Thursday, 31 March 2016

Kirkus Review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene

'Mirroring the title and scope of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Haag pushes back legend and myth to uncover the real Mary Magdalene…an exceptional overview of how she has been viewed by various cultures through the ages…A thought-provoking re-examination of a misunderstood heroine of the Bible.'

Along with The New York Times, The Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews is one of the four most important book reviewers in the United States. Here they have reviewed The Quest for Mary Magdalene, already published in Britain by Profile Books and to be published by Harper Collins in the America on 24 May.  The full Kirkus review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene follows.
              Shining the spotlight on Mary Magdalene
Mirroring the title and scope of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), Haag (The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States, 2013) pushes back legend and myth to uncover the real Mary Magdalene of the Christian Gospels.  He also provides an exceptional overview of how she has been viewed by various cultures through the ages.  As Haag points out several times, Mary Magdalene is far more important to the life story of Jesus - and far more prominent in that story - than Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Yet Jesus' mother has been exalted and venerated, while Mary Magdalene has been misunderstood and even reviled through the centuries. The author begins by examining the name Magdalene, noting that it does not derive from a place name but from the Aramaic term for 'tower' and thus is a meaningful nickname given to Mary by Jesus.  Haag follows Mary Magdalene's presence (or possible presence) with Jesus throughout his known ministry, up to and including his entry into Jerusalem, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The early Gnostic Church exalted Mary Magdalene as a spiritual partner to Jesus, perhaps even as his lover.  Similarly, the Cathars of southern France saw her as the bride of Christ. In both cases, these groups were destroyed by the established church, and Mary's reputation was fixed by the interpretation of Pope Gregory I, given in a sermon in 591, that she had been a prostitute. It was an interpretation that would never fully disappear.  Despite hinting at many possibilities, Haag never says outright if he believes Mary Magdalene was a lover or wife of Jesus or what special role she had.  But he makes it clear that she was of greater importance to his life and ministry than the church has ever recognised. A thought-provoking re-examination of a misunderstood heroine of the Bible.

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Monday, 28 March 2016

With Colin Elgie in the Weald of Kent

The rainbow that appeared at the end of our walk in the Weald of Kent.
Over Easter the south of England was hit by a storm called Katie, its hurricane-force winds touching 107mph. But I had already arranged to go for a walk in the Weald of Kent with my old friend Colin Elgie. Through the rain and the wind we arrived at a rainbow, and eventually at a pub.

Colin Elgie in the wind and rain in the Weald of Kent.
Colin used to live in London, a completely city person I used to think.  He is a commercial illustrator and has drawn and designed everything from postage stamps for the Royal Mail to record covers for Hipgnosis with some Waitrose stuff in between. Also, in the days when I had my own publishing company, Colin used to do my book covers. 

Colin Elgie and Michael Haag at the Peacock which dates from 1397.
One of these covers was for Alexandria: A History and a Guide by E M Forster.  Originally published in Alexandria in 1922, I published under my own imprint, Michael Haag Ltd, the first British edition in 1982.  I wrote an afterword and added some notes that connected the book to Forster's personal experiences in the city, and to Cavafy whom Forster knew there during the First World War, and to Lawrence Durrell who was in Alexandria during the Second World War. 

Colin Elgie's cover.
Also I got Lawrence Durrell to write a very fine introduction.

Durreel's inscription in Alexandria: A History and a Guide.
Durrell was very pleased with the book and the way it connected him with Forster and Cavafy.  Once visiting his home in Sommieres I noticed that he kept a copy among a handful of books in his bedroom.

My afterword and notes were the foundation for my later book, Alexandria: City of Memory.

I have always liked the cover of my edition of Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide.  Colin's cover.  He has moved out of London now to Kent and likes to walk the Weald in the wind and the rain, and to go to ancient pubs like the Peacock Inn, which dates back to 1397, where we ended our walk with a few pints of local beer and talked about ancient things.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene Reviewed in The Mail on (Easter) Sunday

'Michael Haag's fascinating exploration of early church history... teases out the literary and historical evidence to suggest an interpretation of Mary's role and character that is radically at odds with the received wisdom.'

- Simon Griffith in The Mail on Sunday this Easter Sunday.

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Friday, 25 March 2016

The Quest for Mary Magdalene Interviews on BBC Radio

Old Broadcasting House this morning.
I was interviewed this morning on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour programme about my new book, The Quest for Mary Magdalene.  I had not told anyone that I would be on.  But immediately afterwards I received a number of emails and texts from friends and acquaintances saying that they 'just happened' to catch me on the radio.  Most of these were men.

Jenni Murray
The interview was live and face to face with Jenni Murray.

You can listen to the broadcast here; my bit about Mary Magdalene begins at 21.45 into the programme.

I also did a recorded interview for the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme to be broadcast tomorrow, Saturday.  This interview involved sitting in an empty room looking at a red light and a microphone and hearing somebody at the other end of my earphones with whom I had a conversation.  I take it on trust that something really happened.

The whole experience was eerie, both interviews. The BBC's Old Broadcasting House is comprised of the original Art Deco building to which has been added a modern glass and steel structure.  Altogether the place is huge inside, a warren of rooms with heavy soundproof doors and corridors that confusingly go round and round corners as though designed to ensure you can never get out and that boiling oil can be dropped on your head while you are inside.

Anybody there?
Suddenly I was smoothly and silently led into a room and placed opposite Jenni Murray; it reminded me of a hospital operating room and I wondered if I was about to have my tonsils taken out.

