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Meeting The Real Mary Magdalene | An Interview with Amy Welborn | May
12, 2006 | Reposted for Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalane, July 22, 2007
Amy Welborn is a prolific
author and widely
read blogger. She holds an MA in Church
History from Vanderbilt University and has taught theology in Catholic
high schools, and served as a parish Director of Religious Education.
Her writings have appeared in many periodicals,
including First Things, Commonweal,Writer's Digest, Liguorian, Catholic
Digest and Catholic Parent. Her books
include the Prove It series, The Loyola Kids' Book of Saints,
The Loyola Kids' Book of Heroes, and Here. Now. Two of her
most recent books are De-Coding
Da Vinci and De-Coding
both published by Our Sunday Visitor.
IgnatiusInsight.com spoke to Welborn about her books addressing
the claims of The Da Vinci Code, especially the many assertions
made about Mary Magdalene.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Are you surprised by the longevity of the Coded Craziness
and, specifically, the various claims made about Mary Magdalene?
Amy Welborn: I am a little surprised, although the recent frenzy
is clearly all about the movie. If there were no film (impossible, of
course), this business would have died out a year ago - when it did, indeed,
quiet down a bit.
However, the longevity of the claims about Mary Magdalene is the least
suprising of all because they predate The Da Vinci Code. Brown
picked up a thread in that regard, that was already present in the culture
groups like FutureChurch and Call to Action have been sponsoring
celebrations on July 22, Mary Magdalene's feast day, for years now, celebrations
that have at their core a call for the ordination of women.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was your initial impression of The Da
Vinci Code when you first read it? Has that changed in any substantial
way over the past three years?
Welborn: My initial impression, expressed in
a review of the novel I wrote for Our Sunday Visitor, was that
it was idiotic and laughably badly written. No, that's not changed, although
I do see it as more dangerous now than I did at first.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Fans of the novel keep saying, "Hey, it's just
fiction?" How do you respond?
Welborn: I say they're right. It is fiction. 99.7% fiction.
Leonardo existed. Paris exists, and the Louvre is there. That's all true.
The rest is fiction.
Seriously (although I do say that), I respond that Brown discussed his
book early on as the fruit of "research" and declared he hoped readers
would learn something. The book's style lends itself to ignorant readers
thinking that they're reading legitimate scholarly opinion there's
a bibliography, the scholar characters refer to real books and speak authoritatively.
To someone who doesn't know better, it might sound convincing.
Further, there's something deeper. Even many of those who don't take things
like the Priory of Sion or Leonardo's codes seriously, and even those
who throw the "It's only a novel" statement in our faces, do in
fact take certain aspects of the novel seriously: they do believe
that the history of early Christianity is a murky mess, that there's nothing
sure we can know about Jesus, and that Mary Magdalene has spent the last
2000 years being demonized by Christianity.
My emails and internet discussion boards clearly show that at some level,
a great many readers believe that The Da Vinci Code presents truth
about what Christianity is and is not.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why and how has Mary Magdalene become the poster
person for radical feminism and various anti-Catholic conspiracy theories?
Welborn: The rediscovery of gnostic writings that mention a "Mary"
has fueled this, as well as a more general scholarly endeavor of re-examining
female historical figures in religious history. The gnostic writings have
really been key, as some scholars have used and misused
them to posit an alternative strand of early Christianity ("Magdalene
Christianity" it is often called) in which Mary Magdalene, who was clearly
important in the Gospels, was a leader of an egalitarian element of early
Christianity. There are all kinds of permutations of this, most recently
in the quite bizarre Bruce Chilton book Mary Magdalene, in which
the Episcopal priest-writer suggests that Mary was trained by Jesus in
some sort of intense spiritual kind of "seeing" and her experience of
what we call the "resurrection" was the ultimate fruit of that formation.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What do we know about Mary Magdalene and what
are our sources for our knowledge of her?
Welborn: Our primary sources for knowledge of Mary Magdalene are
in the Gospels. From them, in Luke 8, we learn that Mary of Magdala (a
small town on the Sea of Galilee) had been exorcised of seven demons by
Jesus, and left everything behind in gratitude to follow him, along with
some other women, and provide for the disciples' needs. This could be
doing domestic work for them, providing funds to support the ministry,
We then see Mary, in every gospel, at the Cross, then as the first to
discover the Empty Tomb.
