Written & Artistic Works by Our Seminarians & Doctoral Candidates – 8

Back to Members Works Table of Contents


The Evolution of Mary Magdalene in Christianity

By Leah Alabrè

11 June 2008

Throughout the last two thousand years Christianity has placed the male genderat the forefront of Christ’s message. Peter, ‘the rock’ of the church and presumably its founder. Paul, God’s never failing missionary that has inspired many since to go outamong the masses and tell the ‘Good News’. John, the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ and writer of several gospels. All these men have been placed in a pantheon of glory within Christianity over the last several centuries; gracing paintings, films and even architecture. But there is one part of the faith that Christianity can neither obliterate or deny, Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has captivated women for centuries but not for her purity and goodness, as Christ’s mother has, but for the freedom and salvation she represents. Although the Church has spent centuries attempting to rid an entirefaith of her divine glory, a new generation has found promise in who she is.

Mary Magdalene was a female disciple of Jesus Christ according to the Canonical and Apocryphal gospels. Her surname is thought to be in reference to her hometown, Magdala, which is near Tiberias, on the western shore of Galilee where most of Jesus’ teachings took place. Mary Magdalene’s name also is believed to come from a Talmudic expression meaning “to curl women’s hair,” through this translation some scholar’s have taken it to mean that she was an adulteress or perhaps even a hairdresser due to the fact that within the Talmudic language the word for hairdresser and adulteress are interchangeable.

The first time Mary Magdalene is mentioned at all is within the New Testament scriptures in the Bible withinLuke 8:2-3; “There were also some women with him who had been healed of sicknesses and evil spirits. One of the women was Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . these women used their own money to help Jesus and his apostles.” According to the Canonical gospels Mary, with a group of other women traveled everywhere with Jesus and the twelve apostles, helping to take care of their basic needs.They even accompanying them to Jerusalem and possibly attending the infamous Passover meal now known in Christianity as the ‘Last Supper’. Mary also witnessed the Crucifixion of Christ according to Matthew 27:55; “Many women were standing at a distance from the cross, watching. These were women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for him. Mary Magdalene . . . were there.” But Mary Magdalene stayed by Jesus’ side even through his death. According to scripture she stayed with him until he was buried in a tomb. But in early morning on what is now known as Easter, Mary along with several other of Jesus’ female followers went to anoint his body with sweet spices and oils as was the custom among Jews at that time (Mark 28:1, Gospel of Peter 12). When they looked inside of the tomb they noticed that Jesus’ body was gone (Matthew 28:5) and then they saw a vision of Angels. Mary was the first witness to see the resurrected Christ and she immediately went and told the apostles(John 20:1-2). But after Jesus ascended to Heaven the Canonical gospels are silent on Mary Magdalene’s life leaving people wondering whatever became of her, but this silence does not last long.

Several centuries after the first churches of the New Testament were long gone, the Catholic Church was the sole authority in Christianity. At the time, the Catholic Church preached that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute. Several theories as to why Mary was considered sinful has come to light in recent years. One is thought to have something to do with the passage in Luke in which Mary Magdalene first appears; “One of the women was Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out”. In the Medieval period the seven demons were often thought tobe the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’; Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Sloth, Envy and Pride. Another belief that began as early as the third century, is that sheis the adulteress of Luke 7:36-50because her name is mentioned so shortly after the story of the woman whom was ‘sinner’ or even that she is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. According to a religious scholar, Jeffrey Kripal, a sermon by Pope Gregory is responsible for the association of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. “Magdala was a fishing town known, or so the legend goes, for its perhaps punning connection to hairdressers, Medgaddlela and women of questionable reputation. This is as close as we get to any clear evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.” In his sermon, Pope Gregory identified Mary as peccatrix, a sinful woman, using her as a model for the repentant sinner, but he did not call her meretrix, a prostitute. However, he also identifies Mary with the adulteress brought before Jesus (as recounted in John 8), supporting the view of 3rd and 4th century Church Fathers that had already considered this sin as “being unchaste.” Pope Gregory’s identification and the consideration of the woman’s sin as sexual later gave rise to the image of Mary as a prostitute. This viewpoint is also espoused by the majority of Western Medieval Christian Art. In many medieval art depictions, Mary Magdalene is shown as having long hair, which she wears down over her shoulders, while other women follow contemporary standards of propriety by hiding their hair beneath headdresses or kerchiefs. Mary Magdalene’s hair is often depicted as Red, while the other women of the New Testament in these same depictions ordinarily have dark hair beneath a scarf. This disparity between depictions of women can be seen in works such as the Crucifixion paintings by the Meister des Marienlebens. This image of Mary as a prostitute was followed by many writers and artists until the 20th century. Even though it is less prevalent today, the identification of Mary Magdalene with the adulteress is still accepted by some Christians. One of the most current examples today is Martin Scorcese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ. There are several possible explanations for the labeling of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, but one is that there has been confusion between her and Mary of Egypt. Another explanation, which is more commonly believed today, is that it has been deliberately used to camouflage the close relationship between Jesus and Mary.