The Scottish interview was in a building round the corner and as you can see from the photograph there was nobody there. I might as well have been talking to a Martian.  In fact what passed through my mind was Mary Magdalene finding herself in the empty tomb.

The BBC Scotland interview can be heard here at 1 hour 34 minutes and 40 seconds into the programme.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Times Review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene by Michael Haag

Mary Magdalene — companion of Jesus, goddess, whore and icon — is surely one of the most fascinating figures to have ever lived. In scholarly writings, paintings, prose, theatre and film she continues to exert a hold over the imagination.

Michael Haag’s lively book asks questions that continue to excite our curiosity. Who was the historical Mary Magdalene? What do we really know about her and why has she had such an influence in high and popular culture for thousands of years — from Leonardo’s painting of a sexy bare-breasted femme fatale draped in a lurid red robe to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where Mary and Jesus are married with children?

Haag addresses the many myths surrounding her, starting from the most potent of all, the beautiful whore reformed by her love for Jesus. We can’t resist a penitent prostitute, and nor could the great Renaissance artists who saw in Mary Magdalene an opportunity to paint a female nude who combined earthy sensuality with divine grace. As Haag says: “Paintings of undressed Mary Magdalenes proved popular in the 16th century as they allowed artists and their secular patrons to combine eroticism and religion without exposing themselves to threat or scandal.”

There is, however, no biblical evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene was ever a prostitute. It was only after the teaching of Pope Gregory in 591 and in the writings of theologians during the Middle Ages that she was perceived as a sinner.

Pope Gregory’s key move was to conflate the Mary Magdalene who, according to all four canonical gospels, was present at the crucifixion with the sinning woman who anointed the feet of Jesus. This has led to a blurring of biblical sources and later interpretation. Confusingly, the “composite Mary Magdalene” has also been aligned with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

Extricating the fact from the myth is a delicate process. Not the least of the problems is that so many of the women in Jesus’s life were called Mary. But Haag achieves an admirable clarity of thought and cohesion in his account. He reminds us that in the canonical gospels Mary is presented as an independent woman of means, supporting Jesus throughout his three years of ministry. Haag’s Jesus is quite a dude; a man who hung out with the sick and sinners, who liked children and “loved food and drink and good talk; he was witty and sharp; he was at ease with women; and he was self-deprecating but had an intensity and aura about him that was very attractive”.

Jesus included women in his entourage, something that would have been perceived as extremely radical. Yet, for Haag, the true radicals were these extraordinary women who followed him throughout his ministry. We learn of the other women in his circle, Joanna and Susanna, and the possible wives and children of the disciples. Haag reminds us (rather too often) that Mary Magdalene is mentioned more times in the gospels than any of the disciples, she travels with Jesus, witnesses the crucifixion, anoints his dead body and is the first person he appears to after the resurrection.

The privileges accorded to her were commensurate with those of a very close family member, perhaps even a wife. Haag does not shy away from the controversial issues. After all, he argues, there is no biblical evidence that Jesus was not married.

One of the myths Haag dispels is that Mary came from Magdala. He casts doubt on there even being a place called Magdala, suggesting that Mary might have been associated with “migdal”, the Hebrew word for “tower”. Haag reminds us that Jesus liked nicknames — Peter the rock, John and James, sons of thunder — so perhaps Mary was the watchtower, the beacon, the lighthouse who helps Jesus with his flock. She was a tower or fortress or “just plain magnificent”.

The only myth that he fails to explore, or indeed to mention, happens to be one of my favourites, that of Mary Magdalene the hairdresser, or as she’s sometimes known, “Miriam, the plaiter of women’s hair”.

Hair comes into Mary’s story quite a lot, probably because she is so often conflated with the female sinner who anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oils and then dried them with her lustrous locks. Mary, the religious pin-up, is usually depicted with long flowing hair, artfully concealing or not concealing parts of her body. Jules Joseph Lefebvre has a naked ecstatic woman writhing in her cave, with her hair spread out, fan-like. Rossetti’s wonderful Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee depicts her casting her lover aside and tearing roses from her cascading mane to throw herself at the feet of her “bridegroom” Jesus.

For all the controversy of The Da Vinci Code, and the recent fuss around a Harvard theologian’s discovery of a fragmentary Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, now conclusively proved to be a forgery, Haag shows us that there is nothing new in a reading of the relationship between Mary and Jesus as something well beyond that of prophet and disciple. He even suggests the possibility that the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle, might have been a celebration of his own marriage to Mary Magdalene.

One of the most engrossing chapters concerns the gnostic gospels (early texts dating from the 2nd to the 4th century), which placed Mary Magdalene as a central figure in early Christianity, the “apostle of apostles” who truly understood Jesus and his message. One of the gnostic texts is the only gospel named after a woman, The Gospel of Mary, in which Mary Magdalene talks of Jesus appearing to her in a vision and speaking to her intimately about spiritual matters. However, the gnostics were defeated and Mary’s role was relegated to that of a fallen woman and penitent.

This book is a great read: my only caveats are that Haag spends too much time writing about Mary the mother of Jesus (not another Mary!) and the refashioning of her image by the Catholic church. This belongs in a different book. He also fails to give due credit to the many superb feminist theologians (Kate Cooper and Susan Haskins spring to mind) who have covered much of this fascinating territory before.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History & Legend by Michael Haag, Profile, 323pp, £15.99. To buy this book for £13.99, visit or call 0845 2712134

Portion of the online page.