Skip to content

“Mary Magdalene”: The Film

March 28, 2018

Viewing the recently released film, “Mary Magdalene,” wasn’t quite as boring as watching paint dry, but the comparison did come to mind.  I did wonder at various points how much longer it would go on.  And that’s a shame, because Mary of Magdala is an intriguing character.  We don’t really know all that much about her, but there is at least an interesting “reception history.”

She was from Magdala, often identified as a village north of Tiberias on the western side of Lake Galilee.  Per Luke 8:1-3, she was one of a number of women who followed Jesus along with the familiar twelve disciples, and is said to have been delivered from seven evil spirits (by Jesus we presume).  In Mark 15:40, she and other women disciples see Jesus die, then where he was buried (15:47), and then discover the empty tomb (16:1-8).

It is the Gospel of John, however, that developed her further as an individualized character.[1]  In John, she alone discovers the empty tomb and informs Peter and another disciple (20:1-10), and then there is also the touching account where she alone encounters the risen Jesus (20:11-18), and thereafter announces to the other disciples “I have seen the Lord.”[2]

In later texts, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary (both 2nd century?), the figure is appropriated to make certain emphases that seem in a “gnosticizing” or esoteric direction.  In the Gospel of Thomas (logion 114) there is the curious incident where Peter objects to her as a woman being among Jesus’ entourage, and Jesus replies that it will be OK, for he will “make Mary male” (which likely reflects the ascetic emphasis of the text and the image of maleness as spiritual strength and superiority). [3] The Gospel of Mary attaches her name to a text that seems to express a somewhat similar polemical attitude toward what was then becoming the mainstream of Christian teaching.[4]

In the 6th century, Pope Gregory identified her as the unnamed woman “sinner” who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50, which became thereafter influential upon nearly all representations of her in Western Christianity (but not Eastern):  a former prostitute who becomes a devout follower of Jesus.  (This is the character reflected in Jesus Christ Superstar.)[5]

Oddly, this movie seems to have taken particular inspiration from the later appropriation of Mary of Magdala in the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary.  These both seem to me to have appropriated the character from the Gospel of John, but with very different intents from John. I say “oddly” because both GThomas and GMary are much later texts, and obviously reflect a polemical stance against what was by then mainstream Christian teaching on some matters.  That is, they hardly can be used as if they somehow preserve authentic traditions about Mary.  But the script writers have chosen to do so, producing a caricature, a naïve use of obviously tendentious sources.

Aside from the dubious quality historically, it’s too bad that a film focused on her is so very slow-moving and, well, often boring.  The actor playing her, Rooney Mara, obviously took her role seriously.  She spends long and frequent spells of staring intently at Jesus, and they occasionally exchange shy smiles in a way that I presume is supposed to convey some secret, or interest or connection or . . . something.

And the actors are so old!  Joaquin Phoenix plays a Jesus who has to be at least in his early fifties.  No wonder this Jesus seems so tired and wan most of the time.  That itinerant preaching, healing, etc., travelling on foot up and down hills and coping with the crowds, starting a new religious movement intended to win over the nation, that’s a younger man’s work!  And also, what’s he been doing for the preceding 50 years or so?

Jesus’ circle of male apostles in the film, likewise, are far too old for their roles.  The youngest looking is perhaps Judas Iscariot, and he’s got to be well into his 30s.[6]  Several others are quite obviously senior citizens.  But, by any reasonable reckoning, Jesus was likely no more than thirty, and “the twelve” were probably young men, in their 20s.

For that matter, where are the many children and young people more broadly?  In that society a goodly percentage of the population would have been children and youths.  There should be gaggles of children running around the streets, but in the movie they’re populated more like adults-only villages.

Speaking of “the twelve,” I counted perhaps nine males tramping about with Jesus in this film.  So, couldn’t they afford three other actors?  Or did the director think twelve too many for the camera shots?  Or what? Many scholars think that Jesus likely did appoint twelve followers as a symbolic expression of addressing the hopes of ancient Israel.

The film has some bizarre (or at least historically dubious) scenes, such as the one where those convinced that Mary has a demon try to perform an exorcism by repeatedly dunking her in a lake.  I don’t recall that technique mentioned in the various ancient exorcism texts.  The film makes a lot also of Jesus baptizing, and assigning Mary the role of baptizing women.  Scholars actually debate whether Jesus himself baptized at all, and the evidence isn’t all that clear.