For much of the last two thousand years Mary Magdalene has largely been viewed as a prostitute turned saint through the love of Christ. But in the recent century several texts with the help of modern writers havechanged the traditional view of Mary and Jesus’ relationship. Some modern writers have come forward with claims that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. These writers cite Gnostic writings to support their argument. Sources like the Gospel of Philip depict Mary Magdalene as being closer to Jesus than any other disciple. However, there is no known ancient document that claims she was his wife; rather, the Gospel of Philip depicts Mary as Jesus’ koinonos, a Greek term indicating a “close friend,” “companion” or, potentially, evena “lover”:

“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companions were each a Mary.” As well as the verse “And the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ] loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often[]. The rest of the disciples [were offended by it and expressed disapproval.] They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?’ “

The closeness described in these writings depicts Mary Magdalene, as understanding Jesus and his teachings while the other disciples, representing the Church, did not. Kripal wrote that “the historical sources are simply too contradictory and simultaneously too silent” to make absolute declarations regarding Jesus’ sexuality. Proponents of a married status of Jesus argue that bachelorhood was very rare for Jewish males of Jesus’ time, being generally regarded as a transgression of the first mitzvah, or Divine Commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply.” According to this reasoning, it would have been unthinkable for an adult, unmarried Jew to travel about teaching as a rabbi. But some writers employing metaphysical analogy and allegory have asserted that Christ was already married — to the Church, in the literary topos of ‘The Bridegroom’ that was developed and enlarged upon in Medieval Theology. This image goes back to Old Testament depictions of the covenant between God and his people as a ‘marriage’, especially in the books Hosea, Ezekiel and the Song of Songs. Imagery of marriage also appears in the Gospels and is applied to Jesus in the letters of the Apostle Paul and in the Apocalypse of John in the New Testament. This was later expanded by the Church fathers. Some writers, following an early tradition that Jesus is, in a mystical sense, the ‘second Adam‘ that began with Paul and continued with Iranaeus and others, embody this sense with literal parallels: like the first Adam, his bride was taken from his side when he had fallen asleep (died on the cross). In Medieval Christian anagogic exegesis, the blood and water which came from his side when he was pierced, was held to represent the bringing forth of the Church with its analogy in the water of baptism and the wine of the new covenant. Thus Christ can be said in an allegorical sense to already have a wife in the Church. But even with scholarly debates one question has yet to be answered, what happened to Mary Magdalene after the Ascension of Christ?

According to various bits of legend, Mary Magdalene went to Egypt and bore a daughter, Sarah shortly after Christ’s ascensionand with several disciples of Christ began to travel all around the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. One day, Mary Magdalene visited the Emperor Tiberias (14-37 AD) and proclaimed to him about Christ’s Resurrection. According to tradition, she took him an egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, a symbol of new life with the words: “Christ is Risen!” Then she told Tiberias that, in his Province of Judea, Jesus the Nazarene, a holy man, a maker of miracles, powerful before God and all mankind, was executed on the instigation of the Jewish High-Priests and the sentence affirmed by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Tiberias responded that no one could rise from the dead, anymore than the egg she held could turn red. Miraculously, the egg immediately began to turn red as testimony to her words. Then, and by her urging, Tiberias had Pilate removed from Jerusalem to Gaul, where he later suffered a horrible sickness and an agonizing death.

