Reading Sabio’s post about Da Free John, messiah and spiritual teacher, got me chasing a thread of research about his New Religious Movement and its history. One of the things that didn’t at all surprise me about the history of his Adidam faith, was his so-called “Garbage and the Goddess period” in which he sought to free his followers of the expectation of societal norms and the assumption that social contracts and conventions are somehow intrinsic.
Noble, you might think. Sure. And one of the ways he chose to do this was to sleep with the attractive women of his devotees, and teach a convenient form of sexual “liberation” which revolved around his own desires for his own and his followers sexuality.
This is, of course, a very common thread among messianic figures in New Religious Movements. When they begin to exercise a degree of control over their devotees, the temptation is obviously hugely strong to use that power to fulfil their own sexual needs. This is not only the case for self-declared messiahs like Adi Da, however. Powerful religious leaders of all kinds often (quite reasonably) extrapolate from their very real sexual needs, and their very apparent ability to hear the communication of God, to the obvious conclusion that God wants them to get laid more. Of course it is abusive, but it is also entirely understandable.
In a train of thought I then got to thinking again about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Certainly we can be reasonably confident that she had a level of intimacy with Jesus that later Christians found convenient to redact, and further that her role in the Jesus cult was systematically rescinded in favour of the eternally virginal Mary. Even to the extent of making her conventionally a prostitute and adulteress (neither of which have the slightest textual or historical evidence, but both of which are largely cemented in the popular understanding of her). I would go further and say that Christianity was initially quite a gender-egalitarian sect, and that by the end of the first century this was causing enough waves to see a highly traditional gender-role backlash. Women in our earliest gospel, for example, are the only reliable disciples. Mark’s male disciples remain unredeemed ignoramuses and unreliable jackasses throughout the book. His female disciples are there at the foot of the cross, they are the only ones there at the resurrection (everyone else has fled), and in incidents such as the anointing of Jesus with oil, they are the only ones who understand his needs.
I don’t want to suggest that I think Jesus had a religious hareem. There’s simply no evidence for that, and no real way I can see of making that case. But I’m wandering gently through a whole bunch of gender related issues at the moment, and it does make me consider the what-ifs.