Or how about the scene where Jesus and his disciples come into a village, and everyone there is lined up to meet them, holding lit candles in little bowls.  Candles??  People in first-century Galilee used oil lamps (of which there are many found in archaeological digs there).  And, anyway, it’s broad daylight, so why the lights?

Or consider the lengthy segment where Peter and Mary (yup, the two of them travelling on their own) go to, wait for it, Samaria!  There, they find a village that’s been ravaged by Roman soldiers, which allows Mary to take the lead in caring for the victims left to die. Really?  Is any of these things based on anything, or even plausible?

I mentioned the tired and almost vacant way that Jesus is portrayed in the film.  It’s not entirely Joaquin’s fault.  The script gives him such vapid lines.  The lines convey no fire in his belly, no eschatological excitement to his message (except in a few of the disciples, which we’re to take as ill conceived).  Oh, sure, he urges peace and love and forgiveness.  All very nice.  But it hardly seems the stuff to move individuals to abandon their livelihoods and hit the road with Jesus.

Even the resurrected Jesus/Joaquin retains this placid, perhaps pensive, but rather vacant demeanour.  You’d think that being raised from death into new and immortal existence would make you kind of . . . excited, maybe, with something to say.  The depiction of the risen Jesus certainly doesn’t draw on any of the early reports of the people who claimed to have seen him.

Now, as I say, some of the disciples harbour eschatological hopes, and aim for Jesus to be recognized as the royal Messiah of Israel.  But where on earth would they have got such ideas, given the bland diet of what Jesus espouses in this film?

And what on earth would have led to this Jesus angering the authorities sufficiently to apprehend him, torture and degrade him, and them execute him by crucifixion?  The film gives no hint.  But isn’t that a pretty important question?  Jewish teachers who only espoused the virtues put in Jesus’ mouth in the film didn’t tend to get this kind of treatment by the authorities.

Ah, but, of course, this isn’t really a film about Jesus (as the title makes clear).  Jesus is more the occasion for a particular representation of Mary Magdalene.  Implausibly, early in the film, Jesus’ little “I’m OK, you’re OK” talk with her not only substitutes for the exorcism referred to in the Gospel of Luke (8:2), but also somehow suffices to make her a devoted follower.  Thereafter, she quickly becomes Jesus’ closest disciple who uniquely understood him, on whom, indeed, Jesus depends for emotional comfort and support.

In the final moments, in addition to claiming to be the first witness of the risen Jesus (taking the Gospel of John above the other Gospels here), Mary also sketches a new/revised understanding of Jesus’ purpose and the future direction that his followers should go.  In place of Peter’s emphasis that injustice and other evils remain and need eschatological remedy, Mary urges inner enlightenment as a way of making the world a better place (echoing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”?).  It’s kind of mindfulness in lieu of messianism, I guess.

Peter is portrayed as jealous that Jesus favoured her over him and the others, and insists that he will chart the future of the Jesus-movement, and Mary should keep her theological views to herself.  So, we got a bit of a Davinci-code type thing going on here in the script, it seems, the putative source of the Papacy shutting down alternative voices (especially women) already in 33 AD!

It ought to be difficult to make stories as riveting as those in the Gospels bland and uninteresting.  But the Hollywood record largely shows them fully up to the task, and, sadly, this film is no exception.  In focusing on the Magdalene, and in not portraying her as a “fallen woman,” the film is technically notable.  But, aside from its numerous historical mis-steps, including its characterization of the title figure, it also has to be judged a poor-to-middling movie (as seems reflected in the several newspaper reviews).


[1] This, however, is only one of several characters that get a more developed persona in the Gospel of John.  The others include Thomas, Nicodemus, Philip, Nathaniel, and Mary and Martha (of Bethany).  This highlighting of certain individuals seems to have been a feature of the author’s literary practice.

[2] The narrative in John is the obvious basis for the recent Papal decree designating a Feast Day for Mary Magdalene (22 July), and referring to her as “Apostle of the Apostles.”  Curiously, this ignores the equally important role of other named women in the other Gospels.

[3] See now the extended discussion of this logion in Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas:  Introduction and Commentary (Leiden:  Brill, 2014), 607-16.

[4] Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Early Christian Gospel Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[5] See, e.g., M. Starowieyski, “Mary Magdalene,” Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Angelo Di Berardino (Downers Grove, IL:  IVPAcademic, 2014), 2:724 (with bibliography).

