Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?
Tuesday night saw Channel Five air Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner, the third in their series of religious documentaries. Having been surprised to find the first entry,Secrets of the Jesus Tomb, adopting a reasonably conservative approach, and the 2nd film, Who Really Killed Jesus taking a reasonably strong historical position I was wondering how this latest effort would handle its subject. The advance publicity suggested it wouldn’t be simply be trotting out Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" in documentary form, but looking at things from very a different angle.
For a 45 minute documentary Saint or Sinner certainly managed to cram in most of the key talking points related to Mary: the scant mentions of her in the New Testament; the suggestion that she was Jesus' wife; her appearance in the Gnostic gospels; the process by which she became known as a prostitute; and, the strange veneration she receives in places such as Provence. Yet, unlike its predecessors, it opted for an approach that was a little more controversial, but on less firm territory history-wise. Curiously, it was in the very places where the documentary converged with "The Da Vinci Code" that it was at its weakest.
One of the main points here regards canonisation (the process by which the 'final cut' of the books in the New Testament was decided). Contrary to the way that both Brown's book and this film portray the process it was not a sudden decision made whilst any likely detractors were out of the room. Instead it was much more of a gradual evolution, occurring from the second half of the first century, when most of the New Testament was written, through to the very end of the fourth century. And, even then, it was more about validating the slowly emerging collection of books that were already being used as scripture.
As with Brown's villain "Teabing", the film gives the impression that there were two equal, but opposed, factions until the historic church managed to out-muscle their opponents. Yet whilst the gospels of Philip and Mary were significant to some, the evidence suggests they were in a very small minority. We may regret that such groups were drummed out of existence, but that certainly doesn't mean that these books were on an equal footing with the canonical gospels, either in terms off their popularity, or their historicity. In fact, these gospels appear to have been written such a long time after Jesus that the chances of them preserving an otherwise forgotten tradition is fairly remote.
The other main issue is that of Jesus' resurrection. Mary is recorded as the first sighting of the risen Jesus, but the film never really allows for the possibility that this could be what actually happened. Instead, Mary is credited with having a vision, which inspired others to have similar visions which then "inspired" the story of the empty tomb. Of course scepticism regarding Jesus' tomb is nothing new. It goes back such a long way that even Matthew's gospel includes a story counteracting the claim that the disciples stole Jesus' body.
Yet the theory presented here doesn't really add up. Unless Jesus's body actually disappeared (whether from a tomb or the cross) such visions would have held no water. The term "resurrection", was universally understood in Judaism as the transformation of an old body into a new physical body. A story circulating about someone being resurrected whilst their body still hung on a cross, or lay in a tomb, would be nonsensical. Even had Mary unintentionally made it all up, what are the chances that two of Jesus' other followers would have had a similar vision before they even heard Mary's story? And Paul records 500 people all having an experience like Mary's at the same time. Could that really have happened if it was all just a vision?
It's not that such a documentary should necessarily agree with everything above, but for the opposite point of view to be completely disregarded seems somewhat off. The film does well to highlight Mary's importance amongst Jesus' followers, and to rehabilitate her reputation both from a 6th century smear campaign and "The Da Vinci Code". But ultimately, it's far less balanced and rational than the previous two entries, and all the worse for it.
Posted by: Matt Page on Thursday Sep 18th, 2008
Logged-in members can post comments on openheaven.org news articles.