Interview: September 8, 2006
September 8, 2006
Dan Burstein is the creator of the bestselling Secrets series, which includes such titles as SECRETS OF THE CODE and SECRETS OF ANGELS & DEMONS. His latest book, SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE, focuses on this enigmatic figure of the New Testament, thoroughly exploring just how large a role she played in the life of Jesus and the establishment of early Christianity.
In an interview with Bookreporter.com contributing writer Marcia Ford, Burstein describes how he and fellow editor Arne de Keijzer selected the writers and pieces found in the volume, and highlights some of the fascinating information offered in the text. He also discusses the reactions of religious groups toward his books, offers reasons behind Mary Magdalene's mass appeal, and shares his own conclusions on this subject in light of the many conjectures being put forth today.
Bookreporter.com: What prompted you to pursue this examination of who Mary Magdalene is?
Dan Burstein: My interest in Mary Magdalene sprang from my original reading of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE in 2003. The Mary Magdalene stories that I encountered for the first time in THE DA VINCI CODE, plus all the other fascinating aspects of that novel that were new to me at the time, prompted me to research, write and edit SECRETS OF THE CODE. It went on to become a New York Times and global bestseller in 2004, and has recently been reissued as a paperback with major updates (see www.SecretsOfTheCode.com).
Mary Magdalene was a big part of SECRETS OF THE CODE. In January of 2004, as I was madly editing over 100,000 words about Mary Magdalene (excerpts from books, interviews with experts and translations of ancient texts) that we had assembled into about 25,000 words of space that we could afford to devote to Mary Magdalene in the context of that book, I recall thinking we should do a whole book just devoted to Mary Magdalene, which is what SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE became.
At first blush, the questions that interested me and my co-editor, Arne de Keijzer, were the logical ones that spring from reading THE DA VINCI CODE: Were Jesus and Mary married? Did they have an intimate, sexual human relationship? Was there a child or children who were products of this union? Did Mary represent the spirit of the sacred feminine, and was the concept of the Holy Grail a metaphor or symbol for her and the holy bloodline she and Jesus engendered? Did Jesus tell her sacred truths he did not tell the other apostles and did he want her to lead his movement after his death? Was there a plot by the early Catholic Church to besmirch Mary's reputation by suppressing her role as a leader, confining her to the role of repentant prostitute, and asserting the leadership of Peter and male leaders of the Church instead? Was this a known political cover-up and coup d'etat and did people like Leonardo da Vinci paint Mary Magdalene into the Last Supper or other art works to keep the truth alive? Were there real organizations like the Priory of Sion maintaining the secret of Jesus, Mary, the Holy Grail, and this bloodline?
These are all the questions that any reader of THE DA VINCI CODE has --- and they are fascinating questions. In SECRETS OF THE CODE first, and now in much more depth in SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE (see: www.SecretsOfMaryMagdalene.com), we answer all these questions with a wide variety of commentaries that come from historians, Bible scholars, theologians of different faiths and denominations, archeologists, art historians, conspiracy theory experts, medievalists, feminists, new-age thinkers, occultists, symbologists and others.
Very early on in our research, we were impressed with how much more there is to the phenomenon of interest in Mary Magdalene than simply the issues raised in THE DA VINCI CODE. We discovered that, in the decade prior to its publication, there had been more than twenty important new biographies, biographical novels and translations of ancient texts focusing on Mary Magdalene. Many of them went much further and were philosophically far deeper in nuance and meaning than the fairly superficial, titillating aspects of the Mary Magdalene legend as told in THE DA VINCI CODE.
Even without THE DA VINCI CODE, we realized that Mary Magdalene was well on her way to becoming the new "It girl" of the 21st century. She stands at the very heart of many efforts to reintroduce ancient kinds of sacred, magical, intuitive knowledge into modern religion and spiritual movements. She represents the essence of the feminine half of the spiritual whole, which has largely been kept out of the cosmological picture we have been shown by most societies and cultures in the last two thousand years. She is front and center in debates in the Catholic Church and other faiths and denominations over the role of women in the church. She figures prominently in new religious and spiritual movements from Kabbalah to Wicca. The (incorrect) stereotyping of her as a prostitute for 1400 years is, to me, much more interesting for what that case of identity theft tells us about gender politics and views of women and sexuality in Western civilization than it is for its role as a clue to solving murder mysteries in a fictional thriller.
In SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE we fully explored all the obvious, DA VINCI CODE-type questions....but we also journeyed down many deeper, richer, more meaningful paths as we looked at Mary Magdalene as a historical figure, as a follower of Jesus, as a philosophical partner to Jesus, as a critical figure in early Christianity, as a role model for modern women, and as inspiration for artists, writers, musicians, and for many people involved in today's search for the spiritual.
Represented in SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE are experts and scholars who believe everything we need to know about Mary Magdalene can be found in the New Testament, as well as those who find that alternative gospels --- with their much greater emphasis on her starring role as disciple and close companion to Jesus --- are the best way to interpret her. We also found the voices of those who connect her to ancient goddess figures and the traditions of the "sacred feminine," and those who find here the ultimate inspiration for today.
It has been a fascinating --- and illuminating --- journey for us and we hope readers will find it so as well.
BRC: Why do you believe Mary Magdalene is such an intriguing figure to so many people?
DB: There at least three reasons.
First, we as a society are in the grips of uncertainty --- politically and socially. Arguably, more and more people seem to be looking for comfort in religious movements and spiritual figures that are meaningful today. As Kathleen McGowan, author of the current bestseller THE EXPECTED ONE, puts in her essay for our book, "Mary's message is one of love, tolerance, forgiveness, and personal accountability." She is seen as the female counterpart to male religious leaders --- more intuitive, more attuned to the sense of the sacred in the world, and more able to access and understand the magic of life. In today's world, many people are searching for a new kind of spiritual feeling, rather than simply traditional religion, and Mary Magdalene seems to connote those intangible feelings many are seeking.
Second, we have to realize that instead of being an outcast, Mary Magdalene can rightfully be seen as a role model of women in the Church. Her reputation as a harlot forgiven by Jesus who goes on to become a penitent for the rest of her life was falsely imposed upon her in the 6th century by Pope Gregory. This act effectively marginalized not only Mary Magdalene, but all women spiritually and politically. Thanks to a generation of scholarship based on formerly hidden gospels and much other scholarly work often led by feminist scholars, we now know that Mary was instead a central figure to the ministry of Jesus, and the "apostle of the apostles." As such, she has also become, in the words of the religious scholar Jane Schaberg, "a call-to-action" figure. So Mary is not only "not a prostitute," she is, more importantly, a leader in her own right. There are major resonances here with modern issues.
Third, and closely intertwined with the other two reasons, is that she reconnects our modern world to the lost concept of the "sacred feminine," a tradition that goes back thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, which joined men and women equally and inseparably into a spiritual whole as well as a physical union. For 21st-century citizens, most religions have very little wisdom to offer about sex and sexuality as positive life forces. Most religions relegate sex, and often women as a gender, to the realm of sin. Yet, like the ancients of prehistory, many modern people sense that the very meaning of life may be closely related to fertility, sexuality and propagating the species. Some of the new views of Mary seem to bring a healthy, sensible way of seeing and understanding these major issues.
BRC: After editing so much material about Mary Magdalene, what is your personal take on who she was?
DB: There are no contemporaneous accounts of the life of Mary Magdalene. Virtually everything about her is a matter of conjecture or interpretation.
I tend to take what I call a secular humanist view. I believe she was a real, historical character (and I think Jesus was, too). They were born as Jews living in a troubled, chaotic, revolutionary time, as the Roman Empire occupied Israel. There were many prophets, messiahs, philosophers, teachers and cult leaders preaching different ideas in those days. "Maryam" from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee (who becomes Mary Magdalene in the earliest Greek versions of the New Testament), appears to have been a prosperous Jewish woman of some independent means. A close reading of Luke and other traditional gospel accounts suggests she became a kind of a patron to Jesus and his itinerant band of followers, giving them food and lodging.
