Bishops, Barons, and Biblical Women

source: Web Museum

Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Noli mi tangere, illustrating Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20: 14-17)

I was back in the UK for a couple of days and had the chance to see The Mystery of Mary Magdalene for myself while I was there. I think I understand better now why the retired Bishop of Rochester was so snarky about it  (BBC Accused of Provoking Christians, The Telegraph, 30 March). Though of course I do NOT approve of snarky behaviour by bishops! (Or anybody else.)

My original beef with the Bishop was with his statement,

‘They can say whatever they like on Good Friday and nobody it seems is going to put the Biblical point of view about who Mary was and what her relationship with Jesus was.’

A spokesperson for Christian Concern added insult to injury: ‘A programme redressing the balance based on sound scholarship – rather than pseudo-scholarship popularised by Dan Brown novels – needs to broadcast.’

Given that a number of highly resepcted theologians and biblical scholars were involved in making the programme (in addition to yours truly, a perfectly respectable ancient historian), it seemed quite irresponsible for a bishop (however glamorous and Jane Eyre-esque his title) to speak dismissively of hard-working public servants such as ourselves.  Certainly it was very naughty to dismiss the work of serious academics as ‘pseudo-scholarship’ – it isn’t dificult to t tell the difference between a Dan Brown novel and a refereed academic study such as Christopher Tuckett’s The Gospel of Mary (published by Oxford University Press).

Having seen the programme, however, the censorious Anglican matron in me is feeling ever so slightly less judgemental. But only slightly! What led to my glimmer of sympathy was the programme’s presentation of Mary Magdalene as the subject of a controversy between ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Orthodox’ Christians.

As an academic ‘talking head’, you never have control over the interpretative choices made in the final edit–that is the prorogative of the director, and in some cases of the synthesizing presenter–in this case Baron Bragg of Wigton, a.k.a. Melvin Bragg.

Lord Bragg has been a friend of the cause of women’s leadership in Christianity, so I hate to criticise, but I was disappointed to see that the programme classed the memory of Mary as a matter of interest only to ‘Gnostics’.

It is not only that there is a serious scholarly debate going on about whether ‘Gnosticism’ ever existed as an organized movement in antiquity. Actually, the issues at stake go far deeper.

My own view, argued in the forthcoming Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, is that in all the earliest Christian communities, women played a central, though sometimes invisible role.  This accords well with what we know from modern social theory about how ‘viral’ movements expand: it is informally, through friendship and family networks, not through pronouncements by conservative formal hierarchies, that ideas travel fastest.

By the second or early third century, when the Manchester Gospel of Mary fragment was produced, a debate was raging in the churches about women’s leadership not because ‘Gnostics’ were promoting it, but because of a tradition of memory (represented for example in Luke 24:9-11) that represented women such as Mary Magdalene as bearing witness to spiritual truths, such as the Resurrection of Jesus, which the male apostles were too arrogant and dismissive to receive. The debate between Peter and Levi in The Gospel of Mary over whether to acknowledge Mary as a legitimate teacher is self-evidently a reference to the problem originally raised by Luke. In all likelihood Andrew’s accusation against Peter, that in classing revelations given to women as by definition without value he is ‘making rules [and] laying down laws other than the Saviour gave’ is a reference to the growing-pains of a Church which was drifting away from an informal household-based polity – and into a hierarchical future in the medieval landscape of bishops and barons.

Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that in the twenty-first century a bishop and a baron are quarrelling over Mary’s status as a ‘beloved disciple’. Still, I suspect they are both missing the point.


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