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Karen LongGiving a knowing voice to Mary Magdalene
Maybe Swedish writer Marianne Fredriksson is clueless that the historical Mary Magdalene was no whore, a widespread slander that scholars have roundly discredited. But my guess is she didn’t care.
Like so many of her fiction-writing colleagues Portuguese Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago among then Fredriksson just assumes that Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala were lovers. She even serves up a dishy confrontation between Jesus’ mother and her title character in her newly translated book, According to Mary Magdalene.
Such froth is more the pity, because Fredriksson is a strong storyteller and she is asking a good question, wondering what the female slant on Jesus might have been, before the voices of women disciples were lost in history and the Peter-Paul version of events became dominant.
One day I was looking for something in the Nag Hammadi Library and happened to come upon a fragment that remains of the gospel of Mary Magdalene,Fredriksson writes in her introduction. In it she accounts for what Jesus said in personal conversations with her among them, ‘Make no rules of life on this which I have revealed to you. Write no laws as the lawmakers do.’
For this author, who clearly holds Christian church hierarchy in contempt, such words are catnip. Fredriksson is further tantalized by the lost witness of Mary Magdalene, well-educated in Greek and Aramaic, but a woman with no power to influence.
Without the option to power, women around Jesus see his affinity for the sick and powerless much differently than the men setting out to convert the masses and create Christianity. When a rabbi complains about Jesus, Why were his deeds so small? He had the power. He shouldn’t have spent hours over a few individual people, Mary answers, But that’s where his greatness lay. Can’t you see that it was in this meeting, person to person, that the new was born? A new vision, a new way.
If you catch a whiff of New Age in this, you smell correctly. Fredriksson serves up a great deal, such as Mary’s frequent observation that there are no accidents, and Jesus himself remarking, There is no sin in the world. You create it yourselves when you falsify reality.
Here, you might be tempted to cry out with Peter, These are strange teachings! but if your sense of Jesus is elastic enough, this book soon becomes absorbing.
Jesus admits his mother worried that he was going mad, and what mother wouldn’t fret about a son with Messianic tendencies? Yet Jesus’ power is present on every page, and in this way Fredriksson honors the central figure in Christianity. It is just the supporting cast, squabbling about whom Jesus loved best, that earns the author’s distrust. And gives Mary Magdalene her imagined voice, a voice that makes for a more interesting Easter.
— Cleveland Plain-Dealer