The historical evidence also points to her as the person who became a particularly close companion to Jesus and an important disciple. And, as first witness to the Resurrection --- the defining moment of Christianity --- even the traditional gospel accounts assign her a pivotal role in the development of early Christianity.
The Gnostic gospels and a variety of alternative texts of different kinds contain tantalizing references to Jesus kissing Mary frequently, to the male apostles arguing that a woman should not be allowed in their inner circle and Jesus arguing otherwise, to Jesus saying he is going to make Mary into a man, so that she can participate, to Mary possessing special knowledge that Jesus imparted to her before his death, knowledge he did not share with the male apostles. These texts provide some intellectual basis for some of the stories told in THE DA VINCI CODE, particularly those Gnostic texts that seem to equate Peter with ignorance and stubbornness and Mary with inner wisdom, love and faith.
It is important to note that all the written documentation we have of the life and times of Jesus, whether in traditional or Gnostic texts, was written down many years after the facts they describe. The Gnostic texts are undoubtedly "less old" than the accepted Biblical texts. But it is still fascinating to try to imagine why people in early Christian study and worship circles 1600 or 1800 years ago would have invented stories about the male apostles being jealous of Mary, about Mary possessing special knowledge, about Jesus kissing her frequently, and would even have drafted a philosophically profound gospel of Mary. You could understand it if people invented these very modern-sounding ideas today (think Dan Brown), but 1700 years ago? I doubt the Gnostic authors simply dreamed up all this stuff and wrote it down as pure fiction. These events, it seems to me, must have had at least a basis in historical fact and in the oral traditions of the first few centuries of the Christian experience.
In several (although certainly not all) of the Gnostic texts, you get a sense of philosophical partnership and shared mission between Jesus and Mary. Along the way, you also pick up hints of the prosaic --- assume Jesus was human, assume Mary was his favored disciple, assume the male apostles have a demonstrated record of jealousy, and it is not a big leap to imagine Jesus and Mary as either formally married man and wife or as common-law intimate sexual partners as well as political and religious partners. This has even more commonsense ring of truth to it when you look at the culture of those times. Jesus is essentially a charismatic Jewish teacher and/or rabbi. Almost all the leaders and teachers of his age would be married by custom as well as part of following the Old Testament injunction to go forth and be fruitful and multiply. There is almost no tradition of celibacy among Jewish religious leaders of that time period, except, of course, the Essenes and some other rare minority sects. Some scholars believe that even the Essenes may have had wives and occasional conjugal visits, while living day-to-day as a celibate community of ascetic men.
In my opinion (again, as a secular humanist, I recognize this is all conjecture), Jesus probably had a wife or female partner, that partner was most likely Mary Magdalene (who is mentioned a dozen times by name in the four accepted gospels) and they probably had children. I doubt we will ever find any hard evidence one way or the other, but it is quite amazing what modern archeology is turning up. As Richard McBrien, a priest who teaches theology at Notre Dame, has often and so succinctly noted, if Jesus and Mary had been married and had had sexual relations, what's the problem? Sex within the context of marriage is not only allowed, it is a sacrament.
As to whether Mary Magdalene fled to the south of France with child or children after the Crucifixion, it strikes me as more legend and myth than fact. But there are certainly people who believe Mary is the founder of the Catholic Church in Europe and that there is evidence in stories and art works to suggest she really went there. My problem with much of this "evidence," which figures so prominently not only in THE DA VINCI CODE, but in HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and other books of that type, is that almost all the Mary Magdalene relics, stories, churches, songs, poems and art works in France can only be traced back as far as medieval times. There does not appear to be a continuous history of these stories being told during the first millennium, although they pop up with great detail and passion at the beginning of the second millennium and have a well-established history over the last nine hundred years or so.
