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The New York Times-bestselling author of Elizabeth I brilliantly reimagines the story of the most mysterious woman in the Bible
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute, a female divinity figure, a church leader, or all of those? Biblical references to her are tantalizingly brief, but we do know that she was the first person to whom the risen Christ appeared—and the one commissioned to tell others the good news, earning her the ancient honorific, "Apostle to the Apostles." Today, Mary ...
The New York Times-bestselling author of Elizabeth I brilliantly reimagines the story of the most mysterious woman in the Bible
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute, a female divinity figure, a church leader, or all of those? Biblical references to her are tantalizingly brief, but we do know that she was the first person to whom the risen Christ appeared—and the one commissioned to tell others the good news, earning her the ancient honorific, "Apostle to the Apostles." Today, Mary continues to spark controversy, curiosity, and veneration. In a vivid re-creation of Mary Magdalene's life story, Margaret George convincingly captures this renowned woman's voice as she moves from girlhood to womanhood, becomes part of the circle of disciples, and comes to grips with the divine. Grounded in biblical scholarship and secular research, this fascinating historical novel is also, ultimately, "the diary of a soul."
She was carried to a place she had never been. It was much more vivid than a dream, it had a depth and a color to it, and exquisite detail that made it seem more real than the time with her mother in the courtyard, more real than the dreamy hours she spent sometimes looking out at the great lake of Magdala, the one so grand they called it a sea: the Sea of Galilee.
She was elevated, put on a high pillar or a platform, she could not tell which. And all around her were people, gathering at the base of it, looking up at her. She turned her head to the side and saw that other pillars had other people on them, that there was a whole row of them, stretching as far as she could see. The sky was a yellowish color, the color she had only seen once, when there was a sandstorm. The sun was blotted out, but there was still light, diffuse golden light.
Then someone came to her-were they flying, was it an angel, how did they get there?-and took her hand and said, "Will you come? Will you come with us?"
She felt the hand holding hers, and it was smooth like a piece of marble, not cold, not hot, not sweaty, but perfect. She wanted to squeeze it but dared not.
"Yes," she finally said.
And then the figure-she still did not know who it was, she dared not look at the face, only at the feet in golden sandals-lifted her up and took her away, and the journey was so dizzying that she lost her balance and began to fall, to plummet, and it was very dark beneath her.
She sat up with a jolt. The oil lamp had burned out. Outside she could hear the gentle sound of the water of the great lake, not far from her window, as it lapped the shore.
She held out her hand, felt it. It was moist. Was that why the being had let her go, had dropped it? She rubbed it hard.
No, let me cleanse my hand! she cried out, silently. Don't abandon me! I can wipe it off!
"Come back," she whispered.
But the only answer was the stillness of the room and the sound of the water.
She rushed into her mother and father's room. They were sleeping soundly; they did not need a lamp, they slept in darkness.
"Mother!" she cried, grabbing her shoulder. "Mother!" Without permission, she climbed into the bed and huddled under the warm covers next to her mother.
"What...what is it?" Her mother struggled to form words. "Mary?"
"I have had such a strange dream," she cried. "I was taken up...into some heaven, I don't know where, I only know it was not of this world, it had angels, I think, or...I don't know what..." She paused, gasping for breath. "I think I was...I was called. Called to join them, called to become part of their company..." But it had been frightening, and she had not been sure she wanted to join them.
Now her father sat up. "What's this?" he said. "A dream? A dream about being called?"
"Nathan-" Mary's mother reached out and tried to restrain him, by touching his shoulder.
"I don't know if I was being called," Mary said in a small voice. "But there was this dream, and people up on high places, and-"
"High places!" cried her father. "That is where the ancient heathen idols were. In the high places!"
"But not up on pedestals," Mary said. "This was different. The people being honored were standing upon them, and they were people, not statues...."
"And you think you've been called?" her father asked. "Why?"
"They asked if I would join them. They said, 'Will you come with us?'" Even as she recited it, she could hear the sweet voices.
"You must know, daughter, that all prophecy has ceased in our land," her father finally said. "There has been no word uttered by a prophet since Malachi, and that was four hundred years ago. God does not speak to us that way any longer. He speaks only through his holy Law. And that is sufficient for us."
But Mary knew what she had seen, the transcendent glory and warmth of it. "But, Father," she said, "the message, and the invitation, were so clear." She kept her voice low and respectful. But she was still shaking.
