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Who is Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood figure in early Christianity. In Christian art and hagiography, Mary has been romanticized, allegorized, and mythologized beyond recognition. In early Christian art, Mary Magdalene was depicted as a key figure in the Resurrection of Christ and an “Apostle to the Apostles.”  But her role was gradually contested.  A long and complex history of misrepresentation and conflation reveals how Mary Magdalene came to be portrayed as a prostitute and public sinner who, after encountering Jesus, repented and spent the rest of her life in private prayer and penitence. Paintings, some little more than pious pornography, reinforce the mistaken belief that sexuality, especially female sexuality, is shameful, sinful, and worthy of repentance. Yet the actual biblical account of Mary Magdalene paints a far different portrait than that of the bare-breasted reformed harlot of Renaissance art.

In fact, “Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles—and she was not a prostitute”, said Distinguished Professor of Theology Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on April 14. “Mary kept vigil at the cross throughout Jesus’ crucifixion, discovered the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection, and was then commissioned to ‘go and tell’ the good news.”

The Seven Primary Roles of Mary Magdalene

Consider the many critical roles Mary Magdalene played, not only in the life of Jesus, but in the life of the Church.  SEVEN ESSENTIAL ROLES

Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

Mary Magdalene is presented in the Gospels as

  • the premiere woman disciple of Jesus,
  • as one who went about with him during his public life,
  • who was steadfast at the foot of the cross and
  • witnessed the Church-founding outflow of blood and water from the pierced side of Jesus,
  • who witnessed the burial and thus knew exactly where the body of the Lord was placed, by whom, and how,
  • who discovered the empty tomb on Easter morning,
  • who informed the male disciples that the body of the Lord was gone,
  • who received the first appearance of the Risen Lord,
  • who played the role assigned by Jesus to Peter before the Passion according to Luke, namely to strengthen the other disciples once he himself had been converted,
  • who fulfilled her commission from the Risen Christ by bearing witness to the disciples of the Resurrection. 

In Summary, the gospel narratives present Mary Magdalene as the only privileged witness named at all of the Paschal Mystery events—the suffering, the death, the burial, the empty tomb, and the resurrected Lord returned to his own – the prophet par excellence, disciple and apostle of the Risen One.

(Sandra Schneiders, July 2013

Direct References to Mary Magdalene in the Gospels

Matthew 27:55-56, 61; 28:1-10.

Matthew waits until the Crucifixion to introduce Mary Magdalene and the other women who ministered with, and supported Jesus from start of his ministry in Galilee; they are present throughout the rest of the gospel; e.g., for healing & feeding miracles and teachings of Jesus. These women stayed at the Cross and witnessed the burial. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” returned after the Sabbath to discover the empty tomb. Angels told them to go tell “the disciples” to go to Galilee. As they ran to tell the others, Jesus appeared, blessed, and commissioned them to “go tell my brother and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Mark 15:40-41, 47, 16:1-9

Mark also waits until the Crucifixion to finally introduce Mary Magdalene and the women who traveled and ministered with Jesus from Galilee all the way to Jerusalem, where they stayed, faithful, at the cross, “looking on from a distance”. “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses” saw where the body was lain.” On Easter Sunday, “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome” discovered the empty tomb and were commissioned by an angel to go and tell. In the 2nd c. addendum to Mark, the risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and “She went out and told those who had been with him …But they would not believe it.” (16:9-11)

Luke 8:1-3, 23:49, 23:55-56, 24:1-12

Luke introduces Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna and “many others” in Chapter 8 with Jesus and “the Twelve” as he began his ministry in Galilee. They left everything behind to travel and participate in Jesus’ ministry. Mary Magdalene and the other women never abandoned Jesus. They stood faithfully watching with him as he died. They saw the burial. Went to the tomb Sunday morning. Witnessed angels, who reminded them they were present when Jesus predicted his death and rising. They brought the good news of Resurrection to their fellow disciples. Mary Magdalene is always named first in the lists of women in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, an indication of her leadership.

John 19:25, 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood watch at the cross with Jesus’ mother, her sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and maybe the “disciple who Jesus loved”. Mary Magdalene discovered Jesus’ empty tomb; ran to tell Peter and the beloved; they went to the tomb, saw the burial cloths, and left. But Mary Magdalene stayed, weeping at the tomb.  She “peered in”, saw two Angels who asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She asked them for Jesus. Turned, saw a man, she thought was the gardener, and asked him for Jesus, adding “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him.” The risen Jesus then revealed himself by calling her name, as the good shepherd called his own (10:3). She responded, “Rabbouni” (My Teacher). Jesus commissioned her to tell “my brothers and sisters” that “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” – an extraordinary invitation into a direct relationship with his Father. Mary Magdalene, “a woman bearing witness”, brought this invitation to the community of disciples, the site of the risen Jesus’ presence, Mary Magdalene’s new home. She most likely remained with them for the “Great Commissioning” (vv. 19-23) and Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus (vv.24-29). 

Indirect references

Luke 8:1

This Lucan passage Jesus moving forward, going through Galilee with “the Twelve as well as some women” – they are with Jesus from the start of his ministry in Galilee and stayed with him to the end, experiencing all of his teachings. For example, the women would have heard Jesus’ parable of the Sower and his explanation and what follows (8:4-22), witnessed the healing of the Gerasene man (8:26-39) and all of his other teachings, including at the Last Supper.

Luke 24:6-8

The angels remind Mary Magdalene, and others that they were present when Jesus predicted his death and rising. The predictions are in Luke 9:18-27, 9:43 where we see Jesus confide in those close to him.    

