The DaVinci Code book and now the movie are pure fiction in their portrayal of the historical Mary of Magdala. Yet Dan Brown's novel catalyzed unprecedented interest in women leaders in the early church as well as their suppression by church authorities. It really energized our effort to educate people about Jesus' inclusive practice and set the record straight that Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute. However, while the popular book paints an attractive portrait of the underlying unity of male and female, it ultimately undercuts women's leadership because it focuses on the fiction of Mary of Magdala's marital status rather than on the fact of her leadership as primary witness to Jesus' resurrection. It is unfortunate that this reinforces gender bias that women are important only because of the men in their lives.
We now know that women held ministerial roles in the early church perfectly identical to those held by men. Inscriptions and images found on papyri, tombstones, frescoes and mosaics in Rome, Sicily, Jerusalem, Spain, Northern Africa and many other places show early Christian women serving their communities as apostles, prophets, instructors of theology, priests, stewards, deacons and bishops. These are historical facts that no church authorities can truly deny or erase.
Catholic church practice has yet to catch up to the vision of this Jesus who loved, empowered and readily accepted the ministry of women, though he was probably not married. If Mary of Magdala was Jesus' wife and the mother of his child, it is improbable that John's Gospel and other early Christian writings would have omitted these facts, especially since they were written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, when there would have been little to fear from Jewish authorities. Instead, these early texts portray her in considerable detail as the primary witness to the resurrection and a female leader who in many ways understood Jesus' mission better than did the male apostles.
The Gospels show that Mary of Magdala was the preeminent female leader in the early church. Yet by the sixth century she was no longer remembered as "the apostle to the apostles" but as a prostitute. Scripture scholars and other experts of ancient documents say she was confused with other women mentioned in the Gospels. Rather than speculate that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus, it would be better to imitate her courage and generosity of spirit in accompanying a condemned political prisoner through a tortuous death and in proclaiming God's approval of all the values for which Jesus suffered and died. One of those values was to welcome the leadership gifts of women.
When will our Catholic leaders follow God's example and welcome women to proclaim and preach the Gospel as Mary of Magdala did that first Easter morn?