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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
The Two Marys
Aired December 25, 2013 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER, NARRATOR, "THE TWO MARYS": They are two of the most popular women on the planet. Billions pray to them, great temples honor them. And both are bona fide media stars in blockbuster movies and in best-selling books.
And this, despite the fact that they have both been dead for nearly 2,000 years.
One is venerated as the mother of Jesus. The good Virgin Mary, who said "yes" to God's request, and who reigns from heaven, crowned with stars.
HAZELTON: In a sense, you could say that Christianity began the moment Mary gave birth. In fact, you could say that our whole modern world begins the moment Mary gave birth.
The way we date our checks. It's the way we date - we make dates. It's the way we count our age, count our anniversaries, and so on, from the moment Mary gave birth.
WEAVER: The other Mary, called Magdalene, is the bad girl, who is seized by demons.
In ancient times, scholars say, her flaming red hair was a sign that she was touched by Satan.
Until she found Jesus. And her conversion at his hands made her Christianity's original hooker with a heart of gold.
KING: I think I learned what most people did, which is that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute.
She was a follower of Jesus, but she was the woman caught in adultery. She appeared, you know, at the resurrection.
But the prominent imagery of her was the repentant bad girl.
WEAVER: Scholars have called these two Marys the two faces of Eve - one, the first perfect woman, the other, the first fallen woman.
When Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Christian doctrine says she stained humanity with Original Sin. And women have been struggling ever since to overcome that burden.
HAZELTON: I think there was a very strong-felt need on the part of the church fathers to put women in their place. So, by dividing women into madonnas and whores, they could either be all good or all evil.
WEAVER: These two women wouldn't matter at all, were it not for their relationship to Jesus. One, as the mother of the Son of God, and the other, some scholars say, as the Messiah's favorite apostle.
Today, the Marys are taking on new identities. While traditional devotion to the Virgin Mary is experiencing a rebound, there is also a new focus on Mary of Nazareth, as a kind of first century feminist, not the icon so familiar to generations.
JOHNSON: That icon highlights a spiritual angle of a person. But know that that icon is rooted in a history. And it's the history of a poor woman in a violent situation who suffered violence.
And if you realize that, even the most spiritualized icon is going to make you turn toward poor women in violent situations who are oppressed, even today.
WEAVER: At the same time, Mary Magdalene has become a media star.
The linchpin character of a mega-selling novel that says, she wasn't just Jesus' apostle, but his wife, and the mother of his children.
AMY-JILL LEVINE, PROFESSOR, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY DIVINITY SCHOOL: "The Da Vinci Code" is appropriately shelved in books labeled fiction.
REV. GERALD O'COLLINS, S.J., PROFESSOR, PONTIFICAL GREGORIAN UNIVERSITY, ROME: Have I read it? I would give it prize one for historical misinformation.
WEAVER: Those reviews haven't stopped new Magdalene fans from thronging to places like London's Temple Church.
According to the novel, this was home base to the Knights Templar, who fought crusades to keep the truth about Mary Magdalene's marriage to Jesus a secret for centuries.
REV. ROBIN GRIFFITHS-JONES, MASTER OF THE TEMPLE CHURCH, LONDON: We must now have 50 visitors or more every day, coming into the church and asking the verger on their entry, "Have you read 'the book'?"
The verger still naively assumes they mean the Bible. But, of course, they mean the other Bible, "The Da Vinci Code."
WEAVER: This change in perception among both scholars and the public, that Mary Magdalene was a leader - and not a sinner - is nothing short of seismic, especially for Christian women, who fill the pews, but not the pulpits, and who now want their due.
KING: Some people are very threatened by this, precisely because it may be that the results of this work are going to show that women were leaders in the early Church. It's going to ask people, I think, to rethink some really fundamental things about Christian theology, life and practice. And that can certainly be threatening.
MEYER: One cannot alienate half of the human race and get away with it. That's not what spirituality is all about.
These issues must be addressed. And they will have to be addressed, if the Church is going to survive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee ...
WEAVER: It could be the most popular Christian prayer on the planet.
