There are over 15,000 titles on Mary Magdalene available right now on Amazon. These book cover an astonishing range of perspectives and styles, from truly schmaltzy romances that make me squirm to dry and pedantic tomes that are perhaps best as a cure for insomnia. You can find everything from Tantric love manuals to novels envisioning Magdalene as a Druid priestess. Here is a list of my top ten favorites, all thoughtful and scholarly, well researched and at least competently written. Which one to choose depends on what you are looking for.
If you are looking for erudition:
Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor by Susan Haskins -- A thoroughly well researched historical survey that forms the foundation for much of the past decade's scholarship. A comprehensive intellectual tour de force for the left brain. I have gone through two copies, reading it over and over again and always I catch a new insight. If you want one and only one book, this is it, but its density will probably put off the more casual reader.
If you want an anthology of art and literature, along with an overview of history and mythology:
Searching for Mary Magdalene: A Journey Through Art by Jane Lahr. This is an absolutely gorgeous "coffee table" book of images with excerpts of diverse texts about Mary Magdalene, as well as an excellent source for legends and poetry. I must have given away two dozen of these books by now.
Also in this category of art and myths books is Karen Ralls's fine and compact volume Mary Magdalene: Her History and Myths Revealed, which I recently discovered to my great delight. A medieval scholar from Oxford, Ralls includes an entire chapter on Black Madonnas in this book. The photographs are wonderful.
If you want a well researched and thoughtful but engaging book that includes a history of the Gnostics:
Beloved Disciple: The Misunderstood Legacy of Mary Magdalene by Robin Griffith- Jones: written by an Anglican priest, this offers a comprehensive treatment of the different myths of Mary Magdalene and a concise explanation of diverse early Christian perspectives very accessible to the average reader.
If you want a deeply spiritual and psychologically rich meditation:
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, ed. Jean Yves Leloup -- Leloup was a the Dominican spiritual director at La Baume for a decade before he left the order to become a married French Orthodox theologian and psychologist, He provides a beautiful translation of the text ( exquisitely rendered in English translation by Joseph Rowe), His profoundly perceptive commentary makes this text even more relevant to our age by using the lens of Jungian psychological development. I am such a fan of Leloup that I am heading off to a seminar with him in France next week. Even though I may well only understand half of what he says because of my childlike French language skills, I know it will be worth it.
If you'd like a hybrid of historical scholarship with an emphasis on its application to modern spirituality, these two might be for you:
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault. Written by an Episcopalian priest and teacher of the contemplative tradition, this book reviews the Canonical and Gnostic scriptures as well as the legends in France with the perspective that Mary Magdalene was a spiritual teacher and intimate (though not necessarily sexual) companion of Jesus. Her chapter on anointing rituals has been particularly important and influential in my life.
The Magdalene Mystique by Betty Conrad Adam- Written by another Episcopalian priest who founded the interfaith Brigid's Place in Houston, Texas, this book tells the story of Magdalene with an emphasis on her role as apostle, along with wonderful stories of the author's expeditions to Dura Europas and the pivotal, transformational part Mary Magdalene has served in creating interfaith bridges between women.
If you'd like a thoroughly academic approach with an emphasis on politics:
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King is a postmodern analysis by Harvard professor that focuses on the socio-political and gender clashes of the first few centuries of Christianity. Read this side by side the Leloup book to see two very different perspectives on the same text.
Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: Struggle for Authority by Ann Graham Brock looks at the political division between competing early churches, how the Gospels were altered over time, how the canon of the Church was shaped and the ultimate effect on women’s place in the church. Thought provoking and disturbing, it may leave you "wanting to scream and break things" as a colleague of mine put it.
And finally Number Ten: mine. Well, at least I hope so. I am returning to France on Monday to collect another set of images for a book I hope to publish next spring. It will weave part of my dissertation together with stories and images of my pilgrimages for the past ten years.
I also want to acknowledge the titles that repeatedly come up in workshops that I lead: Margaret Starbird's Woman with the Alabaster Jar, Kathleen McGowan's novel The Expected One and Clysta Kinstler's revisioning of Mary as a priestess of the Goddess in The Moon Under Her Feet have all had an enormous and deep impact on many participants.
Readers, I invite your reflections. What are the Magdalene books that have most shaped and inspired