Return here to the Shadows in Eden home page.....

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Woman in the Wall

The bishop stands watching as the two workmen cement the stones into position. Course by course, each row gradually adding to the height of the whole, the stones rise from the cold floor of the church interior. But the bishop’s gaze is not so much focused on the activity of the workmen as it is upon the woman who is gradually being lost to view behind the rising wall of stones.

Sister Bertken. At what point in such a long self-imposed incarceration do the stones of the walls disappear to reveal spaces vaster than any previous imaginings? Sister Bertken’s writings describe encounters with the Spirit which are perhaps less accessible to those who enjoy more everyday freedoms. 
The woman is dressed in a loose [1]garment of coarsely-woven cloth, and is seated on a simple wooden stool with her hands resting calmly in her lap. Her eyes do not meet the bishop’s gaze, but instead are directed towards the flagstones on the floor. The few paces of space that separate the woman from the bishop seem vaster than reality, as if she already is lost to the world beyond her increasingly limited view. The workmen work on, until only the top of the woman’s head is visible above the highest course of stones. Then only the far wall of stones is dimly seen in the darkness beyond, and then… nothing. The bishop affixes his seal to the masonry. At the age of thirty Sister Bertken has begun her life of voluntary seclusion, walled-up in a cell less than four meters square: a life of prayer and meditation that she will follow for the rest of her days.

The stone plaque on the Maarten’s bridge in Utrecht commemorating Sister Bertken, who is shown absorbed in her writing even as she is being walled in by two stonemasons. Sister Bertken is traditionally portrayed in her nun’s habit, although the clothes which she wore in her cell were of the simplest.
These preparations of final commitment are actually a culmination of what has come before, for the bishop has previously listened attentively to the sister’s wish to be voluntarily incarcerated before giving his permission, satisfying himself that her commitment is one that is driven by faith and devotional service alone. A small aperture in the stones which aligns with the church altar has been left so that Sister Bertken may follow the services, and another opening at the rear of the cell allows for the necessary food to be passed through to her – and presumably also for the equally necessary emptying of the chamber pot with which she has been provided. She is allowed neither meat nor dairy products, and her food is of the simplest fare. Her bed is a palette on the floor. She wears no shoes, and is allowed only the comparative luxury of a pelt of fur in winter to stave off the freezing cold from the flagstones beneath her naked feet.

Pages from one of the two published books by Sister Bertken. The title informs us that it is 'a book made and written by Sister Bertken who following her vow spent her entire life incarcerated in the Buur Church in Utrecht.’ The woodblock illustration depicts the suffering Christ appearing before her in a vision.
We are in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands of the 15th-century, and Sister Bertken, born Berta Jacobsdochter, is not the only recluse to have herself walled up alive in such a way. It seems that such recluses strove to emulate the examples of the recluses of former centuries who chose to abandon their former lives for the solitary privations of the desert. In northern Europe there are no vast desert wildernesses, so solitude was sought in the hearts of the cities – and what more profound solitude is there than a small dark cell with no way out? We know some of the [2]names of these other walled-up recluses, but Sister Bertken has become the best-known of them because of what she bequeathed to posterity.

Sister Bertken’s seclusion appears to have been more productive than most. She was allowed to spin yarn, and apparently at some time she was granted access to writing materials, because her works have survived in printed form to come down to us: a volume about the suffering Christ, and a collection which includes a number of prayers, a [3]dialogue of the soul’s mystic marriage with Christ as the ‘bridegroom’, and eight hymns. And it seems that Sister Bertken’s activities were not confined to her writings and meditations. Over the years many would come to her cell, whispering their stories to her through the tiny aperture in the stones, asking her advice about the things which were troubling them – and in turn receiving that advice. It seems that the advice of the recluse became both valued and respected – and acted upon.

The interior of the Buur Church as painted by Pieter-Janszoon Saenredam in 1644. We see a very different interior to the church of two centuries previously in Sister Bertken’s time. It is now a very Protestant church which has been stripped of all signs of Catholicism a century earlier in the [4]beeldenstorm’ event. The painting is not without a whimsical touch: a man draws a doodle on the wall depicting four riders on a single horse.
But what also sets Sister Bertken apart is the astonishing length of time of her seclusion. She was walled up inside the Buur Church in 1457, and remained within the sealed walls of her small cell until her death on June 25, 1514: a near-incomprehensible total of fifty-seven years of voluntary incarceration. Her birth year was either 1426 or 1427, making her perhaps eighty-seven years of age at the time of her death. Her seclusion, as we know, was an entirely voluntary one. We also know that she herself paid for the construction of her cell within the church with an inheritance from her father, and that this inheritance, although she was born out of wedlock, must have given her some social standing.

Historians have attempted to unravel what Sister Bertken’s motives might have been for such a willing incarceration, with little conclusive success. As with [5]Mary of Egypt, Sister Bertken’s predecessor and perhaps also her example, who subjected herself to forty-seven years of pitiless hardships of isolation in the Jordanian desert, merely to dismiss her incarceration as crazy or misguided seems hardly adequate. Her life in confinement demonstrates that she was both wise and articulate with her experiences and sympathetic to others.

Five and a half centuries after they were originally written in her walled cell, the words of Sister Bertken are heard again in our own time, now as an opera written by Rob Zuidam, with soprano Katrien Baerts shown here in the role of Sister Bertken. From a solitary cell to the opera stage: words travelling in time to outlast anything which their creator might have imagined for them.
But to say that Sister Bertken’s actions were motivated by simple faith is to presume that we know what ‘faith’ actually is. We think that we can discern faith by the outward actions of someone, and we ascribe those actions to faith, and the term is so familiar that there is a general assumption that we understand it. But we do not. Not really. When it comes to such extreme examples as Mary of Egypt and Sister Bertken we have arrived at the threshold of the unknown, and are left to wonder.

There is a tradition that Sister Bertken was buried beneath the floor of her cell. Perhaps this seems fitting, for even in death, how after so many decades of confinement could she return to the outside world, even for her own burial? But all traces of her cell in the Buur Church have now long disappeared, and its precise location remains unknown. The time-worn flagstones keep their secrets well, as does the elusive mystery that we call faith.

Ick voelde in mij een vonkelkijn
Het roert so dic dat herte mijn
Daer wil ick wel op waken
Die min vermach des altemael
Een vuur daeraf te maken.

I felt a tiny spark within 
It reached into this heart of mine
And I will guard its light
The spark that love will kindle
To a fire burning bright.