Every hour, millions of people the world over pray to her, echoing the angel Gabriel's astonishing announcement.
She was to be the mother of God's son.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hail, Mary, full of grace.
WEAVER: "Hail, Mary, full of grace," said Gabriel. "The Lord is with thee."
With that endorsement, the Virgin Mary, an icon in blue, was soon elevated by the early church fathers to a lofty throne as the Queen of Heaven. And she hasn't stepped down since.
HAZELTON: They couldn't deal with the real Mary. She was just too strong, too intelligent, too capable.
They had to sort of pare her down, make her two-dimensional, just this icon. They had to make her virgin, and only virgin.
WEAVER: And the icon, as centuries of artists have shown us, is blonde and blue-eyed.
But the reality may come as something of a shock.
BEN WITHERINGTON, III, PROFESSOR, ASBURY THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, WILMORE, KENTUCKY: I would assume that she looked like other Middle Eastern women, which would have been dark haired and dark skinned.
And she probably would have been about the same height as women of her time. And what we know about that is, that's probably five feet - 5'1", 5'2" - somewhere in there.
WEAVER: And scholars say her name wasn't Mary, but Mariam, in the Aramaic language she spoke in a small town called Nazareth.
It was a rural existence, governed by the rituals of Jewish life, and by Roman soldiers in the nearby city of Sepphoris, a frequent target of Jewish rebels.
According to journalist Lesley Hazelton, author of "Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother," Mary was not just an observer, but directly involved in the politics of her time.
HAZELTON: There's no doubt in my mind that she - because she knew the ins and outs and all the side roads of the hills, where the caves were, where you could hide, where you could safely go and nobody could track you, even at night without a moon, especially on moonless nights - she would have been used to, and she would have wanted to, guide rebels who were fleeing from the military to safety. Rather like a kind of underground railroad.
WEAVER: The Virgin Mary as the Princess Leia of her day, defending the rebels against the evil empire?
Perhaps. Until the 13-year-old Mary, who was not yet married to Joseph, got some news from an angel that she was pregnant. And the father was God.
WITHERINGTON: Imagine a Jewish girl in this era going to their mother and father and saying, well, I've got good news and I've got bad news. I'm going to be the mother of the Messiah. And, no, my fiance is not the father.
I mean, this doesn't work in that sort of setting, you know. It's a scandalous story.
WEAVER: Yet Mary may also have had some powerful supporters.
LEVINE: It might have been the case, as it is in many rural cultures even today, that a pregnant girl was not anomalous, and that the rest of the village - particularly the women in the village - would have helped Mary through her pregnancy and supported her.
She was very much at risk in that pregnancy until Joseph decided to throw the mantle, you might say, of his patriarchal protection over her and take the child as his own.
And that gave a stable family life, then, for Jesus.
WEAVER: The story of that birth is found only in two gospels, Luke and Matthew. And while they don't agree on all the details, they do agree that this event was miraculous - a child born to a virgin.
KING: This is a tradition in antiquity, in general. If you're important, you had a special birth.
WEAVER: For centuries, she has been portrayed as a sinner, a prostitute whom Jesus saves.
In films such as "Jesus Christ Superstar."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I never thought I'd come to this, ...
WEAVER: And "The Last Temptation of Christ." UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it so bad showing a prostitute's room?
WEAVER: That tradition continues.
And yet, Mary Magdalene is also adored by millions, who see in her humanity what Jesus saw. A humanity that makes her a powerful witness to his life and his resurrection.
It's no surprise, then, that today she is the subject of not only a blockbuster novel that turns her into the wife of Jesus, but also of a surge of scholarship that recasts her role in an entirely new and different way.
JOHNSON: Neither a whore nor a wife, but a witness. Someone who preached to the apostles. Someone who was a woman, was a leader in the community.
WEAVER: But that's not how Mary Magdalene started out. In the Gospels, Jesus cures her of possession by seven demons.
WITHERINGTON: And, of course, the number seven has a symbolic sort of resonance in early Judaism. It means a complete set.
