Mary, Called Magdalene

Written by Margaret George
Review by James Hawking

Those looking for New Testament sexuality will be disappointed in this book, as it follows the tradition of the Eastern Church, which recognizes Mary Magdalene as a wise woman who was among the earliest disciples of Jesus and after His death an apostle in her own right, the recognized leader of the early Church in Ephesus. To emphasize that this Mary is not the prostitute, nor the woman who lavished unguents at the feet of Jesus on Maundy Thursday, those characters are clearly distinguished from our heroine.

The book begins by portraying Mary as a young Jewish girl who has preserved an ancient idol, presumably to the goddess who ruled the parts before. Mary’s father is in the fish trade, described so vividly that one can almost smell the rotting garum. When she appears to be possessed by demons, her husband and family reject her, but a wandering preacher from Nazareth drives them out. She joins a band that contains fishermen, a publican, a rebellious Zealot and eventually all of the others whom the Church has come to regard as apostles.

George presents an implicit argument for women in the clergy, challenging the patriarchal contention that only men can be priests because that is the way it was at the time of the apostles. As in the Gospel of John, Magdalene is the first to see the risen Christ, a logical occurrence given that she was the disciple most gifted with supernatural visions. The last part of the book portrays her role in the early Church, including such controversies as the primacy of Peter and the necessity of circumcision before conversion. The novel’s feminist message does not interfere with an absorbing story with well-realized Biblical characters.