~ Sister Bertken (verse translation from the 15th-century Dutch by Hawkwood)

[1] Portrayals of Sister Bertken traditionally depict her in her nun’s habit, although the simple clothing that she wore while in her cell was as I have described here.

[2] Sister Agnes was walled-up in the Geerte Church, Alyt Ponciaens in the Jacobi Church, and Peter Gijsberts in the Predikheren Church in the same cell which his sister had previously occupied. All these churches are in Utrecht.

[3] Curiously, the format of this dialogue is similar to some Gnostic texts. Since this is perhaps the most mystic of Sister Bertken’s works we are left to speculate that, as with the writings of Julian of Norwich and other Christian mystics, these themes tend to converge at a common point of revelation whatever their original radius of belief, which in turn leads us to speculate that even beliefs which might seem distant from each other have a common truth. But it is the deeper truth of mysticism, not the fixed doctrinal language of orthodoxy.

[4] Please see my post Isis in Paris for more about this dramatic event.

[5] Please see my post Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness to read the remarkable life story of this desert recluse. As with Sister Bertken, Mary (left) began her life as a recluse at the age of thirty, although her life up to that point could not have provided a more extreme contrast to her years of solitude. It is in the lives of these extreme examples of faith-motivated privations that we are confronted with what faith itself might mean, and how faith manifests itself in such situations. But while we can see the outward manifestations of faith in such lives as those of Mary and Sister Bertken, what faith truly is becomes a less certain mystery.

Utrecht: Middeleeuwse Kerkenstad (Utrecht: Medieval City of Churches). Werkgroep PPP, 1988. 

Additional material from the Koningklijke Bibliotheek, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland (webpage in Dutch). Interior of the Buurkerk in Utrecht by Pieter-Janszoon Saenredam in the collection of the National Gallery, London. Photo of the commemorative plaque on the Maartensbrug, Utrecht, by Kattenkruid. Photo of Katrien Baerts in the role of Sister Bertken by Hans van den Bogaard. Imagined portrait of Sister Bertken painted for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio, © All Rights Reserved. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Isis in Paris

In the year 1514 the archbishop of the abbey of [1]Saint-Germain-des-Prés, then situated on the outskirts of the city of Paris, ordered a statue in the abbey to be removed and destroyed. The statue must have seemed innocuous enough, for it had the appearance of a typical Madonna and Child. The statue was known to be old – dating from the time when Paris was largely a Roman city. And that seems to have been the problem – at least in the eyes of the archbishop. The statue’s age dated it to pre-Christian pagan times, and there was no place for a pagan statue in a Christian house of worship, however much it might resemble the Holy Mother. And so the offending statue was duly removed and smashed to pieces.

The Roman Isis. The sheaf of corn on her crown links her to Ceres/Demeter. The sistrum which she holds, a jingling temple rattle unique to this goddess, is missing from this statue and has here been recreated digitally from a similar statue of Isis.
And that is how the last known remaining relic that once was housed in the temple of the goddess Isis came to meet its end. Churches in Europe were often built upon the pagan places of worship which the new faith destroyed, and so it was with the abbey. Fourteen years before the abbey existed there was a previous church on the site, and thirty-three years before that – as late as the year 509 – there stood a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. The foundations of the abbey rested upon the remains of this ancient temple, and the statue closely resembling the Madonna and Child which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed was actually a Romanized version of the goddess Isis nursing her infant son, the god [2]Horus.

Spot the difference. At left: a Romanized version of Isis with the infant Horus. The statue which the archbishop ordered to be destroyed would have been very similar to this one. Centre: the present statue of the Madonna and Child in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which would have replaced the destroyed statue. At right: the original Egyptian  'Isis and Horus' version of this theme, the archetypal template ‘Mother and Child’ from which all subsequent versions could have been derived.
Unlike the forces of Christian orthodoxy, the empire-building Romans apparently were happy-enough to absorb the deities of other religions into their own pantheon. Under Roman rule, Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead, sported the armour of a Roman general, and Isis, the great mother goddess, took on the appearance of a Roman [3]noblewoman. But this Romanized version of Egyptian Isis also absorbed something of the culture of Ancient Greece, having some of the attributes of the Roman goddess [4]Ceres, whom the Greeks knew as Demeter.

The ugly face of iconoclasm. The granite tomb in the Dom church in Utrecht which is - or was - the effigy of Guy van Avesnes, bishop of Utrecht in the 14th-century, defaced by Dutch anti-papal Calvinists in the 17th-century. Iconoclasts might destroy an image, but the idea behind the image lives on.
Iconoclasm – the deliberate destruction of the objects of a belief to which the destroyers are opposed – is nothing new. It was practiced here in the Netherlands during an event in 1566 known as the [5]beeldenstorm’, in which supporters of the new anti-papal Calvinist-Protestantism stormed Catholic churches and destroyed the ‘idolatrous’ statues of the Virgin, saints, and any other items which they considered even to vaguely fall into this ‘blasphemous’ category. And it continues to be practiced in our own contemporary world with the destruction by Islamic State of the irreplaceable cultural treasures of [6]Syria and Iraq, which it also regards as ‘blasphemous’. But what does iconoclasm actually achieve? If you destroy a statue, do you also destroy the idea which that statue represents? Hardly. The physical statue, even the building, might lie in pieces, but the idea still exists, and ideas, like the gods themselves, have proven astonishingly resilient over time. And so it has been with Isis.

The nurturing Isis of the Bastille is hailed by an enthusiastic crowd at her inauguration in 1793. At right: Isis holding her sistrum as she appears on the façade of the Louvre. 
As an underground river continues to flow unseen, so the spirit of the goddess Isis apparently has continued to flow through the city of Paris. How else to explain the wealth of symbols associated with the goddess which insistently push their way to the surface? In August of 1793 a huge statue known as the Isis of the Bastille was inaugurated. The seated female figure spouted water from her breasts to symbolize the nourishment provided by the goddess to her citizens. A bass relief statue of Isis which faces the rising sun decorates the façade of the Louvre. The Louvre itself is orientated along an axis which extends towards a point on the horizon from which rises the star Sirius, the star sacred to Isis. The city’s coat-of-arms commissioned by Napoleon featured a ship with Isis being led by that same star.