However, one of the most intriguing pieces in SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE is a short piece by Jeremy Pine, a world-class expert on antique textiles. He believes he has found an ancient rug (perhaps a prayer rug for itinerant Christians) that dates from the second century of the Common Era, and contains the earliest known depiction of Jesus in an art work, as well as the earliest known portrayal of Mary Magdalene. In this carpet fragment, Pine believes Mary is depicted with child in a small boat, suggesting the idea that the legend about her escaping to France in a boat is older than has generally been thought. We reproduce these images from Pine's carpet fragment --- along with many images of Mary Magdalene in art over the last thousand years --- in SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE.
Is there a continuous bloodline that lives on to the present day? Maybe. All of us are descended from people who lived two thousand years ago. However, the oldest credible evidence of traceable genealogical records I know of only reaches back about eight hundred years. I doubt there are any authentic documents that would prove that Sophie Neveu or Audrey Tautou or our friend Kathleen McGowan, for that matter, is actually descended from the union of Jesus and Mary, even if there is a pretty good chance that Jesus and Mary were married. The records simply don't exist, and what has been passed off as historical records --- documentary histories of the Priory of Sion referred to in THE DA VINCI CODE, for example --- are, in my opinion, nothing but modern hoaxes and modern myths...
In short, there is no "evidence" to support the marriage thesis, the bloodline thesis, or the escape-to-France thesis, although there is intriguing folklore and legends on all these points. Mary Magdalene's later portrayal --- whether as saint or sinner, follower or leader --- was, and continues to be, a reflection of the mirror we hold up to ourselves and the beliefs of our own spiritual and cultural times.
BRC: What kind of reaction have you gotten from religious leaders on your DA VINCI CODE-related books? How does the reaction vary from one religious group to another?
DB: We have been gratified by the reception we have received from religious leaders. Because the methodology of our books is to incorporate scholars and experts from many different faiths and beliefs, I think people generally see the Secrets series as books of inclusion and encouragement of many different perspectives. We are not trying to write theology in these books. We are not trying to question anyone's faith or tell them what to believe. We are simply trying to widen, broaden, deepen the sphere of ideas and discussion that can be had in today's world around topics that, in some other eras at least, were only discussed in closed worlds of like-minded believers, and even then, without access to today's understanding of archeology, ancient languages, etc.
I have spoken and been welcomed at institutions that run a gamut from Catholic to Jewish to New Age. These include everything from the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC, to the General Theological Seminary, to the 92nd Street YMHA in New York and Jewish congregations from Fifth Avenue to Martha's Vineyard. We have generally enjoyed good reviews from reviewers on religious websites (for example, FaithfulReader.com called SECRETS OF THE CODE "the best of the lot" among the many guidebooks to THE DA VINCI CODE reviewed in 2004). Religious publications have frequently applauded our approach of presenting a wide spectrum of views that enlightens many instead of giving ammunition to only one side of the controversy.
Another fair indication of how well the Secrets series is regarded is that for each of our titles, we have been able to attract the finest and best-known scholars and experts in their fields, whatever their point of view. For SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE, for example, Elaine Pagels wrote the Introduction. As far as I am concerned, Elaine Pagels is one of the most profound and compelling scholars working in the world of ancient religious texts today and we are honored by her piece summing up the issues surrounding Mary Magdalene. We have the views of scholars, commentators and thinkers who are bestselling authors in their own right --- people ranging from Bart Ehrman to Anna Quindlen. We also present a gamut of opinion in the essays within the book that range from Margaret Starbird declaring her belief that "the earliest Christian heresy was the denial of the Bride" to the scholar Philip Jenkins, who calls the feminist interpretations about Mary Magdalene the "greatest exaggerations ever told." And we have just about every shade of opinion in between and to the margins of those poles as well.
BRC: Kathleen McGowan's novel THE EXPECTED ONE was in stores before SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE. What have you heard about that book apropos to yours?
