Mary Magdalene in Film, Special Issue

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
Anthony Le DonneExecutive Editor, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, OH, USA

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The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus continues to be primarily interested in Jesus within his first-century context, as a figure of history, and as a topic of cultural and media dialectic. Jonathan Rowlands’ article in this issue – independent from the otherwise themed articles – follows jshj’s primary pathway as it challenges a commonly held assumption among Jesus historians. At its heart, historical Jesus research is a field that attempts to correct previous constructs. We remain committed to serving the field along this pathway.

That said, the bulk of this issue focuses on the legacy of Mary Magdalene in film. This topic fits well within the third stated purpose of this journal. Indeed, the tagline of this publication is “Jesus in History, Culture and Media.” Media, broadly considered, includes both ancient and modern popular reception. When Robert L. Webb (the founding editor of jshj) originally conceived of this publication, he wanted to create space for both historical research and film reviews. Because of the implications of the primary title, of course, most of the submissions sent this journal aim toward ancient rather than modern media.

To my knowledge this journal has never dedicated an issue to Mary Magdalene. This might suggest that Mary Magdalene is of little interest to historical inquiry. Or perhaps Mary’s historical reconstruction is usually put in service to other aims. But whatever the reason, Mary Magdalene continues to be a key figure in almost every Jesus film. Moreover, Jesus films only seem to be increasing. It might be advantageous then to put Jesus research in more direct conversation with film studies.

A renewed emphasis on film will serve historical Jesus research in at least two ways. First, if historians make room at the table for film studies, it is more likely that historically considerate iterations of Jesus are projected to the general public. Second, historians can learn from popular-culture curators which topics warrant research. If, for example, we see a rehearsal of Jesus over and against Judaism in pop-culture, it will be the historian’s job to correct the error. Or consider another example: if Jesus is projected as a figure who has little to no theological orientation, it will be the historian’s job to call out the anachronism. Film, of course, is not always the place to make historical research primary. Even so, artist expressions (especially those with cultural currency) warrant interrogation.

The first article in this special issue provides a brief entry point for Mary Magdalene as a historical figure. This piece, written by the present author, asks, “Did Jesus Befriend Sex-workers?” This is an article I have wanted to write for over a decade and finally finds a home here. The first half considers the popular notions that Jesus kept company with women of ill-repute and points to the paucity of evidence for such a claim. The second half of the article considers the emergence of a sexualized Mary Magdalene in the medieval imagination. This, I argue, inspires the image of Mary Magdalene in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film “The King of Kings.”

The next four articles represent the backbone of the issue. Each takes a screen portrayal (or proxy) of Mary Magdalene and interrogates it with (meta)critical eyes. James Crossley’s article deals with “Judith” as a Mary Magdalene cipher in “The Life of Brian.” Matthew Rindge revisits “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Meredith Warren deals with the 2018 film, “Mary Magdalene.” Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch deals with the recent television iteration of Mary in “The Chosen.” Response articles are written by Joan Taylor and Richard Walsh.

I have learned a great deal from these scholars. I hope that Jesus historians will continue to value dialogue with film specialists and that future issues of this journal will make space for this.

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