Viewing the recently released film, “Mary Magdalene,” wasn’t quite as boring as watching paint dry, but the comparison did come to mind. I did wonder at various points how much longer it would go on. And that’s a shame, because Mary of Magdala is an intriguing character. We don’t really know all that much about her, but there is at least an interesting “reception history.”
She was from Magdala, often identified as a village north of Tiberias on the western side of Lake Galilee. Per Luke 8:1-3, she was one of a number of women who followed Jesus along with the familiar twelve disciples, and is said to have been delivered from seven evil spirits (by Jesus we presume). In Mark 15:40, she and other women disciples see Jesus die, then where he was buried (15:47), and then discover the empty tomb (16:1-8).
It is the Gospel of John, however, that developed her further as an individualized character. In John, she alone discovers the empty tomb and informs Peter and another disciple (20:1-10), and then there is also the touching account where she alone encounters the risen Jesus (20:11-18), and thereafter announces to the other disciples “I have seen the Lord.”
In later texts, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary (both 2nd century?), the figure is appropriated to make certain emphases that seem in a “gnosticizing” or esoteric direction. In the Gospel of Thomas (logion 114) there is the curious incident where Peter objects to her as a woman being among Jesus’ entourage, and Jesus replies that it will be OK, for he will “make Mary male” (which likely reflects the ascetic emphasis of the text and the image of maleness as spiritual strength and superiority).  The Gospel of Mary attaches her name to a text that seems to express a somewhat similar polemical attitude toward what was then becoming the mainstream of Christian teaching.
In the 6th century, Pope Gregory identified her as the unnamed woman “sinner” who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50, which became thereafter influential upon nearly all representations of her in Western Christianity (but not Eastern): a former prostitute who becomes a devout follower of Jesus. (This is the character reflected in Jesus Christ Superstar.)
Oddly, this movie seems to have taken particular inspiration from the later appropriation of Mary of Magdala in the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary. These both seem to me to have appropriated the character from the Gospel of John, but with very different intents from John. I say “oddly” because both GThomas and GMary are much later texts, and obviously reflect a polemical stance against what was by then mainstream Christian teaching on some matters. That is, they hardly can be used as if they somehow preserve authentic traditions about Mary. But the script writers have chosen to do so, producing a caricature, a naïve use of obviously tendentious sources.
Aside from the dubious quality historically, it’s too bad that a film focused on her is so very slow-moving and, well, often boring. The actor playing her, Rooney Mara, obviously took her role seriously. She spends long and frequent spells of staring intently at Jesus, and they occasionally exchange shy smiles in a way that I presume is supposed to convey some secret, or interest or connection or . . . something.
And the actors are so old! Joaquin Phoenix plays a Jesus who has to be at least in his early fifties. No wonder this Jesus seems so tired and wan most of the time. That itinerant preaching, healing, etc., travelling on foot up and down hills and coping with the crowds, starting a new religious movement intended to win over the nation, that’s a younger man’s work! And also, what’s he been doing for the preceding 50 years or so?
Jesus’ circle of male apostles in the film, likewise, are far too old for their roles. The youngest looking is perhaps Judas Iscariot, and he’s got to be well into his 30s. Several others are quite obviously senior citizens. But, by any reasonable reckoning, Jesus was likely no more than thirty, and “the twelve” were probably young men, in their 20s.
For that matter, where are the many children and young people more broadly? In that society a goodly percentage of the population would have been children and youths. There should be gaggles of children running around the streets, but in the movie they’re populated more like adults-only villages.
Speaking of “the twelve,” I counted perhaps nine males tramping about with Jesus in this film. So, couldn’t they afford three other actors? Or did the director think twelve too many for the camera shots? Or what? Many scholars think that Jesus likely did appoint twelve followers as a symbolic expression of addressing the hopes of ancient Israel.
The film has some bizarre (or at least historically dubious) scenes, such as the one where those convinced that Mary has a demon try to perform an exorcism by repeatedly dunking her in a lake. I don’t recall that technique mentioned in the various ancient exorcism texts. The film makes a lot also of Jesus baptizing, and assigning Mary the role of baptizing women. Scholars actually debate whether Jesus himself baptized at all, and the evidence isn’t all that clear.