"Dear daughter, you have been misled. It was but a dream, brought on by our preparations for Jerusalem. God would not call you. Now return to your own bed."
She clung to her mother, but her mother thrust her aside. "Do as your father says," she ordered.
Mary returned to her room, the majesty of the dream still enveloping her. It had been real. She knew it had been real.
And if it was real, then her father was wrong.
In the hours just before the sky would lighten, the household made ready for its pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. Mary had been excited, because all the adults were so eager for the trip, and because all Jews were supposed to long for Jerusalem. But she had most looked forward to the journey itself, for the seven-year-old had never been outside Magdala, and there were sure to be adventures on the way. Her father had hinted at them when he told her, "We will be traveling to Jerusalem by the short route, through Samaria, so it will take us only three days instead of four. But it is dangerous. There have been attacks on pilgrims going to Jerusalem." He shook his head. "The Samaritans even still have idols, I have heard. Oh, not so openly any longer, not by the roadside, but..."
"What kind of idol? I've never seen an idol!" she asked eagerly.
"Pray that you never do!"
"But how will I know an idol if I see one?"
"You'll know," her father said. "And you must shun it!"
Now Mary remembered this, but all her earlier curiosity about Jerusalem was eclipsed by the dream, still so vivid to her in the darkness.
Busying herself with the final preparations, Mary's mother, Zebidah, had suddenly broken off measuring grain into the travel sacks and bent down to her daughter. She did not mention the dream. Instead she said, "Now, as for this trip, you must not mingle with any of the other families coming, except for the few I tell you are acceptable. So many people do not keep the Law and only want to go to Jerusalem-and even the Temple!-as some sort of holiday. Stay with the other observant families. Do you understand me?" She looked hard at Mary. In that instant her pretty face was not pretty but forbidding.
"Yes, Mother," she said.
"We keep the Law zealously, and so it must be," her mother continued. "Let all those other...transgressors look to themselves. It is not our duty to save them from their negligence. And mixing with them will contaminate us."
"Like mixing milk and meat?" Mary asked. She knew this was absolutely forbidden, so much so that anything pertaining to them must be separated.
"Just so," her mother answered. "And worse, because their influence does not fade away after a day or so, like that of the milk and meat. It stays with you, corrupting and corrupting."
They were ready. The six families making the journey together waited, donkeys loaded, packs slung over their shoulders, on the road above Magdala for the larger groups from the nearby towns to join them for the trip to Jerusalem. Mary would start out riding a donkey: the youngest traveler in the family, she did not have the stamina to walk long distances. Perhaps on the return journey she would be so toughened that she would not have to ride at all. That was her hope.
The dry season had begun, and already the sun felt hot on Mary's face. It hung brazenly over the Sea of Galilee, where it had risen earlier from behind the mountains. At dawn those mountains across the lake had been the color of tender grapes; now they showed their true colors of dust and stone. They were quite bare, and looked, Mary thought, malevolent. But perhaps that was because the land of the old Ammonites had such a bad reputation as Israel's ancient enemy.
What was it the Ammonites had done that was so bad? King David had had trouble with them. But, then, he had trouble with everyone. And there was also that evil god they worshiped, although Mary could not at first remember his name. He made the Ammonites sacrifice their children to him, putting them into the flames. Mo...Mol... Molech. Yes, that was his name.
She held up her hand and squinted across the lake. She certainly could not see any temples of Molech from here.
She gave a shudder, even in the warm sun. I won't think any more about Molech, she told herself sternly. The lake, gleaming in the sun, seemed to agree. It was too beautiful for its blue waters to be stained with thoughts of a blood-dripping god; it was probably the most beautiful place in all Israel, Mary firmly believed. No matter what was claimed for Jerusalem, how could anything be lovelier that this oval body of water, bright blue, surrounded by hills cupping it protectively?
She could see fishing boats out on the waters; there were a great many of them. It was fish that her town of Magdala was famous for-here they were salted, dried, traded, and shipped all over the world. Magdala fish were a presence on tables as far away as Damascus or Alexandria. And a presence in Mary's own home, for her father, Nathan, was a leading processor of the fish hauled into his warehouse, and her oldest brother, Samuel-although he had taken to calling himself the Greek name Silvanus for trading purposes-was the business manager, dealing with both local people and foreigners to arrange sales. Thus the big mosaic of a fishing boat that decorated their entrance hall indicated the source of their wealth. Every day as they stepped across it they could be reminded and give thanks for their good fortune and God's multitude of fish in their sea.
