Mary Magdalene: Gospels Humanized
The four canonical Gospels in the New Testament are some of the most read literature of all time. Over the past two thousand years, artists have reinterpreted the texts with modern understandings. The 2018 film Mary Magdalene is a contemporary version of the Gospels told through the perspective of Mary Magdalene—a woman scarcely mentioned in the Gospels. This film, which took some serious creative liberties away from the canonical texts, garnered some critical acclaim for the approach, but was also considered as unbiblical by some. So what are the changes made by this film, and are they really unbiblical?
The Apostle Mary Magdalene
In the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is only introduced in Luke as someone who was healed by Jesus. The only consistency is that all Gospel accounts agree she is a key witness at Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. But despite being a part of such important moments, there is no mention of Mary’s spirituality as a follower or any account of her contributing to Jesus’ journey. In contrast, there are several instances in the film where Mary helps Jesus teach, and she exemplifies Jesus’ message of mercy through her actions. At the end, Mary witnesses the resurrection, which is consistent with the Gospels. But afterwards she is depicted as the only follower who truly understood Jesus’ message and explained the meaning of Jesus’ Kingdom to other apostles. In the Gospels, there is no mention of Mary interpreting and understanding Jesus’ message. These plot changes emphasize Mary’s spirituality as that of a prominent apostle. They highlight Mary’s influence in Jesus’ mission to preach. As a result, the audience is led to reexamine the role of Mary Magdalene (and other female followers) in Jesus’ campaign, which is hardly mentioned from the Gospels.
Black Peter, and Family Man Judas
Interestingly, this film also cast a black actor for the role of Peter. The Gospels do not state the ethnicity or skin color of any apostles except for Simon the Canaanite, but this is a notable departure from the conventional characterization of Peter as a Jew. Furthermore, this film has a humanistic portrayal of Judas. In the Gospels it is merely stated that Judas betrays Jesus in exchange for some money, but no other motivation is given. This film gives Judas a backstory and a more wholesome motivation: he wanted the Kingdom to come so that he could see his family again in the after life. Therefore he pushed Jesus to initiate the revolution. This version of Judas reminds us of the side characters’ (such as Judas) humanity. If we can see the Bible through their perspectives, we will have a more complete understanding of Jesus’ struggle and the Gospels’ message.
A Troubled Jesus
The most striking change from the Gospels is perhaps the film’s characterization of Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus is a wise and determined leader. He performs miracles to call on everyone to believe and is stern in the face of hardships. However, in the film, Joaquin Phoenix portrays a troubled Jesus who knows fear. When Jesus teaches, his voice is weak and unsure. After he heals a dying person, he foresees the future that he’s going to be crucified. He immediately goes into a cave alone and feels afraid of having to ultimately sacrifice his life for the cause. He was only reassured by Mary’s words to regain courage to continue the journey to Jerusalem. This portrayal emphasizes Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity. They make Jesus’ struggle more relatable to the audience so that his message feels more authentic.
This film’s existence symbolizes the recent change in the narrative of Mary Magdalene. In 591 AD, Pope Gregory pronounced Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, falsely framing her as a sexual sinner. For centuries, artistic representations of Mary always revolved around her sinfulness. As more scriptures are discovered, an alternative belief that Mary was an important figure among the apostles has become more popular among scholars. In 2016, the Church officially recognized Mary, calling her “apostle of the apostles.” But Mary’s vindication still faces an uphill battle to reach the general public.
Progressive Take On the Gospels
The vindication of Mary certainly echoes the modern gender equality movement. The progressive cultural trend of calling for gender equality is probably the reason why this film took Mary’s perspective in the first place. Similarly, the casting of Peter challenges our racial prejudice in that making an apostle dark-skinned can invalidate this film to some people. This is very similar to Eliza’s work analyzing Romare Bearden’s portrayal of the Odyssey. Bearden depicts characters in the Odyssey as Africans with black skin to reverse racial stereotypes. Both this film and Bearden’s work represent racial minorities, and at the same time subtly expose viewers’ prejudice when they are surprised by the characters’ unusual ethnicity. Combining these decisions with the emphasis on Judas and Jesus’ humanity, this film delivers a genuinely humanistic take of the Gospels’ story that focuses on the content and qualities of the characters. It may look different, but it is grounded in Jesus’ message to call on people to reduce hate and love each other. Influenced by progressive ideas, the film emphasizes that no matter the form, the core of Jesus’ message is what really matters. On that note, maybe this film is truly faithful to the Bible after all.
I’m Dong, a current sophomore at Colgate. I’m majoring in Computer Science and possibly Mathematics. If you are wondering about what movie to watch this weekend, give Mary Magdalene a try!