The Magdala Trilogy by Peter Longley



By Peter Longley, MA (Cantab) (Hons)

Author of "Two Thousand Years Later" and "A Star's Legacy"

I read with great interest Ramon Jusino's paper on the subject of Mary Magdalene as the author of the Fourth Gospel.

My interest is centered on the fact that I have written a series of novels dealing with aspects of the life and message of Maria of Magdala. It is important to stress at the outlay that my books are novels and are not intended to necessarily be read as historic truth, although they might well contain elements of historical truth closer to that which has been handed down to us by two thousand years of Christianity. But, like the writings of the Early Church, my novels have taken a story line with the idea of trying to impart a message. The message that I have tried to impart is at times quite challenging to conventional Christianity as it deals primarily with a new paradigm of thinking about God more in keeping with the challenges of modern science, quantum physics, and the current theological thinking of those involved in the Historical Jesus movement and the Jesus Seminar. I cite as examples the work of Matthew Fox, Dominic Crossan, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Robert Funk, and Marcus Borg among others. There are also the exciting theory scholars who have contributed to this paradigm of thinking that certainly includes Karen Armstrong, Barbara Thiering, A.N. Wilson and Ian Wilson. On the 'New Age fringe' are the interesting concepts of Neale Donald Walsch in his best sellers Conversations with God and the insights of James Redfield in The Celestine Prophecy. However, when it comes to the subject of Mary Magdalene, I would agree that an essential scholastic focus must be seen in the definitive work of Susan Haskins. Interest in Mary Magdalene has also been highlighted by the phenomenal success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. All of the former scholars mentioned here (not the fringe scholars and writers) acknowledge and owe much to the work of the great Anglican scholar Bishop John A.T. Robinson who was one of Cambridge University's great Twentieth Century theologians and at whose feet I personally studied when an undergraduate studying Theology at Cambridge in the very early 1960's. Along with Robinson, I should also mention the contribution of another Cambridge scholar who has been formative in changing our paradigm of thinking — Don Cupitt. Robinson started his radical thinking with Honest to God and The Honest to God Debate in the early 1960's challenging Theism and taking our traditional concept of God 'up there' turning it inside out and creating the viewpoint of the 'God within.' His last radical work before his death was a commentary on St. John's Gospel where he argued a strong case for the more accurate historicity and christological content of 'The Fourth Gospel' over the Synoptics. His theological conclusions were probably similar to Raymond Brown, and I am not sure that he ever actually equated Mary Magdalene with 'the beloved disciple,' but he certainly ascribed to the reality that prior to a schism in the Ephesus Church there was a near eyewitness account of Jesus' life and teaching in what was later handed down to us as the last of the four canonical gospels to have been written (possibly even as late as 120 AD.)

The scenario that this earlier eyewitness account that is the basis of St. John's Gospel was taken from Ephesus to Egypt at the time of the Johannine Schism is almost certainly truth. I agree that the Nag Hammadi Texts unquestionably show knowledge of St. John and the philosophical ideas on Johannine Christology certainly would have found sympathy in Alexandria. Indeed, in as much as the Gnostic Church was largely the foundation of those who very early split with the Jerusalem Church, prior to the invasion of Pauline thought, it is more than likely that thought processes of an eyewitness community in Ephesus would be closer to the Gnostics than the mainstream Pauline theology that later developed and ultimately engulfed that Johannine community.

In my novels, I deal with this problem in an interesting storyline that at least in part ties in with this research and conclusion about 'The Fourth Gospel'. Again, I would like to stress the word storyline. These are novels and they are written to get across a theological message. However, in order to hold a wide audience, I have deliberately used many of the myths and legends of early Christianity and the apocryphal writings to enhance the storyline and appeal across the board, especially as the majority of my readers have rejected conventional Christianity or Judaism and have become spiritual seekers in the Western world. I have no doubt that much in my storyline might therefore be questioned. For me, that is no problem, as the storyline is not the end result. The change in our paradigm of thinking about God and Christology is my aim.

My novels take the form of a trilogy—The Magdala Trilogy, which was written first, followed by a contemporary story which is really an introduction to these three volumes—Two Thousand Years Later. As sometimes happens, the latter work was published first. I will return to its content later, but first I would like to introduce you to some of the fictitious and semi-fictitious characters of my trilogy along with supposedly historic persons. Please note that only volume one, A Star's Legacy (ISBN 978-1-4401-4256-7), is as yet published, but the characters of the whole have much bearing on the published work Two Thousand Years Later (ISBN No. 0-9666770-0-5).

