Depending on what you read and who you believe, Mary Magdalene was an adulteress, a prostitute, an anointer of Jesus, a pagan priestess, a wealthy woman of towering strength, Jesus' lover or wife, a leader of the Apostolic church, a Christian emissary to the emperor of Rome, or feminist icon. She is perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial character in the New Testament, made all the more so by second and third century Gnostics and their modern successors. The real Mary Magdalene is immeasurably more than either the character assassins or the myth-makers imagine.
The Biblical Magdalene
The biblical record of Mary Magdalene is relatively limited but nonetheless highly revealing. She first appears in Luke 8 as one of "many women" who helped support Jesus and his band of disciples (Luke 8:1-3). Some have therefore linked her with the "sinner" of Luke 7:36-50, who anoints Jesus with expensive oil, but textual proximity is not sufficient to prove this thesis.
One interpretation of her name is that it comes from the Hebrew word, migdal (a tower) and suggests that Jesus Himself may have given it to her, as He gave Cephas (rock) to Simon and Boanerges (sons of thunder) to James and John. If that were the case, it would seem that some would have used the Greek equivalent, purgos, as with Peter (the Greek equivalent of Cephas). A simpler interpretation, however, is that she came from the city of Magdala on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, an area that Jesus would have passed through on many occasions during his three-year ministry (see Matthew 15:39). An intriguing spin-off of that interpretation is that she was a priestess of the Temple of Ishtar in Magdala, a pagan cult with a seven-stage initiation, which could correspond to the seven demons that were exorcised from her. Such speculation is not important to understanding her place in the Gospel, for we next encounter her at the climax of Jesus' mission:
* She is one of the women who are last at the cross--at a time when the men, except John, have gone "underground" (Mark 15-40-41).
* She is present at the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:46-47).
* She discovers the empty tomb (John 20:1-3).
* She is directed to carry the news to the disciples (Mark 16:7-8).
* Jesus makes his first resurrection appearance to her (Mark 16:9; John 20:14-17).
* She brings the news to the disciples (Mark 16:10-11).
There is simply no way to minimize Mary's deep affection for Jesus--notice that He has to get her to let go of Him and He clearly links Himself to her in saying "I ascend to My Father and your Father" (John 20:17). The Latin translation (Vulgate) of me mou hapto, perpetuated in the King James Version of the English Bible as "touch me not" robs this interaction between Mary and Jesus of most of its emotional content. The better translation--Don't cling to me--tells us that Mary's instinctive response to seeing her risen Lord was to embrace Him. While we are not told of Jesus' reaction, "touch me not" implies a rejection of Mary's embrace, while "don't cling to me" suggests something quite different.
There is also no way to minimize Jesus' concern for and trust in her. On the one hand, He hastens to end her overwhelming grief in appearing to her first--before all those disciples who had been with him from the first and his own mother--but He also entrusts her with the most important message in history: He has risen!
The Legendary Magdalene
These facts should be sufficient to enshrine Mary in the Disciple Hall of Fame alongside the Twelve (less Judas Iscariot, of course), Barnabas, Mark, Joanna, Mary and Martha, and others, but something happened to the Magdalene to alter her image. She disappears from the literature of the early church (both the New Testament and patristic works), but she lived on in several ancient legends. One from the Eastern Church involves Easter eggs. As a wealthy woman, Mary traveled to Rome after Jesus' Ascension, according to the legend, where she gained an audience with Emperor Tiberius. When she attempted to help explain Jesus' resurrection with an egg from their dinner table, Tiberius scoffed that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg turn red. The egg turned red immediately, which is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the East.
A Greek legend places her in Ephesus with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the Apostle John after the fall of Jerusalem, but the most involved and lasting legend comes from France. Traveling there with Lazarus and others, she evangelizes the entire city of Marseilles, after which she retires to a 30-year penance on a nearby hill, La Sainte-Baume. A shrine dating from 1279 remains there today. It is this legend that apparently inspired Donatello's sculpture of Magdalene, in which she is a haggard old woman devoid of her biblical youth and passion.
The Gnostic Magdalene
The proper view of Mary Magdalene was probably doomed when the Gnostics of the second and third century adopted her as the central figure in their often-bizarre doctrine, elevating her above the Twelve, particularly in the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, both part of the 1945 Nag Hammadi (Egypt) find:
"And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval." -- The Gospel of Philip
"[The disciples] grieved and mourned greatly, 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?'
"Then Mary stood up and greeted all of them and said to her brethren, 'Do not mourn or grieve or be irresolute, for his grace will be with you all and will defend you. Let us rather praise his greatness, for he prepared us and made us into men.' When Mary said this, their hearts changed for the better, and they began to discuss the words of the [Savior].