So, it means she was as bad off as she possibly could be. She was as possessed as one could imagine a person to be possessed. She had a full set of demons.
WEAVER: This introduction of a demonic Mary Magdalene has also overshadowed what is later mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, that she was a woman of resources, very likely helping to bankroll the ministry of this itinerant rabbi.
JOHNSON: Jesus is supported by women. Women pay his bills. Mary Magdalene supports him in terms of deep and abiding friendship and fidelity.
WEAVER: The source of her income was probably the fishing business, which in first century Galilee, historians tell us, was profitable and tough, just as it is today.
WITHERINGTON: If she grew up in a fishing village, I'm putting my money on the fact that somehow, some way, she was involved in that trade, or helping somebody in that trade.
And so, I would say that she was a working girl.
WEAVER: While the Virgin Mary's home town of Nazareth has become a shrine to her memory, Mary Magdalene's home is a neglected ruin.
HAZELTON: There's not much of Magdala left. In fact, there's hardly anything left.
There are the ruins of a sixth century Byzantine monastery built there six centuries after Mary Magdalene's time. And they're very beautiful ruins. They're closed to the public.
WEAVER: The Magdalene's reputation is all the more surprising, given what the gospels tell us about who she really was.
MEYER: She was a beloved disciple. She might have been the beloved disciple. And she was very close to Jesus - a soul mate of Jesus.
WITHERINGTON: You can see the way the "Galilean Gazette" would have read. Radical rabbi and disciples - including women - traveling throughout Galilee teaching. Oy!
You know, this would not have gone down well at all in a conservative, patriarchal culture.
WEAVER: Other scholars say that the Magdalene's high profile role would not have been surprising.
LEVINE: The gospels demonstrate that women could appear in public and speak out in public, that women could travel on pilgrimage, for example, from the Galilee down to Jerusalem.
That women owned their own homes, that women had use of their own funds, that women could function without husbands. And it wasn't as if that was scandalous.
WEAVER: And yet, the gospels tell us that she was unusual, following him all the way to Jerusalem and staying to bear witness to his death.
MEYER: One of the intriguing things about the gospel accounts, the New Testament, is the fact that at the time of the crucifixion, the guys all run away.
And that becomes a very interesting matter. It seems to indicate that, in fact, in terms of the rising of faith and the continuation of the movement, women played a primary role, and in particular, Mary Magdalene.
WEAVER: In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the first person to whom Jesus appears after he rises from the dead.
WITHERINGTON: So there's this poignant moment of epiphany, this moment of recognition. She - he says, "Mariam," and she says, "Rabuni." And she grabs him. And he says, don't cling to me. Don't cling to the Jesus of the past.
We need to go forward into a new, brighter future, for you and for the male disciples.
WEAVER: And then, she disappears from the scene, only to reappear centuries later as a prostitute, the woman with the alabaster jar filled with precious ointment for washing Jesus' feet.
How did this happen?
MEYER: There is a story about a woman who is a member of the oldest profession in the Gospel of Luke, just before the first account of Mary of Magdala.
And Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, read that story, and read about Mary, and conflated the two and drew the conclusion that Mary herself was a prostitute.
WEAVER: Gregory the Great just happened to be pope. And when he preached this revised version of Mary Magdalene in the year 591, his sermon turned her into a fallen woman for the next 1,400 years.
While Mary Magdalene was being downgraded, Mary of Nazareth was getting her own makeover - one that some say fills a primal need.
HAZELTON: What we need is to be able to conceive of the sacred, of the divine, without gender. Until we reach that stage - and we're not there yet - just as the ancients needed a goddess, so do we too.
And Mary becomes that goddess.
WEAVER: A pilgrim from a religion other than Christianity could be forgiven for thinking that Christians worship a goddess and that her name is the blessed Virgin Mary.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let us pray that we will join Mary, the Mother of the Lord in the glory of heaven.
WEAVER: But just how did this lavish coronation happen to a peasant woman from rural Galilee?
