Margaret George is perhaps the foremost author of historical fiction, or what she calls the ‘psycho-biography’. Ever since she published The Autobiography of Henry VIII in 1986 (after 14 years of research), she has tackled famous characters from history such as Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy with meticulous research . Mary, Called Magdalene published in 2002, continues in the same vein: thorough research, personal knowledge of the setting, and a deep understanding of the lifestyle of the time period. While The Bible mentions Mary in each of the four gospels as being present at five important events —
- being delivered from seven demons by Jesus
- following Jesus, along with other women he had cured, and supporting him materially in his ministry
- being present at the crucifixion
- coming early to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint him, and
- encountering the risen Christ
— her own gospel is part of the apocryphal gospels, and in the gnostic writings she appears “as a figure of enlightenment who possesses special spiritual knowledge and is honored by Jesus for it.”
In this light, George has taken her research and woven an immensely compelling biography of one of the most intriguing and controversial people mentioned in the Bible. George divides her work into three parts: The Demons, Disciple, and Apostle.
The Demons begins with Mary experiencing a typical childhood in an “observant” Jewish household that is preparing to visit Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. Already, 7-year-old Mary is experiencing visions she doesn’t understand that disrupt her sleep and confuse her. The pilgrimage to the temple is a dangerous one because they need to travel through Samaria where many still worship idols and the caravan may suffer attacks as well as taunts for their strict beliefs. Six families from Magdala join another group from neighbouring villages — Capernaum (the largest town on the Sea of Galilee), Bethsaida, and Nazareth, which they pass on the way to Jerusalem — and they leave the day after the Sabbath so they will not have to break up their trip.
It is on this trip that three significant things happen: Mary discovers an idol, a female god, half-buried where she lay sleeping along the route. She is enchanted by its beauty and decides there will be no harm in keeping it, despite knowing that to do so is a sin; she leaves her section of the caravan and makes a friend, Keziah, who will be a lifelong friend and with whom she will share a tutor, enabling her to learn to read and write in several languages; and she stays beyond sundown on the trip back and must sleep over with a family from Nazareth with several children, the oldest being a boy named Jesus. The idol is the beginning of demons taking over Mary’s mind, which will eventually lead her to Jesus as he begins his ministry.
George reveals many insights into the customs of the day — marriage, business, religious divisions — and most importantly, the beliefs about demon-possession and rites used to rid a person of their hold. When all the conventional methods fail to exorcise the demons, Mary hears John the Baptist preach and sees him baptize Jesus. When he is able to do what no-one else could, free her from demon control, she leaves her family and comfort behind and follows him.
The second section, Disciple, follows Jesus ministry much as it is laid out in the gospels, except it is novelized with Mary’s viewpoint on Jesus and many of the disciples including other women who travelled with them having been cured by Jesus and in a financial position to assist his ministry. George has Mary’s visions return in a way that helps Jesus, and this draws them into a close relationship, one of which some of the other disciples are jealous.
Because of Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden after He has risen from the dead when He tells her to go to the others and tell them He is alive, Mary has been called the apostle to the apostles. So in the final section, George shows Mary’s final years as a time when she ministers to the believers in small villages, Jerusalem, and finally in Ephesus and includes The Testament of Mary as she supposedly writes it to her estranged daughter.
At the end of the novel, there is an Author’s Afterword, an Introduction, an Interview with Margaret George, and some discussion questions, all of which give extra scope to the novel and make the reader want more. I did quite a bit of research after finishing the book which you can read about here. I guarantee that if you read this novel, you will want to know more, you will search for more information about this enigmatic disciple about whom there has been so little information and so much misinformation over the centuries of our patriarchal societies. A well-written and amazing story. * * * * *