Fourteen years after the Ascension of Christ, Mary Magdalene, her daughter Sarah, Lazarus along with his two sisters, Martha and Mary; Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples, from whom they had received baptism; Cedon, the blind man whom our Savior had restored to sight; and Marcella, the handmaiden who attended on the two sisters, were by the Jews set adrift in a vessel without sails, oars, or rudder; but, guided by Providence, they were safely borne over the sea till they landed in a certain harbor which proved to be Marseilles, in the country now called France. The people of the land were pagans, and refused to give the holy pilgrims food or shelter; so they were fain to take refuge under the porch of a temple and Mary Magdalene preached to the people, reproaching them for their senseless worship of idols; and though at first they would not listen, yet being after a time be convinced by her eloquence, and by the miracles performed by her and by her sister, they were converted and baptized. And Lazarus became, after the death of the good Maximin, the first bishop of Marseilles. These things being accomplished, Mary Magdalene retired to the cliffs not far from the city. It was a frightful barren wilderness and in the midst of horrid rocks she lived in the caves of Sainte-Baume; there for thirty years she devoted herself to solitary penance for the sins of her past life, which she had never ceased to bewail bitterly. During this long seclusion, she was never seen or heard of, and it was supposed that she was dead. She fasted so rigorously, that but for the occasional visits of the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have perished. She was given the Holy Eucharist by angels as her only food. Every day during the last years of her penance, the angels came down from heaven and carried her up in their arms into regions where she was ravished by the sounds of unearthly harmony, and beheld the glory and the joy prepared for the sinner that repented. One day a certain hermit, who dwelt in a cell on one of those wild mountains, having wandered farther than usual from his home, beheld this wondrous vision-the Magdalene in the arms of ascending angels, who were singing songs of triumph as they bore her upwards; and the hermit, when he had a little recovered from his amazement, returned to the city of Marseilles, and reported what he had seen.

Yet according to Church tradition, Mary Magdalene remained in Rome until the arrival of the Apostle Paul, and for two more years still, following his departure from Rome after the first court judgment upon him. From Rome, Mary Magdalene, moved to Ephesus where she unceasingly labored the holy Apostle John, who with her wrote the first 20 Chapters of his Gospel (John 1-9, John 10-20). There the saint finished her earthly life and was buried. Mary was transported miraculously, just before she died, to the chapel of St. Maximin, where she received the last sacraments. She died when she was 72.

Whatever the outcome of Mary Magdalene’s life no one can deny that her life and legend has made countless impressions on people. In 899 the Emperor Leo VI translated her alleged relics to a monastery in Constantinople. It was not until the tenth century that devotion to Mary Magdalene, the composite saint, took root in the west. About 1050 the monks of Vézelay, an abbey recently reformed and affiliated to Cluny, began to claim her body, brought, they related, from the Holy Land either by a ninth-century saint, Badilo, or by envoys dispatched by their founder. A little later a monk of Vézelay believed that he had detected in a crypt at St. Maximin in Provence, carved on an empty sarcophagus, a representation of the unction at Bethany. The monks of Vézelay pronounced it to be Mary Magdalene’s tomb from which her relics had been translated to their abbey.

But in 1896, a fifth century papyrus codex was purchased from an Egyptian merchant in Cairo by Karl Reinhardt, a German Scholar. In this codex was what is now called, The Gospel of Mary. Although the codex is generally considered to about Mary Magdalene, some scholars wonder if it is about another Mary. Scholars don’t always agree which of the ‘Marys’ in the New Testament is the central character of the Gospel of Mary. Arguments in favor of Mary Magdalene are based on her status as a known disciple of Jesus, the tradition of being the first witness of his resurrection, and her appearance in other early Christian writings. She is mentioned as accompanying Jesus on his journeys (Luke 8:9) and is listed in the
Gospel of Matthew as being present at his crucifixion (27:56). In the
Gospel of John, she is recorded as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:14-16). De Boer compares her role in other non-canonical texts, noting “in the
Gospel of Mary it is Peter who is opposed to Mary’s words, because she is a woman. Peter has the same role in the
Gospel of Thomas and in Pistis Sophia. In Pistis Sophia the Mary concerned is identified as Mary Magdalene.” The final scene in the
Gospel of Mary may also provide evidence that Mary is indeed Mary Magdalene. Levi, in his defense of Mary and her teaching, tells Peter “Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. In the
Gospel of Philip, a similar statement is made about Mary Magdalene. Aida Spencer writer for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and Feminist Theologian, Karen L. King also are in favor that the Mary spoke of is in fact Mary Magdalene. King once said, “It was precisely the traditions of Mary as a woman, as an exemplary disciple, a witness to the ministry of Jesus, a visionary of the glorified Jesus, and someone traditionally in contest with Peter, that made her the only figure who could play all the roles required to convey the messages and meanings of the Gospel of Mary.” However, Stephen J. Shoemaker has argued in favor of this Mary being the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than Mary Magdalene. This would comply with Jesus loving her more than the other disciples, being his greatest disciple, and also for her being the central figure of Christianity. Also, when Jesus says to her, “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me”, it is similar to when Elizabeth says to the Virgin Mary, “Blessed are you among women”, and, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled”, in the canonical gospel of Luke. But regardless of who the gospel is about Mary Magdalene seems to bare a sense of freedom to those who look to her, freedoms often suppressed because of the perception of women during the last several centuries causing Mary Magdalene’s name to be synonymous with ‘fallen’ women.

