A Letter of Mary
Tuesdays during the Twenty Weeks of Buzz are given over to a look at each of my twenty books, one each week, with some reflection or bit of information or background about it. This week, A Letter of Mary, published in 1997.
My background is theology, with degrees in Comparative Religion and in Old Testament. It is also Mary Russell’s interest.
So what would happen if a young, Jewish Oxford theological student were handed a document that would shake the foundations of Christianity—and, along the way, change the future of her entire life?
The compilers of what we call the New Testament had an untold number of documents to choose from: epistles, sermons, letters, and gospels (or “Good News”) all of which the early Christians had written, shared, copied, annotated, and passed around (or not—many ancient fragments are discovered within the bindings of later books.) In the second century (that is, a hundred years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth) various groups of Christians began to wrestle with just which of these documents were acceptable—defining the norm of what Christianity was—and which were either questionable or downright heretical. Many of the writings found by a couple of young goatherds in the caves of Qumran were of these questionable sort, used by a small group, rejected by the larger Christian community.
(There is a document termed the “Gospel of Mary,” of which the earliest extant fragments, from the third century, were found at Oxyrhynchus in northern Egypt—in excavations of an ancient garbage dump.)
All four Canonical gospels mention a woman named Mary, who appears to have been from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. Only Luke’s Gospel mentions her by name before the Resurrection, but all agree that it was she who witnessed the risen Christ, and she who took the news to the other apostles: Mary of Magdala was the apostle to the apostles.
Among all those fragile scraps of writing at loose in a troubled land, how many were lost? It is not a great leap of the imagination to envision a letter, written by the hand of the woman of Magdala and concerning of the charismatic rabbi whom she chose to follow, which was revered, preserved, and then quietly hidden away from later authorities.
One letter, that, were it to come to light, would cause a shiver down the spine of a Christianity that had chosen, in the two millennia since then, to turn towards the male apostles and overlook the female.
One letter, of Mary.
Sea of Galilee.