Recently, my father suggested I read Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George. We had just finished a long two-day drive from my home to his, and I had checked out some books on CD from the library to pass the time. My parents love history. They have been learning about the ancient Greeks and Romans, and life in the Middle East during Jesus’s lifetime, so I selected a tome on what historians know (or think they know) about Muhammad and Jesus. This inspired some interesting discussions as we drove through some rather desolate sections of the United States.
Despite the fact that I would not have chosen this novel, published in 2003, on my own, I liked it a lot. It fell into the “couldn’t put it down” category. I enjoyed the details about Jewish life during Roman rule, but the story came alive because Mary, as portrayed here, had conflicts which still affect women today.
The novel is told from Mary’s point of view. Raised orthodox Jew, she is obedient in many respects, but cannot stop asking questions. Forbidden to learn to read, or associate with the “wrong sort,” she lied about learning weaving in order to spend time with a friend and study reading and Greek. Pushed into marriage, she tried to make the best of it. Becoming what today we would call mentally ill, she went on a pilgrimage to find herself and heal (oh, do I relate to this). After Jesus casts out her demons, which I saw as her finally being able to see the truth about herself, she returns home. However, her family does not accept the new Mary, and she refuses to give up her new knowledge and go back into the restrictive box they fashioned for her. They throw her out and she loses her daughter. Although her daughter stays in her thoughts for the rest of her life, Mary cannot sacrifice either her passion for Jesus and his teaching, or herself in order to regain her child.
Margaret George fills the second section of the novel with stories about Jesus and his disciples, including what it might have been like to camp in Galilee (in the rain in the winter!). I found some of this tiresome, since she seemed to elaborate on every story from the Gospels, but Mary’s internal conflicts and intense emotions carried the story forward for me. I read reviews on Amazon which argue that George gets Mary Magdalene‘s story all wrong (in this fictional account she is neither a prostitute nor Jesus’ lover/wife), but little is known about her, which leaves George free to invent an interesting character.
Mary shows how one woman could – no, had to – stand up for herself, with help from others, against the rules of society which would drive her insane. I rooted for this sweet, passionate, person to thrive. George did not disappoint me; Mary succeeds against the odds unlike so many women who have been cut down over the ages. Think of the healers put to death for witchery, and all of the young girls even today forced to marry against their will. Think of all the women who have not been allowed to learn to read, who have been cloistered, or forced into slavery, or called prostitutes for showing a piece of hair. Mary called Magdalene shows how rules can bind and defeat their original purpose. and thus to all of us who have been lucky enough to follow our dreams and also keep our children.
This rather long novel addresses other issues, but this central story, of freedom to be oneself and follow one’s dreams, was what compelled me to stay up late several nights running, with my eyes glued to the page.
As usual, I welcome your comments.
- Catchy Headlines Aren’t The Same Thing as Scholarship (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Ralph Ellis-Mary Magdalene,House of Orange & The Reformation (disclose.tv)