By comparing the intersecting histories of interpretation of Mary Magdalene, a first-century disciple of Jesus, and La Malinche, a sixteenth-century Mesoamerican woman enslaved by the Spanish conquistadores, Jennifer Vija Pietz critically evaluates the use of past lives to address contemporaneous concerns. She demonstrates how the earliest sources portray each woman as an agent in the foundation of a new community: Magdalene’s proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection helped form the first Christian community, while La Malinche’s role as interpreter between Spanish and native people during the Conquest helped establish modern Mexico. Pietz then argues that over time, various interpreters turn these real women into malleable icons that they use to negotiate changing conceptions of communal identity and norms. Strikingly, popular portraits develop of both women as archetypal whores who represent transgression—portraits that some women have experienced as harmful. Although other interpreters present contrary portraits of Magdalene and La Malinche as admirable emblems of female empowerment, Pietz argues that the tendency to turn real people into icons risks producing stereotypes that can obscure past lives and negatively affect people in the present. In response, she posits strategies for developing historically plausible and ethically responsible interpretations of people of the past.
Jennifer Vija Pietz is assistant professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Chapter 1: Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels
Chapter 2: Mary Magdalene Interpretations from the Second Century to the Present
Chapter 3: La Malinche in the Primary Sources
Chapter 4: La Malinche Interpretations from the Sixteenth Century to the Present
Chapter 5: Comparative Analysis of Mary Magdalene’s and La Malinche’s Interpretive Histories
Deeply researched and closely argued, this study of Mary Magdalene and Malinche is a model of sober historiography. Pietz shows what can be known about these women “as they were” and how each figure was shaped and reshaped through successive reinterpretations. She shows remarkable empathy toward the social ideological factors at work in such reinterpretations, but also asks critical questions pertinent to all historical study.
With scholarly care, innovative insight, and a generous hermeneutic, Jennifer Vija Pietz invites us to see how interpretation, story-telling, and identity can weave together in ways both beautiful and tragic. Her book teaches us that the stories told and re-told about Mary Magdalene and La Malinche are sites of both contestation and creativity. These are stories that continue to haunt our communities but also contain the possibility of transformation and liberation.
Displaying careful and critically honest scholarship, Jennifer Vija Pietz introduces readers to a comparative study of Mary Magdalene and La Malinche—two literary (historical) representations of women who have received conflicting (harlot and heroine) interpretations throughout history. This original and creative study is a must read for it is an excellent example of the new interdisciplinary turn in New Testament studies—combining the study of early Christianity with Latinx studies. Pietz examines the primary sources to reveal their dehumanizing biases and then puts forward alternative interpretations that show Mary Magdalene and La Malinche as shapers of two new communities. For sure, a work that speaks to the enduring issue of female and minoritized representation.
This book is a fascinating comparative exploration into the reception histories of two women from very different times and places, Mary Magdalene and the sixteenth-century Nahua woman remembered as La Malinche. Beginning with the primary sources, Pietz deftly sets the ways these two women have been interpreted within the historical contexts and cultural forces that shaped these interpretations. Pietz also shows how the commonalities shared by the interpretative “afterlives” of Mary Magdalene and La Malinche give insight into what happens when women from the past take on symbolic importance for later communities. Altogether, this impressive and sophisticated study offers a rich array of information along with valuable insights for interpreting people from the past in ethically responsible ways.
Jennifer Vija Pietz charts a new course in biblical studies in her comparison of Mary Magdalene and La Malinche. La Malinche’s parallel tale illumines both Magdalene and the cultures that retold their stories. This clearly-written book offers a fresh perspective on a familiar character.