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.