The first volume of the trilogy, A Star's Legacy deals with the circumstances around the birth, childhood and early adult life of the three principal characters of The Magdala Trilogy. The hero of the full series is a fictitious Roman named Linus Flavius. The heroine is the semi-fictitious character Maria of Magdala, who in canonical scripture is only found at the cross, at the tomb and as a woman from whom seven devils were cast out. (The rest, including her supposed role as a prostitute along with her compassionate relationship with Jesus is myth and legend.) However, I will not deny that I have used aspects of the legend in order to carry my readers, but it is for this reason that I deliberately refer to Maria of Magdala as a semi-fictitious character. The third main character is of course, Joshua of Nazareth, better known to the world as Jesus Christ. In this scenario, I have Jesus' brothers and sister as actually the children of Joseph from his first marriage. Joseph's eldest son, James, becomes Joshua's early mentor and is later in the third volume, The Mist of God, the James who is the first leader of the Jerusalem Church and one of the Jerusalem martyrs. Another brother is Jonah. Jonah runs away from home and becomes the archetype for the parable of 'The Prodigal Son'. When Jonah returns to his family (he actually rediscovers them through Judas Iscariot), he becomes close to Joshua, and it is this Jonah whom Joshua appoints to take care of his stepmother and Joshua's mother, the Virgin Mary. This happens at the end of the second volume—Beyond the Olive Grove. The first part of this volume, Pickled Fish, describes Joshua's spiritual development through association with the Essenes, his life as a rabbi, his involvement in the fishing industry and the formation of his ministerial team.

In the first part of The Mist of God, I have Maria of Magdala, who as a woman is somewhat spurned by the early Jerusalem Church, especially as she is found to be pregnant shortly after Joshua's crucifixion, taken to Gaul by the merchant prince Joseph of Arimathea. Her son, whom she believes to be by Joshua, she names after 'the Lord' as Ben Joshua. Ben Joshua is primarily introduced into the story in order to later satisfy the well-researched legend of 'Yeshua' in India found in the second part of The Mist of God. As a theologian, I can not find enough supporting evidence to believe that Jesus himself went to India in the First Century AD. (I do believe he spent the formative years of his youth in Alexandria, however.) But, in order to incorporate this legend, I have made it his son, Ben Joshua, who ultimately goes to India and fuses the christological image of his father, imparted to him by his mother, with contemporary Indian Buddhist thought. The books are a vehicle for me to express my current thinking about God, which today is shrouded in much of the spiritual interconnection between Eastern and Western thought.

Ben Joshua in my novels is not the only child born to Maria of Magdala. She earlier has an adolescent relationship with the fictitious Linus Flavian, who is depicted as a spoiled Roman brat living close to the village of Magdala. She is left with a child from this affair to whom she gives the Roman name Marcus. It is for this reason in my novel, that Marcus is also a witness to the latter part of Joshua's ministry. This has the advantage of creating the eyewitness account that lies behind the Gospel of St. Mark, which most scholars consider to be the earliest gospel account and which appears to have been liberally used by the later evangelists who created the documents we now know as St. Matthew and St. Luke. However, in my novel Mark is only witness to the last year of Jesus' life and he can only see this through his childhood eyes, so much of what Marcus in my story eventually compiles, comes from his later relationship with Cephas, known to us as St. Peter. There seemed to be some rivalry between Peter, James, John and Maria of Magdala, which is certainly carried through in the later Gnostic and Coptic writings of the Egyptian Church. I intensify such rivalry and First Century chauvinist bigotry in the character of Judas Iscariot, who is the real administrative and practical leader of Joshua's group and considers Maria of Magdala to be Joshua's downfall. It is not surprising, therefore, that much in Marcus' interpretation of his mother's opinions becomes lost. Likewise, with the death of Ben Joshua, or 'Yeshua', in Kashmir, following the legend so well researched by Holger Kersten in her book Jesus Lived in India, the view of Maria of Magdala is further lost.

