Mary Magdalene, which probably means "Mary of Magdala", a town on the western shore of the Lake of Tiberias, is described in the New Testament as a follower of Jesus both in the canon and in the apocrypha. Nothing is known about her outside of Scripture. Her feast day is July 22.
Mary Magdalene in the canon
For part of her story, Catholics and Protestants agree: She is mentioned in Luke 8:3 as one of the women who "ministered to Christ of their substance". Their motive, according to the author of Luke was that of gratitude for deliverances he had wrought for them: Luke tells that out of Mary were cast seven demons, in an exorcism. These women accompanied him also on his last journey to Jerusalem (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 23:55). They were witnesses to the Crucifixion. There Mary remained until all was over, and the body was taken down and laid in a tomb prepared for Joseph of Arimathea. Again, in the earliest dawn of the first day of the week she, with Salome and Mary the mother of James, (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Peter 12), came to the sepulchre, bringing with them sweet spices, that they might anoint the body of Jesus. They found the sepulchre empty but saw the "vision of angels" (Matt 28:5). As the first witness to the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene hastened to tell Peter and another -- unknown -- apostle, (John 20:1, 2), (gaining her the epithet "apostle to the apostles") and again immediately returned to the sepulchre. There she lingered thoughtfully, weeping at the door of the tomb. The risen Lord appeared to her, but at first she knew him not. His utterance of her name "Mary" recalled her to consciousness, and she uttered the joyful, reverent cry, "Rabboni". She would fain have clung to him, but he forbade her: "17 Jesus said to her, 'Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God."'"
This is the last entry in the canonic New Testament regarding Mary of Magdala, who now returned to Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Mary
Further attestation of Mary of Magdala and her role among some early Christians is provided by the apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene. which survives in two 3rd century Greek fragments and a longer 5th century translation into Coptic. Tellingly, in the Gospel the testimony of a woman first needed to be defended. All of these manuscripts were first discovered and published between 1938 and 1983, but as early as the 3rd century there are Patristic references to the Gospel of Mary. These writings reveal the degree to which the gospel was despised and dismissed by the early church fathers. In the fragmentary text, the disciples ask questions of the risen Savior (a designation that dates the original no earlier than the 2nd century) and are answered.
Then they grieve, saying, "How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If even he was not spared, how shall we be spared?" And Mary Magdalene bids them take heart: "Let us rather praise his greatness, for he prepared us and made us into men." She then delivers - at Peter's request - a vision of the Savior she has had, and reports her discourse with him, which shows Gnostic influences.
Her vision does not meet with universal approval:
- "But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, 'Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas."
- "Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Savior. "Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?"
Karen King has observed, "The confrontation of Mary with Peter, a scenario also found in The Gospel of Thomas, Pistis Sophia, and The Gospel of the Egyptians, reflects some of the tensions in second-century Christianity. Peter and Andrew represent orthodox positions that deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach." (introduction, The Nag Hammadi Library)
Expansion of the Mary Magdalene tradition
Tradition as early as the 3rd century identified as Mary Magdalene the woman who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50:
- " 37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
- 38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment."
Though there is no connection made in the New Testament, nor is the woman in the house of the Pharisee given a name, the idea that Mary was "the woman who was a sinner", or that she was unchaste, was developed by the Patristic writers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. This idea is rejected by most Protestants. Catholics, on the other hand, consider this one person to be, not only the sinner of Luke 7:36-50 but also Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and the resurrected Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42 and John 1:10); although the Roman Catholic Church withdrew from this linkage at the Second Vatican Council (1969) it survives strongly in folk Catholicism.
For some Christians, the idea developed by Church fathers, that Mary is also the woman that Jesus had rescued from being stoned to death (as recounted in the Pericope Adulterae) still holds true. However those critical scholars who are drawing conclusions from the canonic texts alone believe that the woman Jesus rescued and Mary were two separate persons. Conservative early-19th century theological traditions, vividly realized in the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, portray the prostitute and Mary as the same person, and Martin Scorsese's earlier film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ followed a similar tradition.
Veneration of Mary Magdalene
As a Roman Catholic saint, Mary Magdalene's relics were venerated at Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume, Provence, and attracted such throngs of pilgrims that the great Basilica was erected there from the mid thirteenth century, one of the finest Gothic churches in the south of France. Though her bones were scattered at the French Revolution, her head is said to remain in her shrine in a cave at La Sainte-Baume near Marseille, although another medieval tradition holds that she died in Ephesus and was buried in Constantinople.
The Magdalene became a symbol of repentance for the vanities of the world, and Mary Magdalene was the patron of Magdalene College, Cambridge (pronounced "maudlin", as in weepy penitents). Unfortunately her name was also used for the infamous Magdalen Asylums in Ireland where supposedly fallen women were treated as slaves.
Author of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John?
