Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Nearly 2,000 years ago, according to the Gospels, Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection—and she has captivated the popular imagination ever since. The life of this enigmatic follower of Christ is at the heart of the mystery in The Da Vinci Code, now a worldwide movie hit. Below, experts explain what’s fact, what’s myth and what remains unknown about the real Mary.

1 Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene man and wife?

“Lots of things are possible,” says Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge of The Da Vinci Code‘s central purported revelation. “[But] we have no evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married—apart from Dan Brown saying so.” The New Testament says little about Mary other than that she joined Jesus’ group as he was preaching in Galilee (her hometown, Magdala, was in what is now Israel) and that she had once been possessed by demons. Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and co-author of The Da Vinci Code Fact or Fiction, argues that a dying Jesus would have had someone look after his wife. “On the cross, he asked his disciple John to take care of Mary, his mother, but makes no provision for Mary Magdalene.”

2 Did Jesus and Mary have children together?

Most scholars see no reason to think so. “There is not a spark of evidence that they ever had children,” says Maier. And many academics believe Jesus likely embraced voluntary celibacy. As for Code’s claim that the Holy Grail was not a chalice but the secret that Mary Magdalene bore Jesus’ descendants, Attridge calls the notion, based on the similarity of the French words for “holy blood” and “holy grail,” a modern “bad pun.” Indeed, the Priory of Sion, the supposed guardians of this secret, has been exposed as a 1950s-era hoax. “Traditionally, the Holy Grail was the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper,” says Maier. “Everyone agrees on that.”

3 Was Mary a prostitute?

No. The myth started after Pope Gregory the Great referred to her as a sinful woman during a sermon in 591. “In his imagination, she was a composite of several [different] women,” says New Testament scholar and Union Theological Seminary professor Hal Taussig. While most scholars agree that Gregory erred, whether he did so to undermine the power of women in the Church, as Code suggests, or simply to offer a model of a repentant sinner is open to debate.

4 What happened to Mary after Christ’s death?

“Every assertion about what Mary Magdalene did after the death of Jesus is pure speculation,” says Taussig. Though a popular 13th-century legend had her fleeing the Holy Land for France, she could also have remained in Galilee as a religious leader. Suggests Taussig: “It’s likely she was an ambassador for the movement she founded with Jesus.”

5 How does Christianity view her now?

To Catholics (and some other Christian denominations), Mary Magdalene is a saint, and in 1969 the Church retracted Pope Gregory’s erroneous claims. Magdalene supporters who see her as a feminist leader in a church dominated by the male priesthood are lobbying to raise her profile and erase the damage done to her legacy throughout history. Says Maier: “She’s gotten a bum rap.”

6 Did Leonardo da Vinci depict Mary, not the apostle John, sitting beside Jesus in The Last Supper?

The Da Vinci Code’s “claim is absurd,” says Martin Kemp, an Oxford University art historian. John was usually portrayed as young and attractive, and “Leonardo’s young men are always androgenous.” Anthony Crichton-Stuart, head of the Old Master Painting department at Christie’s, adds that centuries of damage to the painting encourage “that element of doubt … but the whole idea is complete garbage.”

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