The colossal pyramid proposed by the French architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée. Boullée’s genius produced projects that were more visionary than practical, and this towering structure was never realized.
And signs of the original culture from which the goddess sprang are ubiquitous in the city. There is the actual obelisk brought from the Egyptian sacred site of Luxor. There have at various times been pyramids. The unique genius of the architect Éttiene-Louis Boullée proposed a monumental pyramid ‘in the Egyptian style’. The pyramid was never realized – although the elegant [7]glass pyramid at the Louvre by architect Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark. During the Napoleonic era the rage for all things Egyptienne was in full swing. And the city plan itself is modelled on that of Luxor, with the same axes of alignment as its sacred counterpart. Significantly, the city has a specific gender. Paris is not an ‘it’. Paris is definitely a ‘she’.

Yet another grand pyramid, this time designed to be built in the grounds of the Louvre for the centenary celebrations of the Republic in 1889. A hundred years later the glass pyramid for the Louvre by Ming Pei has become a familiar landmark.
Terrorism is the bluntest of blunt instruments. It ranges itself against forces which it has little to no hope of ever actually defeating. The machineries of state are simply too powerful, too overwhelming, with all the massive resources and information, both covert and conspicuous, that governments and their armed forces have at their command. That is why terrorism is as it is: it can only ‘achieve’ some sort of an impact through the brutally crude tactics of shock and human grief. I doubt that anyone reading this post down to this paragraph will now be unaware of the irony that an acronym for Islamic State is ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The title Islamic State is itself a misnomer. It is of course anything but a ‘state’, and the inclusion of that word in its title is more of a wishful dream for its dubious future than an indication of anything which it has actually achieved.

French armed forces patrol in front of the glass pyramid in the grounds of the Louvre following the November 2015 attacks by Islamic State.
So why, of all the major European cities, did Islamic State last month choose to target Paris? There clearly was an active terrorist cell there with connections to other such cells in Brussels, and that cell laid its plan and followed through with that plan, and innocent men and women, many of them with most of their lives still ahead of them, were killed. In Paris the outcome was multiple murder. In the Middle East, Islamic State also have included torture in their ‘doctrine’. But apart from their iconoclasm and [8]torture, what tends to be overlooked is how deeply misogynist Islamic State is: Islamic terrorism is also specifically a campaign of violence against women.

Rape has been a consistent weapon used against the women who have been the victims of Islamic State. Violence against women is as much of a practice by IS as any of its other crimes. Knowing the above history and connections which Paris has to the goddess, what does emerge is that there is a lingering sense that, however unconsciously, the Paris attacks were a violation, certainly against the innocent citizens there, but also against the ‘she’ that is Paris.

A single rose placed in a bullet hole in a pane of glass fronting one of the restaurants that were attacked. The bullet hole has itself been enclosed by a painted heart. The simple but expressive gestures hint at a force which the brute power of mere bullets can neither comprehend nor withstand. 
Smashing a statue to pieces might have satisfied the archbishop’s affront at such a ‘pagan’ presence in his abbey. But what subsequent history establishes is that it is as if the goddess herself has arisen as a presence in the city even more assertively than when her temple stood on the south bank of the Seine. Whether you believe in gods and goddesses or not, whether you hold a belief in a deity – any deity – or not, what circumstances reveal to us is that there would seem to be forces – archetypes, if you will – so powerful, so assertive, that they will push their way through to our consciousness and manifest themselves in whatever forms they choose to adopt. The goddess Isis was not a statue. She was not banished by a mere archbishop, but lived on, creating new forms for herself in the hearts of her citizens. And Parisians are no more likely to bend a knee to terrorism than a goddess would deign to bend a knee to a mere mortal.

A sea of candles in a Paris street lights the faces of those paying tribute to the victims. The delusion of terrorists is to imagine that they are in control of the forces which they unleash, and that their actions will lead to a specific goal. But when the blunt instrument that is terrorism lashes out, the perpetrators are no more capable of foreseeing the eventual consequences than their innocent victims.
[9]Terrorism, it seems, is fighting against some power which makes all other forces pale by comparison. It is not the entrenched power of installed governments and the armed forces which those governments deploy. It is greater even that that. It is an ineffable, invisible something, and you cannot fight what you cannot see. Whatever that something might be, it evidently has survived for thousands of years, and has outlived all attempts by mere archbishops and others to subdue it. So perhaps you had better hope that you have the goddess on your side, because her anger is as dark as her heart is loving.

But I, I am compassionate and I am cruel.
Be on your guard!
I am the one whose image is great in Egypt
and the one who has no image among the barbarians.

~ from the text [10]Thunder, Perfect Mind

[1] Literally: Saint-Germain-in-the-Fields.

[2] The Greek name for Horus was Harpocrates, known as the god of silence. The name derives from an approximate Greek version of the Egyptian phrase Horus the Child. 

[3] Please see my post The Emperor and the Eye of Horus for more examples of these hybrid deities and the way in which they persist and continue to exist in our culture.

[4] Ceres, the goddess of harvests and the fertile earth, still survives in our own world when we use the term ‘cereal’.

[5] Freely translated as: ‘Storm against statues’.

[6] Please see my post Empires of Sand, Empires of Dust for a more comprehensive coverage of these events.

[7] The urban legend fuelled by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that the pyramid contains 666 panes of glass – the ‘number of the beast’ in the Book of Revelations – is a fallacy. The pyramid contains exactly 673 panes.

[8] To name just one instance: the ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later shot dead by French special forces, had in Iraq dragged people to death behind his vehicle.

[9] Terrorism in the context of this post means Islamic terrorism. In fact, terrorism these days does mean Islamic terrorism: a pointer, if any were needed, to the single major achievement of terrorism in our 21st-century world: that it has succeeded in making its religion synonymous with acts of terrible inhumanity which are perpetrated in the name of that same religion. In so doing, it has given decent Muslims the unenviable task of dragging the Quran out of the moral gutter where it has been dumped by those criminals acting in its name. Clearly the most effective way of achieving this is for all other Muslims vociferously and robustly to condemn such acts and those who perpetrate them, and it is heartening that many, including the legendary Muhammad Ali, are now doing so. When inhumanity in the name of a religion reaches such extremes, to keep silent is tacitly to condone such extremes, and a tacit silence can only further undermine the foundations of that religion. Misguided demonstrations such as the one seen at left might not be keeping silent, but the damage they are doing to the image of their own faith is real enough. 

[10] As translated by George W. MacRea. This powerful text remains unique among those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the find which has given us access to many Gnostic and proto-Christian texts which had been lost for 1,600 years. The first-person narrator is unspecified, but the context and style allows us to assume a connection both with Isis and with Sophia, the female embodiment of Wisdom. 

Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval: Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith. The Penguin Group for Michael Joseph, 2004. Most of the examples cited in this post of Isis the goddess and Ancient Egyptian culture in the city of Paris are taken from this title, which itself cites many more, complete with detailed expositions which this post only briefly mentions. It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of this book for me personally. My first reading of it some ten years ago was my own wake-up call that history – more specifically, Church history – was not as I had imagined it. Reading for the first time about the atrocities perpetrated by the rising forces of Catholicism, and directly instigated by the papacy, against the Gnostics, and a millennium later also against the Cathars (please see my post A Dark Crusade), which were on the scale of a Holocaust, came as a shock that was mind-numbing to experience.

This is bearing in mind that the authors are dealing, not with a mere personal interpretation of events, but with what actually is part of recorded history, and whose events are related in many other titles dealing with these subjects. That sense of shock reverberated on, and eventually would give rise to this blog, which itself attempts to be a serious investigation into why we believe what we believe, who gets to decide what is ‘correct’ for us to believe, and ultimately, what ‘faith’ actually is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness

Whatever the monk Zosimas expected to encounter when he [1]ventured into the Jordanian wilderness, what he discovered instead was something he could not have anticipated. There among the rocks and sand in front of him squatted a woman, emaciated and completely naked with dark leathery skin, her matted, straggling hair making her barely recognizable as anything human. Apparently reassured by the fact that her unexpected visitor was a monk, the woman gestured to Zosimas that she wished to use his cloak to cover herself. Then having wrapped herself in this makeshift garment, the woman asked the astonished monk to sit down with her, and she began to tell her story.

My painting of Mary portrays her as she might have appeared some ten years into her solitary retreat. Rather than portraying the Saint Mary of the Church, I wanted to be true to Mary’s humanity, to grant her the dignity of a very human soul living in harsh self-imposed exile from her own kind.
What we know of the woman’s story, and what she told to the monk Zosimas, we can learn in the account of her life written down by Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem during the 7th-century. Her name was Mary, and she had run away from her home in Egypt at the young age of twelve to journey to Alexandria. In the city she had lived a dissolute life, selling her sexual favours on the streets for the next seventeen years, or simply giving herself away for the sake of the experience. Apparently driven by a need to satisfy a carnal craving in new surroundings, she boarded a ship carrying pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. The pilgrims, both during the voyage and in Jerusalem itself, proved to be as willing as the residents of Alexandria, and she continued her wanton lifestyle within the city walls. Until the day that she found herself at the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sophronius’ account of Mary’s life does not provide us with the details of her journey, but using maps of the period it is possible to surmise that the ship on which she embarked from Alexandria would have sailed for the port of Joppa, which had a well-trodden connecting road to Jerusalem. The actual location of Zosimas’ monastery is unknown, but calculating its distance from Jerusalem and its location near the west bank of the River Jordan gives us its likely location. From the monastery Mary would have crossed the Jordan and travelled eastwards into the trans-Jordanian desert. 
Intending to enter in the hope of finding more clients among the congregation, she felt her way barred by some unseen force. Interpreting her impure lifestyle as the cause of her being unable to set foot in the church, she experienced a deep inner remorse. At this the withholding force seemed to vanish, and she entered the church and prayed by the relic of the [2]True Cross. Emerging once more into the sunlight, she felt that she heard a voice say to her: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Renouncing the life which she had led, she journeyed to a monastery by the Jordan to receive Holy Communion before crossing the river to begin the life of a [3]recluse – a life that she would follow for the rest of her days.

Having related her story to Zosimas, Mary asked the monk to meet her in a year’s time to give her Holy Communion. At the appointed time Zosimas arrived at the banks of the Jordan to see Mary walking towards him across the waters. A further meeting was arranged for the following year, and this time Zosimas returned to the place where he had first encountered Mary, only to find her dead. It is said that a lion helped him to bury her, digging with its claws into the dry desert earth which had been Mary’s home for so many years, and which now would be her last resting place.

Two traditional icons of Mary. An anonymous Russian artist has surrounded Mary with scenes from her life (left), beginning with her kneeling in prayer before the relic of the True Cross, and ending with her burial by the lion. Gregory of Sinai monastery has chosen to depict the moment (right) when Mary walks across the River Jordan to meet Zosimas.
This, briefly, is the story of Mary – Mary of Egypt as she became known. It was preserved as an oral tradition by the monks of Zosimas’ monastery before being recorded by Sophronius a century later. In it we recognize elements similar to the life of [4]Thecla: a remarkable life of a turn to faith interwoven with the supernatural elements of legend. For the orthodox faithful, it provides a textbook example of repentance and redemption, and the mercies of the Spirit which such redemption ensures. But because these aspects of her story are the focus for the faithful, what is glossed over in such orthodox accounts is another central aspect of Mary’s story. It is a story of astonishing practical survival.

A popular 13th-century account of the lives of the saints apparently confused Mary’s story with that of Mary Magdalene. The story that Mary Magdalene spent her final years as a solitary naked penitent is wholly erroneous, but it nevertheless was seized upon by artists who were willing enough to portray the penitent naked Magdalene, as in this romanticised 19th-century version by Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma, which depicts an improbably healthy-looking Magdalene swooning before the cave in which she was supposed to have lived.
We do not know the exact years of Mary’s life, but if we assume that she must have been almost thirty when she crossed the Jordan, then her death in her late seventies means that she still must have lived for some forty-seven years in the wilderness. The legend relates that when she left for the desert she took only three loaves of bread with her. For the rest, she lived on whatever her unforgiving surroundings provided her with. This is a feat of endurance which leaves the achievements of even the most radical hard-core survivalists looking like a Sunday afternoon picnic. Given that the basic practical events of Mary’s story actually happened, we must marvel at the survival skills which she must have developed just to stay alive, and with them the mental and emotional commitment needed to sustain her existence of utter solitude. Zosimas mentions that she prayed in a near-unintelligible whisper, with all her words running together. And yet she apparently retained enough of her language skills to communicate her story to the monk.

