Interview

2010 Interview – edited transcript  (audio files available upon request)

What inspired you to write this book?

I started reading about the Goddess, all the different ways She was represented throughout Antiquity, with the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans, and it wasn’t long before I found that the Goddess was also represented in the Bible, especially through Mary Magdalene’s life.

The story I wrote just jumped off the pages into my lap, while I was reading the New Testament. I was exhilarated with the discovery that my adult spirituality and experience of the feminine aspect of God is not a denial of my upbringing – rather it is rooted in the indelible Christian tradition in which I was raised.

 

Why is there so much interest in Mary Magdalene these days?

For centuries, people have worshipped mother Mary. Today Mary Magdalene offers an additional model for womanhood that is not based solely in motherhood. People are fascinated by the powerful and holy woman walking at Jesus’ side. I was just speaking to a readers group in New Jersey, and most of these women already had a personal relationship with Mary Magdalene before reading my book. It was what drew them to the book. Mary Magdalene is the holy figure of our time. Consider this: Gallup polls over the past 20 years show that even among Catholics, support of women as priests is overwhelming and steadily rising, it’s now over 90%.

When I was a child I was told that priests have to be men because they represent Jesus. Well, Mary Magdalene was the first to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the other apostles, the Catholic Church calls her the Apostle to the Apostles. I believe she presents a role model in the Bible for women to be considered spiritual leaders. People of many religious backgrounds are increasingly drawn to that idea.

It’s certainly how Mary Magdalene is portrayed in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary.

 

What is the Gospel of Mary?

It’s the one place where we get to hear Mary Magdalene in her own words. This is a 2nd  century text, and we get to hear Mary teach the disciples. They say, “Jesus loved you best, more than us, he told you things he did not tell us. Tell us what he told you.” And she does. The Gospel of Mary was banned by the church in the 4th century, and it was lost to us until a nearly 2,000-year-old copy was found, in 1945.

Mary’s role in this Gospel offers insight into just how rich women’s lives might have bee, so much more than we used to believe. We’ve been told that women have always been second class citizens, until the 19th century suffragettes, but that might not be completely true. There is a long history of women in roles of leadership, a history that has been steadily erased even as it was being written.

More and more people are asking me about the Gospel of Mary. There’s a great book on the subject, also called “The Gospel of Mary” by Karen King, Prof. of Divinity at Havard.

One of the key things we learn from the Gospel of Mary – which is part of what we call the gnostic gospels – is that her listeners accepted Mary in a leadership role. We hear Peter being jealous that Jesus favored her, but it was not strange to her listeners that a woman was teaching them. This is not the picture we usually have of Christianity, even in the early days.

 

There’s a lot of talk these days that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Is it true? Why does it matter?

You know, that’s the question that my readers ask me more than any other. I was just discussing that with a women’s book group up in Connecticut.

From a historian’s perspective the answer is – it’s very likely that Jesus was married. Jesus was a Hebrew man, and Hebrew men were all supposed to be married. There were rules about this. If Jesus had not been married, it would have been noted.

From a storyteller’s perspective, the Bible tells us that Mary Magdalene was always close by – so she’s the obvious one he would have been married to.

Either way, it is a fascinating exploration – what might that marriage have been made of, and what role would it play in making this what is often called, the greatest story ever told?  Would we will still be talking about Mary and Jesus two thousand years later if they had not met?

 

But wasn’t Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

Funny thing, in the Bible, people call each other ‘harlot’ left and right. The prophet Hosea even called the nation of Israel a harlot, for worshipping different gods alongside the Lord Yahweh.

 But Mary Magdalene was never called a prostitute, anywhere in the Bible. You’ve heard of old wives tales –  well, that’s an old Pope’s tale [Pope Gregory from the 6th century], and even the Vatican refuted the claim in the late 60s.

 

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Piecing that together is a bit like doing an FBI profile – you get a handful of facts and you have to figure out what they mean. In the Bible, the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, tells us that Mary Magdalene and other women walked with Jesus and the disciples, and supported them financially with their own money. The Bible tells us that one of these women even had a husband who was the governor’s right-hand man.