LEVINE: According to Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, Mary is present in the worshipping community in Jerusalem following the death of Jesus and that's the last time we hear reference to her in all of the Acts of the Apostles.
HAZELTON: I like to think of her as the sort of center of such a community. They want to worship her, she says, "No, I am one of you, we are all equals."
WEAVER: But as Christianity started spreading, Christian leaders recognized Mary's appeal for potential converts among the pagans.
JOHNSON: If you go back and you read the prayers to the goddesses and shrines to the goddesses and the rituals of the goddesses, they were beautiful and they had to deal with healing and salvation and with comfort in all kinds of ways. And so what the bishops did, and this was done with approval, is as they said, baptize all of that and bring it within the parameters of the Christian message.
And so the titles, the shrines, the iconography of the goddesses got transferred to the feminine figure in the Christian tradition, connected with Jesus at his birth, namely his motjer
WEAVER: The Vatican is the Sacred Heart of Mary and Devotion. That has been especially true under Pope John Paul II and with good reason. On May 13th, 1981, the Pope was shot in St. Peter's Square and barely survived. Rescued from death, he believes, by Mary's hand.
MSGR. LUCIANO, RECTOR OF THE SANCTUARY IN FATIMAS: I believe and I am sure he believes it to that it was the Virgin of Fatima that saved him. Inside I think he believes it. The Pope has said once to my bishop that he comes to Fatima every day.
WEAVER: Fatima is the town in Portugal where the Catholic Church believes this image of the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children on May 14th, 1916. 65 years to the day that the pope was nearly killed by this bullet. The Virgin Mary also gave three secrets to the children. The first, a vision of hell. The second, the need to defeat communism in Russia and the third, a prediction too terrible to reveal.
Then, in the year 2000, Pope John Paul revealed the secret.
O'COLLINS: It was about a figure in white being wounded. It wasn't a precise prophecy of what happened to the pope in 1981 but it was kind of a vague picture that fitted that occasion and there was nothing very startling about it and I am very glad they came out with that because that was a Happy Hunting Ground for religious fanatics.
WEAVER: But the pope is hardly alone in his devotion to Mary in apparitions. Thousands continue to receive visions and millions more make pilgrimages to those sites. How does the Vatican determine which miracles are real and which are faith-induced fantasies?
O'COLLINS: Well, they want to look at the results in people's lives. If the results are good, "by their fruit you shall know them" and there is a real holiness there and the vision is having a good impact on people and are these visions helping people to pray more to be closer to Jesus himself? There may be something in them. That's the only test. Time is also important. You can't tell straight off.
WEAVER: Mary makes more appearances to people than does her famous son. So why is Mary bigger than Jesus when it comes to capturing the imagination of everyone from popes to peasants.
HAZELTON (VOICE OVER): She is exceptionally sympathetic and therefore for many she is the person who will come to warn us if there is danger, if we need to repent for our sins. If God is angry.
WEAVER: Mary's maternal reach even extends beyond Christianity into Islam where many non-Muslims might be surprised to learn that she is also venerated.
HAZELTON: There's actually more about Mary in the Qoran than there is in the new testament, word for word. But the story of her in the Qoran is wonderful. The chapter on Mary in the Qoran shows a pregnant, having to leave her village, going out into the desert, giving birth to Jesus under a palm tree, under the protection of the Angel Gabriel.
WEAVER: While Islam might revere Mary, she remains a lightning rod for disputes between Catholics and many Protestants who consider some aspects of Marian devotion excessive.
LEVINE: As a matter of fact they were right when you look at some quarters.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (VOICE-OVER): The old argument is getting very tired on both sides. Catholics have shifted what they are teaching about Mary. Protestants are now taking another look. I think It's too strong to say she is going to be a point of unity between Protestants and Catholics but at least not necessarily a huge bone of contention as in the past.
WITHERINGTON: With the rise of women's issues in Protestantism, especially more and more women becoming ministers in various Protestant denominations, Mary has become more on the front-burner for Protestants as well. I mean, why are we busy running around just talking about Peter and John? I mean, we should also talk about how Mary is presented as a role model in the New Testament.
