Woman Apostle

Book cover
Mary Magdaleneby By Bruce ChiltonDoubleday. 240p $23.95

Everything about this book is elegant. Embossed printing on the book jacket fits exquisitely the beautiful rendering of a medieval painting of a youthful, bejeweled Mary Magdalene. Equally appealing is the typeset and book design. Instead of footnote numbers cluttering the text, scholarly notes appear at the end by page number and referenced phrases in bold print. Most impressive of all is how Bruce Chilton weaves, from fragmentary information given in the Gospels, a nearly seamless story of Mary Magdalene’s life and contribution to Christian faith.

Neverthless, the bookfor all its eleganceis problematic. Chilton, a well-known biblical scholar and Episcopal priest, opens his biography of the Magdalene with the description of Luke 9:2-3: And there were some women who had been healed from evil spirits and ailmentsMary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, Khuza’s wife (Herod’s commissioner), and Susanna and many others who provided for [Jesus and his disciples] from their belongings. Forthwith Chilton introduces Mary, in her 20’s and slightly older than Jesus, plagued by demons, walking the ten hard miles from her home in Magdala to Capernaum to seek his help in the year 27 C. E. It will take, according to Chilton’s estimation, nearly a year for Jesus to cure her.

Focusing on Mary as possessed (Chapter 1) is the first of three major interpretive moves by Chilton. Without Luke’s text, Chilton would not have a bookso important a role does it play in his biography. It is her personal experience of first being possessed by seven demons and then released from them by Jesus over a long period that leads to Chilton’s second turn: The Magdalene Source within the Synoptic Gospels (Appendix). Chilton identifies Mary as the disciple of Jesus most likely to have preserved the exorcism stories that appear in Mark 1:21-28; 5:1-13; 5:25-34; 7:24-30; 8:22-26; 9:14-29. These exorcism stories comprise his Magdalene source, together with three additional texts: the anointing woman of 14:3-9; the naming of Mary among the women who perceived Jesus’ death and burial in 15:40-47; and again among the women who went to the tomb in 16:1-8.

Chilton’s third interpretive move is to argue that the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in Mark 14:3-9 is actually Mary Magdalene. Drawing deftly from this cache of additional material, Chilton is able to expand considerably upon the paucity of information about Mary Magdalene given in 15:40-47 and 16:1-8. He relies as well on his earlier biographies of Jesus and Paul for specific dates in fashioning A Chronology for Mary Magdalene and for the portrait of Jesus that appears within the Magdalene story (see Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (Doubleday, 2000) and Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (Doubleday, 2004).

By book’s end, Chilton has given to the Magdalene her sacramental biography, which the church sought to suppress and the scriptural texts to exclude. But instead, this attempted exclusion opened wide the doors of legend, revision, and uncertainty [while] her sacraments nonetheless focus the ritual power that Mary Magdalene unleashed during Jesus’ life and at his death. In the wordless struggle of exorcism, the silence of anointing, the rapt attention of vision, Mary conveyed the truth of Spirit to those who followed her disciples, whatever their backgrounds may have been, and she has not ceased to find disciples.

Chilton is an eloquent, erudite, insightful and pastorally sensitive biblical scholar. He has produced a profoundly affecting biography of Mary Magdalene. His familiarity with the large corpus of Magdalene studies is evident on every page. He makes common cause with feminist exegesis of Mary of Magdala while here cheering, there chiding various feminist views. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book Chilton writes, No subject I can remember studying has brought me as much encouragement as that of Mary Magdalene.

None of Chilton’s interpretive moves, however, is likely to attract much scholarly support. For example, the description of Mary Magdalene as demon-possessed and cured by Jesus is an addition by Luke to the Gospel tradition and must be assessed accordinglynot primarily as the lead text in a hypothetical Magdalene source. A deeper question is Chilton’s use of biography to make Gospel research more appealing to readersfirst Jesus; then Paul; now Mary Magdalene. More than ever, in the face of growing fundamentalisms, Christians need to honor their Sacred Scriptures by hearing them as ancient texts. One can only hope this book helps.

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