An east wind struck the waters of the lake and made the surface of the water tremble; she could see the ripples of water that did indeed look like harp strings. The old, poetic name for the lake was Lake Kinneret, Lake Harp, because of its shape and also because of the pattern of the wind on the water. Mary could almost hear the fine sound of plucked strings, singing to her across the water.
"Here they come!" Mary's father was gesturing to her to urge her donkey back toward the others. Down the dusty road she could see a very large caravan approaching, with even a camel or two besides donkeys and the mass of walkers.
"They must have celebrated the Sabbath too long yesterday," said Mary's mother, tartly. She was frowning; the late start was a nuisance. What was the point of delaying the departure until after the Sabbath if they were to lose a half-day anyway? No one ever started a journey the day before the Sabbath, or even the day before that, if it was a long journey. The rabbinical law forbidding walking more than about a Roman mile on the Sabbath meant that would waste a day-as far as travel was concerned.
"The Sabbath is such an excuse to waste time," said Mary's brother Silvanus loudly. "This insistence on strict observance of the Sabbath is crippling us in the foreign trade; the Greeks and Phoenicians don't take one day off out of every seven!"
"Yes, we know about your pagan sympathies, Samuel," said Mary's other older brother, Eli. "I suppose next you'll be running naked in the gymnasium with all your Greek friends."
Silvanus-alias Samuel-just glared at him. "I haven't time," he said coldly. "I am too busy helping Father run the business. It's you, with all your spare time studying scripture and consulting with rabbis, who have the leisure to go to the gymnasium or any other place of amusement you want to."
Eli flared, as Silvanus knew he would. The younger man had a hot temper, despite all his efforts in studying the ways and whys of Yahweh. With his fine, straight-nosed profile and noble bearing, he could pass for Greek, thought Silvanus. Whereas he-he almost laughed-looked more like the little scholars who were always bent over the Torah in the beth ha-Midrash, the House of Learning. Yahweh must have a mighty sense of humor.
"The study of Torah is the most important thing a man can do," Eli said stiffly. "It supersedes all other activity in moral worth."
"Yes, and in your case it precludes all other activity."
Eli snorted and turned away, pulling his donkey with him, so that its hindside was facing Silvanus, who merely laughed.
Mary was used to hearing this exchange, in various forms, between her twenty-one-year-old and eighteen-year-old brothers. It was never resolved and it never even progressed. Mary's family was deeply observant, adhering to all the rituals and religious strictures; only Silvanus seemed restless in what her father referred to as "the perfect Law of the Lord."
Mary wished she could study that Law at the little school attached to their synagogue, the beth ha-sefer, and see for herself. Or that she could steal the knowledge that Silvanus, who did not seem to want it, had acquired from his Torah schooling. But girls could not attend the school, since they could have no official place in religion. Her father had sternly repeated the rabbinical dictum, "It would be better to see the Torah burnt than to hear its words upon the lips of women."
"You should learn Greek so you can read the Iliad," Silvanus had once suggested to Mary, with a laugh. Naturally Eli had countered with a shocked blast. But Silvanus had replied, "If someone is shut out of her own literature and knowledge by stupid rulings, is she not then forced to turn to another?"
Silvanus had a point; the Greeks welcomed others into their culture, whereas the Jews guarded theirs like a secret. Each action was the result of thinking theirs was superior: the Greeks thought that one taste of Greek culture would instantly win anyone over, whereas the Jews felt theirs was so precious it could be desecrated by offering it to any and all passersby. Naturally this made Mary all the more curious about both of them. She would learn to read, she promised herself, and then she could tap into the magic and mystery of the holy writings herself.
The two traveling parties met and merged on the fork of the road up from Magdala-there were now about twenty-five families to make the journey. Many were related, distantly or otherwise, so large numbers of third, fourth, fifth, and sixth cousins would meet and play en route. Mary's family was traveling only alongside other very observant families. As they regrouped to form the procession, Eli could not resist one aside to Silvanus. "I don't know why you are making this journey at all," he said, "since you have no sympathy with our way of thought. Why go to Jerusalem?"
Instead of a sharp retort, Silvanus said thoughtfully, "For the history, Eli, for the history. I love the stones of Jerusalem, each of which tells a story-and tells it clearer and finer than the words in the scrolls."
