Melvyn on Mary: the big issues
I have been an admirer of Melvyn Bragg FRS; FBA; FRSA; FRSL; FRTS ever since I read his romantic novel The Maid of Buttermere in 1987. It is a delightful tale from the presenter of renowned and erudite television and radio series such as The South Bank Show and In Our Time, and with such strong emotional content that we have surely found in Melvyn the Barbara Cartland of the Lake District fells. All this and he still manages to contribute magnificently to Labour Party funds and retain such a luxuriant head of hair. So I was not surprised to discover that a romantic such as Melvyn has been a lifelong devotee of Mary Magdalene. Indeed he presented a BBC documentary about the lovely lady at the most sacred hour on Good Friday. Some of what Melvyn says about her prompts me to questions.
He begins by asking: “Was Mary Magdalene a saint or a prostitute?” I had not thought either occupation precluded the other. It’s rather like asking if she was a saint or a sinner; but all the saints were sinners before their sanctity was bestowed upon them by God. St Peter for instance – the rock upon which Christ built his church – denied Jesus three times and watched him go to his death. I’m sure Melvyn doesn’t share the erroneous opinion that saints are people who are super-plus-good by their own striving: as if they made a very special effort to become saints. They didn’t. Many of them were downright weird. Others, such as St Paul, were former persecutors of Christians. Mary Magdalene was a saint, by the grace of God, to whom much was forgiven because she loved much.
Melvyn says that he set out to tr y to find out the true Mary from under all the legends and myths. How did he get on? Well, he is very honest. He found that the task was “tantalising and elusive” in the course of which he discovered only “faint but persistent tracks.” When I heard him say this, I feared it was only the sort of plea for excuses we are accustomed to hear from those who have made fortunes pretending to have found the lost Ark of the Covenant, or even Noah’s Ark itself but whose actual findings turn out to be (to put it politely) inconclusive.
Where I think Melvyn’s commendable enthusiasm spoils his intentions is when he says, “The several women followers of Jesus, as close to him as the 12 male apostles, have been rubbed out of history.” That is a preposterous statement. Arguably, more has been written about Christian women down the centuries than about the men. The Gospels themselves present the women in a much better light than the male disciples who run away terrified for their own necks when Jesus is arrested. It is the women who take him down from the cross and lay him in the tomb. And it is Mary Magdalene who is first witness to his resurrection.
And on this glorious fact there are fascinating things to be said – not least the place accorded to women by St Paul contrasted with that given to them in the gospels. St Paul’s letters were written years before any of the four gospels and yet they make no mention at all of Mary Magdalene and the
other women who were companions of Jesus. Yet we find that all four gospels, far from “rubbing out” Mary, reinstate her and give her pride of place. The women disciples were all mightily respected from the first days of the early church, and Mary Magdalene was given the title Apostle to the Apostles because she had been the first to see Jesus risen from the dead.
Halfway through his wonderful programme about Mary, Melvyn suddenly seems to be seized by a fit of anti-historical petulance which leads this normally even-tempered and even-handed man off the rails. He becomes quite wild: “What then for the celibacy which has led the organised church into so many abuses and crimes and distorted lives? What then for the subjugation of women which has repressed and downgraded them so effectively for so long?”
I’m not even sure what he means. Is he referring to fornication and homosexuality among priests? Or child abuse? Is it this alleged “subjugation of women” – which actually never happened – that led the church astray? At the very least, it is a strange conclusion for Melvyn to have drawn.
Suddenly, Melvyn lays aside the affable presenter’s role and tells us what he really thinks. Instead of presenting Mary, he starts talking about himself. He mentions, “…the resurrection which I came to think wholly impossible and the existence of a personal God unbelievable.” Oh dear! And is that all Mary’s fault as well? He can’t believe Christian doctrines but he thinks they make “magnificent metaphors.” On that score, I’m only surprised they didn’t make Melvyn a bishop.
And, sure enough, he soon lays his cards open on the table: “The seven demons cast out of Mary have been well-explained by recent academics as likely symptoms of a form of nervous breakdown.” God bless “recent academics”!
And what makes their anachronistic “explanation” more persuasive than the gospel’s version? Yes, modern critics are forever telling us that the gospel writers were “men of their time.” What they don’t admit to is that modern critics too are men of their time. When will modern scholars, as well as dedicated amateurs such as Melvyn Bragg, get it out of their heads that just because some people lived a long time ago doesn’t mean they were stupid?
He says, “The gospels are – minus miracles – reasonably convincing accounts of a unique man and his followers.”
Ernst Renan, Rudolf Bultmann: thou should’st be living at this hour! How can we be reasonably convinced by the gospel writers if more than half of their accounts are either lies or foolish delusions? Would you believe anyone who wrote like that? In fact the miraculous deeds of Christ and his claims to be no less than the Son of God on earth are the centre and purpose of the gospels. There was no airbrushing of the real Mary Magdalene out of Christian history. Next to Jesus himself, she is the most commanding figure in the gospel.
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, while it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre.” Listen to those words, dear Melvyn, and in them you can hear the hotly racing footsteps of the woman who was closer to Our Lord than any man.
The miraculous deeds of Christ and his claims to be no less than the Son of God
on earth are the centre and purpose of