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"Da Vinci Code" raises eyebrows over Mary Magdalene
By RICHARD N. OSTLING
NEW YORK (AP) - Redeemed sinner, prostitute, wife of Jesus? Mary Magdalene's image has gone through myriad incarnations over the centuries, and this Lenten season she's drawing new attention thanks to the upcoming movie version of "The Da Vinci Code," a slew of books and Internet arguments.
But those looking for a salacious side to the biblical figure will be disappointed: Serious religious scholars agree characterizations that stray from faithful disciple and witness to the Resurrection are bogus.
Despite stage and screen portrayals, they say, the sinful Mary is a matter of mistaken identity. The chief culprit was Pope Gregory the Great, who preached a sermon in A.D. 591 calling Mary a notorious prostitute who repented after encountering Jesus Christ.
The "Da Vinci" yarn says Christians conspired to conceal the Jesus-Mary marriage and the royal French bloodline their offspring established. But there's no evidence Jesus ever married Mary -- or anyone else -- and we know other first century Jewish holy men remained celibate.
Mary supposedly traveled to France, but the claim is suspect; the first mention of her relics located there dates from the year 745.
The best source of material on Mary is a first century account, the New Testament itself.
There she stands out as Jesus' most important female disciple, becoming central to the faith on Good Friday and Easter. Mary is named first among the witnesses to Jesus' Crucifixion, entombment and empty tomb. The less valiant male apostles deserted Jesus at the cross and refused at first to believe the women's "idle tale" about the empty tomb.
For Christians across the centuries, "she is the faithful disciple, and consistently portrayed that way," says Harvard church historian Karen King.
A cottage industry has sprung up around Mary, boosted by "The Da Vinci Code" novel and the film scheduled for release in May.
Among the forthcoming titles: "Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend"; "Reinventing Jesus: What the Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell You"; and "De-Coding Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legend and Lies." On the Internet, religious Web sites have debated back and forth over the latest speculations about Mary, women's power and the origins of Christianity.
All this buzz for a figure whom, prior to Golgotha, appears in the Gospels only in Luke 8 -- as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles and "provided for them out of their means." The phrase indicates Mary was wealthy, making prostitution an unlikely profession.
Gregory mistakenly identified Mary with an unnamed female "sinner" in the preceding passage who had a dramatic encounter with Jesus. (This passage never says the woman's sins were sexual.) If Mary had been that sinner, Bible experts surmise, she'd have been named there first -- instead of in Luke 8.
Luke never calls Mary sinful or repentant, but does say she was healed when "seven demons" left her. Seven, a significant biblical number, indicates serious problems -- and her financial gifts show she was unusually grateful, King notes. But the Bible doesn't report whether Mary's afflictions were physical, psychological, spiritual, moral or some combination.
Today, Mary often symbolizes women's importance to Christianity.
San Francisco's Grace Cathedral commissioned an icon of her to commemorate the election of Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church and world Anglicanism. Outside Christianity, too, she's a favorite of feminists and New Agers.
Mary is central to vigorous debates about women's role in New Testament times and subsequent centuries when orthodox Christianity rejected the Gnostic, or secret knowledge, movement as elitist and heretical.
Bard College's Bruce Chilton contends in "Mary Magdalene: A Biography" that the New Testament purposely submerges Mary's role. He speculates that she was actually a prime teacher and exorcist among Jesus' followers.
Feminists' favorite Gnostic text is the "Gospel of Mary," in which Mary asserts superiority over Peter and other male disciples and teaches hidden wisdom about the soul's escape from the world and ascent through mystic realms. In it, Jesus teaches, "There is no such thing as sin."
In "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala," King claims that this text originated early in the second century, soon after the New Testament Gospels. But most other scholars, including Chilton and Penn State historian Philip Jenkins, say that's unreasonably early.
Jenkins' "Hidden Gospels" argues that the faddish effort to revive Gnosticism and downgrade the New Testament provides no new or reliable information about Jesus or Mary, and merely reflects hostility toward the church, especially Roman Catholicism.
"One hundred years ago we knew all the same stuff," he said in an interview. "Mary Magdalene is always popular but the Mary you see is what people want to see at any particular time."