Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Quest for Mary Magdalene, by Michael Haag

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In The Quest for Mary Magdalene, writer and historian Michael Haag tries to find the historical Mary Magdalene of the New Testament. Along the way he charts the various ways that Mary Magdalene has been portrayed through time.

In many ways, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, while ostensibly a history of Mary Magdalene, is in large part a history of Jesus, the New Testament and the Christian Church. References to Mary Magdalene in the New Testament are few and far between. In the Gospels, she mostly turns up at Jesus' resurrection, arriving with the hope of tending his crucified body. Michael Haag carefully argues that Mary Magdalene would have been a financially independent woman who was a senior member of Jesus' ministry. Jewish women at that time lived under oppressive patriarchal conditions. For Mary Magdalene to be independently travelling, with no apparent need to work for money, suggests she was most likely wealthy and powerful in her own right. Haag goes on to further suggest the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married. The fact that she turns up to embalm his body after crucifixion speaks to a special closeness, perhaps that of husband and wife.

While little is known of Mary Magdalene, Haag points to the fascinating discovery of the Gnostic gospels, discovered in the 20th century. These were spiritual texts used by the Christian sect, known as the Gnostics. They were active up to about the fourth century. Some of these Gnostic texts were written quite close in time to the official New Testament gospels. They paint a portrait of Mary Magdalene as a more spiritual leader of the early Christian church.

The Catholic church would eventually declare that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. This was a rather bizarre assertion, as it appears nowhere in the New Testament. But then again, nor does the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus, appear in the New Testament either. It wouldn't be until the 20th century that the Catholic church would amend this error.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene is a fascinating history of one of Christianity's most intriguing characters, examining in close detail her varied portrayal – religious, spiritual and artistic – over twenty centuries. The book also benefits from a wealth of illustrations – of photos, paintings, drawings and sculptures – breathing great life into the Mary Magdalene story.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene, by Michael Haag. Published by Profile Books. ISBN: 9781846684524  RRP: $34.99

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