A group of revisionist scholars, though taking for granted the historical realities of the figures of Mary and Peter and the others, have suggested that for one early group of Christians Mary Magdalene was a leader of the early Church and maybe even the unidentified "Beloved Disciple", to whom the Fourth Gospel commonly called Gospel of John is ascribed. The most familiar of the scholars is Elaine Pagels. Ramon K. Jusino offers a logically presented explanation of this unorthodox view, based on the textual researches of Raymond E. Brown, a mainstream Catholic biblical scholar, in "Mary Magdalene, author of the Fourth Gospel?', 1998, available on-line. Ann Graham Brock (see ref.) summarized this reading of the texts in 2003. She demonstrated that an early early Christian writing portrays authority as being represented in Mary Magdalene or in Peter, but not both. She presents Luke as promoting the narrowest and most formal Petrine concept of "apostle" that diminished and ignored the role of Mary. In the Petrine tradition, Mary Magdalene is often replaced by Mary, mother of Jesus, a passive figure who affirms Peter's authority. The Peter authority figure is consistently affirmed in writings that also promote hierarchical, male, formal authority within the church community structure.
The Mary Magdalene figure is consistently elevated in writings from which formal leadership roles are absent. The Paul figure is more involved in a tug-of-war between these two opposing systems of church government. Conflict and contention between the two camps has shaped the establishment of the New Testament canon, which is less meaningfully understood when approached in the authorized way as a single, coherent, harmonious construction.
Ki Longfellow, in her novel The Secret Magdalene (Eio Books, 2005), similarly sees Mary not only as the author of the Gospel of John, but as the Beloved Disciple himself/herself.
Easter Egg tradition
For centuries, it has been the custom of many Eastern Orthodox Christians to end the Easter service by sharing dyed and painted eggs and proclaiming to each other, "Christ is risen!" The eggs represent new life, and Christ bursting forth from the tomb. This began one tradition of coloring Easter eggs.
One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that following Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius Caesar. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed "Christ is risen!" Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red, and she continued proclaiming the Gospel to the entire imperial house.
A modern lithograph by Richard Stoddard (born 1945) of Mary Magdalene displaying an egg illustrates this tradition illustration.
Wife of Jesus?
Some modern writers, notably the authors of the 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Dan Brown in the novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), hold that:
These writers cite non-canonical and Gnostic writings in selective portions to support their argument. While sources like the Gospel of Philip depict Mary Magdalene as being closer to Jesus than any other disciple, there is no ancient document which claims she was his wife. It is thought the meaning here is Mary Magdalene knew what Jesus was talking about. She understood him, while the disciples did not.
An argument for support of this speculation is that bachelorhood was very rare for Jewish males of Jesus' time, being generally regarded as a transgression of the first mitzvah (divine commandment)— "Be fruitful and multiply". It would have been unthinkable for an adult, unmarried Jew to travel about teaching as a rabbi, as Jesus certainly did.
A counter-argument to this is that the Judaism of Jesus' time was very diverse and the role of the rabbi was not yet well defined. Celibate teachers like John the Baptist were known in the communities of the Essenes, and Paul of Tarsus was an example of an unmarried itinerant teacher among the Christians, at a time when most Christians were still practicing Jews. It was really not until after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70 that Rabbinic Judaism became dominant and the role of the rabbi made uniform in Jewish communities.
Mary Magdalene appears with more frequency than other women in the canonical Gospels and is shown as being a close follower of Jesus. Mary's presence at the Crucifixion and Jesus's tomb, while hardly conclusive, is at least consonant with the role of grieving wife and widow, although if that were the case Jesus might have been expected to make provision for her care as well as for his mother Mary. Given the lack of contemporary documentation, this scenario cannot be proven, and although some consider the idea desirable to believe, most scholars do not take it seriously.
Other reasoning would say that Christ was already married— to the Church— an image that was developed first by Paul in what became the New Testament and then later expanded on by the Church fathers. Some writers, following an early tradition that Jesus is in a mystical sense the second Adam (again beginning with Paul and continuing with Irenaeus and others), embody this sense with literal parallels: like the first Adam, his bride was taken from his side when he had fallen asleep (died on the cross). In medieval Christian anagogic exegesis, the blood and water which came from his side when he was pierced, was held to represent the bringing forth of the Church with its analogy in the water of baptism and the wine of the new covenant. Thus Christ can be said to already have a wife in the Church; and so it would not be considered possible or tolerable to believe that he was otherwise married.
The Urantia Book (1955) maintains that Jesus was not married to Mary or any other woman. According to its account, he refused an offer of marriage at age eighteen because he was dedicated to his "Father's business" ("If I am a son of destiny, I must not assume obligations of lifelong duration until such a time as my destiny shall be made manifest"), but gained parental experience by becoming the sole supporter and father-figure to his siblings after Joseph died.
- Brock, Ann Graham, "Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle : The Struggle for Authority, Harvard University Press 2003 :discusses issues of apostolic authority in the gospels and the Gospel of Pter the competition between Pter and Mary, especially in ch. 7 "The Replacement of Mary Magdalene: A Strategy for Eliminating the Competition"
- Did Jesus Marry?, Birger A. Pearson, Bible Review, Spring 2005, pp 32-39 & 47 Discussion of complete texts.