First Witness to the Resurrection

First witness to the Resurrection

Nowhere in scripture is Mary Magdalene identified as a public sinner or a prostitute. Instead, scripture shows her as the primary witness to the most central events of Christian faith, named in exactly the same way (Maria e Magdalena) in each of four gospels written for diverse communities throughout the Mediterranean world. It was impossible to relate the story of the Resurrection without including “Mary, the one from Magdala.” Luke 8:1-3 tells us that Mary traveled with Jesus in the Galilean discipleship and, with Joanna and Susanna, supported his mission from her own financial resources. In the synoptic gospels, Mary leads the group of women who witness Jesus’ death, burial, the empty tomb, and his Resurrection. The synoptics contrast Jesus’ abandonment by the male disciples with the faithful strength of the women disciples who, led by Mary, accompany him to his death. John’s gospel names Mary Magdalene as the frst to discover the empty tomb and shows the Risen Christ sending her to announce the Good News of his Resurrection to the other disciples. This prompted early church Fathers to name her “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

That the message of the Resurrection was first entrusted to women is regarded by scripture scholars as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection been fabricated, women would never have been chosen as witnesses, since Jewish law did not acknowledge the testimony of women. Early non-canonical Christian writings show faith communities growing up around Mary’s ministry, where she is portrayed as understanding Jesus’ message better than did Peter and the male disciples. Scholars tell us that these writings are not about the historical persons Mary and Peter but instead reflect tensions over women’s roles in the early church. Prominent leaders such as Mary and Peter were evoked to justify opposing points of view. What is not disputed is the recognition of Mary Magdalene as an important woman leader in earliest Christianity.

Suppressing Mary Magdalene’s Authentic Role

In 313, Constantine legalized Christianity. Later, in 380, the emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the religion of the empire.  As Christianity evolved from small persecuted movement to the legal religion of the empire, the Christian community was caught in a cultural conflict as it moved from worship in house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to worship in public places where women’s leadership violated Roman social codes of honor and shame. In the fourth century, male church leaders at the Council of Laodicea suppressed women leaders because of the belief that women were created subordinate to men. During this same time period, the memory of Mary Magdalene as a strong female disciple and proclaimer of the Resurrection was increasingly scrutinized and subjected to doubts and questions from male commentators suggesting she was the repentant sinner from Luke 7:36-50. Scholars such as Dr. Jane Schaberg believe this was done deliberately to discourage female leadership in the church. As knowledge of Jesus’ many women disciples faded from historical memory, their stories merged and blurred. The tender anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany in preparation for Jesus’ death was incorrectly linked to woman “known to be a sinner” whose tears washed and anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s house. Similarities in the anointing texts were used to justify combining these women into one generic public sinner, “Magdalene.” The misidentification of Mary as the reformed, public sinner achieved official standing with a powerful homily by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) given in 591. Henceforth, Mary Magdalene became known in the west, not as the strong woman leader who accompanied Jesus through a tortuous death, first witnessed his Resurrection, and proclaimed the Risen Savior to the early church, but as a wanton woman in need of repentance and a life of hidden (and hopefully silent) penitence. Interestingly, the eastern church never identified her as a prostitute, but honored her throughout history as “Equal to the Apostles.”

Prominent Female Leader, Not Jesus’ Wife

The 2002 publication of The Da Vinci Code ignited widespread controversy about the true role of Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately, Dan Brown’s book, while an engaging fictional narrative, has done a disservice to the historical Mary Magdalene and other early women church leaders. Though The Da Vinci Code conveys a beautiful ideal of the essential unity of male and female, it is ultimately subversive to women’s full and equal leadership in the church because it focuses on the fction of Mary’s marital status rather than the fact of her leadership in proclaiming Jesus’ Resurrection. There is no historical or biblical data to support speculation that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. The contention that ancient writers didn’t mention their marriage and offspring for fear of  Jewish persecution doesn’t hold up because John’s gospel and most of the apocryphal literature were written after the fall of Jerusalem, when there would have been nothing to fear from Jewish authorities. If Mary of Magdala were Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child, it is highly unlikely that these texts would have omitted these important facts, especially since she is prominently portrayed in both as the primary witness to the Resurrection and a female leader who, in many ways, understood Jesus’ mission better than did the male disciples. If Jesus were married, it wasn’t to Mary Magdalene, because then she would have been known as “Mary the wife of Jesus,” not Mary Magdalene. Literary and social conventions in antiquity dictated that if women were mentioned (a very rare occurrence) they were nearly always named by their relationship to the patriarchal household, for example: “Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chusa” (Luke 8,1-3). Atypically, Mary Magdalene was named according to the town she was from, not by her relationship to a man. Biblical scholars believe this indicates that she was probably a wealthy independent woman not bound to the patriarchal household. Contemporary scholarship has rightfully restored our understanding of Mary Magdalene as an important early Christian leader. Now she becomes the same inspiring role model for twenty-first century disciples that she was for first century Christians.

Scholarly Articles and Sources

Brock, Ann Graham. Mary of Magdala, the Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, MA.:Harvard University Press, 2003.

Eisen, Ute E. Women Offceholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth Shussler. “Feminist Theology as Critical Theology of Liberation,” Theological Studies, 1975.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1993.

Housley, Kathleen. “Solid Citizen or Prostitute – Two Millennia of Misinformation” Dialog, Fall, 1998.

King, Karen. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Polebridge Press, 2003.

Kitzberger, Ingrid Rose. “ Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala,” New Testament Studies, Oct. 1993.

Ricci, Carla. Mary Magdalen and Many Others. Minneapolis:Fortress Press,1994.

Schaberg, Jane. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene. New York: Continuum, 2002. Thompson, Mary R. Mary of Magdala, Apostle and Leader. New York: Paulist Press,1995.