DB: We read an early review copy of Kathleen McGowan's book and were impressed with her ability to tell a story and to write a compelling novel. Her publishing experience --- self-publishing her book at first, then getting it picked up for a very large advance by Simon & Schuster as the first of a trilogy of Mary Magdalene novels, and ending up on the New York Times bestseller list --- seemed to be a good barometer itself of the growing interest in the Mary Magdalene phenomenon. So, we contacted Kathleen and asked her to provide a piece for our book about how her interest in Mary Magdalene evolved, and what Mary Magdalene meant to her personally. We are very pleased to have this piece in our SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE and I think readers --- especially those interested in how Mary Magdalene themes play out in popular culture --- will find this commentary quite interesting.
At the beginning of her media tour for THE EXPECTED ONE in July, and just before the September publication of SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE, Kathleen made some statements in the media suggesting that she believes she is personally descended from the union of Jesus and Mary. As I have indicated previously, I don't think anyone can trace their ancestry that far back. These can be very personal matters and I do not intend to sit in judgment on them. All I can say is that for me, all claims of two-thousand-year-old genealogical trails are questionable as history. They seem to make for better legend than fact-based evidence.
BRC: What were some of the surprises you discovered in reading the essays?
DB: One surprise was rereading the four accepted gospels. When I first heard the idea that Mary Magdalene was seen by some as a patron to Jesus and his movement, I found that unbelievable. Then Deirdre Good, one of the world's leading Mary Magdalene scholars, showed me the passages in Luke that strongly suggest that interpretation.
It is also surprising to read the detailed texts of the Gnostic gospels and try to understand them. What could it mean that Jesus kissed Mary frequently on the mouth? Is it a sexual metaphor? Is it a Christian kiss of forgiveness or fellowship? Is it a secret symbol that he accepts her as a Christian? We don't know. And yet the language is so oddly and uniquely specific. It invites discussion and analysis.
I particularly like the notion offered by some of our scholars that Jesus is essentially a mystic in the tradition of Greek, Egyptian and other mystery sects. According to Elaine Pagels, one way to think about what's in the New Testament is that it represents what Jesus preached in public. However, what he may have conveyed in private to his inner circle of apostles, including people like Mary, is the secret, sacred knowledge, which we get hints of in the Gnostic texts.
I am also surprised by the range of references to Mary Magdalene in literature and popular culture long before THE DA VINCI CODE. From Martin Luther to 17th-century epic poems, from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus Christ Superstar to Jefferson Airplane and U2, there are numerous alternative views of Mary Magdalene out there. The singer Tori Amos has contributed a wonderful piece to our SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE, as well as having written several songs with Mary-infused themes.
There are lots and lots of surprises in our book, but I will let readers discover them for themselves.
BRC: What were your criteria in determining which authors to include in the book? Some, of course, are well-known and highly regarded scholars like Elaine Pagels and Karen King. But given the abundance of popular writings on Mary Magdalene, you must have had a fairly extensive list of authors to choose from. Was a particular viewpoint on Mary a factor in making your final choices?
DB: We reviewed more than a hundred books written over the last two decades about Mary Magdalene, as well as dozens of scholarly and popular articles. We did numerous web searches, attended conferences and symposia, studied modern cultural works, and so forth. We solicited input on what we should include from leading academic and Biblical scholars who we have come to rely on for their expertise.
From within this vast mosaic of material, we looked for the most interesting, the most thought-expanding and thought-provoking, the freshest, the most differentiated and the best-stated. From there, we launched the long, complex process of conversations and interviews, the assignment of original essays, and the requests for permission to use excerpts from previously published works. There was no particular viewpoint on Mary that drove our final choices other than to make sure the reader had before her/him the best sources from which to draw independent conclusions about this fascinating figure in our human history.
BRC: What do you make of the assertions that there are secret societies devoted to preserving "the truth" about Mary Magdalene?
DB: We believe legends, symbols and "secret" knowledge are interesting and sometimes revelatory, but are best treated as myth, archetype, legend, folklore, etc. I am interested in why people are so fascinated by stories of Mary Magdalene, the Priory of Sion and the microscopic town of Rennes-le-Chateau in France, for example. I am intrigued by why this particular belief about Mary Magdalene mothering a bloodline and being the actual Holy Grail is so prevalent and strongly held in many different occult groups. The continued power and apparent relevance of these stories tells me much about the history of ideas and belief. But that doesn't make the stories true.
