Chipo Chung, who stars as Mary Magdalene in the 12-part series "A.D. The Bible Continues," recently revealed her own misconceptions about her character while discussing the Bible and women's roles in the early church with The Christian Post.
Roma Downey and Mark Burnett's latest television series, which premiered last month before 13.1 million viewers, follows the harrowing yet uplifting story of the birth of the church.
Chung, who joins a cast that Downey said is "as diverse and beautiful as the church is around the world," delivers a stunning performance as Mary Magdalene as "A.D." explores the aftermath of Christ's death and its impact on His disciples. The actress, who is half Zimbabwean, half-Chinese, stars opposite of Argentinean actor Juan Pablo di Pace who plays Jesus, while additional roles of iconic Bible characters such as John, James, and Simon the Zealot went to actors from all over the world.
In taking on the role of Mary Magdalene, Chung was forced to confront her character's reputation in Western Christianity as being a repentant prostitute. After delving into the Bible and reversing her own errant preconceptions, Chung told CP that Mary Magdalene was instead "a teacher and quite an advanced disciple."
The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with Chung.
CP: How did you prepare for the role of Mary Magdalene?
Chung: I did biblical research, obviously, and I did read some other early Christian works. I read the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which is fascinating. It gives you an interesting picture of her as a teacher, and obviously, my eyes were being opened the entire time to my misconception [and] preconception that she was a prostitute.
She's an enigma because she doesn't appear that much in the Bible, actually. She's written about around 10 times, and none of them have to do with her being a prostitute. So it's really eye-opening to figure out why that happened. It seems that in the fourth century, Pope Gregory the Great conflated her with a number of sinful women who interacted with Jesus and said that, because she had been healed of seven demons, which Luke says, that these seven demons must have been the seven deadly sins. And therefore came this image of her that was played up in art.
In 1961, the Vatican actually issued a statement saying we got it wrong; she was not a sinful women or this penitent sinner that she been played out as. And if you read the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she's obviously a teacher and quite an advanced disciple, and that's what I think she was.
CP: That's interesting, because even for women today, once your reputation has been tarnished, it's hard to live it down.
Chung: Absolutely. And she was a woman who worked with a lot of men. And I think there are two references for women who work with a lot of men: either they slept their way to the top and they have to be some sort of sex object, or she must be his girlfriend, wife, or consort.
No one could actually believe she was just a teacher. Those were the two options. And I realized that about the DaVinci Code version and I thought, 'No, this is actually the same thing with a different brush,' which is: we can't believe that this women could possibly be as advanced as that, there had to be a man connected for her to be so important. And she is important, because for Jesus, the most important and terrifying passage from him was from crucifixion to resurrection, and she's the one person who was there throughout.
CP: Speaking about the resurrection scene, could you describe what it was like working on the set during that pivotal moment?
Chung: It was amazing; I think it was one of the happiest days of my life, actually.
Morocco is just beautiful, and the place they had chosen had a view of hills that was just stunning. The tomb was very archetypal — that big round stone covering it, and just seeing that, with so many different versions of it in art, [was incredible.]
And then the scene has meaning on a spiritual level. On a personal level, grief and considering death, which is what I think a lot the crucifixion was about — us meditating on our death and what will happen to us, suffering of our body and what's happens next. We've all grieved in that way before, for loved ones that we hope are OK. Honestly, the moment when I first saw Juan de Pablo I was really surprised with myself for how emotional I was because that is a dream fantasy for all of us — to see that our loved one is whole and happy and complete on the other side. And you know it for sure. So it was an amazing experience.
CP: How do you think "A.D. The Bible Continues" redefines women in the Bible?
Chung: Very cleverly, I think. Mainly because women had a really tough time. The world they created with the Romans was very violent, it was not a world to be fragile or vulnerable. So for Mary, that balance of leadership is difficult because she can't be on the frontlines the way men are because women didn't do that.
She had to work quietly in the background and I think that's actually how a lot of women work still today, without getting much credit. There are references that you catch and glimpses of how powerful women are. In Luke, I think, where it says Mary Magdalene and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, and a number of other women were supporting the disciples "from their own means." It doesn't say much else than that, but that's just a clue.
What we have with "A.D." is the opportunity to use our imaginations in a reverent way to try and expand on that. I know some people find that difficult — that it's the Bible and some parts aren't in the Bible, some is creative license. But I would say to that: Jesus spoke in parables and was a storyteller and understood that we understand a higher truth through creativity, through narrative. That's what I think "A.D." is trying to do with women's roles.
To really see, like Claudia is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church, to get a sense of how difficult it was for her to be married to Pilate when she actually had a conscience. What is the human perspective on that? Because you only get a few notes in the New Testament. Otherwise, it really is all about men. Those clues are a window to a huge world because women's stories haven't been written down. But I think there are so many stories of how women supported the early church.
CP: In what ways has "A.D. The Bible Continues" changed or set the bar for Christian entertainment?
Chung: "A.D." is different because it is speaking to the media of the day. In order to keep an audience and to get young people engaged with the Bible, they have to be as engaged as they are with "The Walking Dead" comics. That's popular culture, if you're to keep young people interested, then you've got to speak in their language.
I also think with "A.D." I like that it's made by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey who put the money where mouth in terms of beliefs and intentions. Also, having people who aren't believers and who may be of different faiths watch the show and get interested and perhaps have a little illumination about the Bible or understanding of what their friends believe, or just enjoy the show, that's a great step because we're a part of a larger society.
CP: You describe yourself as an actress and then an activist, can you talk a little about the organizations you work with?
Chung: I don't think I'll ever stop working with S.A.F.E. but I have started working with a group of women called Rising Women, Rising World that inspires me because they are women leaders who work in a feminine way with feminine principal. That is being collaborative, being cooperative, being creative, having vision and having imagination; trying to apply softer characteristics to: how can we change the world?
A lot of them have worked in peacebuilding. I've really tapped into them because of this idea that I truly believe that creativity and art and culture have so much to do with our human development. That to have a more peaceful world, we have to have a more creative way of thinking and living.
"A.D. The Bible Continues" airs at 9 p.m. ET Sundays on NBC.