Eli ignored his brother's solemnity. "It's a story you wouldn't even know if it wasn't written in the very scriptures you scorn! It isn't stones who talk and tell us their tales, it's scribes who record it for posterity."
"I'm sorry that you credit only yourself with the finer feelings," Silvanus finally said. He halted and fell back into another group; he would not be traveling close to his brother on this journey.
Mary did not know which one to keep near, so she went over to her parents. They were walking resolutely, their faces set for Jerusalem. The sun beat down, its brightness causing them to squint and shield their eyes.
Clouds of dust were blowing. The startling green of the Galilean spring grass had begun to fade, replaced by a dun mat; the jewel-colored wildflowers that had dotted the hillsides had wilted and disappeared. From now until next spring, the landscape would become progressively browner, the glorious burst of nature's love merely a memory. Galilee was the lushest part of the country, the nearest thing to a Persian garden paradise in the land of Israel.
The branches of the fruit trees were laden with new apples and pomegranates; the bright-green early figs were peeking from under their leaves. People were gathering them; new figs never remained on the trees long.
Posted July 27, 2007
This book made me look at things with new eyes, it has helped me discover God, and it did so in an understandable, fun way! I highly recomend for people of all backgrounds to try this book. Although some consider this book to be 'daring', you can tell the author did her research, but keep in mind the book is an opinion, it is not the Bible.
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Posted June 18, 2007
Plowing down through six hundred plus pages is a lot of novel. It is obvious that Ms. George spent unlimited hours to research and write about the era that Mary lived and later knew Jesus. Many incidents in the novel are very intense, including, the crucifixtion of Jesus. Seeing Mary through George's eyes, she is a very strong person that endured much.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 9, 2004
I read this book to help me find the feminine perspective of the Christian faith. I recently lost my brother at age 34 to cancer and a sister was murdered ten years ago. My faith has been shaken and it's been hard to reconcile what I have always been taught about God, Jesus and life itself. This book took me thro Mary's life and how she dealt with her own personal questions about faith. In that journey I was also able to rediscover my own faith. An excellent book for those interested in the day-to-day life details in the early first century or for those wanting to learn more about what life may have been like for the founders of the Christian religion. And to think I almost put it back on the shelf!! MamaJ
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Posted September 29, 2003
A child's curiousity opens the door to a lifetime's worth of regret when the young Mary of Magdala finds an Ashara idol on the way to Jerusalem with her family. Knowing she shoud throw it away, the girl still keeps it, thinking the goddess to beautiful to cause harm. Besides, only Yahweh is God, surely an idol could have no power. She does not realize that her disobedience opens the door for a demon to take hold of her heart. .............. The journey to Jerusalem is not completely filled with ill tidings. Mary also makes a friend who will defy custom and teach her to read and write, and meets the man who will change her life forever in years to come, Jesus of Nazareth. ................ As the years pass, Mary continues to hide her secret. From time to time, she hears a voice that she learns belongs to the idol, and finds herself compelled to obey it. Seeking to escape, she marries, but not even that brings her peace. Time marches on, bringing with it a child, and more demons. Tormented, Mary confesses her sin, and seeks every known means of deliverance, to no avail. Finally, she is driven to seek refuge in the desert and there will attempt to end her life. Before that can happen though, she meets Jesus once again. By now, He is also grown and beginning His mission. With a few words, He gives her peace and a new life. She joins Him and the disciples as their equal after she attempts to return home, only to be cast out as a whore. ............... The years ahead of Mary are ones filled with her greatest joys and sorrows. She learns at the feet of the Master, and is able to bring deliverance to those afflicted as she once was. Then, it all seems to be over when Christ is crucified. Or is it only beginning? ................. **** Ms. George's hours of research add historical accuracy and depth to a compelling story. New light is shed on one of the most mysterious figures in the Bible. Even from a purely secular standpoint, this is a magnetic tale. Passion and sorrow heighten the moments of joy. Whether you are Christian or not, this novel will engage your full mind and heart. ****
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Posted February 6, 2009
I was given this book by a friend and tried several times to read it. Third time was a charm and it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Read this whether you are religious or not. It is a fabulous story about the significance of a woman (and women) in the life of Christ and in Christianity. A great read!
