Margaret George is the author of the bestselling Autobiography of Henry VIII; Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; and Mary, Called Magdalene.
About Margaret George
An Interview with Margaret George
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The Bible hardly mentions Mary Magdalene. What other primary sources did you turn to for information on this historical figure? How much did you rely on the Gnostic Gospels, specifically the Gospel of Mary?
Scanty though they are, the four canonical gospels remain our main source of information about Mary Magdalene. They recount her early possession by demons, her cure by Jesus, the fact that she was financially able to support Jesus's ministry, that she remained with him during the crucifixion, and, in coming to the tomb on Easter morning, became the first to see the risen Christ.
The Gospel of Mary, discovered in 1896, does not add any biographical information about her; it does stress her spiritual and visionary wisdom, her primacy among the disciples, and her closeness to Jesus. I wanted to bring these elements into the novel. They explain why she became so "famous" among the early Christians, which she certainly was.
Further details about her life appear in apocryphal writings in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, but some of those facts are unreliable. She is also mentioned by church fathers in the early church, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Origen, Pseudo-Clement of Rome, Augustine of Hippo, and Pope Gregory the Great.
How did you research the historical times in which this novel is set? Did you travel to the Middle East? If so, what was your experience there? Do you draw any parallels from the current violence in the Middle East to the conflict between the Romans and Jews at the time of Jesus?
Many excellent studies on the first-century world are available, and, in addition, I also did seven years of Bible study that covered sixty of the sixty-six books of the Bible.
I have traveled in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. I lived in Israel as a child in the 1950s and have returned six times since then. The last visit in 1999 was specifically to retrace all of Mary's footsteps as best I could. I found it a challenge to identify all the sites, and Magdala, Mary's hometown, was particularly hard to find. It was a calm period then, when there was a brief hope of peace. I feel a great similarity between what is happening now in the Middle East and what happened in Jesus's time: desperate people without leaders who can help them, despair, and fanatics and extremists driving each side further apart, with mounting bloodshed and violence. You can understand how the people put such hope in Jesus, wanting him only to be an earthly deliverer.
What drew you to Mary Magdalene as a historical figure? How did the experience of writing about Mary Magdalene differ from the subjects of your other historical novels? Do you personally relate to Mary Magdalene?
As poorly documented as Mary Magdalene is, she is more "historical" than many other characters in the New Testament, in that more details are cited about her life, personality, and behavior. Many of the disciples are simply names, with no attending facts. Still, compared to my other subjects, she presented much more empty space that had to be filled in by intelligent detective- and guesswork.
Yes, I do personally relate to Mary Magdalene, both as a spiritual seeker who must often choose between two mutually exclusive goals and as a strong, courageous woman I admire.
Past Church fathers have portrayed Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute; more recent feminist scholars have portrayed her as a female divinity figure, church leader, and even the wife of Christ. How did you decide on the role you gave her here—neither whore nor bride but beloved friend to Jesus?
Modern scholarship has given us new access into the world of the first century, and we are much better at deciphering the meaning behind customs and words than earlier ages. The recent claims that Mary Magdalene was a church leader, based on what we now know about the early church, seemed persuasive to me. Also, there is the fact that, as one scholar says, "she was famous"—but famous for what? It seems that the Gospel of Mary, as well as some of the other apocryphal, Gnostic gospels, have preserved a hint of what made her so special: spiritual gifts that Jesus respected and that made her close to him. It is not necessary to assert that she was actually his wife. Nowhere in any writings is there any indication that Jesus was married.
As for the prostitute label, that did not arise until the sixth century, and it was formally refuted by the Vatican in 1969. So any novel taking that route now would definitely be historically incorrect.
The female divinity figure is an interesting perspective, because in spite of thunderings by the Biblical prophets against the rites of Astarte and the Queen of Heaven, people longed for a goddess and missed the female half of creativity. The goddess is a powerful figure who refuses to go away—and one that we honor in many ways as she is being rediscovered today. I wanted to bring that out with Mary's relationship to the goddess idol she found, which was forbidden but no less compelling. Mary herself is sometimes seen as a Christian version of the goddess, the earthly side representing sexuality and joy, whereas the Virgin Mary represents the ethereal. Perhaps in a twisted way that is why Mary Magdalene was saddled with the prostitute label—the early church had a hard time dealing with sexuality, so any female figure associated with it had to be a prostitute: the origins of the Whore/Madonna split.
What is your own spiritual background?
A long pilgrimage that has led me from my family background as a Baptist, to the traditions of the Episcopal and Catholic churches, married to a Jew, and now discovering New Age spirituality.
Where does Mary's longing for Jesus as a husband come from? Is it a residual effect of her demonic possession or rather the understandable cravings of a woman who has lost her husband?
I think it is really neither, it is a response to the magnetism of Jesus himself. One commentator has said that Jesus's greatest temptation could have been the doors his own charm opened to him; everyone wanted him to come to dinner. In such an unusual (for those times) close relationship between a man and a woman, as equals, it would be surprising if someone as human and lonely as Mary did not feel an attraction to Jesus and a wish to have him always with her as a husband.
Why did you have Judas propose to Mary? Are you implying that Mary's rejection of him had anything to do with his later betrayal of Jesus?
I tried to portray Judas as an intellectual who was never able to overcome his cynicism, which in the end doomed his attempt to follow Jesus. I thought of Judas as the type of person who tries everything to find fulfillment: in his artwork, in his knowledge and learning, in his sophistication. One last remedy had not been tried: marriage and commitment. He reached out to the one other disciple he felt was similar to himself, to whom he also was attracted. Perhaps if she had accepted him, he might have posed for awhile as a church worker alongside her, but it would not have lasted. No, I did not mean to imply that her rejection made him reject Jesus; she was just the last branch he tried to grasp before his final fall.
Until the very end, even after the crucifixion, Mary doubts. It is not until Jesus is resurrected that she fully believes. Is her lack of complete faith until that moment meant to be understood as a weakness? Or is it an understandable human response to a profoundly complex individual?
None of the disciples understood what Jesus was about, nor anticipated Easter morning. This is not weakness but common sense, as the resurrection was beyond expectation. Jesus was also mysterious in what he predicted, speaking in parables and strange wordings. I think the last sentence above describes it perfectly: an understandable human response to a profoundly complex individual.
Are there other women in the Bible you are drawn to or have considered writing about?
I always sympathized with Leah, the unwanted wife who had to share her husband Jacob with her younger sister Rachel. (This is in the Book of Genesis.) In competition with Rachel, who was the beloved one, she nonetheless gave Jacob six sons and a daughter—half the Twelve Tribes of Israel. I think the psychological tension in her life must have been phenomenal.
I also like the story of Tamar, David's daughter. Her brother Amnon's passion for her ignited the civil war between David and his son Absalom, her other brother who avenged her honor (II Samuel 13-19:33). For sheer operatic drama, it is hard to top this story, ending in the famous cry, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
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