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Novel reinterprets life of Mary Magdalene

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002

Novelist Margaret George likes to take on big characters. She has told the stories of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots and Cleopatra.

That might explain why in "Mary Called Magdalene" she takes a relatively obscure figure and elevates her to become one of the most influential people of early Christianity.

A traditional Christian reading of the Gospels renders Mary Magdalene a demon-ridden prostitute who, through a revolutionary deliverance, becomes one of the most faithful of Jesus Christ's followers. She remained by Jesus' side during the crucifixion, when other disciples fled for fear of persecution, and is one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. Other than that, the Scriptures have little to say about her.

George, drawing heavily from Gnostic accounts of the life of Mary Magdalene, realizes her as a "13th disciple" with prophetic gifts; she is commissioned with the others to preach and heal the sick. She tests Jesus by expressing her attraction to him, encourages the disciples after Jesus' death, and helps Jesus discover his purpose through her visions of death, destruction and glory.

After a slow beginning that meanders through Mary's childhood and young adult years as she is slowly possessed by her demons, she is delivered. George then embarks on a cautiously "realist" retelling of the Gospels that empowers Mary and humanizes Jesus.

George fills her version of the Gospels with intriguing details that endear the reader to Mary. However, those details come at the expense of the divinity of Jesus.

The few miracles he performs seem to happen inadvertently. The sick he heals appear to have accomplished it as much by their own power as by a divine one. George's vulnerable and less self-assured Jesus is afraid of the masses chanting "You are our king" and is overwhelmed by the crowds desperately seeking healing; he comes across as more of a prophet than as the incarnate God.

In contrast to Scripture, George's Jesus predicts his death only after it seems inevitable, and never suggests he will rise again.

In another interesting and wide departure from Scripture, George has Mary endeavor to save Jesus from persecution and makes her privy to Judas' betrayal. Whereas the New Testament records no miracles wrought by women, George's Mary saves the day by displaying God's miraculous healing and deliverance power when disciple John's faith falters. In a scene not in the Bible, George lets Mary discover the Garden of Gethsemane, which she suggests to Jesus as a place for prayer.

George is at her best when fleshing out Mary's life with details that the Bible doesn't mention. She injects Mary with the dynamic of a widowed mother scorned by her family, making her complete devotion to Jesus more weighty. George does what the Bible does not, by justifying Mary's "outcast" status through her choice to live alone among men in the wilderness. Her exorcism is never accepted by her family, and her husband dies decrying Jesus' ministry.

The narrative is primarily directed through the thoughts of Mary. Sometimes, the constant self-questioning and inner turmoil become overbearing. Overall, though, the novel is a realistic and thorough imagining of the life of one of the most mysterious of biblical women.

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