I see that yet another wannabe Dan Brown has dug up an obscure but by no means lost ‘gospel’ that ‘proves’ that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I have still not forgiven Rev Arun Arora for ‘we are all broken’ (subtext: ‘but some are more broken than others’) but I have to admit that this smackdown-cum-summary is rather pleasing. I note with some amusement that this particular WDB has plumbed new depths of desperation by going for a text that has nothing to do with Jesus at all, but this isn’t really my point.
I would like to say first that I understand that the insistence on Jesus’ presumed celibacy has done a huge amount of damage. I blame Paul’s short-term thinking, and Augustine. Mostly Augustine, really. I can understand the attraction of a married Jesus for that reason alone. If we’d had a married Jesus, perhaps the Church would have grown up a little more sex-positive and a little less misogynistic. But perhaps it would have been even more difficult for a woman who did not feel herself called to marriage to carve out her own path. I don’t know.
Personally, I find it very useful indeed that there is not much about Jesus’ personal life in the Gospels. In the not-knowingness I find room for my late-twenties-married self, and for my late-teen-seriously-considering-celibacy self. I find room for my trying-to-be-out-bisexual self and for my boringly-conventional-het-married self. I find room for the self who doesn’t have children and for the self who might have children one day. There are hints in the Gospels of Jesus who knew about family life, and Jesus who occasionally had to get away from it all. And, if it comes to that, Jesus who created his own family from the waifs and strays he found along the way.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Jesus so much as I want to talk about Mary Magdalene. Why, if we are going to write ‘Jesus’ wife’ into the script, do we have to cast Mary Magdalene in the part? The Gospel of Thomas? The Gospel of Thomas would not be my first stop for sex-positivity or feminism. The Gnostics were a misogynistic bunch who thought that the physical world in general and the body in particular were irredeemably sinful. Marrying Jesus off to Mary Magdalene does not make the Gospel of Thomas any better than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, look:
Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Thomas-114)
To be fair, I could see Peter saying that. I could also see Jesus hitting him very hard with the cluebat. The Jesus we see in the Gospels doesn’t need Mary to be a man. Equally, he doesn’t need her to be his wife. He accepts her exactly the way she is.
The wonderful thing about the relationship between Mary and Jesus as we see it in the four generally accepted Gospels is that it has very little to do with the fact that they are of different sexes. Other people try to make it about that but Jesus, in flagrant disregard of the conventions of the culture, sees her as fully human. Her place isn’t in the kitchen. I’m not trying to say that Jesus just sees her as ‘one of the lads’. One of the disciples, yes – but the point is that ‘disciple’ isn’t a ‘man’s job’. In Mary we see that everyone can be a disciple.
Mary shares the good news, she doesn’t cut cucumber sandwiches. She’s defined by her relationship to Jesus, yes, but in the same way that Peter is, or John or James. She greets Jesus as ‘Teacher’. She loves him deeply, but how constricting, to assume that it must be romantic love, that this is all women are capable of! (And then we have John, probably ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ – how very quick we are to assume that ‘love’ means something different here.)
If you accept the traditional identification of Mary with the woman taken in adultery (I don’t, personally) it becomes even more striking. If you accept that, then we see Jesus as perhaps the first person in her life (and, it sometimes seems, the last in recorded history) who isn’t interested in who she’s slept with.
I find the thoughtless attempt to force her into this extra-canonical role as ‘Jesus’ wife’ offensive beyond belief. We have in Mary a woman who exists in her own right, and whose existence in her own right Jesus recognises. We have a woman who loves and suffers deeply and visibly, who is brave, who is steadfast. We have a woman who defies convention. Why must we shoehorn her into one?
People have been obsessed with Mary Magdalene’s sex life for centuries. I don’t find this new take on the story any more feminist than the old one. A married Jesus? Fine by me. But as for Mary Magdalene, leave her alone. As Jesus said of another Mary, she has chosen the better part.