Mary Magdalene

© 2007 Dr. Barbara Thiering

The information about Mary Magdalene has been given in various contexts in other parts of this site, but I have been asked to bring it all together in a biography. It is undoubtedly a matter of the greatest popular interest at the present time. What is given here is the historical evidence, to be distinguished from the myth that is rapidly forming.

To begin at the beginning:

Christianity began in the movement called Essene, one of the major world-views among Jews in the 1st centuries BC and AD. They had been very much influenced by Greek thought, which regarded sexual activity as debasing.

Essenes believed that the holiest kind of life was one that renounced sex and marriage altogether, practiced by monastics and hermits. But they had another purpose also, to preserve the great dynasties of the Zadokite priests and the Davids, who had once ruled the Jerusalem temple but had now lost power. They solved the problem by instituting a second order, one that allowed sex only for the sake of having sons.

The dynasts lived normally in monasteries, but when they reached their late thirties they left temporarily for a marriage, preferably with a young girl in her teens. A first wedding permitted them to live together for a trial marriage, then when the girl was three months pregnant, there was a second wedding from which there could be no divorce. The man returned to the monastery after the birth, to come back to his wife only after intervals of years for further conceptions. The girl lived in a female community, continuing as a nun.

The rigors of the sexual discipline caused occasional breaches. One such lapse gave rise to the story of the Virgin Birth. Joseph was a descendant of the Davids, destined to regain the kingship if the Essenes achieved their aim of returning to power. He had entered the long betrothal period preceding the first wedding, with the young girl Mary. Only a few months before their wedding, during the restrained courtship that was permitted, they had given way to passion, and Jesus was conceived. From the strict Essene viewpoint he was illegitimate, and could not inherit. From a more liberal viewpoint such as was held by some asssociated ascetics, he was legitimate, and their political purposes would be served if he became king. By the use of double meanings, the word Virgin could simply mean a nun, as Mary had been. Popular Greek thought welcomed the story of the Virgin Birth that was composed to cover what had actually happened.

Jesus when he reached maturity was bound by the same rule, and there was no pre-nuptial sex in his case. His bride was Mary Magdalene. Several facts about her become apparent from the pesher, the device for giving yet concealing the actual history. One was that she was 27 years old when she married Jesus, not a young girl, and there is an indication that she had been married previously and was a widow. She had been married to a priest, and so came within the rules for permissible Essene marriages.

The other fact about her, expressed by saying that she had had "seven demons" was that she belonged to the political party of the Magians, and she shared their vigorous militant ideals. Magians were Essenes who had scholarly schools in the Diaspora, but held looser views on morality that earned them the title of "seekers-after-smooth-things". Its leader in the time of Jesus was Simon Magus, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene were close friends of Simon and his mistress Helena. Helena like Simon appears under many pseudonyms, one of them Martha.

In March 33 AD, the season of the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene was three months pregnant with Jesus' child. Their second wedding took place on the Wednesday before Good Friday, Mary figuring as the woman with the alabaster cruse of ointment. Jesus underwent crucifixion for the reason that he was a political associate of the anti-Roman militants Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot. Jesus and Simon were rescued by a conspiracy of their friends. From that central experience the story of the Resurrection arose. It had the same character as the Virgin Birth, told in a double way that revealed yet concealed what had actually happened.

A daughter was born to Mary Magdalene in September 33 AD. She was named Tamar, the name of the virgin daughter of King David. In its Greek form it was Damaris. She appeared under that name at a later stage of Acts, at the time of her marriage to Paul, who by then was the closest confidant of Jesus.

Two sons were born next, at the intervals of time required by the Essene rule. Jesus Justus, named after his father with the added title meaning that he was the David crown prince, was born in June, 37 AD, and another son, whose name is not given, was born in March 44 AD.

That same season, March 44 AD, was that of the real climax of the history. It was the season of the assassination of Agrippa I, whose presence during the gospel period had been one of the factors causing Simon Magus and Jesus to be at enmity with him. His young son Agrippa II became his successor. He had been tutored by Paul, with the result that Christianity became established in his court. At the same time, the tolerance of the benign emperor Claudius caused many to change their politics. Jesus with Paul joined the pro-Roman court of Agrippa II, while Simon Magus remained with the militants, operating from their base in Damascus, but working also on the Tiber Island in Rome.

For Mary Magdalene, committed to the military method of spreading Judaism against Roman paganism, Jesus had betrayed all they had worked for. She separated from him and initiated a divorce, soon after the birth of their third child. The legalities of the divorce were carried out by Paul, who as a former Pharisee condoned divorce. He also officiated at the second wedding of Jesus, to Lydia. It took place in Philippi in Macedonia, for the Christian party was by now based in Europe, looking to Rome rather than Jerusalem.

What happened to Mary Magdalene? Since Simon Magus remained active in Rome, in a rival mission to that of the Christians under Peter, it is likely that she took comfort by remaining with Simon, in the form of mission that she believed was the true one. The history of John Mark gives a clue to her movements. He had been the "eunuch" for Jesus' first marriage, a celibate who acted for both husband and wife during their separations. He departed from the Christians at the time of the schism with Simon Magus, and had no further association with Jesus, his place as "eunuch" being taken by Luke for the second marriage. In 58 AD John Mark under his own name of Eutychus was reconciled with Paul and the Christians, as told in the "miracle" of the "raising from the dead" of Eutychus. It is possible that Mary Magdalene had died, although of course there could be other reasons for the change.

Had she gone to the south of France, as recent writers exploiting their version of the hidden history have claimed? My answer would be No, when the evidenced political history is taken into account.

There would be good reason for believing that the descendants of Jesus were driven from Rome to the south of France at the time of the Diocletian persecutions of the 90's. Estates of the Herods had been established there, in Lyons and Vienne, by earlier Herods in their banishment. Mission would be continued from there, in the revised form that had been brought about by Jesus and Paul.

But they remained remote mission stations, bases for a further drive into the darkest untamed regions of the world such as France, and that barbaric region at the ends of the earth, England. The great leaders of the ascetic orders did not risk going there themselves, but sent servants using their name because they taught their doctrine. Joseph of Arimathea, who was James the brother of Jesus, did not go to England himself. He died in Jerusalem in 62 AD. But he had sent a servant who formed communities holding a sacred meal, with the revered cup of wine that signified initiation.

Mary Magdalene would have remained the titular head of female ascetic communities in the Magian tradition, stemming from some of the Herodian houses in the south of France. They had been established very early, and would have looked to her as their remote great leader, a visionary figure from whom their inspiration came. That would be the reason for the persistence of the tradition about her in those regions. The slender clues have, however, been built up in the interests of the lucrative tourist trade, a familiar phenomenon in our own times.

With better intentions have been those feminists who have seen reason for a cult of Mary Magdalene, as a corrective to the denigration of women that has always been practiced by the Church. Some gnostic literature upholds her as a teacher, and she would have filled that role because women were appointed as the instructors of Gentiles in their first stages of education towards initiation. Gentiles were called "children", to whom the women were "Mothers".

But have we not moved beyond the cult of human beings, both of Jesus or of any female? Is it not a form of idolatry to worship representatives of ourselves? "God" is far greater than the human. We are now in the midst of one of the major theological crises, the challenging of the notion of "God" that itself is a human construct. It also has its regrettable oversimplifications, but it is timely.

More on Mary Magdalene in the "Pesher Technique" section The Marriage of Jesus.

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