By Bruce Chilton
Reviewed by John Cowan
Bruce Chilton remains true to the form he displayed in Rabbi Jesus; Secure in
his speculations. I have a strategy for living with him: The canonical gospels and the related teaching of those who ended up teaching me, are also quite speculative. I am accustomed to them and they reinforce each other over continents and ages. However, if there is one thing I am confident of, taught to me from childhood on, there is nothing so capable of being utterly wrong as a crowd, each echo being recognized as calculated judgement, when it is really only an echo.
With that in mind, I give Bruce the credit of bringing some accurate perspectives on Rabbi Jesus and now on Mary Magdalene. So on any point, maybe my teachers were correct or maybe Bruce is. I think that is as good as it gets. At the close of the book read Bruce’s notes. Pretty convincing. At least of the solidity of his arguments, if not their truth.
There are two stories here. The first is Mary Magdalene of the Gospels. The second is the Mary Magdalene of the Gnostics and other later pundits.
“Mary” was a common name. Not all Gospel references to Mary, are to the one from Magdala. Also some unnamed women are probably our Mary. Out of this Bruce coaxes this picture. Our Mary was not a prostitute. Our Mary was the Mary who was inflicted with seven devils. Seven is not a count but a reference to the fact that she was really in bad shape. She met Jesus when he “cured” her. Except that the removal of that huge a load leaves much cleaning left to be done. Jesus and she spent much deep time together for a long period finishing the cure and becoming fast friends
They grew so close that Mary was accepted as a member of the inner circle. As such Jesus would greet her with a kiss on the lips. In a later non-canonical gospel Philip points out to Peter that the source of Peter’s dislike for Mary is her preeminence to him in the kissing hierarchy. (Men lip-kissed men readily also. )
There is more, much more, similar to this to be said, and is said in the book. However, short form, what happened to Mary? When Christianity was being accepted by Rome it was important that Christianity fit in, and that meant it mirrored Roman family life. For instance, the early letters of Paul, the ones written by him, refer to many women of power and worth as friends; the later letters written by another tell them to cover their heads and be quiet, and wait for orders from their husbands.
While not a prostitute, Mary was flagrant. Bruce thinks her the official anointer of the Jesus party, and anointing was a disputed practice. Some thought it obscene. She was a woman leader, and while the earliest church had quite a few of them the later church did not want its daughters drawn to imitate this woman leader.
To Mary and the Gnostics. I have never understood the Gnostics. Literally. Their most pungent messages leave me unpunged. “Up will be down and down will be up.” I invented that one, I think, but maybe not. I love standing out from the crowd and spouting gnostic ideas would a terrific way to stand out. Sadly, I have no idea what they mean, do not even care what they mean. Or for a while I did but now I don’t.
Bruce does care and will give you some insight to Gnosticism on the way to pointing out the major place Mary Magdalene held in Gnostic hagiography. Some even had her wedded to Jesus and someone even traced Diana, the English princess, back to her. (God help us. Bruce, did not do that tracing, nor think her wedded to Jesus.)
Just a note on this whole Chilton enterprise of mine. When I sent out the review on Rabbi Jesus I thought nobody will want to read this. To my surprise many of you did. Of course, I not only read these reviews, I write them and also read the books. What has gotten into me? I think it is that they ring of the truth. Deserve to be seen. Put to and into your judgement. Have fun. Their role in our eternal life is probably minimal.