"Peter said to Mary, 'Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than other women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you have in mind since you know them; and we do not, nor have we heard of them.'
"Mary answered and said, 'What is hidden from you I will impart to you'"
-- The Gospel of Mary V
Mary then relates a mystical vision of Jesus (much of which is lost), which is followed by a petulant response from Peter:
"When Mary had said this, she was silent, since the Savior had spoken thus far with her. 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? Then Mary grieved and said to Peter, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart or that I am lying concerning the Savior?'
"Levi answered and said to Peter, 'Peter, you are always irate. Now I see that you are contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Savior knew her very well. For this reason he loved her more than us. And we should rather be ashamed and put on the Perfect Man, to form us as he commanded us, and proclaim the gospel, without publishing a further commandment or a further law than the one which the Savior spoke.' When Levi had said this, they began to go out in order to proclaim him and preach him" -- Gospel of Mary IX
It was probably this portrayal of Mary Magdalene exercising authority over the men selected by Jesus Himself that incensed the leaders of the church. Marginalizing Peter, who was firmly (but wrongly) established as the ultimate authority among the Apostles by the late sixth century, pushed powerful men over the edge.
The Roman Magdalene
With an all-too-typical over-reaction, the Roman church began to denigrate Mary, portraying her as a wanton prostitute in desperate need of the restoration only orthodox Christianity could provide. The campaign culminated when Pope Gregory I (the Great) botched the biblical record in a 591 sermon: "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark." The Catholic Church officially, albeit quietly, finally disavowed this error at Vatican II in 1969, but the damage of nearly 1400 years was done, evidenced by countless works of art, many of which are essentially religious pornography.
It is ironic that during the same general period that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was elevated to near-divine status, Mary Magdalene was almost completely stripped of her deserved biblical status.
While the conspiracy theorists who suggest a chauvinistic smear campaign may go well beyond reasonable conclusions, it is not difficult to imagine a genuine intent to marginalize women in the unbiblical hierarchical structure of the Roman church, perhaps reaching its zenith with the comments of the sainted Peter Damian (1007-1072) to the wives of priests:
"I speak to you, o charmers of the clergy, appetizing flesh of the devil; you poison of the minds, companions of the very stuff of sin; you women of the Ancient Enemy; you bitches, sows, screech owls, night owls, she-wolves, blood-suckers--hear me harlots, prostitutes with your lascivious kisses, you wallowing places for fat pigs, demi-goddesses, sirens, witches, devotees of Diana--the Ancient Foe pants to invade the summit of the church's chastities through you. You have sucked the blood of miserable, unwary men. They should kill you."
In classic Adamic fashion, misguided Roman church leaders blamed their own weakness on women.
The repudiated connection of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of John 8 continues today, having been reinforced in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. This is not surprising, however, since Gibson observes a pre-Vatican II strain of Roman Catholicism. However evocative and faithful The Passion may have been, this is one of the things Gibson got wrong.
The Modern Goddess Mary
And so, Mary Magdalene remained a prostitute until the discovery of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi. Even Mary's role in those documents remained relatively obscure until the publication of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, New York: Dell Publishing Co.) in 1983 and, in particular Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code in 2003. These books, both theorizing a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, have hatched or incubated a new batch of Magdalene myths, to the delight of both feminists and modern Gnostics. As disingenuous as the Roman demotion of Mary Magdalene may have been, this new adoration of her would undoubtedly disturb her all the more.
Consider, for example, this revision by Mary Seekins of the Order of Mary Magdala:
"Hail Mary Magdalene, the Lord has wed thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb and Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of kings, give aid to us seekers now and in the hour of our need" (northernway.org/school/omm.html)
Or this poem: Mary, We did not Know You, by Maya, priestess of the same order:
Mary, we did not know you.
Kept hidden for centuries you were despised,
A Queen not seen, under harlot's disguise.
Mary, we did not know you.
No Wife has He, we were told.
No Priestess, no Bride, no Queen, He was alone.
They dressed you in rags, royal purple not shown.
Mary, we did not know you.
My heart weeps for what was lost.
How we treated you, Divine Daughter on High.
I search Heaven and Earth and ask myself, why.
Mary, we did not know you.
May we now bring wrong to right.
We will sing of Your Queenship for all to hear.
We will ring your truth, north, south, far and near.
Mary, now all may know you.
And finally, magdalene.org, a website "celebrating the mysteries of the Woman Who Knew The All," includes Magdalene's Mind, a 2001 play by Gloria Amendola that places Mary in modern New York City where she comforts, heals, and forgives a cynical student-prostitute, a depressed single mother, and a hard-hearted male corporate executive. In the final act, she is reunited with Jesus, and they engage in a titillating conversation that is apparently the prelude to their entry into the Gnostic Bridal Chamber.
The danger of such silly modern myths, of course, is that they join the chorus of atheists, liberal theologians, and others in misrepresenting the Bible and genuine Christianity. I am convinced that God and His Son embody far more of the feminine and mystical than most 21st century western churches encourage, but the answer does not lie in swinging the proverbial pendulum to the other extreme. It is said that the truth usually lies somewhere between two extremes, and in this case (as in all cases), the truth lies in the biblical record itself. The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament paint a picture of the virtual equality of genders before God (Galatians 3:28) and does so with startling candor.
When Mary Magdalene rushes back to the rest of the disciples after encountering the resurrected Jesus, Mark reports that "they refused to believe it" (16:11) and Luke tells us that they considered her report "nonsense" (24:11). Those who claim that the Bible was edited to elevate men and denigrate women either have not read it or deliberately distort it. The disciple's failure to believe is not a commentary on their attitude toward women either since they also refused to believe the two men who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12-13, see also Luke 24:13-35). It would seem that Thomas got a bad rap being labeled "Doubting" since none of them believed until Jesus appeared to them personally!
The problem of gender inequity doesn't come from the Bible! It comes from Socratic chauvinism and a Roman church that either over-reacted to radically feminist Gnosticism or inappropriately clung to Mosaic patrimony in opposition to the Gospel. When we look at the creation accounts, Eve is created to be a "helper suitable for" Adam (Genesis 2:18), a description that many interpret as subservient or at least secondary, but the Hebrew word translated "helper" (ezer) carries no such connotation, and neged, usually translated "suitable" is better understood as "corresponding to." A "suitable helper" sounds suspiciously like a maid, and that is clearly not what God had in mind, despite what some of us men may think. That become particularly clear when we see that God Himself is called an ezer to Man in such passages as Exodus 18:4, Psalm 33:20, and Hosea 13:9.
Before God creates Eve, Adam names the animals and "there was not found a(n) (ezer) (corresponding to) him" (Genesis 2:20). No animal was equal (corresponding) to Adam, so God created woman from the man He had already created. Some seem to believe that only males were created in God's image, but Genesis 1:27 tells us, "God created man(kind) in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (emphasis added). The Bible often portrays God as a father figure, but God is also portrayed as female in such passages as Numbers 11:12, Deuteronomy 32:18, Isaiah 49:14-15, and Hosea 11:1-4. It is clear that God embodies characteristics that are considered both masculine and feminine. It is in creating both Adam and Eve that mankind is created "in His/Her image," and it was His/Her intent that this creation become even more in that image by being united as one body/flesh (Genesis 2:24).
We all know what happened, and the Fall interrupted God's initial design for gender relationships. Both male and female are given new roles--his to toil in the earth and die, hers to bear children in pain and be ruled by her husband. Neither of these represents God's creative intent--they are a direct result and consequence of the Fall.
Jesus is the new Adam (1 Corinthians 15), created to restore the perfection of God's design and restore His creatures to communion with the Creator. Jesus undoes the Curse, defeating Satan and Death. But Jesus does even more for representative a representative male and a representative female. Just before His crucifixion, Peter yields to fear and temptation by denying his association with Jesus three times. The resurrected Jesus returns to Peter with the three-fold "Do you love me/Tend my lambs" interaction that restores Peter to the mission of love and life God created for him. In this way, Jesus has passed on His mission to Peter as a representative of the Apostles and all men. Just as death had entered the world through Adam's sin (Romans 5:12), now life could enter through all men.
Similarly, Jesus restores women through Mary Magdalene. Eve, as Paul points out, was deceived by Satan (1 Timothy 2:14) and she led Adam to his sin, through which death entered the world. In entrusting her with the announcement that He had risen, he restores Mary Magdalene, as a representative of all women, to a place of trust and equality with men. Eve carried the message of Satan to Adam; Mary carried the message of Christ to Peter.
In this world, we remain with our feet in two planes--one the world, where the vestiges of the Fall continue to plague humanity, and the other the kingdom of God, where there is no death and no toil. In the church, we too often choose to emulate the world in our gender relationships, but it need not be that way. In heaven, we are told, there is no marriage (Matthew 22:29-32), so husbands will not rule over wives--they will live on eternally in the equality that God intended.
With Jesus' deliberate, loving actions toward Peter and Mary Magdalene, He restored Man--male and female--and the equality of creation, ushering in the kingdom of God. It is long past time for us to live that restoration in the church.
Dick Soule is deacon for adult teaching at the Newark (Delaware) Church of Christ. He is also the author of two novels--Peculiar People, published by Xulon Press, and Aspen Leaves on New-Fallen Snow (unpublished)--and a bi-weekly internet essay, Ekklesia Then & Now. Information about all of these writings can be found at his website, www.peculiarpress.com