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Posted December 7, 2008
I purchased this book because it was listed as a NYTimes bestseller. I tried picking it up several times but failed for lack of interest. Finally I decided to give it a go and get past the first ten pages or so. I am a non-practising Catholic. Well, I am very glad I persevered and read this amazing, engrossing story about a woman who apparently existed and was very much vilified in her time. She was demonized, LITERALLY, for several reasons. To her family she became a shameful outcast, and later akin to a prostitute because she followed John the Baptist and later Jesus Christ with a group of men--a woman leaving her family, and CHILD, was severely ostracized in those times. Mary of Magdalene was a Jew who became fascinated by an Idol at a time when religious Jews were very much at odds with the pagans and idol worshippers. As a result she became possessed by several very powerful demons. She went through some severe and traumatic exorcism rites at the hands of local rabbis but did not improve--but rather became worse. She was "cured" by Jesus and this lead to her following him. This novel fleshes out details of Mary's role as one of the Apostles (actually called "the Apostle to the Apostles" because of her significant role in spreading Jesus' word after his resurrection. This is a BEAUTIFULLY written book and may possibly make a believer out of a non-practising religious person. I highly recommend this book.
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Posted February 1, 2013
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Posted April 20, 2009
A welcome perspective for an interesting and elusive character. The story is touching and frustrating, while it allows the reader to believe you are finally learning something concrete about Mary Magdalene. Although it is the author's interpreatation, it is an interesting storyline that makes you want to believe it may have happened the way it is written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 5, 2006
Mary of Magdelan should have been an interesting character, involved with interesting people, but she is developed as an insipid woman who just seemed to go with the flow. George has written much better heroines.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 23, 2005
I couldn't put the book down (it was awesome) until I had to. Although wonderfully written and captured)Margaret George puts detailed descriptions of named demons intering Mary's body. I began having horrific demonic nightmares and had to stop reading the book after getting 3/4 of the way through. The nightmares stopped immediatly when I quit reading the book.
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Posted May 26, 2004
I came across this book and thought that in all the fever of the movie The Passion of the Christ, it would be interesting to know more about Maria. I was not dissappointed at all. Its interesting to learn about her life, her family and how christianism came to be. Her narrative is fast paced and yet she gives lots of details that actually transport you to that era. Im glad I read it and I highly recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 24, 2004
This is a great book. If you are intrested in biblical history or are just curious as to who mary magdalen is, pick this book up. You will not regret it. It takes you through Mary's whole life: her struggles, her discipleship with Jesus, Jesus's crucifixion, the news that Jesus is still alive, and the growth of the religion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 19, 2002
Margaret George has again outdone herself. This compelling and inspiring novel calls one to ponder on history and the distortions placed upon it. I have finished this novel but cannot stop thinking about its contents. One would be fortunate to read and enjoy the story that Margaret George has woven.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 12, 2002
Mary Magdalene does everything but walk on water in this unbelievably puffed up version of her life, while Jesus Himself is little more than the object of her devotion. Nothing here rings true--from the amazing achievements of Mary to the depiction of Biblical times, where everyone talks like a character from an old B-movie.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2002
Honestly, I remember a different Mary from the Bible...maybe because there are so many. This exceptional book takes a different mythology for Mary of Magadalene, one which is highly plausible. At times the modern dialogue is disconcerting, but adds to the readability of this novel. Margaret George is one of the best historical fiction writers around.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 15, 2002
Margaret George has done an excellent job in her discription of the characters. The dialogue would sometimes act to pull you from the time and place but she sure was able to show Mary of Magdalene as a very passionate and complex as well as strong person. Well done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 7, 2002
I found the book enjoyable as a fiction. In the past all her books have been well researched I would love to know what research she used to base her concept of Jesus's mother, Mary, having had so many children and the family being angry at Jesus's wishing to preach versus running the family business. I was disappointed in her take on the Holy FamilyWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2002
This was a story of one woman's journey through darkness into light, a journey into faith, of finding her true calling. The reader experiences his or her own journey as well, and will find meaning personal to them at the time they read this book. It was an emotional and beautiful illustration of the times and the life the desciples and apostles lead. It made what seems to so many (and myself prior to reading this) a fantastical place in time, tangible and real. It will set the soul aflame, inspire the mind, and bring tears to your eyes. Truly, this is an experience not to be missed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 1, 2002
I enjoyed Margaret George's earlier books on Cleopatra and Henry VIII and couldn't wait for her new one. Unfortunately, the way she tells Mary Magdalen's story is awfully lame and preachy. The book reads like a Sunday school lesson -- slow and plodding and a lot less interesting than I expected from this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.