Mary Magdalene and History

Bruce Chilton

Two factors have impeded a clear and critical understanding of Mary Magdalene: (1) evidence from the first century regarding her is limited to the Gospels, and even then is scant, and (2) legends concerning Mary Magdalene that developed after the first century (continuously, and now into the twenty-first century) have proven explosive. Both from the point of view of the transmission of material and from the point of view of the reception of evidence, the issue of her identity has proved fraught. Either factor, taken alone, might be taken to make the attempt to understand Mary Magdalene impossible. One possible response to this situation is to deny that any historical portrait of Mary is recoverable. That has been the suggestion of Bart Ehrman, as well as other professional scholars of the New Testament, in his reaction to a fictional work, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.! This perspective is understandable, but I want to begin by explaining why I think it is also harmful to the critical study of religion. Although the evidence regarding Mary is slim while legends about her abound, the earliest sources - that is the Gospels - categorically insist that she was a vital figure, most prominently in developing the conviction that was raised from the dead after his crucifixion. By refusing to investigate Mary's history, we leave that vital moment in the emergence of unexplained and unexplored. Moreover, the legends in regard to Mary have proven so powerful (the very latest of them sometimes exerting the most influence) that refusing to deal historically with Mary simply paves the way for fiction of one sort or another to triumph.

1 B. Ehnnan, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (New York: Oxford Univer• sity Press, 2005) 12. CHILTON Mary Magdalene and History 303

The attempt to say that we cannot know anything historically about Mary is as outmoded as that same claim is in regard to Jesus. Fifty years ago, Rudolf Bultmann ruled the field of New Testament studies with his dictum that Jesus cannot be known as a figure of history, because there are no public records about him. To Bultmann and those who followed him, the reader of the Gospels was only called upon to de• cide existentially for or against Jesus and his way of life; information about him was irrelevant.2 Occasionally that fossilized view of history is dusted off and exhibited proudly by literary critics who attempt for their own reasons to deny an historical dimension in the New Testa• ment; Harold Bloom, whose recent work we will consider in the conclusion of this paper,3 exemplifies such an evangelical agnosticism. Whether championed by a Bultmann or a Bloom, this view of his• tory, which demands public archives to prove or disprove a given fact, has long been recognized as too limited. History is sometimes a matter of deductive argument, especially when issues of forgery and authenti• cation are in play. Scholars of history have recognized for more than half a century that their task concerns the explanation of evidence, not just proving or disproving whether one event or another happened. The whole spectrum of related meanings - including texts and events and contextual issues and archaeological, sociological, economical and/ or political analysis - needs to be assessed historically, so as to explain patterns of evidence. That involves including drawing infer• ences concerning the most vital generative moments, at the beginning of a pattern as well as along the line, which produced a given move• ment in history. Fact remains the point of departure in any history, but fact in the service of meaning. 4 Deploying mechanical views of history ignores the meaning of the term historia in Greek, which is "inquiry." Scholars who make their business that of disproving what Dan Brown says give his novel more attention than it merits, cheapen their own view of history, and probably wind up advertising The Da Vinci Code more than they discredit it. Here I suggest that a critical awareness of the historical task leads to a clear apprehension of Mary Magdalene and of her importance within

2 I have discussed the intellectual environment that fomented this attitude in Re• deeming Time. The Wisdom of Ancient jewish and Christian Festal Calendars (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002).

3 H. Bloom, jesus and . The Names Divine (New York: Riverhead, 2005).

4 See Chilton, "Biblical Authority, Canonical Criticism, and Generative Exegesis," The Quest Jor Context and Meaning. Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of james A. Sanders (Biblical Interpretation Series 28; Leiden: Brill, 1997) 343-355.