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Book Review: Magdala by Valerie Gross

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Mary Magdalene does not get much time in the spotlight of the New Testament, yet her story seems to resonate in the modern imagination. This resonance may be due to the general dearth of female figures in the Gospels. The Old Testament is replete with strong women at all ends of the moral spectrum. The female cast of the New Testament is limited to a handful, the most notable being Mary the mother of Jesus. Valerie Gross’s novel Magdala flips this gender disparity on end. Magdala is populated almost entirely by women. The male characters, even Jesus himself, are relegated to secondary status.

Even for a feminist, this gender-role inversion is jarring at first. Perhaps the male domination of the Christian Bible is so ingrained as to be nearly invisible, but in the early chapters of Magdala, Gross’s feminist message felt somewhat strident and forced. As the story settles into a rhythm, and the plot and characters come into their own, Magdala ceases to feel contrarily derivative and becomes its own, rather lovely, story.

Magdala journeys between two timelines. The first chapter opens, rather lumberingly, with a woman engrossed in the writing of a prayer amulet. The prose is compelling, but its emotional impact is diminished by the amulet verses which fall slightly to the wrong side of lyrical. Gross’s prose overshadows her attempts at verse. “I sit on a stone bench whose cold penetrates my thin tunic like the hand of death itself. As I write, my arms rest on a long pink marble table amidst jars full of ink, piles of soft papyrus and boxes of sharp reeds. I sit alone here too.” This descriptive passage carries more emotional weight than the verse of the amulet that Mary writes:

Most Gracious Lady Astarte, Most Glorious Lord Yaweh
Show Your Greatness to Your humble servant, myself,
Mary of Magdala,
Restore me to the man who opened my heart and let me touch his
Though we are far apart across the city of Jerusalem,
He in his tomb of stone,

where Pontius Pilate deigned to let us lay him this night
I in this house of marble, without him.
Without him!

Verse should not be expository. To do her credit, Mary herself rejects the above verse in the next paragraph. However, it makes for a rocky introduction.

Fortunately, Mary soon abandons the amulet writing for the narration of the backstory; this is where the narrative engages. The tale of a young girl born into a group of priestesses devoted to a dying Goddess, a girl destined to become Queen of Israel to be married to the King, this is a story worth reading.

Once the narration of Magdala begins, the characters grow flesh – faults and promise. These are Biblical figures as we have never seen them – real, self-interested, obsessed, generous, selfish, open, rigid – human. Here we see Elizabeth, mother to John the Baptist, as sister to Maryanna, the mother of Jesus, rather than cousin. Elizabeth presents as a dutiful, and perpetually resentful older sister, one who performs from a sense of duty rather than enlightenment, and deeply resents the bright, and somewhat frivolous nature of her younger sibling. John and Jesus are depicted as half-brothers as well as cousins, born to the same father – John from a sanctified ritual marriage, Jesus from an inspired liaison (whether inspired by divinity or love/lust is never quite clear.) Interestingly, Elizabeth plays a more prominent role than Maryanna throughout much of the book.

Judas, too, has a greater place in the life of Jesus than one would expect. From a narrative standpoint, this makes more sense than the original text – it deepens and complicates the ultimate betrayal.

Jesus is seen first as a precocious boy, then as a warrior, who has killed many in defense of his homeland – leader of a band of rebels fighting Roman rule. His teachings of pacifism come into play inspired, not by God, but by Mary of Magdala. Their love story is richly told, drawing heavily on David’s Song of Songs. The notion of Jesus married to Mary Magdalene is nothing new, but Gross personalizes the story; in her hands, it is the intimate tale of two lovers picking their way through the maze of fate.

Christian literalists should probably avoid Magdala. This is an interpretation of Biblical figures and events, and a liberal interpretation at that. Gross pulls much from the reaches of Goddess-lore, bringing the concept of Judeo-Christian faith back to embryonic, pre-patriarchal roots. This message would perhaps have been more powerful, if the notions of a female counterpart to Yahweh had not been so diluted in popular fantasy and new-age fiction. However, once one moves past the mental associations with overweight, crushed velvet-draped women wielding incense and crystals, Magdala is a compellingly told, captivating story.

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