The 2018 film Mary Magdalene, which told the story of Jesus from Mary Magdalene’s perspective, was not a box office smash. It received a 47% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was arguably not close enough to the New Testament account to appeal to evangelical Christians, the most likely market for a film about Jesus. On the other hand, the art house crowd, for whom the film seems to be directed, would not be interested in the subject matter, no matter how “feminist” it is.
Rooney Mara plays Mary Magdalene while Jesus is played by her real life boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. Peter, a Jew from Galilee, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofur. Huh?
A lot of traditions and myths, old and new, have developed around Mary Magdalene. She is supposed to have been a prostitute. She is equated with the woman caught in adultery and also with Lazarus’ sister Mary of Bethany. She is supposed to have had a sexual relationship with Jesus and ended up in southern France. There is none of this in this film. It is concerned with the “historical Mary Magdalene” from the fishing village of Magdala in Galilee.
At the beginning of the film Mary worked with the family fishing business. Her family plan to marry her off, but she does not want to go through with it. While we might see her as an individual who is following her heart, in the honour and shame society of the ancient world, in which conformity is valued, Mary’s actions are thought to be bizarre, disgracing and shaming her family. They assume she must be demon-possessed and attempt to cast the demons out of here.
They had previously heard about the travelling healer Jesus who shows up. Instead of literally casting seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2), Jesus heals her by affirming her. Jesus baptizes her and she joins the disciples.
It is not mentioned in the movie, but Jesus and Mary Magdalene would have something in common, in that Jesus may have also been an embarrassment to his family. As the oldest son, he was expected to take over the family business and become a carpenter, but he became an itinerant preacher, said he was the Messiah and got crucified.
Mary’s travelling around with a bunch of men was also scandalous. The New Testament records that other women also travelled with Jesus and the disciples and that they supported them financially (Luke 8:1-3). The “historical Mary Magdalene” may have even more unusual and controversial than the movie portrays her. She was unmarried and financially independent in a patriarchal society.
Having Mary with them gives Jesus an opening to preach to other women, telling them they need to obey God, rather than husbands and fathers, and they need to forgive them for the way they have treated them. It’s not in the New Testament, but it is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and it could have happened. Later, it is women who first proclaim Jesus to be the Messiah.
Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God, which the disciples interpret as meaning that Jesus is going to supernaturally overthrow the Romans and set up the kingdom. In the New Testament the disciples were still expecting Jesus to do this after he rose from the dead (Acts 1:6). Judas hopes that the resurrection will take place and he will be reunited with his dead family.
When they enter Jerusalem, Judas is expecting Jesus to usher in the Kingdom. When he doesn’t, Judas decides to force Jesus’ hand by betraying him to the authorities, hoping he will act and overthrow them. Judas is portrayed more sympathetically and with good intentions than the New Testament does (John 6:70-71, 12:5-7).
Nevertheless, Judas and the other disciples made the same mistake which many Christians do today. They want Jesus to meet their expectations and do what they want, when the Kingdom of God is about God as King and His will being done, not ours.
At the Passover or Last Supper, Mary is seated on Jesus’ right where Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” placed John, resulting in a lot of confusion for Dan Brown. John is listed in the credits, but I couldn’t tell which one he was.
When Jesus is crucified and Judas realizes he was wrong, Mary attempts to console him.
Mary Magdalene is the only one to see the risen Jesus although the New Testament says other women were present (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:2). As I have discussed here and here, women were not considered credible witnesses in the ancient world. If the early Christians were going to make up the story of the resurrection, they would not have said the first witnesses were women, so it must have happened that way.
Mary goes and tells the male disciples that Jesus has risen. There is no suggestion that the disciples also saw the risen Jesus as the New Testament describes. According to the movie, Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is solely based on Mary Magdalene.
Mary and Peter have different ideas about what the kingdom means. Peter wants to establish the church and wait for Jesus to return and establish the kingdom. Mary explains that the kingdom is within them and they must love and serve others.
Instead of seeing these views in conflict, many theologians would say they are both true. The Kingdom of God has already begun, it is present now in the lives of Christians where Jesus is King and by grace and faith, they do His will, and in the future when Jesus returns, everything will be brought into the Kingdom of God.
Mary Magdalene is portrayed as having greater insight than the male disciples, being the only one who truly understands Jesus’ message. This final confrontation between Mary and Peter appears to be derived from the 2nd century Gnostic Gospel of Mary where they are in conflict over the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. It is not meant to be taken literally. Peter symbolizes the orthodox Christians, while Mary Magdalene symbolizes the Gnostics who claimed to have superior spiritual insight than the orthodox Christians.
The movie would disappoint those Christians who want a dramatisation of the Gospels. However, the movie’s portrayal of Jesus is fairly Biblical. He proclaims the coming Kingdom of God, heals people, raises Lazarus from the dead, has a sense of his impending death, is crucified and rises from the dead. People call him the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus’ affirming Mary Magdalene and other women and not following the social conventions of the period is realistic, but there was more to Jesus. There is nothing about his death making the forgiveness and sins and eternal life possible. It does not say what happened to Jesus after his resurrection. A lot of the dialogue is original and not derived from the Gospels. The week before, I had finished watching the new television miniseries Waco, and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus reminded me a bit of Taylor Kitsch’s David Koresh.
While Mary loves Jesus, unlike other revisionist portrayals such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code, there is no romantic relationship between them, unlike what was going on between the two actors at the. time.