Now, I make much in my novels of the reality that in the First Century AD, the opinions of women counted for nothing, a scenario that might indeed have had a considerable amount to do with the reasons for the Ephesus Schism. Without actually seeking to establish 'authorship' for 'The Fourth Gospel,' in The Mist of God, I actually bring Maria of Magdala into the Ephesus scenario. After a crackdown on Jewish Diaspora created by the Claudian persecution in 49 AD, Maria leaves Massilia (Marseilles) in Gaul and travels with Joseph of Arimathea to Ephesus. There, she is reunited with Miriam (the Virgin Mary), and Jonah (Joseph's son). An early 'Christian' community had grown up in Ephesus around Jonah and Miriam and in my scenario Jonah becomes 'the beloved disciple.' This has the advantage of revealing how a later legend could try to apply the same name, 'John,' to the founder of the Ephesus Church considering that John to be the Apostle, the son of Zebedee. Like most current theologians, I do not accept that John, the son of Zebedee, was in any way responsible for the initial 'authorship' of the Johannine gospel. In my scenario, accidentally created in my novels and mainly for the purpose that ultimately it is in Ephesus that Linus Flavian, who has to escape Rome at the time of the Neronian persecution, is ultimately reunited with Maria, his adolescent lover, we find Maria of Magdala and 'the beloved disciple' Jonah in Ephesus at precisely the time some consider the initial 'authorship' of the Johannine gospel to have taken place — the mid-50s to the late 80s AD. It is even possible that aspects of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine purportedly written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, even if polished at a much later date after the Ephesus Schism at the time the Johannine literature was revised, might have actually been written or dictated on Patmos by my 'beloved disciple' Jonah, who at that time would have been an old man in his late seventies or early eighties. Is my scenario just a coincidence? In The Celestine Prophecy James Redfield clearly asserts in the first insight that there are no coincidences!

Certainly, much of the initial eyewitness account found in St. John's Gospel could well have come from none other than Maria of Magdala. Although some might like to attribute the person of 'the beloved disciple' to Mary Magdalene herself, I am reasonably happy to consider it an expression for an unknown person, preferably named John (not an uncommon name in the First Century AD,) who in my case I have fictitiously made to be Jonah, my fictitious step-brother of Jesus. However, the collaboration of Maria of Magdala and Jonah would seem to follow on from my fictitious scenario, in such a way as I would consider it to be worthy of serious study.

My trilogy only takes the reader as far as 70 AD. I suspect that the Ephesus Schism occurred a decade or two later, by which time, all my fictitious characters that end up in Ephesus forming the Christian community there, would have died. After Mary Magdalene's death (and probably that earlier of the Virgin Mary) it is highly probable that the Ephesus community did do all in its power to purge the female influences of its origins. It is probably at this time that the Schism occurred and those who stood by the female tradition left Ephesus for the more enlightened world of Egypt—hence, the Gnostic connection.

Two Thousand Years Later

is a contemporary novel, whereas The Magdala Trilogy is a massive historical epic in novel form. Two Thousand Years Later is set on a world cruise. The principal characters are the Chief Purser of a luxury cruise ship, a Concert Pianist who sometimes performs on board ship and an Architect. As they relate to one another and other minor characters on this journey around the world so they discover through déjà vu circumstances, dreams, music association and other phenomena that they all believe that they knew each other two thousand years ago in past lives in Roman Palestine. The principal characters discover that they were Linus Flavian, Maria of Magdala and Joshua of Nazareth. Through their Twentieth Century discussion and their First Century discoveries comes the different interpretation of God and Christology to which I referred at the beginning — a new paradigm of thinking that is challenging to Christianity, but that points a way to a new understanding of our faith that can survive the pressures now placed upon it. This can be illustrated by quoting the title of Bishop John Shelby Spong's book, Why Christianity must change or die.

My approach is radical, but it is scholastic, standing in the tradition of the Historical Jesus movement and the Jesus Seminar. I realize that some may disagree with much that I have put into novel form, but as I stated at the beginning, nobody has to agree with a fictitious storyline. I have simply used this media to convey my theological viewpoint. I would like to hope that my viewpoint on St. John's Gospel is correct, for one of the themes that saddens me in my novels is the reality that Mary Magdalene's legacy becomes lost to the chauvinist bigotry of her times. Maybe it was not lost and can be revealed in 'The Fourth Gospel.' For me, and I am sure for many others, this would be a wonderful revelation, for it would on the priority of an eyewitness account make many of the most loved 'sayings of Jesus' the most likely to be closest to the truth, not least of which in terms of the new paradigm, is one of his greatest sayings: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works I do; and greater works than these will he do." — John 14:12.  

PETER LONGLEY, MA (Cantab) (Hons. Theology 1966)