Frequently Asked Questions about Mary Magdalene

by Lidija Novakovic | June 05, 2006
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1. Where is Mary Magdalene mentioned in the Bible?

Mary Magdalene appears in all four gospels as a witness of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Luke 8:2 explains that this particular Mary was called Magdalene, and all four evangelists consistently identify her by the name “Mary Magdalene” (Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18). The only exceptions are John 20:11, 16, which contain a simple term “Mary,” but the context makes clear that this Mary is no one else but Mary Magdalene. It should also be noted that, similar to the designation given to some men, such as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 16:6) and Joseph of Arimathaea (Mark 15:43, John 19:38), the second part of her name, Magdalene, points to her place of origin, the city of Magdala, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee north of Tiberias. This designation uniquely distinguishes this Mary from all other Marys mentioned in the New Testament. An identification of a woman by her place of origin was quite rare in Judaism at the time. More common was a relational designation with regard to another family member, such as a parent (Mark 6:22; Luke 2:36) or a husband (Matt 1:6; Luke 8:3; John 19:25). The absence of such a relational term for this Mary suggests that she was neither a young girl under a direct guardianship of her father nor a married woman accountable to her husband. Most interpreters therefore assume that she was a widow.

The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel that introduces Mary Magdalene before the beginning of the passion narrative. Luke 8:1-3 informs the reader that she was among the women who followed Jesus and the Twelve during their ministry in Galilee and provided for them out of their resources. A similar piece of information is found in the other two similar gospels of Mark and Matthew. Both gospels, who mention Mary Magdalene for the first time in the crucifixion scene, use this occasion to add that she was among the Galilean women who followed Jesus and ministered to him (Mark 15:40-41; Matthew 27:55-56). Luke 8:2 also explains that Mary Magdalene was a woman from whom seven demons have gone out. Given a common association between demons and infirmities prevalent in early Judaism, this remark is most likely a reference to her former illnesses from which she has been cured, presumably by Jesus.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John explicitly mention Mary Magdalene as an eye witness of Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:40; Matt 27:56; John 19:25). Mark and Matthew also add that she observed Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:47; Matt 27:61). Even though there are variations with regard to the names of other women – Mark mentions Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome; Matthew mentions Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zabedee; John mentions Jesus’ mother, her sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas – all three evangelists agree that Mary Magdalene was there. Evangelist Luke concurs. Although he does not mention Mary Magdalene or anyone else by name when he refers to a group of Galilean women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:49) and burial (Luke 23:55), the reader can conclude that Mary of Magdala was part of this group on the basis of the next scene described in chapter 24. There, the reader can see that the same group of women found the empty tomb and reported this to the eleven apostles (Luke 24:10). At this point, Luke singles out Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. 

All four gospels agree that on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene was among the women who came to the tomb where Jesus was buried and found it empty (Mark 16:1; Matt 28:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1-2). Mark and Matthew also report that these women received the commission from an angel to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to his disciples.

Since Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly in 16:8, no appearance of Jesus is reported. Matthew’s Gospel, however, offers a follow-up of the empty tomb scene by informing the reader that Jesus appeared to the same group of women as they were leaving the scene of the burial. A variation of the same tradition is found in the Gospel of John, which singles out Mary Magdalene as the first witness of Jesus’ appearances and the recipient of his personal commission to proclaim the news of his resurrection and impending ascension to his disciples (John 20:11-18). Luke’s Gospel is the only gospel which differs at this point from the other three. After the scene in which Mary Magdalene, with several other women from Galilee, informs the disciples that the tomb was empty, she disappears from the narrative. Although Luke offers a lengthy account of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples who were going to the town of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), he gives credit to Peter as the first person who met the risen Jesus (Luke 24:34). Consequently, Luke’s version of the post-resurrection events elevates Peter to a position of prominence, which will be further reinforced in the sequel of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Mary’s role in these happenings has been reduced to a mere witness of the empty tomb.

2. Do other ancient texts mention Mary Magdalene? What do they say of her?

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in several documents that are not included in the Bible, all of which postdate the New Testament. In the 2nd century Gospel of Peter, Mary Magdalene is called a “female disciple of the Lord” who went to the tomb of Jesus with her women friends and heard the message of the young man in shining robes. The Gospel of Thomas, a 2nd century Gnostic collection of Jesus’ sayings, depicts Mary as a person who had a special relationship with Jesus, expressed through her tendency to ask questions that he answers. At the very end there is a short episode which seems to suggest that there was a competition between Mary Magdalene and Peter. In this account, Peter says to Jesus, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life,” but Jesus refuses to fulfill his request.

Both motifs, Mary’s curiosity and a rivalry with Peter, can be frequently found in other writings from the same period. In the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a woman who wanted “to understand all things, just as they are.” She was one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching, but she was more significant than the other two because she spoke “as a woman who had understood completely.” In the 3rd century Pistis Sophia, Mary appears as a persistent questioner of Jesus. 39 out of 64 questions addressed to Jesus are attributed to Mary, who admits her perseverance in questioning, “I will not tire of asking you. Be not angry with me for questioning everything.” She is also able to give insightful replies, so that even Jesus marvels at the answers she gives. She is described as blessed beyond all women, beautiful in speech, fulfilled in all knowledge, and superior to all the disciples. This writing also mentions the competition between Mary and Peter.

