Mary Magdalene in 1860 portrait

(WOMENSENEWS)–The Vatican is boycotting the May 19 opening of "The Da Vinci Code" movie, based on the runaway bestseller by Dan Brown, for suggesting that Jesus Christ was married to his follower Mary Magdalene and that his lineage survives to this day.

But while that revision of Christian history may be heresy for Catholic leaders, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for some contemporary scholars of religious history.

"The reason this book has made such a splash is because a man has said it and because it’s fiction," says Rosalind Miles, founder of the Center for Women’ Studies at Coventry Polytechnic in Coventry, England. In her 1988 book, "Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World," Miles contends "the power and centrality of the first woman-God is one of the best-kept secrets of history."

Miles and a number of other contemporary scholars have been arguing for years that women such as Mary Magdalene have been diminished by the world’s major religions. While these scholars disagree about numerous issues, they find common ground in the notion that women’s untold role in religious history goes beyond that of wife, mother or devoted follower.

Looking into pre-history, some are digging into archeological evidence that has turned up numerous statues of women, which some believe date to as early as 25,000 B.C.

Miles and other authors argue that these female figures suggest that ancient societies–which did not understand the reproductive process and were often matrilineal because of the uncertainty of fatherhood–worshipped a goddess because they were in awe of the life-giving power of women. Popular devotion to a single, male god, they say, is relatively recent.

Male and Female Gods

"The majority of humans over the course of history have been polytheistic and their gods have been both women and men," says Miriam Peskowitz, author of the 1997 book "Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender and History."

Peskowitz, a visiting associate professor of rabbinic civilization at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College located in Wyncote, Pa., says female saints have also been worshipped by followers of Islam, and in Roman times the female figure of the Shekinah was part of Jews’ understanding of the presence of God.

Many historians deflect these arguments and say there isn’t strong evidence linking these archeological figures with a deity or to prove a matrilineal past. But stories of goddesses such as those of ancient Greece, who were worshipped alongside male gods, lead some to insist on a lost culture of goddess worship.

Judith Plaskow

"There is certainly no question that goddess worship has been an enduring fact of human history," says Judith Plaskow, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, N.Y. "It seems relatively clear that a male god is a recent upstart."

Plaskow says that while "The Da Vinci Code" can be challenged on many points of historical accuracy–she does not believe there is evidence that Jesus was married to Magdalene–the immense popularity of the book by Dan Brown has helped raise questions about women’s place in religious history "for a lot of people who never thought about it before."

Magdalene as Wife Candidate

In recent years, numerous writers have focused on the idea that it would have been unusual for a 33-year-old man of Jesus’ era to remain single. Magdalene’s proximity to him thus makes her a wifely candidate.

"I believe it’s extremely likely that Jesus was married," says Margaret Starbird, author of books including "Magdalene’s Lost Legacy" and "The Goddess in the Gospels." She argues: "If his wife was pregnant, the disciples would have whisked her away after the resurrection for her own safety."

A similar theory–also raised in the 1982 book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, who recently lost their plagiarism lawsuit against Brown–goes against conventional church wisdom.

Many theologians, however, rebut theories based on what was normal for men of Christ’s place and time given that he embodied a radical form of spiritualism which they say easily entailed chastity.

Plaskow herself cautions that there is "absolutely not a shred of evidence" to support theories about a sexual connection between Christ and Mary Magdalene.

But she agrees with others who say Magdalene’s role in religious history has suffered a spectacular fall from biblical tales of devoted fellowship to popular reputation as a penitent prostitute. Peskowitz points out that the New Testament never describes Mary Magdalene as a prostitute; in the sixth century, Pope Gregory made this connection, which was later recanted by the Catholic Church.

Significant Downgrading

Many believe the implications of Magdalene’s downgrading have been significant, particularly for female Christians.

"The way that we remember the past shapes the way that we understand our present and our future," says Catherine Brekus, associate professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "So, for example, when early church leaders ignored Mary Magdalene or depicted her as a prostitute, they circumscribed the opportunities for future Christian women in the church."

Plaskow notes that the Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women because women were not among the 12 apostles, even though Mary Magdalene was an enormously important disciple.

For authors such as Miles, the Hebrew tradition that there is one god and he is male–a belief system at the basis of Judaism, Christianity and Islam–was a deliberate attempt to subvert the tradition of goddess worship and the matriarchal system was actively constructed from the beginning.

For them, the story of Adam and Eve symbolizes the fall of the female goddess and of all women in society.

"The whole human race should understand that patriarchy and a male god is . . . the result of certain visions and a struggle over many thousands of years," Miles told Women’s eNews. "It’s not somehow natural, nor is it inevitable."

Kara Alaimo earned a bachelor of arts degree from New York University, where she studied journalism and gender and sexuality. She lives and writes in New York City, where she works for the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting.


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