Nicola Barker

The holy sinner

With little to go on, says Nicola Barker, Michael Haag has cunningly constructed an imaginative, sympathetic portrait of the seductive ‘13th disciple’

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.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in