For example, the Magdalene Asylums. Magdalene Asylums were institutions for so-called ‘fallen’ women, most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labor such as laundry work. In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalene Laundries. It has been estimated that 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions, often against their will. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996. The asylums were praised during its first 147 years for taking in unwed mothers, prostitutes, mentally ill girls and others. However in 1993, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 155 inmates, who had been buried in unmarked graves on the property, were exhumed and, except for one body, cremated and reburied in a mass grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. This triggered a public scandal and became local and national news. In 1999 Mary Norris, Josephine McCarthy and Mary- Jo McDonagh, all asylum inmates, gave accounts of their treatment. The 1998 Channel 4 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate interviewed former inmates of Magdalene Asylums who testified to continued sexual, psychological and physical abuse while being isolated from the outside world for an indefinite amount of time. The conditions of the convents and the treatment of the inmates was shown in the acclaimed 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters , written and directed by Peter Mullan. However the accuracy of this portrayal has been challenged. In addition, the story of one of the most famous alleged victims of the Magdalene Asylums has been charged by relatives and investigators with being largely an invention.The sending of wayward women to Magdalene Asylums was an example of what many feminists regard as the phenomenon in which even ‘suspected’ sexual misconduct by women is punished more harshly than sexual misconduct by men.

With the 1960’s and ‘70’s came along a new wave of civil rights with that was the birth of modern Feminism and the rebirth of Goddess Spirituality. Goddess Spirituality is the belief that the traditional, harsh and distant ‘god’ of traditional, mainstream monotheistic religions is actually a woman with a caring and wise nature. For Christian womenunsatisfied with the ‘god of Abraham’ but too scared to commit to a pagan goddess Mary Magdalene has offered solace, a new light in a dimming and dying faith. There is strong evidence that Mary Magdalene was worshiped (somewhat secretly) right along side the Virgin Mary up until the Albigensian campaigns. Afterwards her worship was forced even further underground. In 1781, the last temple dedicated to her was destroyed. Numerous landmarks attest to her cult in the South of France. Among many other examples, “a Christian magic ring, now in the London museum, bears the legend, ‘Holy Mary Magdalene pray for me’”. Of the many cathedrals dedicated to Our Lady, Notre Dame, in the middle ages, it is unclear which “Our Lady” they were dedicated to, especially since many of the cathedrals were funded by the Knights Templar, champions of Mary Magdalene. (In the 14th Century, the church made a concerted effort to clarify that the only Our Lady was Mother Mary). In doing so, they made Mother Mary “The Bride of Christ,” although they emphasized it was a spiritual union only.

Although several prominent figures in mainstream Christianity deny Mary Magdalene as the wife of Christ, or even a disciple, many have come to the conclusion that it is quite possible that she was. In reference to her opinion on the subject of her 2003 CNN documentary, Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, Elizabeth Vargas said “You can’t talk about this subject without intriguing people or offending people…for me, it’s made religion more real and, ironically, much more interesting…” As far offending people and garnering criticism the 1982 release of the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail did just that. “Of course there’s not much harm in thinking that Jesus was married (nor are these authors the first to suggest it)…But there is harm in strings of lurid falsehoods and distorted reasoning. The method bends the mind the wrong way, an insidious and real corruption.” said historian Marina Warner when it was first published. Though much of the attention of Mary Magdalene’s life is receiving has less to do with religion and more to do with fiction. The DaVinci Code, a novel by Dan Brown published in 2003 is primarily responsible for the rebirth of interest in not just Mary but in Christian Gnosticism in general.

When the various councils of the Catholic Church began forming what is now the beliefs of modern- day Christianity, they did so simply out of fear that a woman of divine nature (Mary Magdalene) would make the current followers of Christianity revert back to Paganism. Throughout its existence Paganism has upheld all things feminine but with the creation and spread of monotheism by the Hebrews who were of the faith now known as Judaism, men became the primary focus of many religions. The Catholic Church feared that the worship of Mary Magdalene and the freedom she had shown in the Bible would cause women to undermine the patriarchy that they had spent centuries creating. This inadvertently eliminated Mary Magdalene’s role as a major disciple within Jesus’ ministry. But now these days she has returned in her full, unadulterated glory as Christianity’s Goddess. As Kelli Cymraes Lincoln, creator of Dancing Goddess Dolls, cloth dolls that are made to represent the goddesses from around the world and throughout history wrote on her web page . “I am Mary, called Magdalene, Sacred Bride, Holy Grail, Goddess of the Gospels. Through me you will find Balance as the Divine Feminine is restored to a wounded and divided world. Although my legacy has long been denied, I have remained strong, the silent Watchtower. It is time for me to break my silence and return to the light. The Vine grows again!”. And indeed she has not only found new life within fiction but in poetry and song. For example, Gnostic poet, Thunder wrote,
Mary MagdaleneAs Goddess, a poem hat celebrates her divine nature:

“I am the first and the last.