[6] The portrayal of Judas’ intention in arranging for Jesus’ arrest (to provoke Jesus into messianic action) may be derived from the ideas of a former colleague in the University of Manitoba, William Klassen, Judas, Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

From → Uncategorized

  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    Larry, in agreement with Bauckham and a couple of the above comments, I too think Joanna was a real person, wife of Chuza, Herod (Antipas’) steward. Do you agree? If that is true, what do you think this might say about Jesus being “linked” with the Temple authorities? In other words, if Joanna provides for Jesus’ ministry in part, how are we to envision the relationship? . . . [edited for brevity–LWH]

    • Herod Antipas wasn’t in charge of the Temple, which was then under the power of the Roman governor. No the wife of any official of Herod Antipas would have no connection with the Temple.
      But the Gospels (including Mark) agree that there were a number of women followers of Jesus, some of whom may have supported him in his ministry. Joanna is all the more an interesting character, for there would have been little love lost between Jesus and Antipas (“that fox”; Luke 13:32)!

  2. Thanks for your review, Larry. I was getting some pushback for mine, but I feel vindicated after reading yours.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    Joan Taylor’s article is still the most interesting on MM as of late, at least in my opinion, here

    She is an on sight lady, so I asked her kindly to find that long lost 1st century copy of the Parables of Enoch written in Aramaic. She assured me she’d try her best Larry. Joan is fine lady scholar!!!!

    • John: Prof. Taylor is, indeed, a fine scholar. And the article you point to is illustrative of this. Whether she or anyone else will ever find a lst-century copy of the Parables of Enoch in Aramaic . . . don’t hold your breath.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        Thanks Larry and Happy Easter! I find Joan’s suggestion that her nickname may have been “The Toweress” (“The Magdalene”) intriguing. Kind of goes nicely with “The Rock” for Peter. And on an unrelated note, I’ve all ways liked the way Mary is made to say, “The Son of Man is within you” in the Gospel of Mary. Even though it is doubtful Mary said that. Still, that saying goes nicely with Matthew’s twist on Mark 9:1 = Matt 16:28, or Luke 17:21 is evocative of POxy654 3:1 (Thom 3:1); plus Thom 51:2; and 113.

      • John; the saying “the son of man is within you” is obviously an intentional revision of the earlier/traditional saying about the nearness of the kingdom of God. In Luke 17:21, for example, the kingdom of God is “among you” (Greek: entos humin), not “within you”. “The son of man is within you” reflects an altogether different outlook than what we have in the NT Gospels.

  4. ‘Jesus’ little “I’m OK, you’re OK” talk’: I am guessing this is a loose translation from the original Aramaic. One wonders what the the late Maurice Casey would have said. Films ostensibly about Jesus tend to be pretty awful, as you indicate.They tend to reflect more about the values and views of the makers rather than anything to do with Jesus?

    This was an interesting article.. Those references in the Gospel to the women who supported Jesus always stir the curiosity. The understated mention they get still reminds you that they did the little things like dealing with finances and accommodation and witnessing the crucifixion and resurrection. St Paul seemed to have plenty of respect for various women he listed. I have always been attracted by that suggestion (by Bauckham among others I think) that the Joanna (,wife of Chuza, steward to Herod Antipas, according to Luke) might be the same person as Junia referred to by Paul as of note among the apostles, and in Christ before him.

    You can guess from such references that the part they played in the spread of Christianity was far more important and interesting than standing around simpering at Jesus.

    • Becky Castle Miller permalink

      Ben Witherington also writes about the Joanna-Junia possibility, and I also am attracted to the idea.

      • Becky,

        Yes, I first came across the link in ‘What Have They Done With Jesus?’ by Ben Witherington. He titles the first chapter of his book ‘Joanna and Mary Magdalene: Female Disciples from the Seashore of Galilee’. As Witherington says (p20)…’ Junia must have been part of the original circle of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem if indeed she was “in Christ ” before Paul’s conversion in A.D. 34-35′.

        It would be interesting to hear Professor Hurtado’s views on the significance of women in the early Christianity.

  5. Kirk Durston permalink

    I appreciate the review, in particular, from the viewpoint of a New Testament scholar. For me, getting the details right is important and you have provided a well-informed and useful summary.

  6. Darnit… after reading this review I will scratch this movie off the list of possible movies to go see. Oh wait… the trailers for it already convinced me it would not be worth my time 😉

  7. J. Andrew Doole permalink

    We don’t even “know” she was from “Magdala”!

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like a pity. I do MM with my Masters seminar and hope to go together to watch it. At least it affords is the opportunity to talk about the Nag Hammadi gospels with “outsiders”, if you’ll pardon the pun!

