Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

At that, [Jesus’s mother] let out a laugh. “Wrong test!” she said, shaking her head. “The rabbis in Jerusalem know better.” She turned to her guests. “Last year, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to probe the scribes and rabbis at the Temple about fine points of scripture. So I can appreciate how your parents feel, Mary, to have a child suddenly go of on his own. But no one wins a scripture contest with Jesus.”

Well, I suppose no one would, now could they? Never mind the fact that at the time to which Mary is referring, Jesus hadn’t yet had his bar mitzvah.

First the disclaimers. I hope my more secular readers and those from a non-Christian background will forgive me for the phrasing in this review; please keep in mind that, in this case, I’m reviewing the work of fiction by Margaret George, not the Bible itself. This does not constitute an endorsement of the religion, but simply a review of a book I found diverting. Also (with another round of apologies), I haven’t read any of the many other books about Mary Magdalene, and this review is not intended to be a survey of the literature. I would only hope that this novel might pique someone’s interest in reading more about her. Oh, and if you’re coming to this novel after having read The DaVinci Code, keep going. The two are completely different.

Mary Magdalene is one of the more prominent women in the New Testament, but none of the more widely accepted books of the Bible say much about her. Was she a prostitute? Mentally ill? Apostle to the apostles? The fact that she was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection should indicate something…but what1?

Mary, Called Magdalene is (surprise, surprise) primarily about Mary Magdalene, though necessarily includes a great deal about Jesus. The book begins with her childhood, in a particularly observant Jewish family, holding themselves apart from less strict families at home and while traveling. The first portion of the book, when Mary was a child, sets the stage for her later life: on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she not only befriends a girl from a more lenient family but in an escapade with Keziah, runs off to meet others en route to Jerusalem. It is here that Mary first meets Jesus, he a tween but even then a particularly eloquent and charismatic boy, as evidenced by his convincing the stern Nathan, Mary’s father, to permit her to stay overnight with a strange family.

As so many children do, she grew into an adult, married, and had a child…but unfortunately, she became plagued with demons2, and it is here that Jesus appears, again. The wedge was driven in with Mary’s filching an image of one of the gods of previous religions, rejected utterly by Jews of the time; in this case, it was a little ivory statuette of a goddess, which served as a channel directly between the deity herself and Mary. Over the years, other similar spirits came to Mary, to the point that she was no longer able to function as a wife, a mother, and a member of society. As this was regarded as a religious issue, she first went to a rabbi gifted in driving out such creatures for treatment; when he proved unsuccessful, Mary retreated out to a desert cave to wrestle alone with her possessors. Stumbling out of the isolation, crazed with her inner demons (and probably also things like dehydration, sunstroke, and hunger), she meets Jesus, who drives out the demons himself…and it’s here that Margaret George veers from conjecture about what the life of a woman at the time might have been back into what little we know of Mary from the New Testament.

Overall, I must confess I felt something lacking in this novel. It could just be that there is comparatively little written about Mary Magdalene, relative to some of the other women about whom George has written novels. Certainly, there’s comparatively little written about her, relative to the men mentioned in the Bible, contemporaneous with the protagonist here. But. But. And a very important But. This is a work (indirectly) about an important religious figure; I’d bet that novels about Mohammed, no matter how well written, no matter the doctrine followed in the text, would similarly redact off readers who belonged to Islam. Perhaps that’s the important thing to take away: I too found the first half or thereabouts of the book, when Mary Magdalene was a child and youth, then raising a family and battling her own demons, more interesting. After she became a follower of Jesus, what interest I had in the book dropped off, perhaps because it then became inevitably about him as much as her.

I do appreciate the little touches that humanize this figure, little less mythological than Helen of Troy. Her anguish at being ripped from her daughter. Her despair at being called a ‘loose woman’ and ‘harlot’ after spending forty days and forty nights alone unchaperoned in the desert with several of the men who similarly became followers of Jesus. Not so sure about some of the details surrounding Jesus himself–here, both Jesus and his mother doubted his mission/nature until the former’s final arrival in Jerusalem–but then this book isn’t, strictly speaking, about Jesus. Thankfully. Or it would be about four times the length, and that’s impracticable to bind.

Overall, though, I’d call it an interesting take on a footnote woman from the Bible, comparatively neutral…although that withstanding, I’m sure that someone out there’s redacted off about it from a doctrinal (however peripheral) standpoint. Writing comparatively non-denominational fiction about pretty much any religious fiction is going to cause people to react that way. It’s not purely about Mary Magdalene–I would have appreciated more of the detail that went into George’s first two books–but, perhaps necessarily, the second half is concerned as much with Jesus as with Mary.

As for what to read next….try Margaret George’s other books. There are several, and they’re all bricks; I think George is just shy of Gabaldon’s total page count by now. Her later books are similarly about historical women. Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent may be another possibility; it’s not about Mary Magdalene, but rather a little-known daughter of Jacob.

Smithsonian article

1Yes, yes, I know. Scholars of the ‘official’ New Testament and the later works have talked this to death.
2Bear with the author here; she’s going by what the New Testament called it, not what actually happened or what modern medicine would have called it.


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