The Case for a Woman Pope: Mary Magdalene by Frank Shapiro

Frank shapiro picThere’s a lot of hullabaloo these days about belief in God, atheism, separation of religion and state. However, like it or not, Western civilization is a Christian one.

Ever since the Roman Empire officially became Christian in the 4th century Christianity has formed an integral part of the Greco-Roman culture, forging the West’s crystallization.

And within this religious-political-cultural matrix, women have been striving for equality of power in virtually every field. Most of the time men had the upper hand.

Yet in Christianity’s early maturation period an egalitarian approach to the gender issue was the accepted norm. Following a good start in gender power sharing in the Early Christian Church, this enlightened approach gradually changed for the worse. In the early 6th century women found themselves stigmatized and demoted from almost all the major roles in church service and liturgy.

So what went wrong?

It seems that it’s the usual story: it all came down to politics and the clash of personalities.

The story begins in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion when Peter emerged to be Christ’s inheritor and leader of the persecuted Christian sect. Later, the New Testament makers officially sealed his election by sanctifying it with the magical formula “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church…” Was this really the case?

But why was Peter nominated when a certain woman’s popularity and intimacy with Jesus overshadowed Peter’s importance and superiority in the chain of authority. This woman was Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus were far more closely associated than described in the New Testament. They shared a definite intimacy, which aroused jealousy among some of the other Apostles.

Then Andrew began to speak, and said to his brothers:
‘Tell me, what do you think of these things she has been telling us?
As for me, I do not believe
that the Teacher would speak like this.
These ideas are too different from those we have known.’
And Peter added:
‘How is it possible that the Teacher talked
in this manner, with a woman,
about the secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant?
Must we change our customs,
and listen to this woman?
Did he really choose her, and prefer her to us?

(Gospel of Mary 17:9–20)

And as for heroics, Mary was certainly far more valiant than Peter, who had denied Christ three times. When Christ’s many followers panicked and abandoned him from the moment of his capture by the Romans and up to his crucifixion, only Mary Magdalene stayed at his side. During his ordeal on the cross it was Mary Magdalene who had the courage to stay with him up to his last moments. Mary Magdalene’s fortitude never weakened: she stayed put throughout his agonies, while the other apostles fled. Fear of the authorities seems to have overclouded their belief and ideals. Mary Magdalene remained weeping at the foot of the cross during Christ’s Agony, and after his death it was she who had his body taken down and laid in the tomb prepared by Joseph of Arimathea.

Mary’s sincerity and attachment to Jesus knew no bounds. At dawn she went to his tomb together with Mary Salome and Mary the mother, bringing with them sweet spices to anoint his body. And it was then that Mary discovered that the tomb was empty. Soon afterwards, Mary witnessed the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection: “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Mark 16:9). And this is the event that led to her eternal fame.

Following Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the third day after his execution, she was referred to as the ‘Apostle of the Apostles,’ for she was the one to bring the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.

It is doubtful whether the disciples would have had the courage to continue advancing the cause of Christianity without Mary, for on returning to the disciples following her traumatic encounter with the resurrected Christ, she finds them brooding and in low-spirits: “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If even he was not spared, how shall we be spared?” (Gospel of Mary p.9:8-9). In the face of their despair, Mary virtually takes over the leadership of the dispirited band and encourages and urges them to have faith: “Let us rather praise his greatness, for he prepared us and made us into men” (Gospel of Mary p.9:16-17).

It was Mary’s feminine magic that empowered Christianity with the tools to persevere. At that moment in time, in the wake of Christ’s death, Christianity sank to its lowest point; at this nadir it would either have vanished or become just another marginal Jewish sect. It was due to a number of important personalities that Christianity did survive and eventually triumph. And chief among these personages was Mary Magdalene.

In her role as Apostle of the Apostles, could Mary Magdalene have superseded the Petrus Apostle dynasty of Popes – and – dare I say it – initiated a reign of women Popes?


Born in London, Frank Shapiro holds an MA in history from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a BA in history and education. He is the author of the following books: Haven in Africa (Jerusalem/New York): Gefen Publishing House, 2002. Zion in Africa (London/New York) Tauris Publications, 1999. God’s Elect (Pegasus Press) Cambridge 2009. His latest book is “Eve and Mary: the Search for Lost Beauty and Sensuality” (John Hunt) is fresh off the press. Frank Shapiro lives in Israel with his wife and family.


