ORLANDO, Fla. - At least once a day, Frances Garcia checks a Mary Magdalene Web site, and most nights she spends at least an hour reading histories and commentaries about Jesus' devoted supporter and her contemporaries.
Mary Magdalene "is part of my life," said the University of Central Florida student. "She is what inspired me to know more about Christianity."
Jesus' female follower has been inspiring a lot of enthusiasm in recent years. Experts say a confluence of feminism, biblical research and pop culture has placed Mary Magdalene in the front rank of Jesus' first followers, at least for the moment.
Mary Magdalene is the subject of a boom in scholarly literature, with at least six new books suggesting roles for her that range from the 13th apostle to a goddess.
In 2003, the American Bible Society in New York staged an exhibit of Mary Magdalene portraits.
This wave of academic interest has been propelled into the mainstream by popular fiction. Mary, Called Magdalene, a historical novel by Margaret George, became a best seller in 2002.
The following year, The Da Vinci Code burst onto the scene. The fast-paced thriller claims that Mary Magdalene's role as Jesus' wife has been systematically suppressed.
The Da Vinci Code has sparked numerous Web sites and women's discussion groups. Mary Magdalene also has landed on the cover of both Time and Newsweek and on several national television specials. She is featured in the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ.
All of this attention points to a dramatic reappraisal of the biblical figure who some charge has been marginalized and airbrushed from the story of early Christianity.
According to the four Gospels of the New Testament, Mary Magdalene witnessed Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection, rallying the depressed and disbelieving male disciples.
For 1,500 years, Mary Magdalene was portrayed, in art and theology, as a prostitute whose life was transformed by Jesus' forgiveness. This was the result of an erroneous sermon preached in 591 by Pope Gregory the Great.
The pontiff, misreading the Gospel of Luke, confused Mary Magdalene with another woman described as "sinful." His finding was reversed by the Vatican in 1969.
"That is a monumental step for the church to actually admit there may have been a misinterpretation," said the Rev. Charlie Mitchell, the pastor of St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs.
Mary Magdalene "is a woman whose life has been completely distorted down through the ages for whatever reason," the Rev. Mitchell said.
The second-century Gospel of Mary Magdalene was found in the late 19th century by archaeologists but remained largely ignored and untranslated for 50 years. It is the only account named for a woman and offers a different view of Christianity, one that describes an "interior spirituality," said Karen L. King, the author of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.
In the Mary Magdalene account, "salvation is not something that comes from an external savior," Dr. King said. "One has to seek salvation within."
Thus, the Magdalene Gospel depicts Jesus as a teacher rather than as a savior who dies to atone for humanity's sins.
Mary Magdalene's account is also the "strongest argument for women's leadership" in Christian writings, said Dr. King, a professor of church history at Harvard Divinity School.
"It lets us hear an alternative voice," she said, in contrast with I Corinthians and I Timothy, which urge silence and submissiveness of women.
Because Mary Magdalene might have been a rival to the apostle Peter, other Gospel accounts with favorable references to her may have been excluded by the male church leaders who compiled the New Testament, according to Dr. King and other scholars.
"Mary Magdalene was such an important person in the Jesus movement that the Gospels could not ignore her," said Dr. Meyer, of Chapman University.
"But the Gospel writers were on the side of the 12 guys, the male disciples."