I am the honored one and the scorned one.

I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.

I am the mother and the daughter. . . .

I am she whose wedding is great,

And I have not taken a husband. . . .

I am shameless;

I am ashamed. . . .

I am godless,

And I am one whose God is great.”

Mary Magdalene is many things and as she evolves so do those that believe in her.


International Bible: New Century Version. Word Publishing, 199.


Kripal, Jeffrey John. Chicago, The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

King, Karen L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003.





In God’s Name, an article about the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate: http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/feature pages/0,4120,890489,00.html





The Real Mary Magdalene, A National Geographic Documentary

Mythology and the Bible: The Role of Myth In Understanding

by Ian McAllister

In this, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, there has once again been a re-ignition of the argument between the evolutionists and creationists: science against a literal interpretation of the Bible.

This paper will highlight a ‘third way’, that of mythology and its importance in the interpretation of religious texts. To begin, I will outline the meaning of myth and will then discuss three examples of mythical story – two taken from the Old Testament (Creation and Exodus) and one from the New Testament (the Temptation of Christ). To conclude, I will briefly discuss how myth is common to all religious texts, which perhaps indicates the commonality between all faiths. I will concentrate mainly on those myths that deal with creation as this, perhaps, seems to exercise the creativity of most religions.

In discussing myth, it is important to understand how the meaning of the word has changed from its original, ancient meaning. There is a linguistic connection between the three words, ‘mysticism’, ‘myth’ and ‘mystery: they are all derived from the Greek verb, ‘musteion’, meaning to close the eyes or the mouth. ‘All words are therefore rooted in the experience of darkness and silence’. [1]

In the West today, they are not popular words. The word myth is often associated with an untruth or lie and it is a phrase that is often used in everyday parlance. Even scholars will sometimes refer to mistakes in views of the past as myths and, since the Enlightenment, a mystery has been seen as something that needs to be cleared up. Mysticism has been frequently associated with cranks or charlatans and there is little understanding of the intelligence and discipline that is essential to this type of spirituality.[2] It has a much stronger foothold in the East although even in the 1960s, when mysticism was perhaps at its height of popularity in the West, it struggled to find its way into mainstream thought.

Perhaps it is more realistic to see a myth as a metaphor for helping to explain that which is beyond understanding. In essence, it is an analogy to decipher something about our inner selves. We can therefore turn the modern meaning of myth, that it is an untruth, on its head: a myth is a way of thinking that enables us to reach a profound truth. [3] In the words of Vogler:

‘A myth is a special kind of story that deals with the gods or the forces of nature and the relationship of those forces to human beings.’[4]

The work of Joseph Campbell and the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, went some way to revitalising its value. Campbell found that story telling generally followed the ancient structure of myth. The same patterns occurred in all cultures across time, appearing to suggest a set of elements that sprang from somewhere deep within the mind.[5] To quote Campbell:

‘It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.’[6]

This supported Jung’s work on archetypes, which he described as constantly repeating characters or energies which occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures. Jung suggested that these archetypes reflect different aspects of the human mind. Our personalities divide themselves into these characters to re-enact the drama of our lives. He noticed a strong correspondence between his patients’ dream figures and the common archetypes of mythology. He believed that both came from a deeper source in the collective unconscious of the human race.[7]

Of course, Jung’s theory of archetypes was not unique. Plato had expressed a philosophical idea of a celestial world which we mirrored in our behaviours on earth. In mythical terms, perhaps this was a way of trying to give importance to what some might see as our mundane and, ultimately, worthless existence.[8]

It is interesting to note that many Gnostic ideas appealed to Jung who thought they expressed the other side of the mind, that side which orthodox religion requires its adherents to repress. Indeed, Gnosticism shares with psychotherapy a fascination with the non-literal significance of language, as both attempt to understand the internal quality of experience.[9]

Therefore, Myths have a ring of psychological truth. Mythical stories can be seen as accurate models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. Even when portraying fantastic, impossible or unreal events, there is an element of validity and emotional reality to them. They can be felt by everybody, tapping into a universal source in the shared unconsciousness. They reflect universal concerns and, as again noted by Vogler:

‘…deal with major, universal questions: who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go when I die? What is good and what is evil?’[10]

There can perhaps be no more often asked question than that of where we came from. Those who champion a literal interpretation of the Bible advocate that the very first chapter of Genesis records how God created the world in six days before resting on the seventh. Particularly in the West, there has been those who see God as physically responsible for everything that happens on earth.

