COMMENTARY: Chasing Mary Magdalene

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Just when the world thought Mary Magdalene was fully explained in Dan Brown’s far-fetched book “The Da Vinci Code,” she’s been dug up again, this time in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood by the Discovery Channel. They say 10 ossuaries (small limestone caskets) found in 1980 belonged to Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their supposed kin, both named and not named.

There was a BBC documentary about all this in 1996, but here we go again. The folks who are pressing these tales might try to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn soon. That is how questionable their “research” is.

Millions of folks tuned in to the so-called documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and learned a little about archaeology and a lot about how the Discovery Channel makes money. A lot of money.

The “Tomb” show has little to do with reality. It claims to be “historical and realistic” _ the new anti-religious code words _ in investigating the tomb’s “discovery.” The filmmakers were thrown out as soon as the authorities found their robotic cameras snooping about the burial site without permission.

The Israel Antiquities Authority cataloged the Jerusalem tomb of a middle-class first-century family 27 years ago, and scholars declared the ossuary names were coincidental. They said the tomb was not that of visiting Galileans in town for the high holy days, whose relative, Jesus, was brutally tortured and killed.

In many respects, the show hinges on Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, here put forth as Jesus’ wife. She was indeed a major player. Even Pope Benedict XVI calls her the “apostle to the apostles.” But bad history once combined three Gospel Marys: Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; the unnamed penitent woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus’ feet; and Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection. That may help explain why Mary Magdalene is already buried in at least three other places _ two in the South of France and one in modern-day Turkey _ and assuredly not in Jerusalem.

Mary Magdalene’s supposed relics rest in two French churches. Those in the former Benedictine abbey church of Vezelay, in Burgundy, date to the ninth century. However, in 1279, Mary Magdalene’s bones were found again at St. Maximin de Provence on the Cote d’Azur. The Dominican church there holds a reliquary with her _ or somebody’s _ skull. One French legend has Mary going to Marseilles after Jesus’ death, supposedly traveling with Lazarus and some companions who eventually converted the whole of Provence. But that would make her more likely Mary of Bethany. Others say her relics came to France from Turkey centuries later.

The Byzantine tradition says Mary Magdalene went to the commercial city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved apostle. John wrote most of his gospel there, and it is said Mary Magdalene helped. They died at Ephesus toward the end of the first century.

Did they really go there? In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian built a basilica over St. John’s tomb in Selcuk, near Ephesus. Not far away, the less-documented final abode of Jesus’ mother, called the House of Meryemana _ Turkish for “Mother Mary” _ remains a place of pilgrimage. Mary Magdalene’s relics were transferred from Ephesus to Constantinople in 899, but some argue they were brought to France in 745.

If you’ve lost track of whose bones are where by now, that is precisely the point. Legend blends with history because these people were neither powerful nor rich. Jesus’ followers most probably got out of town as quickly as they could. But they were not Blackberry-wielding corporate types jetting around the Mediterranean from one beach to another. They were poor, simple outsiders, who left Jerusalem to write and tell of what they had seen and heard.

In other words, they had more important things to do than erecting elaborate tombs for themselves, in Jerusalem or elsewhere.

Did Mary Magdalene repair to the South of France after Jesus’ death? Doubtful. Did she go to Turkey? Could be. Was she, in fact, the wife of Jesus? Hardly. The definitive answers are shrouded by the dark curtain of the ages. But no matter where Mary Magdalene and the others went after the Crucifixion, it is not likely they had a relatively fancy family tomb back in Jerusalem.

(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic studies.)


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