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The Life and Times of Mary Magdalene

Fact and fiction fuel story of Mary and Jesus

Susan Little has been a student of Mary Magdalene for 15 years and a student of the Bible for more than 40. She has a gift for finding hidden truths in scripture and spinning out a story that illumines the text. Her debut novel, Disciple: A Novel of Mary Magdalene, builds on her vast knowledge -- garnered from scholarly work as well as walking in the footsteps of Mary and Jesus beside the Sea of Galilee -- to create a vivid and inspiring story. Here's more from Susan:

Jennifer Haupt: When and how did you decide to write about Mary Magdalene?

Susan Little: Growing up in small-town Arkansas to loving, liberal, Christian parents, I had developed an early sense of wonder about the Bible, its people and its stories. Through my college years at Harvard I learned that scholarship applied to the scriptures enhances their power and their beauty. It was in this context that Mary Magdalene captured my imagination, causing me to read about her and eventually to write a book about her. I've been working on this book since 2002.

JH: How much of your story about Mary Magdalene and her role in early Christian history is based on fact and how much is purely fiction? How much research did you do in writing this book?

SL: Very little is known about Mary. The Christian Testament reports that Jesus drove out seven demons from Mary. It says that she took part in Jesus' ministry in Galilee, followed him to Jerusalem, witnessed his crucifixion, and discovered his empty tomb. It is said that she was the first person to see the resurrected Jesus and that he gave her a commission to deliver the explanation of the empty tomb to his other disciples.

An assortment of extra-canonical works, both Christian and gnostic, contains information about Mary Magdalene. In these sources Mary describes visions of Christ in which he reveals to her, and her alone, certain sacred mysteries. Some claim apostolic authority for Mary as part of a larger theme of antagonism between Peter and Mary as to who is the leader of the early Christian community.

Mary is variously portrayed as Jesus' esteemed companion and the one he loves more than the others. I have used many of these accounts in my novel, and I have placed Mary as a character in some familiar stories where she does not appear in the Bible. The personal details of her life, her home, her work, her family and friends are fictitious, but grounded in the history of the culture and time that we do know.

JH: How much research went into writing Disciple?

SL: In college I studied history, as well as biblical research, so I was fairly well versed in material relating to the Roman Empire and Judea. It was enjoyable to enhance my general knowledge with localized research on things like medicine, fabric dying, shopping in the market, and what to eat for breakfast. In addition, my travels in Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel did much to give me glimpses of the ancient world through a modern lens.

Is this novel aimed only at people who have a deep knowledge of the Bible?

I want my book to be accessible to a wide range of readers; so, no, knowledge of the Bible is not necessary. Many readers who are unaffiliated with organized religion tell me they are captivated by the story, the characters, and the historical context. I like that. My Jewish friend tells me that scenes such as the Sabbath dinner whisk her back to her own childhood. Some Christian readers are puzzled by my reframing of familiar stories and ask for clarifying conversations; others say the book challenges them to reconsider what it really means to follow a call from Jesus.

JH: How did working on this novel for so many years affect your own spirituality?

SL: First of all, my profound reverence for Judaism was further deepened. This was not surprising, because my spirituality evolves constantly. For me, spiritual maturity is more about asking questions than it is about having them answered. It is about opening my heart and mind to an ever expanding image of God, rather than a more specific and defining one. In the particular case of writing Disciple, I pursued Mary and Jesus as devout Jews of their time. I wanted to experience their lives before the church wrote their story and before Mary was erased from the picture. Favored by Jesus, but rejected by the church, Mary Magdalene is in a unique position to lead the way for people searching for God in an intolerant world. During the four years of writing this book, I felt my path illuminated by her light.

Another awareness I had as I wrote was that my portrait of Mary's life and motivations is a mirror of my own. Our functions in our families of origin provide the most vivid examples. My father-who did not finish college because of the Great Depression-wanted desperately to have a son at Harvard, but my brother was an unsuitable candidate. And so it fell to me. Later, I went into business, again carrying my father's hopes. Later still, hearing a sacred and irresistible call, I abandoned that course to take up a life of the spirit. My Mary Magdalene was shaped by similar events.

JH: What do you think that readers may find surprising about Mary's relationship with Jesus?

SL: My idea is that Mary Magdalene and Jesus are comparable in essential ways. Not that she is a female version of Jesus, but that, even before they meet, her life is characterized by what Jesus calls the "Reign of God." Like him, she is committed to living under Torah, but does not allow legalisms to interfere with expressions of her love and compassion for everyone-gentiles, prostitutes, lepers, outcasts of all kinds.

In Mary, Jesus recognizes the Wisdom of God, Sophia, Hakmah. She is closer to him than everyone else; she understands his message completely; she is not subordinate to him. Despite their powerful attraction to each other, they violate the cultural prescription to marry. Instead, they decide to transform their mutual attraction into a spiritual force and place it in the service of God.

The Disciple is available on