Some of these societies let it be known that they have secrets (while not divulging them); others "hide" their true nature, which simply adds to the suspicion regarding their conspiratorial bent. In the end, we believe that the preservation of secrets --- real or imagined --- has more to do with a desire to preserve exclusivity and establish the authority of the leaders of these secret societies than with any secretly transmitted "truth."
In my opinion, the modern Priory of Sion at the center of THE DA VINCI CODE and referred to in HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and other books is, in my opinion, an utter hoax, perpetrated by a small group of nostalgic French nationalists and fantasy-ists, led by Pierre Plantard in the middle of the twentieth century. The list of "Grand Masters" of the Priory of Sion, including people like Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton, is interesting, but not because these people were actually keepers of the Mary Magdalene secrets. These characters are interesting to look at as a group because they represent the under-discussed traditions of mysticism and occultism in Western history, and the rich variety of alternative cosmologies that have existed for the last two thousand years side by side with mainstream Christianity. These individuals were not Grand Masters of secret societies. But they were oftentimes heretical and freethinking scientists, artists, musicians and philosophers. They held interesting views about religion, the sacred feminine, Mary Magdalene, art, science, music, sexuality, sin, morality and the meaning of life.
BRC: The recent dialogue about Mary has elevated her status to roles ranging from Jesus's favorite disciple to his wife (or unmarried sexual partner) and the mother of his child, and Jesus's intended leader of his church to an actual goddess representing the "sacred feminine." Some critics suggest that her new status is a result of attempts to elevate the role of women in traditional Christianity. How do you respond to that criticism?
DB: Mainstream thinkers believe Mary already has a very important role in the traditional New Testament account. She is mentioned twelve times by name; she is there at all the decisive moments from the foot of the cross, to encountering Jesus at the moment of resurrection, to being asked by Jesus to spread the good news of his resurrection to the others. The New Testament itself never calls her a prostitute. Most scholars --- as well as Vatican officialdom --- now accept that the conflation of Mary Magdalene with the sinning prostitute is not inherent in the New Testament, but was a sixth century error made by Pope Gregory the Great.
But a growing community of scholars believes that it is not enough to recognize she is not a prostitute. Mary should be recognized as heroine, leader, preacher and partner with Jesus in his movement. Many of these thinkers feel that the Virgin Mary has been in the center of the image of female role models for too long in modern Christianity, when no one can realistically aspire to her standards. Some of these thinkers find Mary Magdalene a much more humanized female figure to posit as a role model. Like the efforts to recover the early history of female accomplishment in diverse fields --- from Rosalind Franklin's work on DNA to the women baseball players in A League of Their Own --- many people are fascinated with the idea that Mary Magdalene may have been a partner of Jesus in all things, his wife and his companion in life. Like every great idea and institution in human history, Christianity was created not just by men but by men and women, and Mary Magdalene is the metaphor for the important role that many women played in the development of Christian faith.
There are those who believe it is criminal that Mary has been tarnished with the idea of being a prostitute. And others who see this tarnishing itself as a natural product of anti-female themes in Church history.
Then there are those who think Mary should get even more than co-billing with Jesus and that simply making her into a dutiful wife and mother of his child is tantamount to turning her into a 20th-century housewife rather than the revolutionary spiritual leader and co-creator of Christianity she should be seen as. There are even those who want her to still be seen as a prostitute, but a special kind of prostitute: a "temple prostitute." These are goddess figures in ancient cultures who were said to bestow their sacred feminine powers on young male warriors, princes and kings by having ritual sex with them. In this case, there are a small number of scholars who want to interpret Mary Magdalene as a goddess figure who gave her blessings to Jesus through sacred sexual rituals and empowered him to become the prophet of the new religion. It's an idea I don't set much store by, but I find it fascinating that some people interpret the Mary Magdalene legend in this way.