So right from that, you can tell there was a class of women in 1st century Israel who were powerful and independent. No one comments on the fact they were there. In the gospel, they comment on every broken rule.  Later in the Gospel of Luke, for example, Jesus gets called to task for healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath, because you weren’t suppose to do that on the Sabbath. This was a society that lived with very strict rules for social conduct.  So who were these socially accepted independent wealthy women?

Well, in the Old Testament, there are all these stories about priestesses, that is, female priests, who held positions of power in the great Temple of Jerusalem – that was the seat of both the religious and political power in Israel.  Priestesses being consulted by kings on what course of action to take, and priestesses trying to block major political actions.

Throughout Antiquity, all religions had both priests and priestesses, to reflect the natural order of life. So, to sum it all up – I think there is good evidence that Mary Magdalene was one of these priestesses.

 

What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?

Well for one, odd little factoid:  the Romans didn’t use soap. You always hear about how amazing the Roman baths were, and it’s true – great innovations in indoor plumbing. But they didn’t have soap.

But most of all, when it comes to Israel itself, I was really shocked to find out how brutal life was for ordinary people under the Roman Empire. I had always pictured 1st century Israel as this peaceful countryside, with old shepherds sitting on the hillside with gentle sheep and little birds flitting around.

In fact, people lived their lives in fear.  This was an occupied country under military rule. Even at home, at any minute, Roman soldiers could breakdown the door and take whatever they wanted – food, livestock, even their families to sell as slaves. There was no protection and no predictability.

The other big surprise – as much as I did learn, spending weeks and months in specialized libraries, reading journal articles that are only available on microfilm, I was really taken aback by how little information we have about life in 1st century Israel.

There’s really only Josephus Flavius, the great historian. Josephus was a Hebrew man, born in Jerusalem around 30 CE, who wrote a history of his people and his own life. His is the only known eye-witness account of life at that time. With only one perspective, there is no way to corroborate or disprove it. There’s a fascinating book, “Galilee,” by Richard Horsley, Prof. of Religion at U. of Mass., which takes Flavius’s works and shows all the holes in the history of Galilee and Israel, and shows us how many assumptions we’ve made about that time.

 

You visited Israel while you were writing “Magdala” – did your time there change what you were writing or influence it in any way?

In Israel, I walked where my characters walked, I drank the water they drank, I ate the same foods, I inhaled the amazing fragrance that just rises up out of the earth.

Most of all I experienced that pounding merciless sun. I never understood the importance of shade until I went to Israel.

All these, the food and water and the perfume and the sun, were woven in to “Magdala.”

 

Your writing is very visual – any thoughts on turning Magdala into a movie?

Yes, actually I have had several screenwriters approach me already. I’m very excited about that.

 

What is the “sacred reunion” referred to in the quote on the cover of your book?

 That’s the question – it goes right to the heart of the matter.

 For two thousand years, we have been considering the story of Jesus, as a perfect being who needs no one and who has all the answers all on his own.  That’s kind of lonely, no?

Telling the story of Mary and Jesus being married, this is the sacred re-union.

For some, saying this is sacreligious.  Okay.  But for others, for people like me, it is not helpful to be guided by someone who never failed.  I need guides and role models who learned to be magnificent – those are footsteps I can follow in. 

The whole concept of “sacred reunion” is beautifully explained by Margaret Starbird, who wrote “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.” By the way, a lot of “The Da Vinci Code” was based on her book.

 

On your website you refer to “the feminine face of God” – what does that mean?

Throughout history we have always worshipped some form of Goddess – in 25,000 year-old-digs they find Goddess figures everywhere. In the more recent past people worshipped Isis and Ishtar and Venus – and now there is Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, who is worshipped across the globe with great devotion. There has always been the pull to worship a deity in feminine form.

I believe this is our nature. It cannot be suppressed, only repressed. And the time of repression is over.