I learned something new on Good Friday; Melvyn Bragg wrote the screenplay for the Rice/Lloyd-Webber Musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” According to Lord Bragg, adapting that theatrical piece for the big screen proved to be the start of a fascination with Mary Magdalene; a fascination which would eventually produce a documentary to air at 12 noon on Good Friday, the BBC’s flagship “Religious” programme for the 2013 Easter season.
I had been warned in advance that the show would be screened at that time (to coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion?) and encouraged to watch. So I did. In the end I was probably less offended than I had prepared myself to be, but I did watch the closing titles with sadness of heart. The BBC had used its prime-time slot at Easter to present a fanciful alternative to the Christian message rather than something more factual or something that might help people to reflect upon the central figure of Christianity; Jesus the Christ. Melvyn Bragg was wide of the mark.
To his credit, Lord Bragg was honest about the limited scope of the Biblical evidence about Mary Magdalene. He was even happy to admit that her status as the first witness of the resurrected Christ (some have dubbed her “the apostle to the apostles”) gives added weight to the veracity of the resurrection accounts – in those days, the testimony of a woman was not regarded as having any value, so the fact that she is mentioned in this light points to the truth of the matter (nobody would make it up!). But most of the programme was about other things.
First, there was the way the church of later centuries treated Mary Magdalene. Bragg spoke of the way that the senior and influential figures in the church confused and merged different women in the Gospel accounts together as “Mary” in such a way that she could be presented as a strong example of a penitent sinner. The church was presented as “wrong” on this matter. (I don’t disagree with this verdict, but it is painful to hear nonetheless, because no distinction was made between the failures of the early church and the state of the church today; what the audience heard was “The church was/is wrong.”)
Second, there was the uncritical appeal to the minority report of the Nag Hamadi texts – literature from the “Gnostic” sect of Christianity which was around from the end of the 1st century and which believed a very different message to orthodox Christianity as we know it today (or as we find in the letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament). Predictably, Bragg highlighted the one fragment of a text in which Jesus is reported to have favoured Mary above the other disciples and “kissed her on the mouth often,” but, regrettably, though one of the scholars did admit we could not be sure what such kisses really meant, none of them identified that the fragment is actually damaged just where the word “mouth” would be. The real issue is not that we don’t know what a kiss on the mouth might have meant in those days, but rather that we don’t even know what the text really says! Of course, the real issue is of no interest to the programme makers; they just want something sensational to interest the public.
Strikingly, Bragg promoted the view that ancient documents (again, without qualifying this at all) suggest strongly that Mary Magdalene was “Jesus’ lover, or even his wife.” I confess I found this most bizarre; that Lord Bragg should find it somehow of more concern that Mary be Jesus’ wife than his [unmarried] lover! Of course, the evidence for such a relationship is virtually non-existent and the hints come only from late, scarce and unreliable sources; the silence of the canonical Gospels on this matter actually speaks a far more authoritative word. However, the TV audience just heard that she “might have been” (in context “probably was”) his lover… and the reputation of both Jesus and his church is tarnished once again.
Third, a significant assumption made popular by Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code” were repeated. This was that the Gnostic “Gospels” were written as early as the four Gospels we have in the Bible. Reputable scholars suggest this is highly unlikely – suggesting the origin of the Gnostic material is almost certainly a century or so later. Similarly, the programme promoted the view that the Emperor Constantine was instrumental in choosing the books that would officially become parts of the Christian Bible so that they would convey the message he wished others to hear rather than the “truth”. The real way the books of the New Testament were chosen by and authorised for use in church gatherings is much more complicated (but this doesn’t make such controversial television!).
Fourth, and connected with this, Constantine’s suppression of certain branches of the church (Lord Bragg called them “Christians” without qualification) was connected with the suppression of women; the outlawed Gnostics seemed to allow women to rise to positions of leadership, and, of course, this would never do. Thus Bragg neatly linked ancient history to an issue which is currently proving difficult for the church – “Things might have been so different,” he mused.
All in all I guess I found the programme most disappointing because of the thread running through the programme that “the church was/is wrong”; wrong about Mary’s identity, wrong to exclude the heretical Gnostic texts, wrong to hide Jesus’ alleged affair with Mary, wrong to take the view it did on women in leadership. There was a sense in which the programme presented Lord Bragg as “finally, a sensible voice!” on these matters, unearthing secrets the church would rather stay hidden. He made some sensible conclusions (like him, I do not believe that Mary Magdalene was sent off in a rudderless boat, ended up in France and performed a miracle by praying that the wife of a local prince might conceive a child). But in his quest for a sensational story, he literally went all over the place, up every dead end street drawing attention to all manner of false beliefs and raising all kinds of false hopes.
What a shame he didn’t settle for the most sensational news of all time; the news which Mary Magdalene herself encountered and shared – that Jesus Christ is risen from the grave; that death is defeated, and that forgiveness of sins is freely given in his name to all who will believe. Now that would have been an appropriate programme for the Easter season!