The Fact and Fiction of Bruce Chilton’s Mary Magdalene

Last week for the Huffington Post, Bruce Chilton, Bernard Iddings Bell professor of religion at Bard College, offered a synopsis of his book Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Doubleday, 2006). Chilton explains that Mary was a common name, which is why the biblical character was associated with a place called Magdala, so that she would not be confused with the other women with the same name. He points out that Jesus’ statement about the tax collectors and prostitutes having a better chance at getting into heaven before the chief priest and elders (Matt. 21:27) has led some to conclude Mary Magdalene worked the oldest profession (albeit the idea stretches credulity beyond the breaking point).

Chilton also mentions legends about the biblical character, such as her sailing on a rudderless ship to France, levitating while she prayed, being Jesus’ concubine according to the Cathars, or having sexual relations with Jesus and conceiving a child, as depicted in faked parchments produced by Pierre Plantard after World War II, which became subject to the popular fiction The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Please seeMary Magdalene’s Modern Makeover and The Da Vinci Code: Revisiting a Cracked Conspiracy” by James Patrick Holding.

Chilton believes Mary Magdalene was the one whom the Lord exorcised demons out of, and identifies her with the women who anointed the Lord at the end of His ministry in Mark 14. There is nothing problematic with these assertions per se; however, red flags are raised with Chilton’s statements about Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Lord being merely a vision. “Mary Magdalene’s vision, precisely because it was a vision in the earliest account (Mark 16) and not the inspection of an empty tomb, placed Jesus in the realm of heaven,” writes Chilton.

The idea of Mary Magdalene having a visionary experience of the risen Lord does not really pan out, particularly in light of the many other eye witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. Paul Maire notes, “The ‘psychological’ or ‘hallucination’ theory would be attractive if only one person had claimed to see a vision of the risen Christ, perhaps Mary Magdalene, who formerly may have had psychological problems anyway. But the disciples were a hardheaded and hardly hallucinable group, especially Thomas. And, if sources have any validity, there would have to have collective hallucinations for different groups of up to five hundred in size, all of them seeing the same thing—a virtual impossibility in the case of a phenomenon that is usually extremely individualistic.”[1] (Please see, “Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: HALLUCINATION The Recent Revival of Theories” by Gary Habermas.) Warren Nozaki, Research

For further study, please consider the following bookstore resources:

In The Fullness of Time


The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God

The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus

The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ


1. Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 196.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *