This book tells the largely imagined life story of S Mary Magdalene but not in a traditional hagiographical way. The style is that of a modern novel, telling the story in the Magdalene’s own voice, including her recollections of her own thoughts and feelings. The reader gets to know the real Mary Magdalene, if you like, not just the saintly penitent as she is so often portrayed. The story is told over a period and with many flashbacks so that the ‘plot’ takes time to develop and there are some twists and turns that will surprise those familiar with the rather sparse references to the Magdalene in the Bible.
But the book is more than the story of a life. In her preface the author refers to it as a ‘teaching story’; it is a story that teaches the fundamental basis of Christianity, the overflowing love of Christ which brings about a reciprocal love of God in fallen humanity. And it is, therefore, a book which in a very special way is a love story.
There is very little historical information about Mary Magdalene. Although she is an important biblical figure, what is described in the New Testament is not her life story but a few important incidents in the life of Christ in which she features prominently. Moreover, not all the biblical references to her mention her by name and, in some cases, there is considerable scholarly disagreement on the issue. The present author assumes, along with some scholars, that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person and also that in some incidents in the Gospels involving an unnamed woman, the woman at the well in Samaria, for example, and the woman taken in adultery, are Mary Magdalene. The book also draws on non-biblical sources, some of the so-called gnostic texts and, more importantly, the legend that Mary Magdalene travelled to Provence shortly after the resurrection of Christ and lived alone there for forty years as a penitent. The paucity of the historical material, however, has meant that the author has had to use her own knowledge of the period and her own imagination in crafting this fascinating reconstruction of the life of the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.
The book, set in Provence forty years after the resurrection, is divided into three unequal sections. The first starts with the sub plot, if you like, involving the writing of the fourth Gospel, that of S John. John’s scribe and co-author, John Mark (who was also involved in what we now know as the Gospel of S Mark) arrives in Provence to obtain Mary Magdalene’s own account of the crucial events surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ. This, so he explains to her, is vitally important in John’s view in order to correct elements of bias that have crept into other written versions of these events. John wants his version of the Gospel to contain the authentic recollections of the only other living disciple who witnessed the crucifixion and the first intimate companion of Christ’s to see him after the resurrection. In this section of the book, during conversations between her and John Mark, much of Mary Magdalene’s early life is recalled along with some early memories of her involvement with Christ and the other disciples.
The second section of the book is devoted mainly to an account of the Magdalene’s deepening friendship with Christ and of the events surrounding his death and the resurrection itself. This is the heart of the book which sets out in considerable detail exactly how Mary Magdalene (and also John Mark) were involved, at Christ’s behest, in the events leading up to his death, in his burial and his resurrection. The account of John Mark’s close involvement in the final events is based, at least in part, on an obscure fragment of a variant version of Mark’s Gospel, discovered in the twentieth century and apparently authenticated by an early bishop of Alexandria.
The final section of the book records Mary Magdalene’s life after her meeting with John Mark, when he has left to complete the work on the fourth Gospel. She stays in Provence, but is no longer a recluse. She joins the small Christian community there and becomes involved with two of the legendary figures in the community, Saint Trophimus, a companion of S Paul, now in Provence, and Sarah, an Egyptian, who like Mary Magdalene was hustled out of the Holy Land many years before. She had been given a half-understood mission to link up with and provide support to Mary Magdalene as the first great witness of the resurrection of Christ. At last, therefore, that mission and Mary Magdalene’s have been fulfilled in the hill country of Provence. The Magdalene’s testimony for John’s Gospel complete, she passes to her reward and the lover of Christ is reunited with her Lord.
On one level this book is a love story between two exceptional people, a love which endures through death, separation and exile over many years but which ends in final (and unending) happiness. But it is much more than that. It deals with the founding of Christianity, not merely as a series of historical facts, but as a lived reality, both then and now. Although it uses much of the material in the Bible, it does not always keep to the obvious meaning of the biblical text. It tries to reconcile or to explain, often in an impressive and sometimes a surprising way, many of the apparent inconsistencies in the biblical treatment, in particular of the resurrection itself. The author does not shy away from the two great intellectual puzzles about Christ that modern readers often find so difficult: what sort of man (or God) was he; and what exactly happened at the resurrection. Much has been written in theological tomes over the centuries on both points, frequently without providing any enlightenment, certainly to a modern readership. But this book, without delving too deeply into the intellectual issues, manages to convey something deeply attractive about the incarnate Christ and a strong certainty about the reality of his resurrection.
The book is also a fascinating read because it presents a rounded picture of the two principal characters, Christ and Mary Magdalene, with sufficient detail and ordinary human qualities for us to see them as recognisable individuals even though caught up in a great cosmic drama. In the middle ages the Church provided vibrant pictorial representations of this drama on church walls and later on in prayer books and vernacular paraphrase Bibles. This book provides the same vibrant account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection in the thoughts and words of Mary Magdalene, and does it more convincingly than most recent attempts to use films to achieve that. There are many outstanding descriptive passages in the book which bring it alive for the reader: several of the mountain countryside of Provence, for example, lit by ‘angel light’; of the crucifixion itself, almost medieval in its intensity; the brief but finely crafted description of Sarah that captures something of both her looks and her personality; and a masterly description of the great Pentecost event when the Spirit first came upon the small Christian community and changed things for ever.
This is not a book for everyone. But it is one that many, both serious Christians and others interested in Christianity will find challenging and enthralling. It leads the way in showing how Bible narratives can be delivered to a modern readership in a sympathetic but believable way. It will open up new perspectives on the Gospel for those who know it well. It may also demonstrate to others that Christianity is not some out-dated nonsense about miracles believed by the oddballs of society but is a way of understanding the world that gives something special and surprising to ordinary folk.
I found The Touch of the Magdalene very intriguing to read, being partly an intense psychological portrait and also an interpretation of the historical events. There are some beautifully descriptive passages too. The book is impressively researched and I found it helped to have a copy of the New Testament to hand so that I could follow up on some of the various references. It was certainly interesting to build a picture of how the early Christian church established itself.
It does make a moving and emotive story. There is a real sense of being inside the Magdalene's head and I gained some insight into the intense mental turmoil that she experienced. In fact, where I found the narrative somewhat confusing it seemed to reflect the variability of memory in reconstructing the past coherently in a more linear form. Another aspect of Mary Magdalene that is clearly communicated is her sensuality, particularly in her relationship with Yeshua, which in turn shows his humanity. There is, therefore, a strong contrast between him as a man and him as Paul experiences him after the Damascene conversion.
This is a fascinating journey with the Magdalene as she looks back at the momentous events that shaped her life and is very convincingly imagined, which gives the reader much to reflect on.
“THE TOUCH OF THE MAGDALENE”
Wherever facts are few there opens a huge playing field for the imagination, and on the foundation of the handful of gospel references to Mary Magdalene have been constructed a variety of different interpretations of her role in and significance to Jesus' ministry and the growth of the Christian religion.
None, however, has been so brilliantly conceived as “The Touch of the Magdalene”. Written in the first person, it describes Mary's reaction to and dialogues with a scribe setting outsnet at the behest of the apostle John to compose a fourth gospel.
Mary is initially uncertain and reluctant to engage in this process and the narrative accordingly proceeds by hint, allusion and ellipse until the scribe has gained her trust and she begins to speak more freely and he, in turn, reveals more of his purpose and involvement.
As Mary remembers, readers must be prepared to forget...forget whatever they thought they knew if the gospel story as they are shown it through Mary's eyes. Her presence in the gospel of John in ways not spoken of will accordingly be revealed.
The strength of the book's narrative device is the ease with which it treats contentious issues. The struggle for influence in the direction of the infant church, the jealousies among the disciples are dealt with in the course of conversation almost like family gossip. Particularly noteworthy is the deft – almost casual – way in which the author resolves the vexed question of the identity of the beloved disciple.
And, just when we thought we were on firm ground, we are invited to rethink the very name of Mary Magdalene.
This is a richly layered book. It is firmly grounded in rigorous scholarship – as the accompanying bibliography and almost 300 end notes attest. It treats of – sometimes obliquely or insidiously – almost every question of Mary's legend. It contains some delightfully anachronous allusions – look for Dylan at the wedding in Cana, Yeats outside the empty tomb, Leonard Cohen on the road to Jericho. The joy in finding them is matched only by the fear of having missed more than were found. Even the title is multi-faceted.
But most of all it is a compelling evocation of the essence of a woman who witnessed the death and resurrection of her spiritual leader, was driven into exile without understanding or demur, took refuge in the service of Artemis, protectress of women, until it was clear that that was no protection at all, and lived for four decades alone in a cave in Provence, (later to become the birthplace of courtly love) truly a bride of Christ. It has the authenticity of a life no imagined merely, but lived.
Cherish this book. Treat it as John wanted his gospel to be treated - “read it on the outside, understand it from within”.
The challenge Diana Barsham has taken on in writing « The Touch of the Magdalen» is considerable. Take a bunch of characters who lived a couple of milleniums ago but who are familiar, at least in name, to all. Put the spotlight on Mary Magdalen, an apostle ‘Marcus’ and Jesus, referred to as ‘Yeshua’- and then start exploring the events leading up to the Resurrection and the change in society that happened afterwards…
Whatever one’s religious beliefs - or lack of - no one can deny the influence of the life of Jesus and his Resurrection on society. This book explores in a bold and imaginative way the events that led to the founding and development of the Christian Church.
The book can be read on many different levels - as a novel, a biography, an auto-biography, with glimpses into Mary Magdalene’s imagined personal diary. Also as a thriller (who is this mysterious yet somehow familiar stranger who suddenly arrives in Provence, what does he want and what should Mary Magdalene reveal? And what really happened at the Resurrection?) Like pieces of a jigsaw, elements of the mystery are gradually put together, creating a rich mosaic.
It is written in the first person and using modern English idiom and dialogue. At the wedding at Cana a surprised guest exclaims: « ‘I say, Nat,’ shouts the old school friend who gave the final toast. ‘This is quality stuff! Can’t remember the last time I tasted better! Really pushing the boat out here!’» And Marcus admits, when telling Mary Magdalen about Paul’s letters:
« I may have tweaked it slightly, but it’s a phase that sticks …»
It can be disconcerting. You can forget you are reading about events that happened over 2000 years ago in France and in a distant country - and then suddenly, with a subtle touch, Diana Barsham brings you back to AD 30 as Mary Magdalene lights up her oil lamp in her cave. « Hours pass. I renew the lamp only when it gutters in the last drops of oil, our shadows large as angels, bending toward each other under the cave’s arch. »
We get snippets about the idiosyncrasies of « Mother Mary » Joseph, the Apostles and Martha,(Mary Magdalene’s sister). Mother Mary is cool and proud, not very motherly at all in fact, abandoning her younger children to set up court in Rome! « She was not particularly fond of her youngest ones… We went back to Rome and she became leader of our house Church for a time. Quite the grand lady, in a restrained formidable sort of way » Not much like the « Our Lady » depicted in paintings and statues! Marcus loves his food, Martha is house proud, efficient, a great cook - and vies for Yeshua’s attention.. Peter loved hierarchy, Judas would have liked to have been the Messiah… With these touches the characters spring to life. What comes across is the humanity of the apostles who are portrayed as a group of people with their foibles, their jealousies, their weaknesses and their strengths, and all dedicated, in their own way, to Yeshua, who is himself « inclined to be irritable »…
And then there is the humour. Mary Magdalen, having a teenage romp with one of her beaux is impressed with his breathlessness, assuming it to be a reflection of his passion - but as it turns out, he simply suffered from asthma!… The humour is put in context, it is not just light comic relief. With a
few subtle comments we learn that Mary Magdalen was a funny, witty person. « I hear myself sounding for a moment like the girl I used to be, flip and funny. »
The events leading to the wedding in Cana are described in some detail. After a string of brief and unfortunate marriages Mary Magdalen resigns herself to marrying ‘Nat’. She is not in the least bit attracted physically to Nat, it is a marriage of convenience and the lesser of two evils, she confides to Marcus. Among other things she cannot stand his smell « The thing is, Nat… I don’t like your smell, I don’t like being close to you, your body, your skin - it’s so milky » she imagines herself telling Nat, the day before the wedding. At the wedding feast the atmosphere is heavy, « more like a wake than a wedding » But then the steward brings in new wine « a fine blush rosé, freshly drawn ». Nat drinks far too much and passes out in the bridal suite. Mary Magdalen, a little tipsy herself after drinking the special wine, tiptoes out into the next room where: « Half an hour later I found myself married to a complete stranger » There is no doubt as to who her Saviour was… Part one of the novel ends with a more detailed description of this ‘wedding night’.
« The touch of the Magdalen » makes an enthralling, sensuous read, as befits a novel about a sensuous woman. « The truth was, though I don’t say this aloud, I had a liking for sex » Mary Magdalen admits frankly, after a startled Marcus drops his cheese and busies himself looking for it in the grass, the implication being that he is a little taken aback by her forthrightness…
Whether it is the Provence landscape with its colours or the rich materials Mary Magdalene so loved to handle, the perfume arising from the oil, inadvertently spilt when she washes Yeshua’s feet, the taste of warm fresh bread - all the reader’s senses are aroused at some point whilst reading the novel... « The next day, I woke up and looked out at my new world, the height of the village perched up on its hill, the extraordinary landscape and a sky full of golden light. There were tall scented herbs growing in the cracks by the door, I had never smelt them before. I kept sniffing, wondering what message that scent would bring me. » I suddenly realized I was sniffing too, so absorbed was I by the description! Sound too is evoked, the sound of speech in the numerous dialogues, interspersed with the silence that has become Mary Magdalene’s companion over her decades of life in exile. And the sound of the lamb, looking for its flock « Mère, I her it cry, over and over again. Mère, mère. I feel, concerned, as if it had come to me for help. » The reader cannot escape the the symbolism of the lamb, the bleating transformed into the French word for mother…
Thus Diana Barsham deftly weaves many meanings into the texture of the text. This is a book to go back to again and again, to savour the details, explore the mysteries evoked. The numerous, unobtrusive end notes refer to and comment on other studies or specific biblical quotes but read « The Touch of the Magdalen » first as a novel, an enthralling novel with intriguing thought provoking insights into characters we have all heard of but probably not considered in this specific, original light.
The Magdalene imago comes to us wearing the ‘costume of the ages’, as the author of The Touch of The Magdalene so eloquently puts it; the accretion of discourses over millennia garbing this biblical figure in guises ranging from party girl to penitent.
My own recollections of the Magdalene from school RE lessons being composed of hazily erotic images involving: perfumed salves and tears - not forgetting those sexually potent yards of female hair caressing the Messiah’s feet - it was hard for me to credit this most outlandish of the Biblical Marys as a credible historical figure.
However, in being woven into the fictive web of the Magdalene’s reputed exile in Provence, the competing narratives of Yeshua’s disciples, amongst others, are here forensically tested against the complexities of the dialectic between the outer and inner selves and between identity and spirituality, in the Magdalene’s own first person narrative.
Barsham isn’t afraid to confront the challenges inherent in prising a vividly realised persona from the myth. Foregrounding ‘Magda’s’ - even Mary Magdalen’s name being an issue of contention - self interrogations regarding her relationship with Yeshua, the text’s conflation of the fictive and the scholarly triumphs in evoking the sense of a flesh and blood woman behind the Magdalen imago.
So full marks to Diana Barsham for cutting a swathe through the welter of gospels, legends and texts to reconfigure Mary Magdalene in all her intellectually and emotionally apprehended three dimensional glory.
The Touch is a beautifully constructed retelling of the life of Jesus, through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. It’s a book which should be embraced by the Church to re-engage younger generations who need to hear the human side of a story to buy-in to a cause - just look at the impact that George Floyd had discussions of Race. This book could be the catalyst to redefine and reinvigorate Christianity.
The book captures the political dynamics and attractions that are part of any group of people, in this case Jesus and his followers - it is entirely relatable in a way I think many, including myself, struggle with the bible.
Put all this on a beautiful depicted backdrop of Provence and you have the perfect read. I hope this book gets picked up and turned in to a film - it has all the right ingredients.
THE TOUCH OF THE MAGDALENE by Diana Barsham.
Review by Jennifer Foreman June 2021
‘I will never get on like this; make a story that others can understand if I lose the order again. And yet, the lines of this loom are strangely set. You cannot understand the beginning unless you see the end as well!’
With these words, spoken by Mary Magdalene, Barsham acknowledges the challenges, and rewards, which the narrative style of her book presents to the reader. She likens her book to a ‘loom’ the lines of which ‘are strangely set’. The book’s ‘loom frame’ of three parts plus epilogue establishes a loose structure. The ‘lines’ are ‘set’ on the frame, at the point in time when the older Magdalene lives, hidden, in a cave in Provence. It is from here that the narratives ‘threads’ are woven forwards and backwards, illustrating the idea that, ‘You cannot see the beginning unless you see the end as well'. This narrative style is reflected in the many images of weaving, warp and weft, threads and hair which intertwine throughout the book. Barsham also likens her book to a tapestry woven from fragments of scripture and religious text. It is also like one of the baskets Magda weaves from interconnecting strands, ‘hidden and revealed'. Yet, the story remains incomplete with ‘… so many pieces still missing’.
The challenge for me when starting to read the book was to accept the style and to ‘let go’ of any compulsion to tease out a logical order. The reward was to realise how the weaving together of past events mirrors the way conversations and memories are recollected and retold in real time. For example, when Marcus (John Mark) finds Magdalene in Provence he informs her of recent new teachings and sets about gathering her recollections and writing them down to preserve the true story. Their conversations take the form of flashbacks, intertwined with confessions, theological discourses, and inner thoughts, linked by association of ideas rather than events in time.
As the book progresses, it becomes clear that not only are Magdalene and the author’s voice one and the same, but also the lines between reader, author and character are interconnected. Magda confides in the reader, recounting her troubled childhood and growth to womanhood. We, as readers, are also in Provence and inside the cave, together with Magda and Marcus. It is rewarding to ‘listen in’, on two people such as these recalling, in a natural ‘to and fro’ manner, their life experiences and deepest thoughts.
Historical references to Magdalene herself, exist in fragments of writings from different gospels, anecdotal evidence, and gnostic sources, elaborated by legends and handed down over time. Barsham assembles this material and pieces or ‘darns’ it together to create Magdalene as a patchwork symbol of womankind, who states proudly, ‘I have lived the life of several women’. Barsham shows how Magda, like women throughout history, has lived a life defined by men, even though, as she wryly comments, ‘...little as men know of a woman's life!'.
Magdalene was the first disciple to see the risen Christ, but her testimony as witness to the Resurrection is dismissed and the men at the gate of the tomb slap her face because ‘A woman should not claim to know’. Once the Resurrection story gains credence, they exclude her and send her into exile, claiming the testimony for themselves.
The book is full of the secrets of her life with Jesus. We are led on a journey of life events and miracles. We are left in no doubt the Magdalene and Jesus were sexually involved. A secret which Magda tells only the reader.
Barsham fashions Magda as an everywoman and an enigma. She is a poor woman doing what it takes to survive. She is represented as a sinner, ‘deeply damaged’, and as having many marriages. She refers to herself as, ‘Lady Folly incarnate’, and ‘Patron saint of lovers and sinners’. However, she is intelligent, a prophet, a special disciple of Christ and spiritual leader. She is the intimate companion of Christ yet also a ‘gate crasher’ who caused embarrassment by washing and anointing Jesus’s feet. Through Magdalene we learn about Jesus’s early life, his family, and his death. She tells us, ‘His presence is thrilling’ and Jesus trusted her with the message of his resurrection. In her conversations with Marcus, she conjures up places and physical surroundings bringing alive the Biblical stories and the physical presence of Christ. Yet the mystery of Magdalene remains as she asks the reader ‘Are there many versions of me?’ She stays waiting in the shadows, her touch is fleetingly light, and we struggle to see or find the true person.
The book’s language is woven with complexity and scattered with poetic lyricism on numerous subjects: streams, flowers, food, and clothes. Many are deftly crafted, for example, when Barsham takes the reader into the mountains to the exact place where the view can be seen from the cave. From here the sun rises above the mountains and ‘it spreads like wildfire along the highest slopes, the light an unearthly pink as it reflects from the cold white shale of its peak’. Barsham’s words are authentic. She shows the day breaking over Provence and she knows that light from her own time there.
Often, in the middle of a long discourse, a moment springs to life as vividly as a scene from a film, for example, when Magda tells us, ‘I renew the lamp only when it gutters in the last drops of oil, our shadows, large as angels, bending towards each other under the cave’s arch’; or the beautifully observed description of a toddler pulling herself up to take her first steps; or when Magda brushed away, as she recalls, ‘… one of the yellow butterflies that has lighted on my hair '.
The prose reads as serious spiritual testimony and then delightfully shifts gear to include everyday idioms. Marcus is seen deep in thought and Magda comments ‘He has his own fish to fry’. In a moment of fear, she tells us, ‘My heart was in my mouth, just as if I had swallowed a frog'. When we learn that John’s Gospel has hidden meanings, Barsham creates a simile describing them to be, ‘Like that special under garment he wore sometimes, hidden under his outer clothing'.
The major themes, apart from Magda’s character itself, are the story of Jesus and the strands or threads which weave the main gospels and Christian story together. There are images of hair and the long tresses for which Magdalene is famous in art and iconography. There are also themes of touch, the lives of women, knowledge, truth, and male dominance. Certain moments take on a magical realism when the spiritual and mystical are compared to everyday real objects, such as when Magda likens miracles and signs to two doors, ‘…with no fastenings, one leading to the stars, one into darkness'.
This is an extensively researched and complex book, yet Barsham keeps it rooted in the ordinary and everyday life. The curious reader will find it challenging, informative and enthralling in equal parts.
In her Preface the author insists rather sternly: “The themes and scholarly puzzles that enclose the Magdalene's identity have inspired this work. It is not intended as an historical novel.” Don't be put off by this. This is no dry tome of New Testament scholarship. There are indeed many footnotes, some of them learned. But while some refer soberly to SPCK volumes by Rowan Williams others mention “the wonderfully unscholarly insights of J.Tyson”, and Barsham’s Magdalene is the anachronistic product of a French legend first promoted in the eleventh century, in which Mary travelled to Provence after the Crucifixion. In a footnote Barsham dismisses “the sensational secret at the heart of Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code”, that Magdalen gave birth to Jesus's child, as based on “a complete misreading of John’s Gospel”. Nevertheless Barsham shows Yeshua (Jesus) having sex with Magdalene and implies obscurely that she did bear his child. No. Despite Barsham’s protestations, this is indeed very much an historical novel, and a brilliant one too; transmuting the (meta)narrative of St John's gospel through the imposition of a subversive feminist theology, and an infusion of erotic romance.
Take for instance the incident where Jesus (“Yeshua”) curses the fig tree. Barsham sets this action in the psychological context of a love squabble between Martha and her sister Magdalene. Yeshua tells Magdalene to come to his room “a few minutes before midnight”. But when the time comes she watches him admit Martha instead. Embarrassed by his shameless two-timing, Yeshua sublimates his guilt by cursing the unfortunate fig tree. How like a man! As the older Magdalene, now living in her cave in Provence, ruefully confides, “There was never only one truth with him… I learnt that a long time ago.”
It seems strange that, despite such scepticism about Yeshua’s motives, the book elsewhere shows respect for the orthodox Christian notion of his divinity. But the author sees no contradiction. If Barsham were to interpret the Islamic scripture with such freedom, or had she interpreted Christian scripture so freely four hundred years ago, she would need to fear for her life. However contemporary Christianity is so tolerant and liberal that even Christian readers, I suspect, will find her speculations stimulating rather than blasphemous.
All possible interpretations, from the sceptical to the pious, are woven into the fabric of the book. At the beginning Yeshua refers to “Our secrets…illusions and tricks and miracles”, hinting at simple scepticism. But when Yeshua and Magdalene choreograph the drama of the foot-annointing before the event, her motive is not to deceive but to manifest the truth of the claim to be the “Christos” or anointed one. She is sincerely convinced that Yeshua is the real thing, spiritually: “he was translucent and alive and the light shone through him so that we knew who he was… not as a lamp lights up the walls of a cave but as a new dimension, a great projection forward.” At other times, however she casts doubt on this spiritual light: “John says there was a light in his wounds. If there was light in the wounds I wish I had seen it, but I did not.”
