Who was she? Who are we?
Feast Day of Mary Magdalene
Pure and simple, Mary Magdalene has been made to be what men needed her to be.
That doesn’t make her a sinner or a saint, it makes her a woman.
Millions of pixels have been spilled answering today’s question: Who was Mary Magdalene? Just Google it, and you’ll find more than you want to know. And, really, most of us already know that any kind of answer is hard to pin down.
There were three women in the New Testament named Mary, and Mary Magdalene could have been any of them or none. Further complicating things, there are three unnamed women in the New Testament and Mary Magdalene could have been any of them too.
Here’s what know from the Bible: Like many girls, she was named after Moses’ sister. She was from a working-class town on the Sea of Galilee called Magdala. She knew Jesus and helped provide for him and the male disciples. She was one of the few who stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion. She went to the tomb to care for his body. She was the first person Jesus appeared to after the resurrection.
That’s it. That is all that can be definitively drawn from the Bible.
But others have weighed in.
The Cathars, or Albigenses, for example, believed that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ intimate partner, maybe even married to him. Martin Luther may have thought similarly. And, most recently, the Christian-fantasy writer Dan Brown used it in his book, The Da Vinci Code.
The Gospel of Philip, which didn’t make it into the Bible, said that Mary Magdalene was the companion of Jesus and that Jesus loved her more than all the other disciples and frequently kissed her on the mouth.
Pope Gregory the Great, conflating several women, identified Mary Magdalene as the woman caught in adultery, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, andthe woman who had seven demons cast out of her. He said that the seven demons were the seven mortal sins and that after Jesus healed her, she became a model penitent.
Gregory of Antioch had a somewhat higher view of Mary Magdalene. In one sermon he attributed these words to Jesus, “Proclaim to my disciples the mysteries which you [Mary Magdalene] have seen. Become the first teacher of the teachers… Peter who has denied me must learn that I can choose women as apostles.”
You can see that lots of people have had something to say about this woman whose real identity is so slippery. Can we really know anything historical about her? Well, no. Not much anyway. But, there are so many stories about her. Surely some of them are true.
I think that all the stories are true. The thing is, they are not stories about Mary Magdalene as much as the stories about us and who we need Mary Magdalene to be. What we learn from the confusion of having so many women named Mary and so many stories with no names attached, is that religion will use ambiguity and mystery in the service of its own agenda.
At times it has been convenient for the church to domesticate and adore women. So they made Mary Magdalene their model penitent. When women wanted to take on leadership roles, Mary Magdalene was cast as a whore, a menace. And, when selling books was important, the blank slate of Mary Magdalene was once again pressed into service. Others filled in the blank spaces of her life with whatever they needed, not with the truth.
What have you been taught about Mary Magdalene? Whose agenda does it serve? Are you willing to hear new information and maybe change what you believe?
What about other issues? Are there some issues where what you think may not have as much basis in fact as in the needs of others?
Why is it so hard to just say that we don’t know?
Mary Magdalene reminds us that we are often manipulated by a religious establishment that has its own agenda. We have to ask questions, think clearly, see past the insecurities of our so-called leaders.
Her feast day also reminds us not to believe everything we hear.
Linda McMillan is writing from rainy Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Image: The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1598)by Domenico Tintoretto
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The three women named Mary were Mary, the wife of Clopas; Mary of Bethany; and Mary, the mother of James. There was also Mary the mother of Jesus, but we don’t confuse her with Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene may also have been conflated with Mary of Egypt, who does not appear in the New Testament.
The three unnamed women in the New Testament are the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, and the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume.
The Cathars were an 11th-century dualistic sect with some pretty wild beliefs. You can look them up for yourself. The Roman Catholic Church officially says that they are not Christian at all, while others call them Christian heretics.
Martin Luther on Mary Magdalene, commenting on Psalm 119… “…since she also came beforehand at the dawn and with untimely haste and cried and called to her husband much more wonderfully in spirit than in body.” (Williams, Mark D., Mary Magdalene on Blogspot. See it here.) Does that mean that Martin Luther thought Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married? I don’t know what he thought, just what he said.
There is also this from the Gospel of Philip… “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.”
A text is not really a “gospel” unless it is one of the canonical gospels in the New Testament. Nevertheless, there are plenty of extra-canonical texts that are called gospels because they are accounts of Jesus’ life.
The Gospel of John is most often attributed to John, the son of Zebedee. There is scant evidence for other authors, but the evidence for John, the son of Zebedee is based mainly on a childhood memory of Iranesus so… who knows?
Regarding the seven demons — I’ve heard it suggested that this was a coded message about a physical problem. Saying that there were seven would have just indicated that it was really serious. It might not have had anything to do with demons at all. But, Gentile readers were not likely to have gotten that coded message.
See Valantasis, Richard, The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities for more on Peter’s objection to Mary’s teachings.
Pope Gregory the Great and Gregory of Antioch were both alive around the 6th century.
Speaking of non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mary is thought to have been written by Mary Magdalene. It closes with a confrontation between Levi and Peter. Defending Mary Magdalene’s teachings, Levi says, “Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.” Peter wasn’t buying, though. He said that Jesus would not have revealed such important teachings to a woman.