Mary Magdalene and the Kingdom of God

Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly much better than most films about Jesus and his disciples. Then again, that isn’t really saying much.

I enjoyed the film and – after the rather slow and confusing first twenty minutes or so – I found it pretty engaging. The acting was very good and I found Joaquin Phoenix far more believeable as Jesus than most actors who’ve taken on the role. Rooney Mara gives a powerful performance as Mary Magdalene. Peter, Judas and Jesus’ mother Mary are all portrayed convincingly.

As my friend remarked as we left the cinema, it was perhaps more of a film about Jesus than a film about Mary Magdalene. However, it was a film about Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, and this is pretty exceptional. It has long been accepted by biblical scholars that women may have been very central in the group of Jesus’ disciples, but this realisation has been slow to make its way into churches and popular culture.

In showing Mary Magdalene’s closeness to Jesus, however, the film in some ways did not go as far as modern biblical scholarship – because it showed her as the only woman who was part of the community following Jesus.

I very much appreciated the fact that the filmmakers did not feel the need to show us every scene from the life of Jesus as mentioned in the gospels, or even all of the best known ones. In this film, Mary Magdalene is knocked unconscious by the Roman soldiers arresting Jesus. Because the story is told through her eyes, we see nothing more of Jesus until Mary awakes and finds out that he is already on his way to be crucified.

The scene in which Jesus protests against the markets in the Jerusalem Temple is particuarly well done. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen the incident portrayed so well in a film or play. A priest at the Temple is shown justifying the operation of the markets in much the same tone in which the representatives of the establishment today offer reasonable-sounding defences of other forms of economic exploitation. As soon as Jesus begins his direct action, three or four Temple officials leap on him to drag him away. It is a sight familiar to many people who have taken direct action, or observed other people taking it.

That said, I disagreed with the film’s portrayal of Jesus’ protest as an apparently spontaneous one-man action. The gospels give the impression of an organised protest. This is especially true of Mark’s Gospel, which shows Jesus visiting the Temple the day before but deciding the time is not right to act (Mark 11,11). Mark writes that when Jesus took action the next day, he “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple”, implying that a large number of disciples must have been involved in order to blockade the doors (Mark 11,16).

The main disappointment for me, however, was the theological message that the film was clearly giving, and which was made explicit towards the end. The film’s writers have fallen for the old idea – often heard in schools and churches but discredited elsewhere – that Jesus’ disciples wanted him to lead a violent revolution against Roman rule but that he instead brought a message of personal transformation. I won’t give away the details of the ending, but it leaves us with a pretty clear idea that this is the idea we’re intended to take away.

It is not believable for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s scarcely credible that a large number of people followed someone while all completely misunderstanding him. But the main problem with this idea is that it implies there are only two options: violent rebellion against Rome, or individual change. This ignores all the other possibilities, such as nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire, or a wider political challenge to all systems of domination in both personal and political forms.

The Kingdom of God has to be political. A kingdom, by definition, is a political entity. If you belong to a kingdom, you are expected to be loyal to it. Yes, the Kingdom of God involves personal transformation. But it is not possible to live morally within an immoral system; the Gospel calls for both personal and social change.

If we are loyal to the Kingdom of God, we cannot be loyal to the rulers, empires and states of this world. That frightened the Roman Empire enough to crucify Jesus, and it should frighten those who hold power today.

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My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

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