THE EASTER STORY is central to the Christian faith. From Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection Christians draw the central tenets of their faith: the remission of sins and the promise of eternal life. In twenty-first century ears, it is received as a supernatural tale: one that takes place outside the “real” world; in what the mid-century television producer, Rod Serling, called the Twilight Zone.
Thanks to the patient work of archaeologists and biblical scholars, however, those who eschew supernatural plot devices, have been given the opportunity to construct a very different narrative.
In the Gospel of Mary, for example (unearthed outside Cairo in 1896) it is made clear that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than any of the other disciples who accompanied him on his travels through Galilee and Judea. This Gospel is but one of a great many “heretical” documents rigorously excluded from the Christian canon in later centuries. In one of these suppressed scrolls, a male disciple even testifies to observing Jesus kissing Mary on her mouth.
Even in the New Testament, Mary plays a critical role. She is, after all, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. And, it is Mary who breathlessly informs the other disciples: “He is risen!”
In Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, the obvious implications of this radically heterodox Christian narrative are explicitly explored. He dares us to ask the obvious question: “Were Jesus and Mary lovers?”
Naturally, that question gives rise to an even more unsettling query: “Did Mary become pregnant by Jesus?”
The American novelist, Dan Brown, became a very wealthy man by answering that question affirmatively in his best-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code. The idea of a sacred lineage, descending from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, also constituted the central theme of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh – from which Brown drew so much inspiration for his novel.
Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh speculated that the mythical “Sangreal” – or Holy Grail – is a corruption of the medieval French sang real – royal blood – the bloodline of Jesus.
According to Arthurian tradition, the Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, in which Mary Magdalene’s friend and benefactor, Joseph of Arimathea, later collected Jesus's blood after his body was taken down from the cross. For Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh, however, the Holy Grail was also Mary’s metaphorical womb.
By following this heretical line of reasoning, the Resurrection itself takes on a very different aspect. Rather than Jesus reanimating in an earth-shaking surge of divine energy, he lives on, as do all parents, in the bodies and minds of his children: the inheritors not only of his genes, but his inspired insights into the meaning of human existence.
Indeed, this would appear to constitute the essence of the Gospel of Mary. That the teachings of the Christ are not to be read as a promise of victory over Death; but as an invitation to explore ever more fearlessly the manifold mysteries of Life.
Heresy? Of course. Blasphemy? Perhaps. But just consider what might have happened to the Christian religion if the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene had not been suppressed. (And Mary shrewdly identified by the misogynistic Church fathers with the wanton woman taken in adultery. John 8: 1-11) Christianity may well have anticipated the split that still divides Islam. On the one hand, the Sunni: who believe that religious leadership is best bestowed upon those who faithfully reflect the Prophet’s teachings. On the other, the Shia: who believe that only members of the Prophet’s lineage can lay claim to a proper understanding of the Prophet’s words.
The ever practical Romans, having adopted Christianity as the Empire’s official religion, were not about to acknowledge any flesh-and-blood inheritors of that first Easter – steeped as it was in all-too-Roman blood, gore and cruelty. A Jesus that stood at the right hand of the all-powerful Emperor of Heaven, was one thing. A Jesus that lived on through his descendants, and whose emancipatory teachings the ever-expanding family of Jesus and Mary Magdalene struggled ceaselessly to differentiate from the designs and purposes of the mighty, was something else altogether.
Far better a safely Crucified and Risen Christ, than a Jesus whose blood still flows through the beating heart of the World.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 1 April 2021.