This year’s mainstream Easter movie on our cinema screens is Mary Magdalene, released on 16th March and starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. But is it any good — and is it true to the Gospel accounts?
The film begins with Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene, as she leaves her family in the town of Magdala in order to follow the mysterious, enigmatic Galilean preacher Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix). It then traces, from her point of view, the journey of Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem and, ultimately, to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his brutal death on the cross.
The first thing to say about the Mary Magdalene film is that it is not a conventionally skeptical piece presenting Jesus of Nazareth as ‘not really’ the Son of God. In this, Jesus most definitely dies and is buried, and subsequently rises from the dead. Skeptical theories about Jesus such as the ‘swoon’ theory (i.e., that he wasn’t really dead) are nowhere to be found.
“The Jesus of Nazareth presented in Mary Magdalene is a kindly but very unimpressive-looking figure. As a viewer I was constantly aware of his visual unimpressiveness. This may actually be more true to life than the Westernized portrayals of Max von Sydow and many others.”
It is also a film which definitely aims at realism. The dialogue tends to be mumbled in the way that is de rigueur nowadays, which does make it hard to follow. And a considerable part of the dialogue is actually in Hebrew — such as when Joaquin Phoenix pronounces the blessing of Psalm 118:1-4 at the Last Supper.
The Jesus of Nazareth presented here is a kindly but very unimpressive-looking figure. As a viewer I was constantly aware of his visual unimpressiveness. This may actually be more true to life than the Westernized portrayals of Max von Sydow and many others — we simply don’t know.
Jesus is also a very human figure in this film. We see him do a number of remarkable miracles in Galilee, such as raising a dead person to life — yet in the very doing them he always suffers agony or anguish, as though it is painful for healing to go out from him into another.
In this respect the film is unconventional — as it is also in its casting of a black-skinned Simon Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Whilst we appreciate the racial inclusivity of this casting, there is no evidence at all behind it.
The film is also not really a straight narrative of Jesus’ public ministry, with a clearly-explained beginning, middle and end. It relies on the audience’s having at least a basic idea of the facts of Jesus’ life, so that, if you were to take this film to play it to a hitherto-unreached tribe somewhere in the world, I doubt it would make a lot of sense.
I suspect that this is intentional. One thing the film does very effectively is to leave the viewer — along with the (male) disciples of Jesus — asking the question, “What is the kingdom of God?”
Point of view
When it comes to Jesus’ teaching, the film essentially takes a ‘deconstructionist’ view of the Gospels.
What I mean by this, is that it seems to give credence to certain passages of the Gospels, but not to others — as if some of the sayings and acts attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are historical, whilst others were invented by the Gospel writers themselves. This is of course a favourite pastime of much New Testament scholarship.
Thus we hear quite a lot come from Jesus’ lips which is taken from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), or at least sounds like it comes from the Synoptic Gospels. These are clearly viewed as being ‘more authentic’ than John’s Gospel, from which very little is drawn. An example is Matthew 13:31-33 which is quoted twice in the film.
“The ‘gospel’ presented in the film is a very human affair. Jesus essentially came to tell us, ‘Live with this kind of mercy and forgiveness, and you will see the kingdom of God.’ What this misses out, is the fact that in the Gospels these qualities are the outflowing, or outworking, of the kingdom of God in the lives of those following Jesus.”
So Jesus in the film develops a number of important themes from the Synoptic Gospels, such as the importance of humility, forgiveness, mercy. And of course the theme of the kingdom of God itself, which is a central theme in the film as it is in the Synoptics.
Where the teaching of Jesus, as presented in the film, is unrepresentative of the Gospels, is in the things Jesus says about himself.
In the film, embodying the principles of self-sacrificial forgiveness, mercy and humility are the way to the kingdom of God.
This makes the ‘gospel’ presented in the film a very human affair. Jesus essentially came to tell us, “Live with this kind of mercy and forgiveness, and you will see the kingdom of God.”
What this misses out, is the fact that in the Gospels these qualities are the outflowing, or outworking, of the kingdom of God in the lives of those following Jesus.
This is curious in a film which at points does show the necessity of following Jesus. After all, the disciples are all following Jesus — having left behind everything to do so — and Mary desperately feels the need to do this also. Besides this, there is a lot of baptizing goes on in the film, including by Jesus’ disciples — a fact which is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. Being baptized by Jesus or his disciples implies following Jesus.