WEAVER: While the Virgin was being turned into a goddess, the Magdalene was being turned into a sinner.
Now the other Mary is getting a second look thanks to some stunning discoveries in the sands of Egypt.
PROF ELAINE PAGELS, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: We found buried fragments of huge arguments and what we found are just glimmers or hints of what must have been explosive controversies in the first century.
What we discovered is that the question about women, their leadership and their participation was not something made up in the 20th century or the 21st century but it was actually an issue in the Christian movement from the very beginning.
WEAVER: Each year on the feast of Mary Magdalene, pilgrims in the French hill town of Vezelay march to a huge basilica carrying a relic of the saint. A piece of her rib the tradition says is one of the few clues to her fate.
Mary Magdalene disappears from the gospels after Jesus does, leaving church patriarchs to paint a picture of her as a woman on the wrong side of the Garden of Eden.
HAZELTON: I hesitate to say it was done in bad conscious. But it was done by men who were used to power. It was done by men who could not envision women taking a powerful role, women being that close to Jesus.
MEYER: The effect of that was to eliminate Mary from any kinds of serious consideration as an apostle because that is not the kind of cloth of which apostles are cut. Apostles are not repentant whores and that had the effect of marginalizing Mary from that point on.
WEAVER: It took the Catholic Church until 1969 to formally undue Pope Gregory's sermon turning her into a prostitute but by then the image of this sinful Magdalene was set, bolstered by 15 centuries of sensuous Christian art.
KING: There is something about Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute which allows painters and artists to keep the voluptuousness and sensuality within the Christian tradition by making it repentant. So in some ways I think she is marvelous for artists precisely because it's a place to allow femininity, to have a place in the Christian tradition that they might not otherwise easily find.
WEAVER: All that began to change in 1945 when an Egyptian goatherd discovered a jar of papyrus documents in a dry river bed at Nag Hammadi. Documents that would threaten centuries of Christian teaching.
KING: They contained a treasure trove of over 40 new texts, most of which belong to Christianity in the second and third centuries and they're basically allowing us to fill out and to some degree even rewrite portions of the history of Christianity in those centuries.
WEAVER: But rewriting does not come easily to a 2000 year old religion. The Nag Hammadi texts, known as the Gnostic Gospels, reveal mysteries that offer us secret ways to salvation.
PAGELS: If Jesus said something like "If you bring forth something within you, if you bring forth it will save you," it doesn't suggest that you need a church or a priest or you don't maybe need to be baptized, so it's about seeking. It's a very different kind of path. An it was different from the one that the leaders and bishops of the church found useful for organizing the Christian communities.
WEAVER: Church leaders declared this Gnostic path a heresy. But just as revolutionary as Gnostic practice was the Gnostic view of the feminine role.
MEYER: One of the features of Gnostic thought that made Gnostics so attractive is the fact that the Gnostics were clear in acknowledging that God is male and God is female. There are gods and there are goddesses. There are male and there are female manifestations of the divine. And this gives a power and inclusiveness to Gnostic theology.
WEAVER: This power was on display most vividly in the newly discovered Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The first gospel named after a woman. While scholars say that she probably didn't write it, these words from the gospel itself put Mary in direct conflict with Peter.
Quote, "'Did he really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us?' Peter asked, 'Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?'"
KING: The Gospel of Mary makes the strongest argument for women's leadership of probably any text in all of antiquity precisely because it argues that leadership should be based on one's interior spiritual maturity and not one whether one is a man or a woman.
WEAVER: So does this mean Mary Magdalene, rather than Peter, could be the first pope?
O'COLLINS: That is a bizarre idea that Mary Magdalene is the first pope. She is the first east(ph) to witness and that is a decisive moment but people didn't use the word "pope" then and Peter was clearly the leader of that core group of 12.
WEAVER: Other scholars, even those who dispute the authority of the Gnostic gospels say the new texts do reflect some kind of internal church battle, one that has echoes for women 1800 years later.
