the first person he appears to after the resurrection.

The privileges accorded to her were commensurate with those of a very close family member, perhaps even a wife. Haag does not shy away from the controversial issues. After all, he argues, there is no biblical evidence that Jesus was not married.

One of the myths Haag dispels is that Mary came from Magdala. He casts doubt on there even being a place called Magdala, suggesting that Mary might have been associated with “migdal”, the Hebrew word for “tower”. Haag reminds us that Jesus liked nicknames — Peter the rock, John and James, sons of thunder — so perhaps Mary was the watchtower, the beacon, the lighthouse who helps Jesus with his flock. She was a tower or fortress or “just plain magnificent”.

The only myth that he fails to explore, or indeed to mention, happens to be one of my favourites, that of Mary Magdalene the hairdresser, or as she’s sometimes known, “Miriam, the plaiter of women’s hair”.

Hair comes into Mary’s story quite a lot, probably because she is so often conflated with the female sinner who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oils and then dried them with her lustrous locks. Mary, the religious pin-up, is usually depicted with long flowing hair, artfully concealing or not concealing parts of her body. Jules Joseph Lefebvre has a naked ecstatic woman writhing in her cave, with her hair spread out, fan-like. Rossetti’s wonderful Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee depicts her casting her lover aside and tearing roses from her cascading mane to throw herself at the feet of her “bridegroom” Jesus.

For all the controversy of The Da Vinci Code, and the recent fuss around a Harvard theologian’s discovery of a fragmentary Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, now conclusively proved to be a forgery, Haag shows us that there is nothing new in a reading of the relationship between Mary and Jesus as something well beyond that of prophet and disciple. He even suggests the possibility that the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle, might have been a celebration of his own marriage to Mary Magdalene.

One of the most engrossing chapters concerns the gnostic gospels (early texts dating from the 2nd to the 4th century), which placed Mary Magdalene as a central figure in early Christianity, the “apostle of apostles” who truly understood Jesus and his message. One of the gnostic texts is the only gospel named after a woman, The Gospel of Mary, in which Mary Magdalene talks of Jesus appearing to her in a vision and speaking to her intimately about spiritual matters. However, the gnostics were defeated and Mary’s role was relegated to that of a fallen woman and penitent.

This book is a great read: my only caveats are that Haag spends too much time writing about Mary the mother of Jesus (not another Mary!) and the refashioning of her image by the Catholic church. This belongs in a different book. He also fails to give due credit to the many superb feminist theologians (Kate Cooper and Susan Haskins spring to mind) who have covered much of this fascinating territory before.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History & Legend by Michael Haag, Profile, 323pp, £15.99. To buy this book for £13.99, visit or call 0845 2712134

Portion of the online page.