Mary Magdalene

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the New Testament

  • Mary Magdalene was likely born early in the first century C.E., probably in the town of Magdala.
  • Magdala was a small fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  • In Hebrew, the word is Migdal, meaning "tower or fortress;" in Aramaic, Magdala means "tower" or "elevated, great, or magnificent."
  • Mary is obviously from Mariam, the Greek variant used in the Septuagint for Moses' sister. The name was quite popular in the first century.
  • Few women have been the subjects of more discussion and less consensus than Mary Magdalene.
  • At various times, Mary Magdalene has been associated with most of the other Marys referred to in the New Testament (except, of course, the mother of Jesus. Most often she is identified as Mary of Bethany [sister of Martha and Lazarus]; others opt for the adulterous woman of John 8).
  • In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great gave a resounding sermon identifying her as a repentant prostitute. (This would remain as the prevailing Roman Catholic viewpoint until 1969 when it was officially revised.)
  • Mary, as the repentant prostitute, has been depicted in countless paintings (especially during the 16-18th centuries) as the sinner washing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. (See Luke 7:37-38; because Mary Magdalene is introduced in the very next verses in Luke, people just assumed they were the same person.)
  • According to Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9, Jesus exorcised seven demons from her.
  • Modern scholars think this could be a reference to physical, not moral, sickness.
  • Other than this reference in Luke 8:2, she is not named until after Jesus' death.
  • She is the only person to witness Jesus' crucifixion, his burial place, and the empty tomb. (See Mark 15:40, Matthew 27:56, John 19:25 and Luke 23:49 [who only says, "women who had followed him were standing at a distance"]).
  • All the gospels name her as a witness to the empty tomb, though they do not agree on the identity of those who accompanied her.
  • When she is listed among several women, her name is always first, indicating her importance.
  • Jesus appeared only to her in John 20:16 and Mark 16:9.
  • This caused credibility problems since women were generally not perceived as reliable witnesses in the ancient world.
  • And this is the last we hear of her in the New Testament. Paul does not mention her, and she has no role in Acts.
  • Modern scholars are more likely to see her as Jesus' primary disciple and a great leader and teacher in the early church.
  • Some have even suggested that she might have been "the beloved disciple" referred to in John's gospel. The texts that indicate they were two separate individuals are awkwardly edited, which might suggest that they had been modified as time went on.
  • Much of this is based on early Christian writings that present a much different picture of Mary Magdalene.
  • Most of these books were written in the latter half of the first century through the 4th.
  • Most of these writings were deemed heretical for one reason or another.
  • In several books, she is named as "the apostle to the apostles."
  • Several texts acknowledge that Jesus loved her more than any of the others.
  • Because of her special relationship with Jesus, she was given "secret teachings," which she would later share with the other apostles.
  • The Gospel of Philip explicitly states that she was Jesus' companion. The word could also be translated as "partner, or associate."
  • Philip also states that "Jesus used to kiss her on the…" [There is literally a hole in the manuscript where the next word should be]. The most likely word is "mouth," and the following line reads that the other disciples were quite offended by this. (Scholars who suggest that kissing was a conventional greeting and had absolutely no sexual connotations have yet to explain why the other disciples would have been offended by it.)
  • There is no evidence to indicate that this was a marriage relationship; nor is there any ironclad evidence refuting it as a possibility.
  • These non-canonical books also suggest that there was considerable tension between her and Jesus' male disciples, most notably Peter and his brother, Andrew.
  • Unlike traditional views, the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that Mary Magdalene was virtuous all her life. She is not the sinful woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her tears.
  • According to their tradition, she went to Ephesus with Jesus' mother and lived there until she died.
  • Western traditions claim that she went to the south of France (with her brother, Lazarus*, and others), where she lived in a cave for 30 years in solitary contemplation. *If you accept the notion she could be Mary of Bethany.
  • For most of Roman Catholic tradition, she has been venerated as the reformed prostitute. She is the iconic repentant sinner.
  • While her name has been used for various colleges, it also has been attached to asylums for "fallen women."
  • It is clear that as we learn more about the early church, some of our traditional presumptions have to be challenged. It is becoming clearer that Mary Magdalene was, indeed, a disciple of great authority and a leader of the early church.

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