If you want America’s attention, claim that the Gospel stories were a fraud and that Jesus Christ did something else. The San Francisco Opera premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a sophisticated example. Adamo recycles the common historical revision that Jesus was no divine Savior at all but rather the lover of the prostitute Mary Magdalene. In an interview with NPR, Adamo relates that his “goal was to place sexuality, and female sexuality in particular, back into the center of the myth.” Perhaps a few skeptics will scratch their heads: “When was sexuality ever the center of the story?” But who cares? That sounds like a great plot. Sasha Cooke describes the reaction she gets when people hear that she’s playing Mary: “They say, ‘Oh well, she could have been married to [Jesus]. Why not? We don’t know.’”
Nathan Gunn, who sings the role of Yeshua (Hebrew name for Jesus), explains that Jesus is “very yang,” and he needs Mary because she’s the yin. “I know a lot of people get hung up on her being his lover,” Gunn says, but “it’s a very human and beautiful thing.” Adamo wanted to present a Jesus that his audiences could identify with, hoping “to see how much healing that could possibly affect the imaginations of people who came to the opera, and wanted to take the journey with us.” Adamo presents a Jesus who was just as human and vulnerable as the rest of us.
Adamo finds his inspiration for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene from one of the Gnostic Gospel texts of the second and third centuries. However, his plot is not merely a leap beyond Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—it takes generous liberties with the Gnostic text as well. Most of what people know about the Gnostic Gospels comes from a deep incredulous voice on the History Channel or PBS that poses controversial questions like: “What did the Church not want the world to know?” or “Why did John rest on Jesus’ bosom really?” The Gnostic Christians were a religious sect that arose decades after the New Testament was written. The early Church did not accept the Gnostic texts as Scripture because they were not derived from original eyewitness accounts (not to mention they said some pretty crazy and heretical things).
The New Testament account of Jesus still beats the alternatives that have surfaced over the years—not just because it’s closer to the original history but also because it offers a more interesting Jesus. Adamo believes that his version would help the story “gain rather than lose nobility, credibility, and passion,” but how is reducing Jesus from the Son of God and the Savior of the world to a titillated Rabbi that falls for his pupil an improvement?
Jesus identified with our humanity in a far more powerful way than simply experimenting with our obsession with sexuality. John Calvin, the 16th century French theologian and pastor, sheds light on why Christ became a man: “God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us.” The Son of God became a man—a doctrine known as the incarnation—in order to “make of the children of men, children of God.” Jesus took upon human nature in order to restore us to God, and He overcame all the temptations that mortals so willingly surrender to. Yet His self-denial and obedience to God was not pie in the sky: “Not, indeed, without a struggle; for he had taken upon himself our weaknesses… to cast off all concern for himself that he might provide for us.”
The Son of God took our nature in order to take our sins and die for them, not to join us in performing them. “Thus shall we behold the person of a sinner and evildoer represented in Christ,” Calvin writes, yet “it will at the same time be obvious that he was burdened with another’s sin rather than his own.” We don’t have to make Jesus into a mess like us in order to find Him approachable and interesting. Quite the contrary—what makes Him so attractive is that He was “in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4.15). Sacrifice, love, and redemption belong back at the center of the story, not our shallow preoccupation with sexuality.
Calvin, John. The Institutes to the Christian Religion. Library of Christian Classics, 20. Trans. by F. L. Battles. Ed. J.T. McNeil.