The unforgiving harshness and haunting grandeur of the Jordanian desert. Mary somehow managed not only to survive, but to live in this hostile landscape, and not just for months or for years, but for several decades. Faith is a wondrous thing in itself. To add miracles to her story perhaps diminishes what she achieved on a human level.
We might or might not accept the supernatural elements of the story – the unseen force at the doors of the church, Mary walking on the waters of the Jordan, and the [5]helpful lion – for such elements remain a matter for individual faith. Such miraculous occurrences were needed to confirm Mary’s sainthood by the Church, and in any case remain a distant and unverifiable hearsay. My painting of Mary which heads this post does not need them: I find Mary’s commitment of faith and feat of survival sufficient marvels in themselves. The Church might have need of such miracles and mysteries, but there in the wilderness beyond the Jordan beat a heart in quiet solitude, and the human heart holds mysteries far greater than these.

Between Truth and Legend: Is Mary's story true? The circumstances of her life existed as an oral tradition before being set down in writing a century after the events. Faith is the criterion for us accepting the supernatural elements of her story, but what of the story itself? We know from documented examples that ten years is enough time for a human to revert to a feral state and lose the faculty of speech. And yet after some forty-seven years Mary was articulate enough to relate her story to Zosimus, even though the monk described her manner of praying as near-incoherent. I personally believe the substance of Mary's story, although that substance might have been embroidered upon over the years, as stories typically are.

[1] It was expected of each monk at the monastery that he should make an annual sojourn into the desert to fast in prayerful contemplation.

[2] Please see my post Helena and the True Cross to read more about the veracity of this holy relic.

[3] A medieval tradition seems to have confused Mary Magdalene with Mary’s story. This tradition has a post-Resurrection Magdalene also living for many years as a repentant naked recluse, for which there is no evidence whatever. The source of this erroneous tradition was The Golden Legend, a 13th-century compilation of the lives of saints. The Legend freely mixed historical facts with fanciful fiction and hearsay miracles: a dubious literary cocktail which only increased its popularity. Later scholasticism treated the Legend more critically – although even up to the 19th-century artists were still portraying Mary Magdalene as a naked recluse (left, by Hans Olaf Heyerdahl) in the style of Mary of Egypt. Please see my post The Gospel of Mary.   

[4] Please see my post Thecla: A Woman between Rain and Fire to read Thecla’s remarkable story.

[5] Whether the intervention of the helpful lion could be considered as miraculous is perhaps questionable. I tend to think of it as a typical storybook element: unlikely and improbable, but not actually defying the laws of physics and nature, as miracles appear to do. 

The original account by Sophronius on which my post is based can be read here. My post necessarily condenses or omits many of the details purportedly related by Mary to Zosimas, including the fact that she prostituted herself on board the vessel bound for the Holy Land specifically as a way of paying for her passage, and also includes an extended and detailed account of her first meeting with Zosimas, which is moving in itself.

Jordanian desert adapted from a photo by criscris1. Map and portrayal of Mary created for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Empires of Sand, Empires of Dust

Her wrists are shackled, not with iron, but with a chain of gold: an acknowledgement by her captors of her high status. The golden chains are perhaps a mixture both of respect and of irony: respect for this woman’s considerable achievements, and the underlying irony that chains are still chains, whether of [1]gold or of unyielding Roman iron. Queen Zenobia of Palmyra gazes for the last time over her beloved city before being escorted to Rome to be paraded through the streets prior to her [2]execution. The establishing of her own Palmyrene Empire and the revolt which she has led against the might of Rome has at last been crushed, and the sun will surely continue to shed its light upon the eternal empire of the Caesars for as long as the world lasts.

Queen Zenobia gazes for the last time upon her beloved city of Palmyra, as portrayed by Herbert Schmalz in the 19th-century. Her declaration of independence from Rome and the expansion of her empire as far north as Asia Minor and as far south as Egypt became a threat to Rome which could not be ignored.
Well, as we know, Roman rule proved to be rather less eternal than any Caesar preferred to imagine. Less than a century and a half after Zenobia was defeated, the [3]Christian Visigoth Alaric rode with his army into the forum of Rome and put an end to imperial Roman domination forever. The events of history should chasten us. In history, nothing is less certain than the status quo: change is always coming, and history contains constant reminders of the folly of imagining that things will simply go on being the way they are. The truth is of course that, human pride being what it is, we usually prefer to imagine (and probably firmly believe that) our values will endure, whether those values come in the form of political power, empire building, or a particular religious belief – or a mix of all three.

Palmyra in the last half of the 3rd-century. Zenobia extends her Palmyrene empire to become a serious rival to Roman rule. Palmyra occupied a privileged location at the junction of major trade routes connecting to the silk road eastward (shown above in red). These connections made the city affluent, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, with the harmonious blending of different cultures being reflected in the city’s art and architecture.
As recently as the end of last [4]month Islamic State militants continued their destruction of Zenobia’s Palmyra. Having already demolished with explosives the beautiful Baalshamin temple, the city’s elegant Roman arch and other sculptures and monuments, the militants switched to a new tactic by combining their two crimes – the one cultural, the other humanitarian – into one, by tying their captives to the city’s columns and then blowing up the columns. As with their destruction of other irreplaceable cultural treasures, IS justify their actions by claiming that such artefacts are ‘idolatrous’, and therefore an affront to their Islamic beliefs. It is an easy option to dismiss such a hollow justification with contempt and revulsion, but if such a course is taken, what tends to get overlooked in the heat of negative emotions is what ‘idolatrous’ actually means in practice.

The Baalshamin temple, the principal temple in Palmyra. Baalshamin was the principal deity of Palmyrene beliefs. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
In the context of religious belief we tend to think of ‘idols’ as being of carved wood and stone: actual objects of worship that we either bow down to or seek to destroy, depending upon the fervour of our own beliefs. But is an idol always a thing of stone or wood? Religious idols can take other forms. Consider a Christian Fundamentalist who believes unquestioningly that everything in scripture is the direct revealed word of God, and therefore is flawless and final. Scripture has in such a case shifted from being a thing of spiritual revelation to being uncritically and blindly accepted en bloc, with any scholarly assessment of such texts’ editorial compilation within a historical context being roundly disregarded or – perhaps even worse – dismissed as a subject of mere irrelevance. In such a blindly uncritical situation such texts have become an idol in themselves, with such fatuous fundamentalism becoming degraded from sincere religious belief to the level of mere idol worship, the idol in this case being, not of wood or stone, but of words.

