The Magdalene in the Reformation

by Margaret Arnold, OUP, 312pp, £25

Who is Mary Magdalene? Is she Apostola Apostolorum, the first to proclaim the risen Christ? Is she the penitent sinner, a former prostitute whose encounter with Jesus led to a transformation of her life that makes her a paradigm of repentance? Is she the one who sat at the feet of her Lord while Mary did the serving, offering a feminine model for contemplators of divine mysteries? Or is she the hidden wife of Jesus who bore him descendants who would go on to rule France and hide the Holy Grail?

Setting aside preposterous conspiracy theories, Mary Magdalene has been understood by Christians through the centuries as all of the others, therefore offering various models of holiness within the Church, especially – but not only – for women. In this fascinating and thoroughly researched book, Margaret Arnold explores the ways in which the various reformation movements within western Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries had an impact upon the reception of the figure of the Magdalene. Or, it might be truer to say, she uses Mary Magdalene as a tool with which to learn more about how the beginnings of modernity changed attitudes, both among ordinary Christians and among the leaders of the Church, towards justification and personal sanctity, towards the preaching of the Gospel and towards the place(s) of women among the people of God.

Arnold necessarily begins her work with an overview of how Mary Magdalene had been perceived, proclaimed and proposed to the faithful in the medieval period, and she shows how flexible a figure she was.

Interestingly, there was always strong emphasis on her preaching role, in a world where it often seems that female voices were obscured – but this book shows just how much more complicated things were than that. Other emphases, though, waxed and waned according to purpose. It was actually before the emergence of Luther that controversy arose about Mary Magdalene: two years before the 95 theses were nailed to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral, the French scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples proposed that the character who witnessed the crucifixion and later visited the tomb had no connection with the sister of Mary, nor with the notorious sinner who anointed Jesus’s feet, nor even with the woman explicitly named Mary Magdalene in Luke “from whom he had cast out seven demons”. The composite figure created by Christian tradition has no basis in Scripture or in history, however spiritually fruitful it may have been.

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