Mary Called Magdalene

by Margaret George

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Mary Called Magdalene, Margaret George, book cover Readers familiar with the Christian Gospels will find Mary Called Magdalene a fairly orthodox account. George has taken the stories from the four Gospels (which differ in the episodes they recount from Jesus' life) and organized them into a coherent narrative with a setting enriched by historical and archaeological research.

The narrator is Mary Magdalene, Jesus' first woman disciple, mentioned infrequently but memorably in the Bible. Jesus frees her from possession by seven demons, and she becomes one of his followers. She is present at the crucifixion, and it is Mary Magdalene who first sees the risen Christ, mistaking him for a gardener when she visits his tomb on Easter morning. No Biblical evidence exists for the conflation of Mary with the unnamed prostitute who washes Jesus' feet with her hair.

Mary Called Magdalene emphasizes Jesus' humanity as well as his divinity, a point the Gospels also insist on despite their focus on miracles. In the novel, Mary says of Peter's bravery in facing martyrdom, "This was a greater miracle than the ones credulous people wanted to create for Jesus—walking on water, changing water into wine, multiplying food. Such things would be cheap magician's tricks, whereas the real magic was to take such weak and fallible human material and change it onto a hero beyond our human limits." Jesus' resurrection, however, is portrayed literally.

Mary's demonic possession, the story of which occupies the first third of the novel, is also portrayed literally. It begins with seeming innocence, when as a small child Mary discovers an ivory carving in the sand under her family's campsite during a journey to Jerusalem, and then gradually escalates to horror. "There were so many presences within her that she felt like a rotting animal swarming with maggots.... They all seethed within; they swelled her out as would a child in the womb, except that, unlike a child, they were everywhere, invading her very being." (2002, 630 pages)

More about Mary Called Magdalene from Powell's Books

Other novels about Mary Magdalene:

The Passion of Mary Magdalen: The Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham (2006) depicts Mary Magdalene as a Celtic priestess who meets Jesus when he studies the religion of the druids, and is later sold into slavery in Rome. More info

The Secret Magdalene by Ki Longfellow, (2007) is a feminist portrayal of Mary Magdalene based on the Gnostic Gospels, which interprets her as a woman who suffered from an extended illness rather than demonic possession. More info

The Expected One by Kathleen McGowan (2006) is about a woman historian whose dreams and visions drive her to visit France, where she discovers ancient scrolls describing the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. More info

Nonfiction about Mary Magdalene and her time:

The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (2003) is a translation of the Gospel of Mary along with the story of its discovery. More info

Mary of Magdala: What the Da Vinci Code Misses by Mary R. Thompson (2005) is a scholarly biography of Mary Magdalene drawn from Biblical and apocryphal gospel texts. More info

Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First Century Palestine by Scott Korb (2010). More info


"Who Was Mary Magdalene" by James Carroll, published in the June 2006 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

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