The lion of Al-Lat, the most massive and imposing sculpture in Palmyra shown in its restored state. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
When seen in this light, Islamic militants are themselves idolatrous: the Quran, rather than being perceived as a religious text, has been degraded to the form of an idol that is blindly and uncritically glorified at the expense of their own humanity. For such militants, the Quran has been ‘idolized’. We might commonly refer to the religious extremists who carry out such inhuman acts as mass rape and beheadings as ‘barbarians’, but they have made themselves barbarians in a literal as well as in a metaphorical sense. There can be no such thing as ‘religious extremism’, because when religion takes such extreme forms it follows a darker god to become something other than religion – even when it is done in religion’s name. Religion without humanity is barbarism, and if you follow your religion to the point where you lose your humanity, then by default you also have lost your religion.

The Roman triumphal arch in Palmyra, an elegant example of Roman secular architecture. Current status: destroyed by Islamic State militants.
The recent destruction of the buildings in Palmyra by Islamic State is hardly the first time in history that opposing forces have targeted architecture. The invading Persians sacked the Acropolis in Athens. Under the political will of Pericles it was rebuilt the following generation, but when Alexander with his conquering army reached the beautiful Persian capital of Persepolis he exacted a terrible [5]retribution for the destruction of the Acropolis, ordering his troops to raze the city to the ground. They did, and one of the most treasured and comprehensive – and irreplaceable – libraries of that time was consigned to the flames. Unlike Persepolis, the Acropolis rose phoenix-like from the ashes – only to be sacked once more seven centuries later by [6]Christians who were all-too-eager to dismantle this seat of pagan worship.

Palmyra’s magnificent amphitheatre would have been used for staging oratory performances. Current status: now used as an execution ground by Islamic State militants. 
Palmyra itself, known as the Venice of the Sands, represented a perfect flowering of different cultures, with an aesthetically successful and unique blending both of Roman, Palmyrene and Persian influences in its architecture. What makes its destruction different is that almost two thousand years later, up until earlier this year, it existed as a partial yet still magnificent ruin in our contemporary world. Its special status as a UNESCO World Heritage site effectively means that it was being preserved in trust, as the collective cultural heritage of you who are reading this, and of future generations to come. But it is always so much easier to destroy something than to build it, and in this sense Islamic State has squarely chosen for the easy option.

Originally sculpted as a funerary bust, this carved limestone portrait of a Palmyrene noblewoman speaks of all the refinement and sophistication of Palmyrene arts and the citizens who created them. Current status: in the collection of the British Museum, London.
So what happens now? Having survived for almost two thousand years, the most beautiful buildings of Zenobia’s beloved Palmyra have been reduced to dust and rubble, and the sand of its [7]amphitheatre is stained with the blood of those executed by the will of IS extremists. IS might rise further in its own brutalising attempt at empire building, or it could collapse internally, with no stable political or bureaucratic infrastructure in place to consolidate what has been gained by blood and terror. History can at times seem very impatient to introduce change, with rapidly-moving events appearing to happen at whirlwind speed – and it also can bide its time, and change can seem slow in coming. But change will come eventually as day follows night. In a hundred, or a thousand, or [8]six thousand years, historians will record the dim memory of half-forgotten and long-obsolete beliefs, and the pages of the Quran will have long blown away on the indifferent desert winds.

Khaled Asaad and Kayla Mueller
THE HUMANITARIAN CRIMES OF ISLAMIC STATE: This post focuses generally upon the cultural crimes of Islamic State with relation to the buildings in Palmyra, but mention must also be made of its humanitarian crimes. Khaled Asaad, the 82 year-old Director of Antiquities at Palmyra, was tortured for several weeks in an attempt by IS to force him to reveal the whereabouts of cultural treasures hidden at the site. He refused and was subsequently beheaded, after which his body was hung from the ruins which he had spent a lifetime’s career preserving. The selling of such cultural artefacts on the black market has been a way for IS to fund its operations. IS treats systematic rape almost as a doctrine, the captured U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller being just one of many such victims of the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before he murdered her. The Palmyra amphitheatre has since May of this year been used as a place of execution by IS. Shortly after they overran Palmyra IS executed three hundred local men whom they considered to be ‘pro-government’. This mass execution was followed by a second: the massacre of another four hundred local residents, most of them women and children. With the exception of the murder in Iraq of Ms Mueller, all of the above atrocities by Islamic State took place in Palmyra. Similar atrocities have taken place in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the Palmyra amphitheatre teenage members of Islamic State stand behind soldiers of the Syrian army who were executed by them moments after this photo was taken.
A QUESTION OF RESPECT: A bizarre echo of what is happening in Palmyra is taking place right now in the very heart of the Muslim world. Since the mid-1980’s the Saudi authorities have seen fit to destroy some 95% of all historic buildings in Mecca (including several important mosques) dating from the time of the prophet Muhammad to make way for new hotels, apartments, shopping malls and parking lots. The question has to be asked: how can a religious culture be expected to respect the historic value of other cultures when it clearly does not even respect its own?

The most holy place in all of Islam is now dominated by a colossal brooding hotel.
PALMYRA AND ECONOMIC REALITY: In terms of the tourist economy of the country, Palmyra was a golden egg for the Syrian government and a local source of income. But for the future to come, in whatever form it takes, who is going to want to visit a sad and bloodstained pile of rubble? Even given a worst-case scenario in which Islamic State actually introduces its ruling caliphate in the region, it has now effectively cut itself off from this lucrative source of income. It does not take an economic genius to figure out that alienating governments, both regional and beyond, is a short-term road to long-term economic disaster. Religious fundamentalism and myopic idiocy are horns on the same goat: a lesson of history which fortunately seems to be lost on the militants of Islamic State.

[1] Zenobia’s gold shackles are not a fictional fancy: a contemporary account mentions her wearing such chains when she was paraded through Rome.

[2] Zenobia’s fate in Rome is uncertain, with one account having her marry a Roman senator and becoming a familial matriarch. But Roman punishment for insurrection and the need to set an example to others being the ruthless beast that it was, it does seem more likely that she was executed. Unlike the political puppet masters of our own world, Zenobia belonged to an age when the person who opened hostilities was the same person who led the troops into battle. Zenobia seems to have been a true amazon, accompanying her troops on foot during marathon marches.

[3] Alaric seems to have kept a foot in both camps, adopting Christian practices while still finding room to follow pagan beliefs.

[4] BBC News report of 27 October, 2015: ‘IS blows up Palmyra columns to kill three captives’.