  8. Do you take the Gospels to be completely historically accurate because they set in Judaea in the reign of Herod Antipas?

    Do you find yourself annoyed by ‘historical’ films set in the Wild West? I imagine one could quibble with the specific jargon and style of six-shooters used by Doc Holliday, or the fact that many things happen in the film that are not even close to historical accuracy.

    But, hopefully one would quickly realise that doing so is just bad film criticism. Fair enough about pacing, acting style, etc. But, your criticisms regarding historical accuracy are strange.

    But, hey, if you want to be the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Bible films, feel free.

    • Taylor: You’re still not getting it, are you? “Wild West”films are announced as fiction. Even films about historical characters such as Doc Holliday or Jesse James, or Wyatt Earp that have massive amounts of creative material (e.g., dialogue, etc.), can be judged as to whether they succeed in historical terms. E.g., if a Jesse James movie has him robbing banks in New York city, that’s just stupidly incorrect. I don’t demand that the Magdalene movie be historical documentary, only that, as it presents itself as set in a given time and place, it should at least TRY not to come over laughably inaccurate.
      No, this movie is just a poor production. . . on all counts. (And I have no idea who the hell that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is. Try some other insult.)

      • Larry: Let me type try again so that you can understand me.

        These histrionics about the historical accuracy of a film that makes no claims to being some documentary take on the person of Mary are misplaced. I already presented material to the contrary. You know, someone involved in the production of the film. It would do your review some good to actually read that material.

      • Taylor: I’ve read the material you cite. I stand by the view that the film makers obviously want to have it both ways. They want us to take the film seriously, as pointing to something about the figure and what she represents, but then they also want to dodge any criticism by saying, “hey, it’s just a movie; lighten up.” No histrionics, Taylor, just criticism of bizarre decisions, needlessly so. More to the point, the film is boring.

  9. Robert permalink

    I think you may have missed the point of what “Reception History” does! The film isn’t an academic work but an artistic one — so assessing it in terms of its historical accuracy and/or whether it got the number of disciples right is kind of meaningless and irrelevant.

    • Robert: Your complaint would be appropriate had the film not gone out of its way to present itself as historically based, right from the opening “framing” narrative, and throughout. Sorry. My criticism was directed appropriately to the film.

      • It would be helpful to take into account what one of the producers actually says about the film:

        ‘‘We’re not proposing that this film is trying to
        be a theological or historical text of any kind,’
        says producer Liz Watts. ‘The story is up for
        interpretation and it IS a story that we’re
        telling but we want it to be very respectful
        of people’s faith.’


        It seems that it is not meant to be some historically accurate portrayal.

      • But the film opens with a historical narrative, setting events in “Judaea” (actually, Galilee) in the reign of Herod Antipas, etc. Sorry. You can’t have it both ways. Either you say up front in the movie (as movies that are fictional regularly do) “this is a work of fiction…enjoy.” Or you take your chops as a putative historical film. Viewers are cued by the film to take it seriously. Hence, criticism is fair game.
        The point of my criticism isn’t that it offends some religious stance. The film is both laughable history and boring.

      • Robert permalink

        Have you ever seen Fargo? What do you make of the opening?

      • Sure. And Fargo is actually QUITE accurate in its depiction of the places, people, etc. The Magdalene movie isn’t, yet it asks to be taken as a revisionist historical “take” on a particular woman and events. Come on!

      • Robert permalink

        Yeah, it’s actually not. 100% fiction. However, the film opens by declaring it is a true story told “exactly as it occurred.” See here:
        Of course, the point is that no artistic rendition is ever historically accurate whether it purports to be or not. So useful analysis will typically focus on other aspects. But, of course, this is really 101 level stuff, so I won’t continue to waste your precious time by explaining what any first-year film studies textbook will tell you.

        As a final parting shot, I do wish you would save some of that vitriol for the canonical gospels’ own contempt for historical accuracy! 🙂

      • Look, Robert, my blog posting wasn’t a complaint that the script involved some fictional elements. It was that it was needlessly wrong on a whole host of things pertaining to the setting. But, actually, my main complaint in the posting is that it is a poor film. I don’t need Film 101 to see that, nor should you. Try reading a good bit more carefully. It would help your image. Farewell.

  10. David Forrester permalink

    As you doubtless know, in the Eastern Tradition she is one of those saints called “ Equal to the Apostles”.

  11. Thank you for going to the trouble of viewing this “for us”, and for your interesting review. It will save at least me from being tempted to go and see the film for myself.

  12. Well that was some opening line… 😉

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: