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Jewish biblical scholar to give public lecture on 'Mary Magdalene at the Movies'

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Jewish biblical scholar to give public lecture on 'Mary Magdalene at the Movies'

By Laura Ieraci

CHICAGO — Canadian biblical scholar Adele Reinhartz will give a lecture at The Lay Centre May 10, entitled “Mary Magdalene at the Movies.”

Reinhartz, a professor in the classics and religious studies department of the University of Ottawa, is in Rome this semester to teach a course at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Biblicum) on the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. The course studies primary sources that help explain how these two communities formed as distinct groups, as well as the changing scholarly theories about what led to their formation.

Reinhartz wrote a book, published in 2018, related to the topic, called “Cast Out of the Covenant: Jews and Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John.” She argues in her book that the Gospel of John’s appropriation of Jewishness and subsequent repudiation of Jewishness and anti-Jewish comments contribute to a parting of the ways.

A person who reads the Gospel of John without any prior knowledge of Jews and Judaism would “come away with a very negative view of Jews because of the way that John talks about them,” she said.

While many reviews of her book have been positive, there has also been some pushback, she said.

“And this is because I’m challenging the view that a book that’s part of the sacred Scriptures can’t also be a book that is problematic from the point of view of its portrayal of other people,” she explained.

When scholars consider biblical texts “ahistorical,” that is, not tied to particular times and places, and “eternally relevant,” there is the tendency not to “want to engage in… an ethical critique of the texts themselves,” she said.

To have the courage to engage in this type of critique — which she calls the “hermeneutics of chutzpah” — would allow for “a deeper understanding of the role that Scripture has or should have in the life of a faith community,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that we throw out the Scriptures or that we throw out the faith that’s attached to these Scriptures,” she added. “It just means we are honest with ourselves about what we take as normative for our time and place and what we don’t.”

Reinhartz’s journey to biblical scholarship was a case of one interest leading to the next. Unsure of what she wanted to pursue as a career after high school, she enrolled in the bachelor of arts program at the University of Toronto. There, she decided to pursue Jewish studies out of personal interest.

“I had a certain type of Jewish upbringing, but I felt there were a lot of gaps,” she said.

Without a Jewish studies designation at the University of Toronto at the time, she graduated in religious studies. Still unsure of which career to pursue, she followed her interest and applied to the graduate program in religious studies at McMaster University, located west of Toronto. The program there focused on Judaism, Christianity and the Greco-Roman period.

Her first class was on Galatians with renowned New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders, who also supervised her doctoral research, and it inspired her career path.

In this class she realized how her Jewish studies background was an asset to understanding and contextualizing the New Testament and she thought “it could be an interesting thing” to be a Jewish New Testament scholar and “a good thing for (students) and a good thing for the Jewish people.”

Over time, Reinhartz also developed an academic interest in the use of the Bible in American film and, in particular, Hollywood’s portrayal of Jesus and his Jewishness in film. She published two books on the Bible in film.

“Jesus movies suffer from a major disadvantage,” she said. “There are a number of exceptions, but, in almost all films, Jesus is presented as a flat character.”

Entertaining films normally develop along a story arch that includes characters who are somewhat flawed and, through a significant life journey, undergo change. However, Jesus is perfect and sinless from the very beginning of almost each film, she said.

“So, what filmmakers often do is they play up the two characters you can do something with, that is, Judas and Mary Magdalene,” Reinhartz said. “In the more interesting Jesus movies, Mary Magdalene gets a lot of attention.”

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene in Jesus films in this context will be the focus of her lecture at The Lay Centre.

Reinhartz said she is developing some book projects, among them a new book on the parting of the ways and one on the portrayal of Catholicism, particularly of religious women and clergy, in Quebec film.

The Catholic Church in Quebec “has a very specific history,” with a “major shift in the power of the church with respect to education, healthcare and politics” starting in the 1960s, she said.

“The (Quebec) films that come out now are still reflecting that transition,” even more than 50 years on, she said.

Photo courtesy Dr. Adele Reinhartz

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