[5] Alexander’s ruthless destruction of the Persian capital would seem to be the very definition of the ‘what goes around comes around’ dictum. It could be that in an indeterminate future some new fanatical religious sect will desecrate the Kaaba in a long-deserted Mecca. The famous Black Stone set into the Kaaba already has been smashed to pieces in medieval times, which is why it is now encased in a silver mount (right). Not unsurprisingly, those who carried out this destruction were members of an extreme Muslim sect. Also unsurprisingly, IS have threatened to destroy the Kaaba as an 'idol of stone'.

[6] I have no illusions about this incident in history. Had explosives been available at that time the Parthenon would have been reduced to dust and rubble indistinguishable from the dust and rubble that once was the Baalshamin temple in Palmyra. 

[7] Teenage boys belonging to IS execute prisoners in the Palmyra amphitheatre.

[8] This time frame of 6,000 years in the future I have borrowed from my post All Things Must Pass (left). I have chosen this specific time frame because it is as distant from our own time as we are from the beginnings of civilization in Sumer. Such a span of time is clearly beyond our imagination. What once were living religions (the gods of Olympus, Odin and Valhalla, etc.) are now seen by us as mythologies, so it is only reasonable to presume that the religions of our own world will become the mythologies of an unimaginable distant future.

New York Times, 14 August, 2015: ISIS Held Kayla Mueller, U.S. Aid Worker, as Sex Slave Before Fatal Air Strike, by Rukmini Callimachi. Retrieved 3 November, 2015. (IS had previously claimed that Ms Mueller had been killed in an allied air strike, before the truth of what had happened was learned from two other young women who had managed to escape.)

The Independent, 19 August 2015: Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief and hangs him from ruins he spent a lifetime restoring, by Adam Withnall. Retrieved 3 November, 2015.

BBC News, 5 October, 2015: Islamic State ‘blows up Palmyra Arch’. Retrieved 1 November, 2015.

BBC News, 27 October, 2015: IS ‘blows up three columns to kill three captives’. Retrieved 29 October, 2015.

Mail Online, 24 May 2015: ISIS slaughters 400 mostly women and children in ancient Syria city of Palmyra where hundreds of bodies line the streets, by Kate Pickles. Retrieved 4 November 2015.

The Independent, 17 February 2014: Mecca for the Rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’, by Jerome Taylor. Retrieved 4 November, 2015.

Photo of the Palmyrene funerary bust by PHGCOM. Photo of Kayla Mueller by Matt Hinshaw for the Daily Courier via Associated Press. Photo of Khaled Asaad, the lion of Al-Lat and executions in the amphitheatre from Getty Images. Other photos from uncredited sources. Map prepared for this post by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.

For an excellent virtual tour of Palmyra you can visit Tito Dupret's site here and wander around the city as it was before Islamic State occupation. Such comprehensive documentation of these monuments which no longer exist has now become doubly valuable, and historic in itself.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Matthew, Mark, Luke …and Mary?

The woman who sits quietly writing already has known the greatest love, and because of that love has also endured the greatest loss. She writes from the depths, both of her love and of her wisdom, which is the wisdom of the inner ways taught to her as the one worthy to receive such precious knowledge. And she also writes from her own first-hand experience as a witness to the events which she relates, and from the wellsprings of insight which are uniquely hers. The woman does not know, nor can she know, the cruel twists of the invented history about her that is to come. And perhaps that is as well, for were she to know these things, even her great spirit might falter.

A yawning gulf stretches between the Mary Magdalene who shows us a wisdom and nobility of spirit as revealed in the original texts about – and possibly actually by – her, and the redeemed woman of former ill repute perpetuated by the Church. My imagined portrait of Mary features a fragment of the surviving Gospel of Mary in the background: a text which presents us with a radically different version from the Mary of the Church.
Mary, the Magdalene, writes in ink on papyrus the [1]Gnostic declaration: In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. This text written in her own [2]hand has no title. It is simply a manuscript. But its spiritual clarity and emotional intensity, and the immediacy of the events which it describes will ensure that it remains one which is read, copied and circulated.

This original text will be lost to history, but some fifty years later other hands less tolerant, and perhaps more jealous, of a mere woman’s authorship of such wisdom will radically amend her text, altering it to seem as if a man had written her words – a simple matter for a copyist to alter ‘she’ to ‘he’, apparently to make it acceptable to the new orthodoxy. The text itself clearly tells us that it was written by the [3]‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, the orthodox assumption being that this is John. And there are indeed two points in the narrative where both Mary Magdalene and this unnamed ‘beloved disciple’ appear in the same scene: at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb following the Resurrection. Yet it is precisely at these points in the story that the narrative appears to stumble, [4]contradicting itself as to exactly who was where, and when. It is as if an unknown hand is shuffling the deck in the middle of the deal, attempting to shoehorn events to fit the changed context.

The weeping Magdalene outside the tomb, as portrayed in the 19th-century by Antonio Ciseri. In the fourth Gospel Mary is described as simultaneously running away from the tomb and remaining behind at the tomb alone: an impossibility of circumstance which only can be reconciled if the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ and John are not the same person. Mary’s luxuriant loose tresses were the traditional artistic means of signalling her status as a former prostitute.
And the Magdalene herself? Already ciphered away as the true author of the text, this most wise of the original disciples now becomes demoted and reinvented by the triumphant forces of orthodoxy to be portrayed, not as one of Jesus’ inner circle, but as a mere follower and a former whore. The fact that scripture never actually describes her in such terms seems of little consequence. Such tactics are not unknown to the Church, which already has reinvented such apparently pro-Gnostic writers as [5]Anthony, Clement of Alexandria and [6]Paul to become paragons of orthodox doctrine.

Not for nothing did Clement ironically caution that ‘not all true things are the truth.’ For almost two thousand years the image of Mary Magdalene as a [7]redeemed whore will persist. Artists down the centuries become willing and unwitting co-conspirators, seeing their chance to depict the Magdalene in her penitent scarlet woman guise as a pious pretext to reveal some vulnerable female flesh. But as it always does eventually, the tide of opinion and scriptural scholarship turns.

A staged photograph from the 1920’s portraying the penitent Magdalene. Even up to the previous century we see the loose hair and the element of suggestive nudity being used to denote Mary’s presumed repentance of her former profession: a lifestyle for which there is no evidence whatever anywhere in scripture. The unknown photographer nevertheless engages our sympathy with a dramatic simplicity of composition and by keeping the face of the model hidden from our view.
So what is the basis for our calling this particular book 'The Gospel According to St. John'? In the 2nd-century [8]Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, was considering what he should call the untitled manuscript. He seemed to recall that his mentor, Bishop Polycarp, had once mentioned to him that the manuscript was written by John the apostle. And so under the editorial hand of the bishop, the text became accepted into scripture with its new title. Incredibly, this tenuous boyhood memory of a single individual is the only basis we have for calling John the author. For impartial contemporary scholarship the text is anonymous.