However, there are sections of all three of the main monotheist religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, who view the story of creation in Genesis as not a literal or historically correct account.

In the ancient world, cosmology was largely a therapeutic, rather than factual, genre. People recited creation myths at the sickbed of loved ones, at the start of a new project or the beginning of a new year. In fact, wherever there was a need to reach out and experience the infusion of divine potency, these myths were repeated and celebrated. Essentially, the stories brought reality into the people’s experiences. It is interesting to note that the people of ancient times were very much aware that their stories were not a true representation of creation; after all, as no one had been there at the start of creation, how could anyone say what had taken place?

Certainly, the people of Babylonia would not have viewed their creation poem, the Enuma Elish, as anything but a myth and metaphor for their world. This story, with its theme of emanation, shares much with later the later myths of those such as the Kabbalists of Judaism and the Hellenistic theories of Plato and Aristotle which were to influence Christianity.

The tale tells of how the earth was created from an original watery, unformed mass lacking boundary and identity and which had existed for all eternity. Suddenly, from within this mass, emerged three gods: Apsu (associated with the rivers), Tiamat (his wife, and associated with the salty seas) and Mummu (the womb of chaos). However, they were weak, inferior deities who needed much improvement. They shared the same shapeless inertia of the original unformed mass and there was still no clear identity.

The new gods emerged one from the other, in pairs, each one acquiring greater definition. There was Lahumu and Lahamn (silt); next came Ansher and Kisher (identified with the horizon of the sky and sea); then came Anu (the heavens) and Ea (the earth) which seemed to complete the process. But the forces of chaos could only be held off by battle. The newer, more dynamic gods fought against their parents, gaining victories over virtually all. But it was a constant struggle to keep the forces of chaos at bay. Tiamat produced a number of monsters to fight on her behalf.

Marduk, the sun God and child of Ea, promised to fight Tiamat as long as he was given dominion over the other gods. He eventually won a hard fought, dangerous battle against Tiamat. In this myth, creativity is seen as a struggle, achieved laboriously against overwhelming odds. [11]

After killing Tiamat, Marduk decided to create a new world, splitting her body in two to form the sky and the world of men. He also devised the laws by which everyone had to live.

Humans were then created from a drop of blood of Tiamat’s consort, Kingu, mixed with the earth.

Marduk’s victory had to be celebrated every year by means of a special liturgy. The gods met at Babylon, the centre of the new earth, and built a temple where the celestial rights could be performed. The result was the great Ziggurat, built in honour of Marduk.

However, it is interesting to note a major difference: for the Babylonians, man and god were formed from the same divine substance. There was no gulf between them. The pagan vision of divinity was much more holistic: divinity was essentially no different from humanity. The laws and rituals were binding upon everyone, even the gods, to ensure the survival of creation.

The myth expresses the inner meaning of civilisation as the Babylonians saw it. They know perfectly well that the temple had been built by their ancestors but the Enuma Elish articulated their belief that creative enterprise could only endure if they partook of the power of the divine. The myth also expressed the idea that Babylon was a sacred place and this idea of a holy city was to emerge in all three monotheistic religions.

Forms of this myth appear throughout different cultures. The Canaanites told the story of Baal, the storm god (who also appears in the Bible).He fights Yam-Nahar (the god of seas and rivers) and defeats him. By ensuring victory, Baal halts the slide into primordial chaos and anarchy. Later, Baal undergoes a reversal and is killed, but is eventually brought back to life by his lover and sister, Anat.

And, as with the idea of a holy city, the death of a god, the quest of a goddess and the triumphant return to the divine sphere would be constant religious themes in many cultures and would recur in the very different one god worship of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Similarities, of course, exist with the creation of Adam in Genesis, who is formed by God from the earth the earth that He has created and by breathing divine life into the nostrils of the newly formed human. Note, however, how there is a lack of godly substance within the biological make-up. Emanation is also evident as Eve emerges from the body of Adam.

The Genesis story of the creation can also be viewed under a mythical microscope. For example, the six day time span has been explained as representing the ages of time. Viewed in this way, the six days are magnified over thousands of years and therefore fits in with the more scientific opinions of our origins.

