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Mary Magdalene: Legend to history

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  1. Introduction
  2. Mary Magdalene in the early tradition
    1. Mary Magdalene as the devoted disciple
    2. Mary Magdalene and heresy
    3. The Holy Grail
    4. The penitent sinner
    5. The golden legend
    6. Intercessor
    7. Magdalenes
  3. The myth continues
  4. Conclusion: Recovering a history
  5. Bibliography

In the early centuries of Christian history the circles that led to the development of the official Church focused on her role at the crucifixion and the tomb. She was praised by many of the early group, called the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 160?225), Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185?251), Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340?397), and Augustine of Hippo (354?430). These men usually portrayed her as a model of the good and loyal disciple. In the resurrection story of the Gospel of John Augustine saw her standing by the tomb weeping after Peter and the beloved disciple had returned to their lodgings because, ?For while men returned, the weaker sex was fastened to the place by stronger affection.?

The interpretation of Mary's role varied in early accounts. Jerome (ca. 340?420) praised Mary Magdalene and the women around Jesus for their loyalty and honored them as the first witnesses to the risen Jesus. Pope Leo I (ca. 400?461) identified Mary Magdalene as the representative of the Church in the Gospel of John.

[...] The Holy Grail By the fourth-century there was a legend that Mary Magdalene had used a cup to catch the blood of Jesus when he died. Around 327 Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, conducted excavations in Jerusalem where she claimed to have found the true cross and the tomb of Jesus. Legend said she found a cup in the tomb, which was believed to be the Magdalene Chalice that Mary had used to catch the blood of Jesus. [...]


[...] Gregory I's story of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and a composite of several women has had such an effect that many writers seem unable to break away from it. The 1973 movie of the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar portrayed Mary Magdalene as tart with a heart,? the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold who sings the song Don't Know How to Love Him.? When Martin Scorsese made Nikos Kanzantzakis' 1961 novel The Last Temptation into the 1976 movie The Last Temptation of Christ, he kept the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. [...]


[...] This has given scholars material from which to reconstruct a history of Mary Magdalene and her role in the early years of the Jesus movement to replace the legends. Many of the relevant texts are from a cache found in Egypt near Nag Hammadi in 1945 and published in English in 1988. Several other texts had been discovered elsewhere from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, but it was only after the discovery at Nag Hammadi that the other texts were regarded as much more than curiosities. [...]

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