The narrative framework is a visit by Marcus, colleague of John the Evangelist, to the ageing Magdalene in Provence, to clarify the events of the resurrection three decades earlier. But in her recollection, these distant events are anything but clear. As she says “I have tried so often to define [Yeshua's charisma] that I have come to fear I am inventing the very thing I am trying to describe.”
Barsham’s version of the physical relationship between Yeshua and Magdalene relies on the non-canonical “Gnostic Gospels” of the early second century, particularly the beautiful Gospel of Philip with its references to the couple kissing on the lips and its imagery of “the bridal chamber” to describe the initiation into Christian love. The book also includes a compendium of medieval and modern elaborations on the gospel story. Was Magdalene the Samaritan Woman at the Well? Was she also the bride at the wedding at Cana? Did she “marry” (“have sex with”) Yeshua when her bridegroom Nathan passed out drunk outside the wedding chamber? Was Yeshua perhaps really Joseph of Arimathaea's son? Were the seven demons really in Salome, not Magdalene? Was Mary, the mother of Jesus, jealous of Magdalene?
In Magdalene’s conversation with Marcus Yeshua’s divinity becomes dubious. At the book's narrative and thematic climax Marcus reveals himself to have been ”the rich boy” John, the new convert who Yeshua humiliated by telling him to give all his property away. This youth smuggled himself into the tomb as Yeshua's “companion”, “hidden like a deus ex machina, on the inside”. He reflects: “After the ordeal, watching by his side all the time in the dark, I sometimes wonder if it wasn't… me, who got up, who put on the cloak, went outside.”. Was the deus who Magdalene saw that morning John Marcus rather than Yeshua? Is that why he would not let her touch him? Magdalene finds this revelation momentous: “What he has told me changes things in ways I can't begin to understand.”
Then in a narrative coup that takes the breath away Barsham suggests that the appearance of the resurrected Christ is simply Magdalene's narcissistic fantasy. She takes her cue here from the nineteenth-century philosopher, Ernest Renan, who proposed that “the whole of Christianity is born of the imagination of one woman”.
"Is it possible," John Mark asks tentatively, putting away his notes, "it was not Him you met with that first morning? Is it possible it was… your own spirit?"
"Perfectly possible," I tell him, pleased for once to have the right answer. "He was my own spirit."
It is a breathtaking mistress-stroke.
Throughout the novel Barsham’s Magdalene asserts her own agency against the patriarchal “handmaiden” version. The title implies that she is the one touching, as much as being touched. Magdalene and Marcus consider Mark and Luke’s gospels together, and Marcus concludes: “Our gospel [John] is… to be about 'the real mystery of love”. At the very end of the narrative Magda determines to become an author herself, composing her own gospel. (Fragments of a Gospel of Mary were discovered in 1896, and other fragments later).
Above all, Barsham's Magdalene is the carnal lover of Yeshua. As she admits to Marcus: “you must have guessed by this time, it was the man himself I loved.” “Yeshua had been pleased with me…he saw me as a conquest worth making, his first fruits, he said.” She has been singled out by the Son of God to be the agent of his loss of virginity. The romance genre passages in the book, carry a heady erotic charge, intensified by theological rhetoric:
Yeshua was reclining on the bed, half sitting, half lying; he was wearing a short linen robe that left his legs and feet uncovered.
“You!” I said, and took off my headdress. I shook my hair loose, the whole past day shaken away with it…
I stepped forward. He swung his legs from the bed and stood up, taller than I had realised. He put his hand under my hair and felt for my neck, loosening rhe clasp in my gown.
And then the oddest sensation. I seemed to lose all solidity, as if some massive power had turned my body to atoms, insubstantial, without form.
What more satisfying orgasm can a woman feel than one excited by God himself?
Appropriately enough, in view of her image throughout history, it is this element of physical passion which makes Barsham's Magdalene such a sympathetic character. The final pages, in which she approaches death, are very moving. Instead of the noli me tangere of Gethsemene she sees a vision of Yeshua “'inviting me to touch.” The last words of the book are: “He stretches out his hand”.