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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Mary Magdalen has staying power, inspiring artists,
sinners, saints and followers of Christ through the ages. Such
popularity cannot be easily explained on the basis of the biblical
information about her. What the New Testament says about this
woman referred to simply as Mary Magdalen or Mary of Magdala is
sparse and disappointing, but the little that the Gospels do say
is significant and tantalizing. All four confirm her as a model
disciple for all ages.
There is something mysterious and intriguing about
this woman as the Gospels present her. The fact that a woman unattached
to a man is named on her own right in the New Testament is significant,
setting her apart either because she was extraordinary or because
there was a problem. Perhaps precisely for this reason, popular
imagination has "filled in the gaps" and linked her to other New
Testament women, developing a composite without realizing it.
Before we turn to what the Gospels do say, let us consider what
they do not say.
Who She Is Not
Mary Magdalen is sometimes mistakenly identified
with the woman who anointed Jesus. This identification is further
complicated because people wrongly associate the anointing story
with a sinful woman, a prostitute. And to make matters even worse,
the images of Mary Magdalen and a woman in John—s Gospel who is
accused of adultery are superimposed.
All four Evangelists tell of a woman anointing
Jesus, although they use this story for different purposes. Mark
and Matthew place an account of an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus
for his burial at the beginning of the Passion Narrative (Mk 14:3-9;
Mt 26:6-13). Jesus is pictured in Bethany near Jerusalem at the
home of Simon the Leper. John similarly recounts an anointing
of Jesus shortly before his death, identifying the woman as Mary
of Bethany who did so in gratitude for Jesus— raising her brother,
Lazarus, from the dead. Mary was a common name, and perhaps this
is one reason the stories of two Marys were blended in later Christian
Luke tells of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus
as he reclined at table, not at the end of his life, but during
his ministry (Lk 7:36-50). Jesus is portrayed as dining at the
home of Simon the Pharisee. Mary Magdalen may be confused with
this woman because Mary Magdalen is first mentioned by name immediately
following Luke—s account of the anointing story (Lk 8:2). To add
to the confusion, this woman is sometimes depicted as a public
sinner (a euphemism for a prostitute) who shed tears of repentance
and acted out of a sense of remorse. But the woman who anointed
Jesus is unnamed in Luke, and the idea of her being remembered
for her "sin" rather than for the great love motivating her actions
is contrary to both the meaning of the parable Jesus speaks on
this occasion and Luke—s purposes in telling the story.
To complicate matters, there is a story found
in some manuscripts of John (7:538:11) of a woman caught
in adultery, and this unnamed woman is sometimes connected to
Mary Magdalen. A long tradition in Christian writing and art portrays
Mary Magdalen as a repentant sinner who, after encountering Jesus,
spent the rest of her life lamenting her past sins. An equally
long tradition likes to imagine that this sin was sexual and all
the more deplorable because it was so base. But there is nothing
in the Gospels to support a link between Mary of Magdala and a
sinful woman, much less a prostitute.
What the Gospels Say
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, she is called Mary Magdalen
or "Mary, called Magdalen" (see Mt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mk 15:40,
47; 16:1, 9; Lk 8:2; 24:10). John refers to her as "Mary of Magdala,"
a town otherwise unmentioned in the Bible (see Jn 19:25; 20:1,
18). Some identify it with Magadan (see Mt 15:39, Mk 8:10), a
town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Tiberias
Mary of Magdala is identified with a place, but
not associated with any man besides Jesus. In the New Testament
world, women were usually associated with their husbands, fathers,
sons or brothers. Thus, an unnamed woman who followed Jesus and
was present at the cross is simply "the mother of the sons of
Zebedee." Zebedee appears not to have been present when his wife
and sons, James and John, journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to
Jerusalem. Still, it is he who is named, not his believing wife.
Mary of Nazareth and Mary and Martha of Bethany
also are connected with their hometowns but connected with men
as well: Mary with Joseph; Mary and Martha with Lazarus. Mary
Magdalen is Jesus— disciple and apostle. There is no single description
of these roles in the New Testament. Rather, the Gospels portray
Jesus as attracting "learners" ("disciples"). After an apprenticeship
to the Master Teacher, these disciples were "sent out" (the meaning
of "apostle") to preach and act on Jesus— authority. >From the
Gospels, we learn that the disciples were called. Jesus told his
disciples that they were to be witnesses, continuing the mission
that Jesus began. Disciples were required to follow Jesus and
to persevere even to death. They came to believe and preached
Some disciples were called to leave an apparently
comfortable life. Peter, James and John were fishermen who "left
everything" to follow Jesus (Mk 1:18). Levi (or Matthew) was a
tax collector who immediately got up to follow Jesus (Mk 2:13-14;
Mt 9:9). Others left behind maladies and disabilities, and their
"call" is actually a miracle. The blind Bartimaeus encountered
Jesus and was healed. He then "followed [Jesus] along the way"
(see Mk 10:52). Similarly, it seems, Mary Magdalen, cured of "seven
demons," followed Jesus (see Lk 8:2; Mk 16:9). Luke names her
among several women cured of evil spirits and infirmities who
followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, ministering to him.
