Mary Mc. Aleese, former President of Ireland, has called the Catholic
Church “a empire of misogyny.” Speaking in Rome yesterday on the eve of
International Women’s Day, Mary Mc. Aleese stated her belief that “the
Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny.”
It made me think of a new movie,
to be released this month. Listening to Mary made me think of her
namesake who lived two thousand years ago.
The discovery of fragments of a gospel telling the story
from the viewpoint of Mary Magdalene gave producers Iain Canning and
Emile Sherpoint an idea. Although only a few papyrus sheets survive of
dating between the 3rd to 5th centuries, it is clear to scholars that
the text enjoyed popularity among early Christians. And now those
papyrus pages have been translated to the screen.
The discovery of the Gospel
is fascinating. In January 1896, the German scholar Carl Reinhardt was
visiting the market in Cairo when a bookseller offered him some early
Christian writings in Coptic. As he leafed through the papyrus pages, he
realised that he held a very ancient text in his hands.
Reinhardt asked where the book came from but the bookseller said that it
had been found by a young boy in a wall. The implausible story was
impossible to verify. There were strict laws governing the selling of
antique artifacts and neither Reinhardt nor the bookseller wanted to
jeopardize the sale. Eventually Reinhardt purchased the book and had it
transported to Berlin.
As it turned out, there were three works in the binding,
Reinhardt placed the volume in the Egyptian section of the Berlin museum
and went on to catalogue other manuscripts which he had brought from
Shortly afterwards, the Egyptologist Can
Schmidt came across the codice and studied it. He was curious that the
first six pages of the work, as well as four from the middle of the
work, were missing.
At the same time back in Egypt, two British
archeologists, Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell, were excavating a site
near the town of Oxyrhynchus in southern Egypt. Among the manuscripts
they uncovered were early Christian texts which indicated that the so-
must date to the middle or end of the second century.
Schmidt prepared an edition for publication,
which he gave to a printer in Leipzig. Just as the edition was to go to
print in 1912, a burst water pipe destroyed the plates. Before Schmidt
was ready to publish again, the First World War broke out, putting an
end to his dreams. With his death in 1938, the task of producing the
edition fell the German scholar, Walter Till.
In the meanwhile, portions of another copy of the
had surfaced in Egypt. This text, similar to the Coptic version, was
written in Greek. Till incorporated the new findings but the Second
World War prohibited publication. While Till continued to work, finally
publishing in 1955 an exciting find took place in Egypt.
In 1945, two brothers came across terracotta jars while
they were digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi. Among the
papyrus text unearthed were the
written in Coptic. Dated to third century, they gave further evidence
that the works were early.
So, back to the movie. In the opening scene
Mary is called to assist a young girl in childbirth. She may have been
the village midwife. She is then exorcised by her family who are
concerned that she is too religious and wanted to pray like a man. She
even tried to sit in the area reserved for the men in synagogue.
Soon afterwards she listens to an itinerant
visitor, Jesus, whose works of healing and words of wisdom gain him
followers. She is gradually attracted to the charismatic figure and
gains his confidence. There is a mutual attraction, which clearly
irritates some of the other followers.
The idea of the new film,
is inspired by the post- resurrection dialogue between Mary and the
apostles. The movie traces the last months of Jesus life , culminating
in his crucifixion and resurrection. Without giving anything away, the
meeting between Mary and the apostles, which is inspired by the ancient
Coptic text, is highly emotional. It is also highly topical, as
Catholics continue argue over the role of women in the Church.
Peter invites Mary to share her memories of Jesus. Mary speaks
eloquently and reveals things which they did not know. Both Andrew and
Peter are annoyed by her composure and Peter rebukes her, challenging
the implicit assertion that Jesus may have told her things which he did
not also reveal to the apostles. There is more than a suspicion of
was composed during a period when early Christianity was highly fluid
and where the oral tradition still held sway over the written tradition.
Many of these communities, such as the Egyptian one, were isolated. Keep
in mind that Paul toured modern- day Greece and Turkey before ending his
life in Rome. Egyptian and Graeco- Roman Christianity developed along
divergent lines and the Gnostic gospels were not included among the
books of the New Testament canon.
The Mary who emerges from the silver screen
is an appealing and believable person. She is one of a group of women
whom, the gospels recount, followed him and provided for him. One could
almost credit her with bringing together the dismayed apostles and
giving them courage to continue believing Jesus. Sadly, the real Mary
was edited out of history and relegated to second place while the men
moved the Christian community forward, perhaps a pale imitation of
Jesus’ original intention. This was perhaps inevitable given the Judeo
Greco Roman culture in which the early Christians were immersed. But, as
the old saying goes, that was then and this is now. Do we have to be
bound by a culture which has changed beyond recognition?
To be balanced, therefore, we must admit that the
Christian Churches inherited the patriarchalism of Judaism, thus
favoring the public role of the male. The legalisation of the Church by
the 4th- century emperor Constantine led to the adaption of the
This was the
promotion through grades whereby men, usually having started in the
army, progressed through the civil service and political promotions.
The present- day Roman Curia is modeled on the civil service of the
secular Roman Empire, right down to the titles they used. The Reformed
Churches began to shake that off in the 20th century while the Catholic
Church, even after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has made
negligible progress. It does not appear that there are two camps within
the church, one trying actively to stop women and others trying to
advance their total inclusion. It seems inertia is weighing the issue
But back to the movie. As it draws to its
climax, Mary meets the remaining apostles. Without giving away the
ending, it is clear that the apostle’s vision is victorious. If Mary Mc.
Aleese had been there, perhaps history would have been quite different.
But Mary, and countless committed Catholics like her, are here now. Will
their voices be heeded?