This summer I was at someone's house and when he heard of my interest in the Bible, he asked me what I thought about Mary Magdalene and he got out the Da Vinci Code and asked me to take a look at it. I had never read it before, and so I read two pages and those two pages contained so many historical inaccuracies and half-truths that I was really stunned, and I told him that the book does not appear to be very reliable, at least as far as the history of the early Church was concerned.
When we look at the canonical Gospel narratives, it is true that Mary is never presented as a prostitute. This view results from conflating the different female personalities in the Gospels with Mary, particularly the adulterous woman mentioned in the pericope in John 7:53-8:11. This pericope however is not original to John and most Bibles have it offset from the rest of the text to suggest its dubiousness. There is also an interesting story behind this narrative. The long version of the story in this interpolation to John is itself a conflation of two earlier, shorter stories of the incident that circulated in the first two centuries of the church. These stories about a woman "with many sins" is attested in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Didascalia Apostolorum, the text of the Codex Bezae, and by Papias (tho his work is now lost), and these sources show that the accusation of adultery was not explicit earlier on. In none of these stories however was this repentent woman identified with Mary Magdalene.
The earliest mainstream Christian traditions about Mary show her as greatly devoted to Jesus....she was one of the few there with Jesus at the cross (when all the other male apostles fled in fear) and she was honored with being one of the first witnesses of the risen Christ and being the discoverer of the Empty Tomb (Mk. 15:40, 16:1-8; Mt. 28:1-10). This is the first hint of division between the Eastern synoptic tradition and that of Pauline Christianity. Paul nowhere mentions Mary and he made Peter the one who first saw the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:5). Paul's tradition is one that gives Peter precedence over Mary. But many in the mainstream church also continued to view Mary in high esteem. The late II. cent. writer Hippolytus tells a post-resurrection story in which the risen Christ makes a special appearance to the male disciples to tell them they are to accept and revere the women's witness to the resurrection: "Truly it is I who appeared to the women and who desired to send them to you as apostles." Thus Hippolytus calls Mary "the apostle to the apostles." The status of Mary as an apostle is suggested by the mention of other female apostles in early Christian writings, such as of Junia (Rom. 16:7). However the male-centered Church of the II. cent. downplayed Mary's status, encouraged her misidentification as a prostitute, and downplayed the significance of women in general.
The catholic Church drew mostly on the Pauline, Petrine, and Johannine traditions in Gentile Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The churches in these areas mostly appealed to the authority of Peter, Paul, and John. Thus, the importance of Peter as the first to see the risen Christ. Christians living in Syria, Judea, and Egypt drew from a very different sort of traditions. The synoptic Gospel tradition, which probably originated in Syria (Antioch specifically), gave Mary the honor of first seeing Jesus and discovering the empty tomb. In these areas, Mary, Thomas, and James the Just (Jesus' brother, and leader of the Jerusalem church) were viewed as the authoritative figures, while Peter was explicitly not. The Gospel of Thomas originated in Syria, and has some very telling things to say about Peter, Mary, Thomas, and James the Just. There is, for instance, the story of Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. In the synoptics (Mark 8:27-30, Mt. 16:13-20, Lk. 9:18-22), Peter alone has the right answer in confessing Jesus as the Christ. In the Mt. version, Jesus in fact blesses Peter, tells him he is the rock he will build his church, and says "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." But in the Gospel of Thomas version of the story (GThom 13), Peter has the WRONG answer and he merely says to Jesus: "You are like a righteous angel." Instead, it is Thomas who got the right answer and was given special privilege by Jesus to know some secret wisdom. In another verse, James the Just and not Peter is given as the leader of the Church: "The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?' Jesus said to them, 'Where ever you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.' " (GThom 12). Unlike the Gentile church where Peter was viewed as the authoritative leader, in the Jewish-Christian church of Syria and Judea, James the Just was viewed as the "leader". As for Mary, she is viewed on par with the other disciples. She asks Jesus questions like the other apostles (GThom 21) and Jesus rejects Peter's sexist charge to make Mary leave them: "Simon Peter said to them: 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said: 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.' " (GThom 114). This again shows that in the East, Peter was the one who was believed to be out of line.
The gnostic Gospel of Mary, which circulated along with GThom in the Egyptian Church, makes this acrimony between Peter and Mary very explicit -- with Peter rejecting Mary's authority and revelation from Jesus, and himself misunderstanding the meaning of Jesus' words. There is a very political aim to this. This was a means for the Egyptian gnostic church to assert their own special authority and to invalidate the claims of the mainstream catholic Church. And it isn't just Mary who was specially revered in the East as well. Salome appears quite conspicuously as another prominent female in Jesus' ministry. In the canonical gospels, Salome is only mentioned twice -- as a close associate of Mary, a witness of the crucifixion and the risen Christ. But in the Eastern tradition she is a significant figure in the gospel traditions. In the Gospel of Thomas, Salome has a conversation with Jesus about who he really is (GThom 61). In the Gospel according to the Egyptians, as cited by Clement of Alexandria, Salome has several conversations with Jesus:
"When Salome asked, 'How long will death maintain its power?' the Lord said, 'As long as you women bear children.' Then Salome said, 'I have done well then in not bearing children.' Wherefore the Lord answered, 'Eat every plant, but that which has bitterness eat not.' " (GEgy 1, 4)
"When Salome asked when what she had inquired about would be known, the Lord said, 'When you have trampled on the garment of shame and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male or female.' " (GEgy 5)
This last statement is reminiscent of what Jesus said in the GThom about Mary Magdalene, and it is also quoted in the mainstream church in the mid-II. cent. tract of 2 Clem. 5:1 of something that "the Lord himself said when asked by a certain person when his kingdom should come." And Salome appears again enigmatically in the Secret Gospel of Mark, quoted in a letter by Clement of Alexandria (early III. cent.): "And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them" (SecMk. 10:46). Again this is another gospel used in Egypt, but of central importance because our own canonical Gospel of Mark is most likely an abridged version of Secret Mark (the original version of Mark was used by the authors of Mt. and Lk. and many of the things they omit from our canonical Mk. are found right in Secret Mark). The Pistis Sophia is another early Gnostic document that centers on Mary and Salome. All this shows that in the East (Syria, Judea, Egypt), Mary and Salome were important figures in the tradition while in the West Gentile churches, these women were downplayed. Luke's Acts of the Apostles, for instance, does not mention Mary Magdalene at all, despite her importance as the first witness of the risen Christ. The catholic Church of the II. cent. thus tried to downplay Mary's role and authority to some extent, while the "heretical" Eastern churches in Syria and Egypt seized upon her special status and used that to undermine the mainstream church's claim to authority through Peter and the male apostles.
The big question tho is: Did Mary actually have a relationship with Jesus? That is clearly implied in the gnostic Gospel of Mary....but it is not clear whether this tradition is historical or not. Another interesting fact is Hippolytus' designation of Mary as the New Eve. This makes her the counterpart of Jesus as the New Adam. And what is more tantalizing is that his discussion of Mary Magdalene is in the context of a commentary on the Song of Solomon, a very decidedly "romantic" text. So is this a view of Mary Magdalene as the romantic counterpart of Jesus expressed within even the mainstream II.-cent. catholic Church, or was Hippolytus merely making a figurative comparison without literally meaning that Jesus and Mary had a relationship? I don't think it is possible to answer this question, with the evidence at hand. It is too slight. It is not until we get to medieval French tradition which conflates Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany that we find Mary as the married wife of Jesus with children....but that is far, far too late to be of any historical value.
Leolaia (sorry for the long post!!)