Certainly, at this point, there is still the notion of more than one god vying for human worship. It is accepted by many that the Bible has multiple authors and this may account for the more inconsistent and paradoxical features. For example, in Isaiah, the author revived the idea of a god that fought sea dragons to once again put primordial chaos in order (this is also a theme in Psalms). This mythological element is out of step with much of the Pentateuch. Here, there is a much more aggressive philosophy at play. [12] The point here is that God was about to repeat those epic, cosmic exploits to defeat the enemies of historical Israel. This is still an underlying view that creation is best seen as being forged in the myth of turmoil and battle, rather than the somewhat more peaceful account of the six days of God’s work in the opening chapter of Genesis.

To an extent, the view of creation as a battle between forces can be said to have much more in common with that of the rationalism of science. The Big Bang theory can also be said to be a battle between forces and is perhaps as good a reminder as any of how the mythical story can have elements of truth and insight far beyond any literal interpretation.

Mystical Christianity has always sought to place the creation story within a mythical framework. The Kabbalists see the opening chapter of Genesis as a parable of the emergence of the Sefiroth (numerations).[13] They called the innermost essence of God, En Sof (without end). Essentially, it was incomprehensible, had no personality and had revealed itself when the world was created. The divine life spread in ever wider spheres until it filled everything, although En Sof remained hidden. God’s attributes: his Wisdom, Power, Beauty and Intelligence thus became manifest. The Kabbalists transformed these abstract qualities into dynamic potencies. They revealed hidden aspects of the unfathomable En Sof and became more comprehensible as they approached the material world. They called these potencies, Sefiroth. They were not segments of God but together formed one great name not known to human beings.

These myths were designed to throw some light on the indescribable process by which life and the cosmos were created and God made itself known. Interestingly, the Kabbalists also considered the Sefiroth to be present in the psyche, also representing the stages of human consciousness through which the mystic could ascend to the ultimate Godhead. It was also a way of depersonalising God.

The anthropomorphic description of a deity was to have repercussions on how God was to be viewed. The God of the Old Testament has been criticised for being a jealous, vindictive and cruel deity – obviously human traits. The myth of the Exodus has often been used as an example of this contemptible behaviour.

The myth is well known. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt after years of slavery under the Pharaoh, following a visitation from God who told him of his mission. He led them to the foot of Mount Sinai were he delivered the laws that were to shape the Jewish religion.

At first, God had tried to ‘gently’ persuade Pharaoh to let his people free. When he had refused, God sent ten fearful plagues to force his hand which included the Nile being turned to blood, a plague of frogs and, most terrible of all, an Angel of Death to kill all the Egyptian first born, whilst leaving the children of the Israelites well alone.

Pharaoh, having no choice, relented and let Moses and the Israelites leave. However, shortly afterwards, he changed his mind and sent his army after them. When the Israelites reached the Red Sea, God parted the waves and allowed them to cross, before bringing the waves back together again as the Egyptian army attempted to cross thus destroying the army and ending the chase.

A literal interpretation of this story leaves the impression that God is cruel and heartless; cruel enough to kill what we can reasonably assume to be innocent children. In fact the story in this form continued to encourage the image of God as a vengeful and highly partisan deity. During the seventeenth century BCE, it was used to illustrate the theology of election, which has, at various times, played a role in the history of Islam, Christianity and Judaism,[14] and is perhaps at the heart of the many problems in the Middle East presently taking place.

However, if we were to view it from a mythological viewpoint, it has a slightly different effect. The story of the Exodus would have had a clear message for the people of the Middle East who were used to hearing about gods, such as Marduk and Tiamat, parting seas and manipulating the elements. One exception, of course, was the fact that the parting of the Red Sea was happening in real, actual time, as opposed to the mythical time of the earlier gods. The Israelites were keen to bring out the significance of the events that the Exodus was meant to portray. It has been suggested by some scholars that the myth is a rendering of a successful peasants’ revolt against Egypt and its allies in Canaan. Such a success would have been very rare and would certainly have made a long, lasting impression. Importantly, it would have resulted in the understanding that there was hope and redemption for the oppressed.[15] As opposed to a cruel and vindictive God, under this interpretation, we see here a God of revolution, inspiring an idea of social justice. Exodus was able to engender hope for the future, even in the most impossible of circumstances.

