For more than two centuries now, scholars have labored to discern the truth behind the events described in the New Testament. We are well into the third academic “quest” to recover the historical Jesus—that is, to distinguish what is likely authentic from what is likely legendary.
Though we will never be certain about what happened, diligent work by thousands of scholars has produced a clearer picture. The challenge is to make their insights accessible to the non-specialist. To that end, The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene tells the story of the origins of Christianity as seen through the eyes of Jesus’s closest female companion.
From Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we glean the barest details about Mary Magdalene: Jesus drove seven demons out of her; she witnessed his crucifixion; she was the first to discover his empty tomb; his first post-death appearance was to her. It follows that her story in this “gospel” is fictional. However, the foundation on which her fictional story unfolds is as close to authentic history as I could make it, based on my reading of the top scholars in the field. Where scholarly conclusions differ, and where the Gospels themselves conflict, I have tried to chart the most reasonable course.
Most readers of the New Testament simply assume that what they read was there from the beginning. That assumption is false. The earliest manuscripts we have date from more than a century after the death of Jesus, so we have to wonder what copyist errors were made in the interim. On top of that, many of the words and deeds we now attribute to Jesus are missing from the early manuscripts we do have. Other copyists inserted them later—decades or even centuries later—for unknown reasons. Examples of this are eye-opening:
Luke 22:20—“And in the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and said, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ ”
Luke 24:51—“And when Jesus blessed them he departed from them and he was taken up into heaven.”
John 8:3-11—The entire story of the woman taken in adultery (“Let the one who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone,” etc.)—an anecdote that many mistakenly believe refers to Mary Magdalene.
1 John 5:7—“There are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one.”
For guidance on which words and deeds attributed to Jesus are most probably authentic I have leaned primarily on the conclusions of The Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament experts that has labored for decades to reach a scholarly consensus.
Arranging these likely authentic words and events into the most reasonable chronology was another challenge. Scholars have long been aware that the men who wrote the Gospels—even Mark, the earliest—did not set down events in their correct sequence.
Sources for the facts and presumptions underpinning this story can be found at the end of each chapter, tied to key words and phrases in the text. At least skim them and you’ll often find information that will surprise you. Where I cite no source you must assume that the detail is my own surmise or invention. I truly regret any omissions of proper credit—they are definitely unintentional.
I have tried to keep invention to a minimum. My aim is not to create fiction but, to the greatest degree possible, to ground the narrative on sound scholarship. The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene was written to approximate history.
Note: TJS = The Jesus Seminar. Sayings or reports marked in this way were found to be undoubtedly, probably or at least possibly historical by a group of New Testament experts. Source: Robert W. Funk & The Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar, 1999.
Note: Translations are identified in parentheses following each citation, and—unless otherwise specified—are from The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar (TJS); The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Third Edition, NT, (NRSV); Holy Bible: King James Version (KJV); The Original New Testament, Schonfield (ONT); The Fifth Gospel, Patterson, Robinson, Bethge (FG); The Gospel of Thomas, Davies (GOT); J. B. Phillips New Testament (JBP); Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCS); Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV); Holy Bible: New Century Version (NCV); or The Lost Gospel Q, Marcus Borg, ed. (Q).
2 Jesus drove seven demons out of her — TJS, Luke 8:2. Also, Mark 16:9.
2 she witnessed his crucifixion — TJS, Mark 15:40.
2 she was the first to discover his empty tomb. — Mark 16:1.
2 his first post-death appearance was to her. — TJS, Matthew 28:9-10; John 20:14-17.
3 Examples of this are eye-opening: — Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 63-65 and 265-6. (Translations by Ehrman) I heartily recommend Ehrman’s books for insight into the complicated, problematic, messy process that resulted in the New Testament texts so many readers now take for granted.
3 did not set down events in their correct sequence. — Robert W. Funk & The Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 179. Because of the disparity between the order of events in Mark and Matthew, the two earliest gospels, “scholars conclude that the authors of the gospels did not know the actual sequence of events.” Also see Ehrman, Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene, 8. Papias of Hierapolis, writing early in the second century, said that Mark’s purpose was to relate Peter’s recollections of what Jesus had said and done, but Papias characterized Mark as unclear about the actual sequence of events.
Mariamne of Magdala Mary Magdalene
Ioannes Marcus John Mark, writer of the Gospel
Maria/Maryam Mary, mother of Jesus
Yosef Joseph, husband of Mary
Yochanan the Baptizer John the Baptist
Zecharyah Zechariah, father of John the Baptist
Elisheba Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist
Herodes Antipas Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great
Yosef bar Kayafa Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest
Pontios Pilatos Pontius Pilate
Hanan Annas/Ananus, former high priest
Chouzas Chuza, steward to Herod Antipas
Yoanna Joanna, wife of Chuza
Sousanna Susanna, follower and supporter of Jesus
Yehosef of Harimathaia Joseph of Arimathea
Ioannes the Priest John, the Gospel author (“the Beloved”)
Yoseh Joses, brother of Jesus
Andreas Andrew, brother of Peter
Yacob James, son of Zebedee
Yukhanan John, son of Zebedee
Nathanael AKA Bartholomew (Bar-Tolmai)
Yehuda Thomas Judas Thomas (“the twin”)
Yacob James, brother of Jesus (“the Just”)
Shimon Simon, brother of Jesus (“the Zealot”)
Yehuda/Thaddaios Juda/Jude, brother of Jesus (AKA Lebbaeus)
Yehuda of Kerioth Judas Iscariot
Matia Matthias (replaced Judas Iscariot)