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Why must the media talk piffle about Mary Magdalene?

The BBC’s Good Friday programme was tired and intellectually threadbare

By on Monday, 1 April 2013

Mary Magdalene, as depicted by Monica Bellucci in The Passion of the Christ  (CNS)

Mary Magdalene, as depicted by Monica Bellucci in The Passion of the Christ (CNS)

Some think that we ought to protest to the BBC over Melvin’s Bragg’s programme about The Mystery of Mary Magdalene, broadcast on Good Friday. Tiresomely predictable, what Bragg did was to stitch together a mixture of historical fact, Christian belief, tawdry insinuations and Gnostic writings into an hour of what Boris Johnson might have described as “an inverted pyramid of piffle”. You could call it blasphemous to suggest that Jesus, whom Christians believe to be God incarnate, might have had a “relationship” with Mary Magdalene; but this piece of prurient fiction has now been peddled for a few years, not least by the fevered imagination of author Dan Brown, and it strikes me as tired, old and intellectually threadbare – just the kind of programme the BBC would invest in.

Bragg heralded his programme with an article in the Telegraph Review of 23 March, entitled “Bride of Christ or enemy of the Church? Prostitute, apostle, madwoman, saint – throughout history Mary Magdalene has been both condemned and adored. Now a new BBC documentary attempts to set the record straight.” It did nothing of the sort; having invented an historical “narrative” about Mary Magdalene, Bragg proceeded to analyse his spurious portrait. “Piecing together what happened…is not straightforward”, he says; but this is only true if you take the Gnostic Gospels as – well, gospel. Occam’s Razor, the principle that the simplest explanation is often the right one, is obviously not Bragg’s forte.

There has never been the slightest confusion, until people like Dan Brown and Bragg (and there isn’t much difference between their fictions) came along in the 20th century, as to Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Christ. The only confusion is her identity; she has sometimes been mistaken for Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and sometimes as the sinful anonymous woman in St Luke’s Gospel. The notes to my Navarre edition of the New Testament state that the most likely explanation is that there were three distinct women: Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven devils, Mary of Bethany (who did her own loving anointing of her Master’s feet) and the sinful woman – possibly a prostitute – mentioned by St Luke.

As the Navarre edition writes of Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, “This woman, out of whom seven demons were cast, stayed faithful during his passion and even now her love is ardent: Our Lord has freed her from the Evil One and she responded to that grace humbly and generously.” What could be simpler?

Bragg admits that “there is precious little to go one”. But he still has an hour to fill and he gamely does so with the help of several women academics who are keen to promote a feminist interpretation of Mary Magdalene’s role. Why did he not call upon the academic rigour of, e.g. Dom Henry Wansborough OSB, a noted Biblical scholar, to settle the question? The answer is that the “documentary” would have lasted 15 minutes at most. Luckily, with the help of the Dead Sea scrolls ,Bragg can cobble together a conflict between an all-male Church, solidified by the Emperor Constantine, and “female leadership”; it seems that Constantine “sealed the fate of the radical and dissenting voices”, which were then lost in the desert sands for the next 16 centuries.

Stuck for much to say, Bragg even summons up Sir Tim Rice, lyricist for the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. Rice is a disappointment. He admits he did no “research” on Mary Magdalene; “This is just a great character we can use”, he enthused blandly. At the end of his programme Bragg concedes that most of the legendary accounts are “probably untrue.” Throughout the programme he seems very overdressed; rambling round the Holy Land he wears a heavy dark overcoat and dark suit, almost as if he is a mourner at a funeral. In a way he is; a mourner at the funeral of western intelligence, as represented by this BBC documentary.

If Bragg would like to present a real who-done-it as opposed to an invented one, why doesn’t he bring his forensic skills to bear on the Holy Shroud of Turin, a genuine mystery, not a spurious one designed to bolster a deliberately feminist reading of the Gospels. The provenance of the Holy Shroud is not Holy Writ, as are the Gospels, and people are entitled to think what they like about it. The Church is careful to remain neutral, putting it forward as an object of devotion rather than as scientific proof of the Resurrection. A new book about the Shroud has just been published: The Mystery of the Shroud, by Professor Giulio Fanti, which dates it to the time of Christ; thus, not a medieval forgery as had been thought. There is much to investigate here.
My last thought: those who think, like Melvin Bragg, that the Church has somehow airbrushed powerful women “leaders” out of its history, should check out the new website set up by Caroline Farrow called “Catholic Women Rising” about which I blogged recently. It has received 336 supportive comments so far and more are arriving all the time.