BRC: Who is your target audience? What do you want your book to accomplish?
DB: We don't see SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE as a religious book, although it will no doubt end up on religion shelves in some bookstores. Our audience includes all those who are fascinated by the ideas current in our culture and want to discuss and debate them, people who are curious and open-minded and have a desire to participate in a meaningful conversation about the big questions of life.
BRC: What about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene itself? What is your opinion of its credibility, its teachings, and the image it presents of Mary and the disciples?
DB: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene provides an intriguing glimpse into an important strand of early Christianity, and helps us understand that the Christian message was likely much broader and more diverse than the one passed down to us solely through the four Gospels of the New Testament. The majority of scholars seem to agree that the Gospel of Mary is an authentic text from Gnostic circles and that it dates back as far as the second, third or fourth century. Harvard's Karen King puts it well when she says that the Gospel of Mary lets us "see the contours of some crucial debates over the authority of apostolic tradition, prophetic experience, and women's leadership."
At a minimum, the Gospel of Mary directly challenges the validity of the claims that only men were fit to be leaders in the Church. On a larger canvas, when you imagine Gnostic thinkers trained in Greek philosophy and Egyptian mystery rites, sitting out in the desert thinking about the big issues of cosmology, God, the meaning and purpose of life and death, and so forth, it is certainly interesting that some writer or writers would have imagined the particularly interesting set of ideas in this document being associated with Mary Magdalene. While I don't think anyone thinks the historical Mary Magdalene actually wrote this document, I think it is absolutely fascinating to contemplate the mindset of someone in, say, 300 C.E., who would have written down these words as if they were lines of diary entries written by Mary. Clearly, whoever wrote this text did not think of Maryam of Magdala as primarily a prostitute known for being forgiven by Jesus for her sins. The author of this text believes she was a profound thinker and spiritual leader.
BRC: Research into the life and role of Mary Magdalene is at an all-time high. Have you discovered any new material since finishing the book that you wish you'd been able to include? If so, what did it reveal?
DB: Yes! Recently we came across some fascinating nineteenth and early twentieth-century French postcards that were apparently given to young people at the time of their first communion. This was said to be a common practice in certain churches in the south of France that are located in what would generally be called Cathar country --- home to many legends, heresies and stories about Mary Magdalene and Jesus. This area is essentially ground zero of the European occult tradition.
What is interesting about these communion cards is that they depict a very human Jesus and a very human Mary Magdalene in close human physical touch with each other. In some of these cards they look like young lovers gazing at each other with great sweetness and affection. Apparently, these village churches in Cathar country believed in seeing Jesus and Mary as the ultimate bride and bridegroom, and thought that it was a good image to offer young people coming of age.
Interestingly, there are a number of church artworks in this same geographical area that depict Jesus and Mary Magdalene together in more pointed and obvious ways than the subtleties of the alleged depiction of Mary Magdalene in Leonardo's Last Supper.
BRC: What's next up for you --- another book relating to Dan Brown's novels, or something in a different vein altogether?
DB: The Secrets series continues! We have already published a book, SECRETS OF THE WIDOW'S SON, by David A. Shugarts, which makes an informed guess at the contents of Dan Brown's next book, announced as THE SOLOMON KEY. Whether Dan Brown actually writes the book Shugarts has envisioned (very much focused on the intriguing history of the Freemasons and set in Washington, DC), I find SECRETS OF THE WIDOW'S SON to be a powerful and eye-opening story of alternative themes in American and Enlightenment history. This is history as you never learned it in school. It is worth reading whether or not Shugarts turns out to be right about the next Dan Brown book.
SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE has been turned into a DVD documentary. One of my favorite parts of it is an hour-long roundtable with six of the world's leading Mary Magdalene scholars --- all of whom are female --- discussing what Mary Magdalene means to them personally. And our independent feature documentary based on SECRETS OF THE CODE will be out on DVD early next year.
Plus, the Secrets series will be going in many new and exciting directions in 2007. Announcements soon!