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Who was Mary Magdalene? The buzz goes mainstream

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The gospel "shows us there was a tradition of Mary Magdalene as an important apostle of the church after the resurrection," says Ms. King in an interview. Several other gnostic works (gospels not chosen for the New Testament and termed heretical by early church fathers) similarly support her in that role.

For some, the Bible hints at the same idea in John's Gospel, which depicts Mary as the first to see the risen Jesus and then to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples. "Since she was commissioned by Jesus to be in essence an apostle to the apostles, she provided the most crucial precedent in the New Testament for women to be teachers, preachers, or evangelists," says Ben Witherington III, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

An expert on women in the Bible, Dr. Witherington says that "what happened on Easter morning involving her is really what triggers all of this [debate]." It's now clear that the debate about Mary has gone on from the early church through the Middle Ages right up to today.

Many see her as a central character in the church's marginalization of women over several centuries. The perception of Mary as a prostitute originated in 591, when Pope Gregory the Great falsely identified her with an unnamed sinful woman in the Bible. Almost 1400 years later, in 1969, the church officially corrected its error, though it lingers in public consciousness.

Often-fantastic legends about Mary traveling from Jerusalem to France, pregnant with Jesus' child and giving birth to a line of kings, spread in medieval times and reappeared in books in the 1980s, to be folded into "The Da Vinci Code." The novel depicts Christianity as based on some fabrications. "The greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold," declares a key character. \Praised by critics as a "brainy thriller" with "intellectual depth," the book reveals its secrets so skillfully that readers are caught up in the debate, wondering just how much of the story might be true.

"America is a Jesus-haunted culture, but at the same time, it's a biblically illiterate culture," Witherington says. "When you have that odd combination, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus."

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