I have written earlier about my affection for New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton. I found his prior books, Rabbi Paul and Rabbi Jesus, to be fascinating, compelling reads. I was thrilled when my former pastor--and ongling intellectual sparring partner, Mike Potts sent word through Jenny that he was sending me a new Chilton book: Mary Magdalene, A Biography.
In the wake of the Da Vinci Code, it seems that every two-bit scholar has a book about about Mary, Opus Dei, or one of the heresies glorified by that book. I must admit that my first inclination was that Chilton was cashing in.
As it turned out, it took Chilton only one paragraph in the middle of the book to dispatch the pseudo-history of DVC. He comes up with some fascinating stuff about Mary, though.
He describes Magdala's proximity to Tiberias, a Roman city Herod Antipas had built smack in the middle of Jewish Galilee. No self-respecting Jew would set foot there--Herod even ended up giving property away to encourage settlement--and Magdala lay just a stone's throw away from that festering sore. That is why, "the Magdalene" was also an epithet that implied a person of moral compromise as well as describing the literal place where Mary grew up (just as "the Nazarene" had other implications for Jesus).
Chilton focuses on Mary's experience with healing from demons. He argues forcefully that she was probably the source for four exorcism stories found in the book of Mark, and he points out the details provided in the work and the ways they reveal Mary's insights.
Later, he goes into Mary's annointing of Jesus, placing it in the context of religious expression in the first-century church. Annointing with oil is one of the most meaningful of Christian sacraments, yet it has been long deemphasized by the church. Chilton points out the sensual aspects of smell and touch that went along with this annointing, and he figures that later Christian leaders diminished the role of annointing (and the ministry of women) for this reason.
I am happy to report that Chilton doesn't speculate upon any physical relationship between Jesus and Mary. The act of annointing is about as sensual as he gets. I didn't really buy his version of the Resurrection, however, which--aside from contradicting my personal faith, was a retelling of his Resurrection chapter from Rabbi Jesus.
Still, I recommend this book as an intellectual feast for the faith. Most of Chilton's insights are well supported, and his description of Magdala and Mary's death there in 66 AD are fascinating.