WITHERINGTON: I think there may well be some kind of struggle from the third or fourth centuries AD between the dominant tradition, which is represented by Peter and then Mary Magdalene becomes a sort of heroine figure for this subdominant voice that still wants to be heard.
WEAVER: Another Gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, seems to tell us that Jesus' relationship to Mary Magdalene was intimate. It says "He used to kiss her often." Likewise, Protestant reformer Martin Luther thought Jesus and the Magdalene may have been a couple and the songwriters of "Jesus Christ Superstar" couldn't resist the idea either.
So "The Da Vinci Code's" thesis isn't new, but could it be true? Even feminist theologian have trouble buying into that one.
KING: For her to be standing in the text next to Jesus and not be called "Mary, wife of Jesus," but to be called "Mary Magdalene" would be unique in all of ancient literature of any kind and as historians, we don't like unique and in my mind that simply settles the issue right there.
WEAVER: So what is behind the enduring fascination of a romance between the savior and the Siren?
WITHERINGTON: In a Jesus-haunted culture, everybody wants an approachable Jesus and one of the things that underlines things is the human element of Jesus. Remember the song:
There is this motif in our culture of wanting to humanize God or make him more like us. Bring him down to our level.
WEAVER: The debates are not likely to end because the underlying issues. Authority in the church, the role of women, continue to percolate and so does the search for the real meaning of the two Marys.
MEYER: Give us Mary. Give us Mary. She doesn't belong to the hierarchy of the church. She belongs to all of us. Let us have Mary again. Let us have Mary Magdalene again. Let us have Mary the Mother of Jesus. Let these figures not be a part of official theology, let them be a part of our lives.
WEAVER: Two women, both named Mary. While scholars try to forge a new reality for the Marys, those views can collide with the weight of Christian tradition. 2000 years of the Madonna and the sinner. For Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches that bar women from the pulpit, the idea of the Magdalene as an apostle could completely redraw the face of Christianity.
JOHNSON: More and more women do not want to raise their children in the church when their girls are told, "You can not do this." Their daughters are told, "You can not do this." They are told, "You can not do this." Who wants to belong to an institution that keeps silencing you?
WEAVER: For Protestants, rediscovering a role for Mary the Mother of Jesus could be equally unsettling.
WITHERINGTON: I would like to see the rehabilitation of traditions about Mary based in the scriptures as a model disciple and one who wrestles with understanding Jesus and so is very approachable.
KING: It's not just that people are looking for reasons to be able to ordain women, for example. It really is a matter of looking at the tradition and writing it accurately historically so that we have a strong historical basis to build contemporary theology in church life.
WEAVER: But re-imagining the role of Mary in Christianity or in any religion could shake sacred ground.
PAGELS: The question of how we understand gender and the relationship between men and women has always been an explosive and potentially controversial one. It can break societies apart. WEAVER: But scholars argue that the enduring appeal of the Virgin Mary and the renewed interest in Mary Magdalene can point the way to a new future by recovering the authentic past.
O'COLLINS: Christianity comes from real people who lived in real places and it is rooted in Jewish history and any good interest in Mary and Mary Magdalene is part of this rooting of the Christian story in its origins which is historical.
WEAVER: And more potentially explosive documents about the Christian story, scholars say, are out there, just awaiting discovery.
WITHERINGTON: There are more documents there to be read that will shed more light on Jesus, on Mary Magdalene and the Mother of Jesus and what happened in the early church. There are more gospels to be found. And those gospels, in turn, will change our way of looking at the ancient world and the early church.
KING: What was the relationship like between the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene? Well, they certainly shared Jesus in common but more than that I think they shared in common a hope for a better world. A concern that people unite and work together. A sense that women can accomplish enormous amounts both individually and in particular if they work together.
WEAVER: So the arguments about the Marys that took place centuries ago, arguments long considered settled, are being renewed with fresh evidence to fuel them and with women getting equal time for the first time. Will a new vision of the two Marys push Christianity to places it has never gone or will it divide it like never before?
No matter what new evidence is found, one thing is certain. Nearly 2,000 years after they walked the Holy Land, the world is still looking to the Marys for answers.