Categories: Bible, Christianity, General, Jesus, Scripture, Sexism, Women in the Church

Tags: , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Thank you for this important reminder of the role of women in the early church. As an Anglican, I am often saddened by how women’s roles are ignored or glossed over by the male hierarchy. As a social justice, loving Christian, with friends of all beliefs and none, I reflect that the church has followed the teachings of St Paul rather than Jesus, or Mary Magdalene. But change it from the inside we must,and I have hopes that women bishops will be approved on 14th July – the French Independence Day :)

    Religious women have more courage, in the main, and are less concerned with fitting in; this is a great blessing and we quietly get on with being kind and doing kind things, rather than shouting about it. We do need to do more of the latter, I think. Blessings.


  2. “So what went wrong?” I strongly disagree that “it all came down to politics and the clash of personalities.” The Gospel story of Jesus mirrors the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and which likewise worshiped a mother-daughter (Demeter and Persephone) bond, identical to the Father and Son teaching of the Gospels, and also tells the same salvation story of death and resurrection in accordance with the seasons, that is, spring or Easter’s rebirth. Religion is taught at its best in the home, where the child first learns to identify a divine dimension of existence, that is, in the sense that we are all, here and now, both body and spirit.

    The name Demeter means literally “God the Mother” and the name of her daughter, Persephone, means literally “Great Wisdom” (Περ=great + σοφός=wisdom) — or sometimes translated as “Ineffable Teaching.” Replacing the Eleusinian Mysteries with an all-male godhead destroyed the mother’s ability to teach the child from her heart. She now had to impart an oppressive patriarchal concept, that would eventually distance the children (especially the boys) from the sanctity of her own motherhood.


  3. Wonderful presentation of the compelling case for a woman pope. There is no doubt that I would have made a better successor for head of the church than Rocky, except….The church is a fill-in-the-blank institution, but as my latter day pal Mae West put it, I’m not ready for an institution. If there must be an institutional church with a papacy, I cast my vote for my dear friend Mary of Bethany whom many people conflate with me. For more about my role in the early church see Bright Dark Madonna, the third novel of The Maeve Chronicles, featuring me (Maeve) as a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple! Your combrogo, Maeve


  4. I highly recommend Elizabeth’s Maeve series. It boggles the mind to contemplate how different the world would be with female equality in the world’s churches. Is it too late to even try women in power???


  5. I agree with the author. The early Gnostic’s believed strongly in the equality of men and women in proselytizing. Yet, somehow this became lost as Christianity grew. I think its a return to basics by giving women a role of power within the church.


  6. When Mary was told by the risen lord to go and tell the good news to the apostles, she was the only person who knew that Jesus had risen. For those 15 or 20 minutes, as she journeyed to the upper room, Mary WAS the church. As she told the apostles and they told others, the church grew, but it all started with her.


  7. I don’t believe that Jesus came to start a church. I believe his purpose was to make people aware that they were loved by an Infinite Being. He also was kind, compassionate and inclusive. He was a Jew. He wanted, I think, to teach people to love one another. He wanted to change the world by having people realize that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper in the way we respect each other in goo times or in bad. His message was very simple: “Love one as I have loved you.” In today’s world this is a great challenge as it was in his world.


  8. I think Mary as the first pope is very likely. I think she had a considerable amount of power in the early church, which was why she was written out and villianized as a prostitute. I’ve also made the case for Pope Martha. She made the same confession of faith in John that Peter made in Matthew. I also think she had considerable power in the early church, which is why Luke did everything he could to marginalize and discredit her in his gospel. The early church’s survival depended on women like Martha opening their homes and offering hospitality. I don’t think the early church would have made it out of its infancy without the leadership of women like Mary Magdalene and Martha of Bethany.


  9. While the article is glib – “here, here and a Bravo”! Although I agree that Jesus did not come to create a church – because it is clear he was reminding Hebrews of the original values & purpose of Judaism, not preaching a “new” religion to gentiles – I do agree that had Magdalene, Martha, the Sybils, etc. been “in charge” or at least equitable and equal, the Christian situation and the patriarchy of Europe (the West) would have a much different conclusion; no holocaust against women, ethnicities or religion, no children sent off to war to steal, rape and murder or denial of religious freedom. And yes, women and men would relate to their children and being, on a much deeper level. It hurts my heart and mind to ponder the difference it would have made for humanity. But, having stated this, if Catholic women wish to gather some power and place for themselves, as do Buddhists and Islamists, etc. there needs to be a “case made for women”; a starting place. This article presents a valuable acknowledgement of that “place”.


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