There is an enormous amount of legendary material about Mary Magdalene
in both West and East. It's fascinating and rich. One of the primary strains
in the West has her traveling to Provence (an idea picked up by the radical
feminist author of The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, Margaret Starbird,
and then turned for her own ends) and, along with Martha and Lazarus,
evangelizing the area; there is even some medieval art that depicts Mary
preaching and baptizing. She was a favorite subject for medieval mystery
plays and, of course, art.
But what we know for sure about her is contained in the Gospels.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why is there such a strong interest in Mary Magdalene?
Welborn: She's an interesting figure, and for many, she represents
possibilities the possibility that in early Christianity, women
had official roles of power, that Jesus was married, and so on. It is
unfortunate that these days, interest in Mary Magdalene is much higher
among non-Christians and marginal Christians than among mainstream Catholics,
especially considering the massive popularity of devotion to her throughout
much of our history.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The Da Vinci Code centers upon an alleged
marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Is there any evidence for such
Welborn: No. There's no evidence in Scripture, and the Gospels
are forthright about Jesus' familial connections. The Gospel writers name
names and discuss Jesus' ambiguous relationship to his family members
and his fellow townspeople. They name the apostles and other associates.
They name Mary of Magdala, for heaven's sake. Who is, note, called Mary
of Magdala, which she would not be if she were married to Jesus. There
would have been no scandal in first-century Judaism of Jesus being married
to anyone. There was nothing to hide.
In addition, there is no mention of any such marriage in early Christian
traditions - the traditions, for example, that give us the name of Mary's
parents (Joachim and Anna). No, this Jesus-Mary Magdalene marriage is
a twentieth-century creation.
Interestingly enough, in the massive legendary material surrounding the
figure of Mary Magdalene, a marriage is mentioned one of
the legends says that the Wedding at Cana was actually the marriage of
Mary Magdalene and John the Apostle. John was so impressed with Jesus'
miracle there that he abandoned everything and followed Jesus. This ticked
Mary Magdalene off to such an extent that she went off and led a profligate
life until she, too, saw the truth, and became a follower of Jesus.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the biggest misconception you've found
that people have about Mary Magdalene?
Welborn: The biggest misconception, by far, is that the Catholic
Church has demonized Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. This has taken hold
among the general public and won't let go.
The truth is this: in the first centuries of Christianity, some Church
Fathers wondered, here and there, if the named Mary Magdalene might be
the same person as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as well as
the repentant woman who comes to Jesus at the end of Luke 7, just before
Mary Magdalene is first mentioned by name in Luke 8.
In 591, Pope Gregory I preached a homily in which he explicitly associated
all of these women, and identified Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman
of Luke 7. From that point on, this was an important part of her identity
for medieval Christians.
Note, however, that neither Gregory nor any subsequent preacher or writer
"demonized" or maligned Mary Magdalene. It was quite the opposite. She
was held up as a model and figure of hope. Her story was told and expanded
over and over again, with the focus not being sinfulness, but rather redemption.
Throughout the Middle Ages, other aspects entered into the story, as well
her evangelizing in Provence, her supposed decades of contemplative
life, and so on. She inspired numerous saints, she was present in art
mostly as a faithful disciple at the foot of the cross, either mourning
or supporting Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but she was never demonized.
She's a saint! Her feast day is July 22!
IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had five minutes with Dan Brown, what
might you say or do?
Welborn: Ask him for some money.
Hey, why not? Maybe not for me, but perhaps for some of the thousands
of institutions around the world orphanages, schools, hospitals,
old age homes, hospices - that are filled with people who've given their
lives to sacrificially serving others in the direst of circumstances,
inspired, called and nourished by the One whom Dan Brown continues to
exploit, sitting up there in New Hampshire on his wads of cash. He should
be ashamed. Perhaps, one day, he will be.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
The Da Vinci Hoax | Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
Publicity on "Geraldo" | Carl E. Olson
"It's Just Fiction!" Doctrine: Reading Too Little Into The
Da Vinci Code | Carl E. Olson
and Gnosticism: A Response to Steve Kellmeyer | Carl E. Olson
Vinci Hoax blog
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