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Mary Magdalen was not a prostitute or an adulterer. She was a primary apostle of Jesus who was at the cross and the empty tomb and was one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

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Mary Magdalen

by Mary Ann Getty

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 tradition.

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 (7:53—8:11) 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 and Capernaum.

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 the resurrection.

Mary—s Call

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 9—10) 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— disbelief.

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.

Some Conclusions

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."

Mary Ann Getty is the author of many books and articles on New Testament topics, especially Paul, women and spirituality. She is an associate editor of and contributor to the Catholic Study Bible and The Bible Today. She has a doctorate in theology from the University of Louvain (Belgium) and teaches Scripture at St. Vincent College and St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Next: Jacob/Israel (by Frederick Mann)


Living the Scriptures

What are the difficulties people face in following Jesus all the way from miracles to the cross? How does a more biblically valid portrait of Mary Magdalen affect your appreciation of her?



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