Witnesses testify to what they have seen and heard.
The disciples are called to witness the coming of the kingdom
of God in Jesus— words and deeds. They are given a mission (see
Mt 10; Lk 910) and sent to do as Jesus did (Lk 10:1, 3,
9). Jesus instructs his disciples to become like good soil that
"when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and
good heart, and bear fruit in perseverance" (Lk 8:15). This instruction
corresponds to descriptions of Mary Magdalen who, having been
exorcised, patiently and faithfully followed Jesus to the cross
and beyond, ministering to him and the other disciples from her
own resources with openness and generosity.
According to Mark, Jesus— last admonition to his
disciples before the Passion was, "Watch" (Mk 13:36). They were
to be witnesses to Jesus— suffering and death and ultimately to
his resurrection. But the evangelists attest to the male disciples—
inability to "watch" with Jesus even for a short time as in the
Garden. Yet of Mary Magdalen and some other women it is said that
they "watched" the crucifixion and remained there to "see" where
Jesus was laid. Matthew says that Mary Magdalen and the other
women went to the tomb early Easter morning to "watch" there (see
Mt 27:55-56, 61; 28:1, 8-10). They "saw" that the tomb was empty.
Finally these women, according to all three Synoptics, heard the
message of the resurrection and reported it to the others. They
were "sent" as messengers or apostles to the other disciples.
Witness and Messenger
Mark places Mary Magdalen and other women at the
foot of the cross (Mk 15:40-41). Using Mark, Luke moves to the
center of Jesus— ministry this description of women who follow
Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem to indicate their faith and perseverance
(Lk 8:1-3). According to Luke, at his Last Supper, Jesus refers
to his disciples as those who "stood with me during my trials"
(Lk 22:28). Mary Magdalen was certainly one of those.
Wherever she is named (except Jn 19:25-27), Mary
Magdalen heads the list of women who followed and ministered to
Jesus. In John, the women are moved from the background to the
foot of the cross. Only in John, these women include "the Mother
of Jesus," together with "her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas,
and Mary of Magdala" (Jn 19:25). Supported by these other women
and by the Beloved Disciple (the source of the testimony of the
Fourth Gospel), "the Mother of Jesus" is close enough to hear
Jesus entrust her to his care. Mary Magdalen stands there also,
witnessing Jesus— death and listening to him, just as she had
done during his life.
Contrary to their male counterparts who abandoned
Jesus and ran away in confusion, Mary Magdalen and her female
companions not only witnessed Jesus— death, but remained to verify
the site of his tomb. These women returned to anoint his body
early the day after the Sabbath. After Jesus— appearance to her,
the Synoptics say that Mary Magdalen went and told the other disciples
who did not believe the women (Mk 16:20; Lk 23:49). Apparently
their lack of credibility as women spawned the male disciples—
In John, Mary of Magdala went to the tomb "early
in the morning when it was still dark." Finding the stone removed,
she ran to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple (Jn 20:1-2).
All three returned to the tomb. Mary remained, weeping (Jn 20:11).
At last, Jesus appeared and spoke to her (20:11-18). She went
and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" and what
he told her (20:18). In John there is no hint that Peter and the
others did not believe Mary or that she was not a credible witness
because she was a woman. John does say Peter and the Beloved Disciple
ran to the tomb to see for themselves, and the Beloved Disciple
believed. John seems to insinuate that Peter did not believe immediately.
Mary Magdalen then saw Jesus himself and her belief was confirmed
in her commission to tell the others and in her obedience.
The Gospels reflect a debate about the validity
of women—s testimony that carried over into the church from first-century
society. The steadfastness and unanimity of the Gospels— testimony
about the credibility of women and of Mary Magdalen in particular
is one indication that the community of Jesus— believers represented
a new view of women and their place in the new society, the church.
Significantly, the Gospels record the dismal failure of the male
disciples in Jesus— most demanding "hour," followed by their unwillingness
to believe Mary Magdalen and the other women who hastened to inform
them of Jesus— resurrection.
It is a truism of Scriptural interpretation that
those elements which cannot be easily explained in terms of the
dominant culture are the more significant because they may be
marks of revelation. The Scriptures were born in a patriarchal
culture biased toward men and against women. It is startling that,
in such a culture, women would be mentioned at all, much less
treated in a positive manner. Against this background, the unflattering
way in which the male disciples are portrayed at the supreme moment
of Jesus— self-giving, and the indispensable role of the women
at this same crucial moment must be explained. Throughout the
New Testament, especially in the Gospels where Jesus— own example
is given, the positive image of women remains a voice crying for
explanation and legitimacy.
Mary Magdalen has been so misjudged, even vilified,
over the centuries we have almost completely lost or glossed over
her role as a primary apostle. Although comments about her are
understated to say the least, all four Gospels agree that Mary
Magdalen was at the cross and the empty tomb and that she was
among the first witnesses to Jesus— resurrection. They describe
Mary Magdalen in the same terms they use to describe other disciples
of Jesus. She becomes what the Eastern liturgy calls her, "apostle
to the apostles."
Next: Jacob/Israel (by Frederick Mann)