Interestingly, in the final text of Exodus, God made a covenant with Moses that He will be the only god worshipped by the Israelites. This emphasised the fact that they were not yet monotheists. [17]

In return for this solo worship, God would protect them and ensure their survival and growth as a people. The motivation to believe in this agreement must have been irresistible given the nature of the times that the Israelites lived in. They needed a protector, one who not only kept them safe, but also guaranteed the survival of their future people.

However, the multi-god belief wasn’t to go away just yet. The myth of Elijah in 1 Kings, recounts the story of a prophet who, acting as a kind of MC, brings God together in battle with the storm god, Baal. The idea of multiple gods is still hanging on and fighting for its life. God not only defeats him, but usurps his purpose by bringing the rain that ends a drought in the region. He proves he is able to provide for his people. [18]

The story of the Exodus also brings in another important aspect of religious texts: symbolism. The Israelites were in exile for forty years and the number forty has some relevance in that it was also the number of days that Christ was said to be in the wilderness before he began his ministry and teaching. Certainly, Jesus had used numbers symbolically, the twelve disciples, for example, could be seen as a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Again, this myth is well known and is probably based on fact. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Christ would want some time on his own before starting his ministry and teaching and it was not uncommon for prophets to wander into the desert.

Jesus is tempted by the devil who takes him from the desert to the Temple mount and shows him a vision of all the kingdoms of the earth and offers him dominion over all. The devil also tries to persuade Jesus to turn stones into bread and to cast himself down from the top of the Temple, trusting that he would be saved by a host of angels. Of course, the offers had conditions:

‘All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me’.[19]

And, of course, Jesus refuses to accept the devil’s who, more or less, is forced to give up and go away. This myth has a crucial role in the Bible. In the gospels, Christ’s dedication and his refusal to take the easy path is of the upmost importance. They also signal that he could be tempted and that he had to wrestle with himself. In fact, Luke indicated in his version of the temptation that the devil would be back:

‘When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’.[20]

This suggests the possible return of self-doubt which, indeed, re-appears for Jesus just prior to his crucifixion when he says:

‘ “Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.”.’ [21]

In other words, he was beginning to doubt how his mission was due to end. The battle that Christ faced against the devil and demons is a recurrent theme throughout the Bible. It is undoubtedly so prevalent as to emphasise the amount of temptation faced and share hard work that constitutes life. The mythical message wrapped up in the temptation story is quite evident and is one that transcends all time and culture. All of us have at times moments when things are perhaps not going are so well and are tempted to try and take what appear to be easy routes or complete avoidance tactics. For instance, think of those people who turn to drugs or alcohol to blot out their issues, who steal to fund their lifestyle or turn their backs on friends or family when faced with problems. Nobody says that it’s easy and we will all be tempted at some time in our life.

In conclusion, I believe that mythology is crucial to our interpretation of religious texts and can teach far more than any literal analysis. Moving away from the largely Christian and Jewish religion discussed in this paper, it has to be accepted that the mystic religions of the East have been much more comfortable with the value of myth as a teaching aid. Buddhism has its stories of Siddhartha and his experiences of enlightenment, Taoism has its belief in the tao (spiritual force) and its connection with nature and Shinto advocates the myth of an alternative spiritual world which is superior to the one in which we live. There are many others, far too many to do justice to in a paper this size. They would warrant a study in their own right.

At their heart, all religions and belief systems have a strong foundation of mythology which, as Joseph Campbell has identified, helps the human to deal with what is ultimately an unknowable and highly complicated existence. The fact that these myths take a similar shape throughout the world and can also be found within the deep recesses of the sub-conscious, trying to find their way out through the medium of dreams, surely points to a message: there is something to be ‘tapped into’ and discovered.


1. Karen Armstrong, ‘A History of God’. London, Vintage 1999, pg. 250

2. Ibid

3. Christopher Vogler, ‘The Writer’s Journey’. London, Boxtree 1996, pg. 1

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Joseph Campbell, ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’. London, Fontana Press pg. 3

7. Op. cit., Vogler pg. 14

8. Op. Cit., Armstrong, pg. 213

9. Elaine Pagels, ‘The Gnostic Gospels’. London, Phoenix pg.140

10. Op. Cit., Vogler, pg. 15

11. Op. Cit. Armstrong

12. Karen Armstrong, ‘The Bible – The Biography’. London, Atlantic Books, pg. 29

13. Ibid pg. 147

14. Op Cit Armstrong, ‘A History of God,’ pg. 28-29

15. Ibid pg. 28

16. Ibid pg. 31

17. Ibid pg. 32

18. Ibid pg. 36

19. Matthew 4.9 New International Version

20. Luke 4.13

21. Mark 14.36