Christopher Smith takes issue with Melvyn Bragg, who turns out to be a disciple of Dan Brown
Poor Mary Magdalene has been much dragged before the general public in recent years to sell books, films and documentaries. If the tradition is true that she was the woman taken in adultery about whom we read in John 8, her humiliation should have ended as soon as Jesus said ‘Neither do I condemn you’. Yet the latest enormity to be inflicted upon her and indeed the rest of us has come in the form of a programme made for the BBC by someone I have hitherto rather admired: Lord Bragg.
I have long been a devotee of his Thursday morning intellectual bulimy on Radio 4, and had assumed that he was a churchgoing Anglican of the once-every-couple-of-months variety. But now I discover that he doesn’t actually believe in God, and I fear that he isn’t very bright either, since he has been suckered into the nonsense that the secularist world wants to push about St Mary Magdalene and her relationship with the Lord. The BBC, of course, is more than happy to oblige, and the only religious programme on any of the four BBC TV channels on Good Friday was his documentary, The Mystery of Mary Magdalene.
It needs to be said directly that if Jesus had been married, to Mary Magdalene or to anyone, it would be clear from the New Testament. It would have been well-known, and unremark able. The ‘evidence’ for the nonsense comes in only one place, one of the Gnostic gospels, found in a single manuscript dating from around AD 350. Gnostics, you may remember, were people who believed they had a secret knowledge about God, and came up with extraordinarily complicated systems about God and the universe, influenced by pagan Greek culture, and holding that the material world was not created by God but by a ‘demiurge’, and was intrinsically bad.
It is not even as if these Gnostic texts are new discoveries: the Coptic text of the Gospel of Philip (presumably translated from a second-century Greek original) was among a collection of papyrus codices found at Nag Hammadi in the mid-Forties. They are accessible in English in a book by Bentley Layton that I have had on my shelf for a quarter of a century, yet again and again this is presented as ‘new’ ‘evidence’.
‘Philip’ is a collection of random verses with no narrative, from a Valentinian school of thought, and much of it is absolute tosh, such as the verse that begins ‘God is a cannibal’, and the one about androgyny as protection against unclean spirits. It is just the sort of stuff that the secularists
would dismiss as nonsensical or indeed sinister if it were part of the main canon of Scripture. But two verses make reference to a relationship between Jesus and St Mary Magdalene: one claims that the three Marys were his mother, his sister and his ‘companion’ (koinōnos), and the other contains a sentence which uses several missing or unclear words, but a tentative reconstruction might be, ‘he [loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and kissed her on the [lips? mouth? cheek?] more often than the rest…’. There you go. On that barely reconstructable sentence, in a fragment of heretical writing dating from long after the death of the Lord, hangs Lord Bragg’s case for a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
But actually, of course, there is something far more radical going on here for Mary. She, not the prince of the apostles, is the first to the tomb, and it is her evidence that brings the others there, radical in itself, as has often been pointed out. In her sequence of plays called The Man Born to be King, Dorothy L. Sayers suggests that, after Jesus’ body has been taken down from the cross, the women have, as it were, taken consolation in busyness, and so come into their own, while the men are, as she puts it, ‘lethargic, because they have come to a dead end.’ On the way to the tomb, she has Mary Magdalene say, ‘So long as one can do something, it keeps one from thinking. At least we shall see our Master’s face again and kiss his feet for the last time, and remember, when we are desolate, that our love was with him to the end.’ Perhaps Lord Bragg’s problem is that he cannot imagine love without sex.
And then Mary notices the tomb, and she notices that the stone has been rolled away, and becomes disorientated and fretful as a consequence. She runs ahead; she sees that the body has gone; she runs in tears to find Peter and John.
And yet, of course, Mary’s privilege will be more profound still, and this is what gives the lie to Lord Bragg’s claim that she has been ‘airbrushed out of history’. For it is her privilege to be the first human person to meet the Lord in his resurrection body. This encounter is the most profound gift to Mary, and to the Church.
After the others have gone, there remains St Mary Magdalene, not running now, but weeping: weeping for the Lord whom she has loved, loved because he told her that he did not condemn her, loved because his forgiveness has brought her the peace she had never before known. And in their almost comic encounter, having established that he is not the gardener but the Lord himself, she goes, entirely becalmed, to tell the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’. And if we find her story moving, then so we should. And if we pray for something of her love for Jesus, then we are right to do so. There is no need to turn Mary into something she is not: her place in the story of our salvation is assured. To impose a new narrative on the flimsiest of evidence is not only heretical – it is quite unnecessary. ND