This sympathetic 19th-century portrayal of the Magdalene by Mateo Cerezo, while still endowing her with a prostitute’s loose tresses, nevertheless creates around her an atmosphere of devotion and study. The skull was used as a memento mori – a reminder of human mortality – which the artist counterpoints with Mary’s tender gaze towards the promised immortality offered by the crucifix.
When the only reason we have for attributing the authorship of the fourth Gospel to the apostle John is based upon a hearsay boyhood memory, then tradition rests upon foundations of sand. But if John did not write it, then who did? The ‘beloved disciple’ remains unnamed, and yet entrenched tradition insists that it is John. But other [9]texts tell us specifically that the ‘beloved disciple’, the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, is Mary Magdalene. Remembering that the fourth Gospel originally was a [10]text belonging to these other writings, by restoring the inconsistencies and changes of gender we can read this fourth Gospel very much as it could be read in what perhaps was its original form, before the alterations were made which allowed the text to become an acceptable part of the orthodox canon.

If for you this all seems a little far-fetched, how differently would you feel about things if new evidence would come to light that the text was written by (for example) the disciple Bartholomew? Is it after all mere chauvinist bias which makes the idea of a female authorship implausible? And if you still resist the idea, then consider this: it is a cold fact that we have more circumstantial evidence for considering that Mary was the text’s author than ever existed for assigning the authorship to John.

Today, 22nd July, is traditionally the day of Mary Magdalene: a good day for redressing the outdated misconceptions which orthodox opinion has been only too prepared to allow to accrue around her name.

[1] The term Logos (right) is essentially Gnostic, and this is the word used in the Gospel’s original Greek. The concept of the Logos actually has its origins in the pre-Christian Greek mystery schools (as does the concept of the Trinity). The author David Fideler describes the Logos as “the pre-Christian idea of ..the pattern of Harmony which was seen as underlying the order of the universe.” In subsequent translations of the fourth Gospel, the term ‘Logos’ has been exchanged for the more simplistic term ‘Word’, but ‘Logos’ and ‘Word’ are not interchangeable concepts.

[2] Such texts also could have been dictated to a scribe.

[3] John 21:20 and 21:24.
[4] During John 20:1-11, Mary’s location pops in and out of being both already at the entrance to the tomb and simultaneously running away from it. An assumption that it is she who is the ‘beloved disciple’ and not the separate figure of John makes this discrepancy disappear.
[5] Please see my post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction.

[6] Just as the orthodox bishop Athanasius presented the life of Anthony as a fictionalized biography after his death to make it appear as if Anthony was a paragon of orthodoxy, the letters of Paul were altered and supplemented for the same reason. The letters appearing in Paul’s name in the New Testament as 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are forgeries. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 notoriously emphasises the subservient role of women, but these are all chauvinist dictums put into the mouth of Paul by a later unknown hand. Please see my post "Behold This Woman" (left) for more about this subject. These writings attributed to Paul, but not by him, are the very letters which turned up (perhaps a little too coincidentally?) at the time that Irenaeus was writing his massive multi-volume work Against Heresies, attacking all that he judged to be non-orthodox. The rigorous anti-female stance of this forged letter has served the Church well ever since. So does the fact that we now know these letters to be forgeries mean that they will at last be dropped from the canon? Of course not. We have made scripture immutable. That is its weakness. 

[7] Please see my post The Gospel of Mary.

[8] Irenaeus himself tells us this in his writings. Please see my post The Gospel According to Somebody.

[9] This notably occurs in the Gospels of Philip and Mary. Stylistically, the Gospel of Mary is particularly comparable to the fourth Gospel. That the fourth Gospel is fundamentally different from the other three is signalled by the collective term Synoptic (meaning: ‘viewed together’) Gospels used for Matthew, Mark and Luke. The fourth Gospel has a specific spiritual and emotional intensity and didactic style which is mirrored in The Gospel of Mary, pointing to the possibility that these two texts, and perhaps also the Gospel of Philip, came from the same community, of which Mary could have been the spiritual leader, or at least in which she played an influential role. 

[10] In my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish, I cite the author Margaret Starbird’s conclusion that the number 153, the number of fish in the disciples’ net in John 21:10-11, is actually the gematria equivalent of the name η Μαγδαληνή – The Magdalene – which opens the possibility that if Mary is indeed the author of the fourth Gospel, then the inclusion of this specific number can be viewed as her authorial signature – and one which was not recognised by orthodox powers for its true significance, hence its being included in scripture. And if this specific number is mere whimsy, why include it?

WTF?? This note has been added 23 July 2015, after reading a post on another blog which also chose Mary Magdalene as its theme for yesterday. The post which can be read here, written by Erik Richtsteig, a Catholic priest based in Ogden, Utah, provided me with one of those jaw-dropping moments of incredulity which I'm seriously considering for my 'WTF Moment of the Month' award. Here's why: Father Reichsteig acknowledges (as I do) that there is no evidence whatever in scripture for the baseless tradition by the Church that Mary Magdalene was a whore. He then immediately follows this with the assertion that he nevertheless "will go with tradition every time over the fads of academe." Put plainly: this particular priest prizes baseless Church tradition above actual scripture, above the Bible itself.

Much of the basis for this post comes from the paper Mary Magdalene: Author of the Fourth Gospel?, by Ramon K. Jusino, 1998. The complete text may be read here. The proposition that Mary was the author of the fourth Gospel remains a hypothesis, although a credible and well-reasoned one. What is not in doubt is the vast and unfounded discrepancy between her depiction in these early contemporary and near-contemporary texts and her portrayal by the Church.

Elaine Pagels: The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Trinity Press International, 1975.
Hans-Josef Klauck: Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Baylor University Press, 2006.
David Fideler: Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism. Quest Books, 1993.
Margaret Starbird: Magdalene’s Lost Legacy: Symbolic Numbers and the Sacred Union in Christianity. Inner Traditions, Bear and Company, 2003.

Statue of the weeping Magdalene (above) by Antonio Canova. Imagined portrait of Mary Magdalene (top image) created for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.