Many of the great faith narratives (the Holy Quran being a notable exception) are clumsy, rough-hewn things; makepiece amalgams of different texts from an abundance of sources that have been gradually hacked together over hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of years. Most have been found useful or resonant (spiritually and politically) at various stages in history, and some have been purposefully engineered (by individuals or institutions with agendas — their motives pure or otherwise). Eventually these fragments become embedded into a whole — a unity. A consensus is reached on what, fundamentally, works. This process is essentially pragmatic. How the interested individual chooses to approach such constructions can also be based on pragmatism (a person can still claim to be a Christian without actually believing in the Resurrection, say), but many (the ideologues, the purists) prefer to believe that the Bible (for example) is Divine Truth and so adhere slavishly to every word.
In Michael Haag’s deliciously seductive and thoroughly readable The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History and Legend he engages with these thorny issues with an immense heartfeltness and an admirable lightness of touch. Haag is a natural storyteller, a delirious wrangler of old facts into new and fascinating forms. His areas of interest (over 12 books) are the medieval and classical worlds, with a hefty dose of Egypt thrown in for good measure. His political/spiritual inclinations appear very much Christian in nature but with a giant dollop of radicalism and scepticism flavouring the stew.
And what a stew it is. Bearing in mind that Mary Magdalene is only mentioned by name 14 times in the New Testament, and is completely ignored by the Bible’s most important contributor, Saint Paul, Haag still, nonetheless — by dint of a heady combination of pure zest, great imagination and refreshing irreverence (even, to be honest, sheer willpower) — drags her, kicking and screaming, into the very heart of the Biblical narrative. He still leaves a little bit of elbow room for God and Jesus (of course), but Mary, in his cunning and capable hands, becomes an all-powerful, all-singing and all-dancing Goddess of Light, a second Isis: ‘the watchtower, the lighthouse, the beacon’.
How on earth does he manage this on what scant sources he has? With great guile and dexterity. With many slightly clunky flourishes. By telling familiar stories and then cheerfully repositioning the Magdalene at their centre. But there is considerable subtlety here, too. The way Haag uses place, naming, linguistics, geography and his impressive Greek and classical learning to further his argument is, at the very least, diverting, at best, strangely beguiling.
The big issues surrounding Mary Magdalene (13th disciple or whore?) are dealt with admirably, and Haag’s analysis of the impact of Hellenism on Mary and the entire Biblical milieu is (for me, at least) fascinating. Is this a book for someone who knows a great deal about the subject already? Possibly not. Susan Haskins’s excellent (almost canonical) Mary Magdalen: The Essential History covers most — if not quite all — of the ground traversed here, but is Haskin’s work as rugged and naughty and, ooh, sexy as Haag’s effort? Uh, no.
Because Haag is like a brilliant (if slightly unscrupulous) impresario who picks out a girl (any girl — it doesn’t matter — so long as her bone structure is adequate) then transforms her into something quite new. He starts off gentlemanly in his defence of the Magdalene’s honour, but then leads her (and the reader — via Gnosticism, Origen, the war over Mary between the Dominicans and the Cathars) into some pretty unchartered Da Vinci Code-style territory, replete with all the necessary death and sex rituals (‘Jesus a Bastard, His Mother Mary an Adultress’, being one subtitle of note).
Haag always remains reasonable and measured, though. To the idea that the destruction of the Magdalene’s reputation throughout history is due simply to misogyny, he responds:
To say that the depreciation of Mary Magdalene has been caused by a conspiracy of men against women might be missing the point. Rather, Mary Magdalene has fallen foul of a profound argument over the apprehension of the divine, in which the established, ritualised and hierarchical Church requires that God should be mediated through itself, whereas everything about Mary Magdalene suggests a more immediate and personal experience of the divine.
There is a danger that this book may leave some of its more querulous readers feeling slightly grubby, since surely the true joy of any great Biblical character is that very little, on paper, can allow the serious devotee to feel a great deal. The imagination thrills to the mystery. Faith exists in the gaps.
Did I finish Haag’s book loving the Magdalene more now than I did before (and I do love her, dearly, although this love is chiefly vested in her tantalising ambiguity)? In a word, no. Did I scoff, blink, start, chew anxiously on my thumbnail as I read? Absolutely. Did I learn anything? A great deal. Did Haag’s quest end in my own Holy Grail? Nope. But precious few quests do. You still gain plenty on the journey, though.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Nicola Barker’s novels include Wide Open, Behindlings, the Man Booker-shortlisted Darkmans and, most recently, The Cauliflower®.