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”
And yet this necessity of following Jesus is played down in the things the Jesus character of the film says. It is as if the film makers believed that Jesus didn’t really say those things, and only pointed people toward a ‘kingdom of God’ which we could reach purely by our own efforts.
The Jesus of the Gospels is quite different: he demands our allegiance to him. This is most obviously the case in John’s Gospel — which is probably why so little of John’s Gospel appears in the film — but is also unmistakably part of his message in the Synoptic Gospels:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:34-38
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21-23
In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is presented to us as having special insight into the Lord’s mission — an insight to which the male disciples of Jesus cannot even come close.
So in an intriguing, but very disconnected, passage in the Gospel of Philip we read:—
As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
The text of the Gospel of Philip is strongly antagonistic towards orthodox Christianity. In another passage about the Virgin Mary, the orthodox belief that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit is attacked. In this passage the Holy Spirit is viewed as a feminine principle:—
Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin whom no power defiled. She is a great anathema to the Hebrews, who are the apostles and the apostolic men. This virgin whom no power defiled […] the powers defile themselves. And the Lord would not have said “My Father who is in Heaven” (Mt 16:17), unless he had had another father, but he would have said simply “My father”.
“The implication of the film is that Peter and the others went on to found orthodox Christianity, but Mary Magdalene alone kept and propagated the secret, real meaning of Jesus. The Gnostics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries would have been delighted with this.”
The viewpoint of Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Philip and others, is that the twelve male apostles of Jesus — considered as the founders of the orthodox Christian Church — were completely wrong about Jesus. Rather, according to these texts, it is Mary Magdalene — or in another text Judas Iscariot — who alone really understands who Jesus really is. She (or Judas) leaves the rest of the disciples in the dark.
We see this come out very clearly at the end of the film, after Mary has seen the risen Lord.
She then goes to Peter and the other (male) disciples, who turn against her. Peter firmly decides at this point that he is going to found ‘the Church’ the way that he sees it (quoting, of course, the famous Matthew 16 passage).
The implication is that Peter and the others went on to found orthodox Christianity, but Mary Magdalene alone kept and propagated the secret, real meaning of Jesus. The Gnostics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries would have been delighted with this.
Why is this problematic?
“The problem with reconstructing the earthly life of Jesus this way, is that the Gnostic Gospels are not reliable histories of the life of Jesus. They are late texts, and anything they claim about the life of Jesus is driven by Gnostic theology, not by what actually happened. For example, the Gospel of Philip dates to around the 3rd century.”
The problem with reconstructing the earthly life of Jesus this way, is that the Gnostic Gospels are not reliable histories of the life of Jesus. They are late texts — generally from the mid-second century through the third century A.D. — and anything they claim about the life of Jesus is driven by Gnostic theology, not by what actually happened. For example, according to Wikipedia the Gospel of Philip dates to around the 3rd century.
If you want information on the things Jesus actually did and said, our best sources are in fact the New Testament Gospels. Even skeptical New Testament scholars such as Bart D. Ehrman acknowledge this. The four New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are our earliest and most reliable sources for the life of Jesus.
When we read these texts, what do we find?
Firstly, we find that Mary Magdalene does have a very important rôle in the gospel story. She is acknowledged in all four Gospels as having been among the first people to see the risen Jesus.
However, besides this important rôle in the resurrection accounts there is comparatively little said about Mary Magdalene throughout the rest of the Gospels — she certainly hasn’t got the starring rôle that she takes on in the film.
“Gnostic theology denied the goodness of the material world, and therefore denied Jesus a human birth or a real, flesh-and-blood human body.”
The Gnostic Gospels, which in recent years have propelled the rôle of Mary Magdalene into new focus in the public imagination, are writings driven by their particular theology. This theology denied the goodness of the material world, and therefore denied Jesus a human birth or a real, flesh-and-blood human body. Rather than presenting a message about Jesus that was open, and invited all to come and experience the kingdom of God, Gnosticism emphasized the importance of having some ‘secret knowledge’ (gnōsis in Greek) which was the way to eternal life.
The Gnostic theology(ies) had more in common with Neoplatonism than with the Jesus we find in the New Testament Gospels.
Therefore if we want to know what really went on in Jesus’ public ministry, we need to go — not to these late texts, however much we might like the idea of Mary Magdalene having a starring rôle — but to the early, and most authentic, Gospels: those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
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 Though of course after the resurrection of Jesus, it is well known and well documented that the disciples went around baptizing (cf.Matthew 28:16-20). We are speaking here only about the period of Jesus’ public ministry on earth, the period covered by the film.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.