Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, by Bart D. Ehrman – I quite enjoy Ehrman’s books on early Christianity, and this one is no exception. Published in 2006, it discusses the historical data we have on three of the most significant early followers of Jesus, with six chapters devoted to each of them. It’s clear that most of the materials we do have were not written by eye witnesses, and even works credited to them were sometimes forged by someone trying to cite a voice of authority to make a point. Two of the books in the New Testament are attributed to Peter, but textual analysis suggests he almost certainly didn’t write them. In fact, it’s likely he was illiterate. We do have genuine letters from Paul, but they are combined with ones that are likely forged, and leave a lot out. The book of Acts provides narrative accounts of the apostles’ deeds, but its author seems to have purposely glossed over a lot of the in-fighting among the followers of Jesus. For instance, it presents Peter and Paul as being in accord on matters on which Paul himself said they weren’t at all. There’s also a lot of apocryphal material, and while most of it isn’t accepted as either religiously or historically accurate, it gives valuable information as to how these figures were viewed. And the apocryphal story about Peter bringing a fish back to life isn’t really any more unbelievable than the canonical one about how people were cured of illness merely by being in his shadow. Also, stories like how Peter started the church in Rome and was crucified upside down by Emperor Nero are still pretty widely accepted, despite not being in the Bible.
It’s interesting that accounts of Peter seem pretty consistent about his character, in that he typically comes across as impulsive and fickle, hardly the rock that his nickname indicates. I suppose that, just like in the Monkees, Peter is always the dummy. Seriously, though, while he changes his mind constantly, he does stand pretty firm on Jesus being the Messiah. Paul was a very charismatic individual, attracting both fervent support and terrible enmity. His main contribution was to bring Christianity for the Gentiles, arguing that they could be saved by Jesus’ sacrifice without following the Jewish law, a quite controversial position at the time. Ehrman points out that Mary Magdalene is by far the most interesting to popular culture, even though we have even less information about her than about the others. He mentions how The Da Vinci Code popularized the idea that she was Jesus’ wife, a possibility also explored in a dream sequence in The Last Temptation of Christ. Some apocryphal Gospels do present Jesus and Mary Magdalene as being particularly close, with the Gnostic ones often presenting her as understanding Jesus’ teaching much more readily than the male apostles. The Gospel of Philip says that she was his companion and that they kissed a lot, but whatever modern readers might read into this, there’s no indication that this would have indicated a sexual relationship at the time it was written. Even sticking with the Gospels, Mary is often conflated with an adulterous woman Jesus saves from a stoning and another Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet and is the sister to Martha and Lazarus. The fact that this character is called Mary of Bethany suggests she isn’t the same, as Magdala and Bethany are different places, and the whole point of using the place name was usually to tell two people with the same name apart. In Catholic tradition, however, the two Marys are considered the same. It’s also not consistent among Gospels whether Mary went alone to Jesus’ tomb or with another woman, and whether she was the first to see him after the resurrection. Regardless, they all agree that she played a major part in this and was one of the first (if not THE first) to believe Christ had risen, making her an important figure in Christianity even if nothing else that’s said about her is true.