The New Yorker had an interesting article last week on Mary Magdalene and her evolving status in Western culture and the church.
In the article, the author, Joan Acocella, says: “The crucial development in Magdalene scholarship was the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.” This 1945 find in Egypt contained a wealth of previously unknown religious and philosophical writings from early Christianity. Acocella confuses things a bit though by implying that the Gospel of Mary (which she discusses next as the “key text”) was part of the Nag Hammadi cache. It was discovered separately (first acquired by a German scholar in Cairo in 1896, but not published until after WWII).
Anyway, in addition to mentioning Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (a great book) for its analysis of the Nag Hammadi texts, Acocella discusses several books on Mary Madgalene. A work she surprisingly omits is one I read a couple of years ago on the subject and can highly recommend: Karen L. King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.
The Gospel of Mary offers an intriguing insight into an early church community. King, a scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, compares its theology to other Gnostic works (she says it doesn’t necessarily fit well in the presumed template of Gnosticism), to the canonical New Testament, and to Hellenic thought. She sketches how this work sheds light on the historical development of Christianity prior to the settling of orthodoxy. King also discusses the implied prominent role of women in emerging Christianity. While Mary herself was not the author of the gospel bearing her name (it almost surely dates to the second century), and we can’t even be sure that a woman wrote it, it likely reflects theology developed at least in part by women.
Of all the wild and crazy stuff in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, I think you can take away one grain of truth: The crucial role of Mary in the canonical gospels (as the first discoverer of the truth of the resurrection) together with the implications from the Gospel of Mary point to an early Christian milieu where Mary in particular and women in general were more prominent than the later orthodoxy would have one believe.