Or how about the scene where Jesus and his disciples come into a village, and everyone there is lined up to meet them, holding lit candles in little bowls. Candles?? People in first-century Galilee used oil lamps (of which there are many found in archaeological digs there). And, anyway, it’s broad daylight, so why the lights?
Or consider the lengthy segment where Peter and Mary (yup, the two of them travelling on their own) go to, wait for it, Samaria! There, they find a village that’s been ravaged by Roman soldiers, which allows Mary to take the lead in caring for the victims left to die. Really? Is any of these things based on anything, or even plausible?
I mentioned the tired and almost vacant way that Jesus is portrayed in the film. It’s not entirely Joaquin’s fault. The script gives him such vapid lines. The lines convey no fire in his belly, no eschatological excitement to his message (except in a few of the disciples, which we’re to take as ill conceived). Oh, sure, he urges peace and love and forgiveness. All very nice. But it hardly seems the stuff to move individuals to abandon their livelihoods and hit the road with Jesus.
Even the resurrected Jesus/Joaquin retains this placid, perhaps pensive, but rather vacant demeanour. You’d think that being raised from death into new and immortal existence would make you kind of . . . excited, maybe, with something to say. The depiction of the risen Jesus certainly doesn’t draw on any of the early reports of the people who claimed to have seen him.
Now, as I say, some of the disciples harbour eschatological hopes, and aim for Jesus to be recognized as the royal Messiah of Israel. But where on earth would they have got such ideas, given the bland diet of what Jesus espouses in this film?
And what on earth would have led to this Jesus angering the authorities sufficiently to apprehend him, torture and degrade him, and them execute him by crucifixion? The film gives no hint. But isn’t that a pretty important question? Jewish teachers who only espoused the virtues put in Jesus’ mouth in the film didn’t tend to get this kind of treatment by the authorities.
Ah, but, of course, this isn’t really a film about Jesus (as the title makes clear). Jesus is more the occasion for a particular representation of Mary Magdalene. Implausibly, early in the film, Jesus’ little “I’m OK, you’re OK” talk with her not only substitutes for the exorcism referred to in the Gospel of Luke (8:2), but also somehow suffices to make her a devoted follower. Thereafter, she quickly becomes Jesus’ closest disciple who uniquely understood him, on whom, indeed, Jesus depends for emotional comfort and support.
In the final moments, in addition to claiming to be the first witness of the risen Jesus (taking the Gospel of John above the other Gospels here), Mary also sketches a new/revised understanding of Jesus’ purpose and the future direction that his followers should go. In place of Peter’s emphasis that injustice and other evils remain and need eschatological remedy, Mary urges inner enlightenment as a way of making the world a better place (echoing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”?). It’s kind of mindfulness in lieu of messianism, I guess.
Peter is portrayed as jealous that Jesus favoured her over him and the others, and insists that he will chart the future of the Jesus-movement, and Mary should keep her theological views to herself. So, we got a bit of a Davinci-code type thing going on here in the script, it seems, the putative source of the Papacy shutting down alternative voices (especially women) already in 33 AD!
It ought to be difficult to make stories as riveting as those in the Gospels bland and uninteresting. But the Hollywood record largely shows them fully up to the task, and, sadly, this film is no exception. In focusing on the Magdalene, and in not portraying her as a “fallen woman,” the film is technically notable. But, aside from its numerous historical mis-steps, including its characterization of the title figure, it also has to be judged a poor-to-middling movie (as seems reflected in the several newspaper reviews).
 This, however, is only one of several characters that get a more developed persona in the Gospel of John. The others include Thomas, Nicodemus, Philip, Nathaniel, and Mary and Martha (of Bethany). This highlighting of certain individuals seems to have been a feature of the author’s literary practice.
 The narrative in John is the obvious basis for the recent Papal decree designating a Feast Day for Mary Magdalene (22 July), and referring to her as “Apostle of the Apostles.” Curiously, this ignores the equally important role of other named women in the other Gospels.
 See now the extended discussion of this logion in Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 607-16.
 Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary, Early Christian Gospel Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
 See, e.g., M. Starowieyski, “Mary Magdalene,” Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Angelo Di Berardino (Downers Grove, IL: IVPAcademic, 2014), 2:724 (with bibliography).
 The portrayal of Judas’ intention in arranging for Jesus’ arrest (to provoke Jesus into messianic action) may be derived from the ideas of a former colleague in the University of Manitoba, William Klassen, Judas, Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).