The latter motif is even more developed in the Gospel of Mary, a late 2nd century Gnostic text attributed to Mary Magdalene. This document survived in two 3rd century Greek text fragments and a 5th century Coptic text fragment. Here Mary greets and consoles the disciples who despair over the suffering that awaits them. Peter then points out that the Savior loved her more than any other woman and asks her to tell the other disciples Jesus’ words that she remembers. However, after she communicates to them the secret and quite strange revelation made to her by Jesus, her account was met with unbelief by Andrew and ridicule by Peter. Interestingly enough, Peter does not object to the content of Mary’s revelation as Andrew, but to her gender. He questions whether the Savior would have spoken “with a woman in private without our knowledge about it . . . Did he choose her over us?”

Finally, the list of ancient writings that mention Mary Magdalene must also include the Gospel of Philip, a late 3rd century Gnostic writing, which speaks of Mary’s special relationship to Jesus. Mary is called the companion of the Lord and described as a person who always walked with him, together with his mother and his sister. Moreover, she is portrayed as the woman whom Christ loved more than the other disciples “and used to kiss her [often] on her […].” The missing word, indicated by the dots in the brackets, is frequently restored as “mouth,” but such a reconstruction is very tentative.

3. What has the Church traditionally taught about Mary Magdalene?

Since nearly all of the texts mentioned above originated in the circles that were declared heretic by orthodox Christianity, it is not surprising that the traditional Church’s teaching about Mary Magdalene disregarded them and took into account only the New Testament writings. However, only in the Eastern Church the traditional image of Mary Magdalene was confined to the data provided in the gospels. In this tradition, Mary Magdalene was primarily remembered as the first witness of the resurrection and as such was regarded like one of the apostles. In the Western Church, however, Mary Magdalene was more commonly portrayed as a woman of questionable reputation than as the first witness of the resurrection. This misrepresentation is usually traced back to the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great in one sermon confused her with the unnamed sinful woman, presumably a prostitute, mentioned in Luke 7:36-50. Furthermore, a correlation between Luke 7:36-50 (where this unidentified woman expresses her remorse by moistening Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, kissing them, and then anointing them with ointment which she brought in an alabaster flask) and John12:1-8 (where Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment and wipes them with her hair) led to an association between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, which was very popular especially in the Middle Ages. Religious imagination and fantasy filled the gaps. Mary Magdalene, a sister of Martha and Lazarus, became a beautiful reformed prostitute, who was converted from her sinful life by Jesus. Prior to her conversion she suffered from seven deadly sins, caused by seven demons mentioned in Luke 8:2, such as pride, avarice, gluttony, lust, laziness, jealousy, and anger. The encounter with Jesus changed her and she became his devoted follower and supporter. Jesus rewarded for her zeal by allowing her to become the first witness of his resurrection.     

 As such, Mary Magdalene inflamed sexual fantasies of numerous artists who portrayed her naked or half-naked, frequently covering her nudity only with her long hair. The alabaster jar with ointment mentioned in Luke 7:37, which the unnamed sinful woman poured out on Jesus’ feet, regularly appears as an identifying motif in the paintings of Mary Magdalene. It should be noted, however, that this misinformed and confused image of Mary Magdalene played a very significant theological role in the Roman Catholic Church. Mary Magdalene became a powerful vehicle for conveying a call for conversion. Her life story illustrated the message of forgiveness able to overcome every kind of human sin and restore a person into a devoted believer. Pastorally, Mary Magdalene inspired numerous social endeavors designed to advance the conversion of prostitutes and other women of questionable morality.     

4. Was Mary Magdalene really a prostitute

As already explained in the previous question, an identification of Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute has no biblical basis. Luke 7:36-50, the main text that supports this erroneous portrayal of Mary Magdalene, does not mention the name of the woman who came to Jesus to repent of her sins. Even that woman’s association with prostitution is far from being certain. Likewise, Luke’s account of this woman should be not be confused with a completely unrelated account narrated in John 12:8. The only common elements are the ointment that is poured on Jesus’ feet and each woman’s long hair. The differences, however, outnumber the similarities. In Luke, the main character is an unnamed woman; in John, the main character is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. In neither case can these women be equated with Mary Magdalene, who is always identified by her full name. Further, in Luke, the woman came to express her repentance; in John, Mary anointed Jesus’ body in anticipation of his impending death. In Luke, the entire event takes place in the house of one of the Pharisees, whom Jesus eventually reproaches for not being a good host; in John, the event takes place in the house of Jesus’ friends – Martha, Mary, and Lazarus – who offered him a supper and affable company.

From the 16th century on, various interpreters, both Protestant and Catholic, argued that the woman sinner in Luke 7, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene were three distinct personalities. This interpretation was eventually officially embraced at the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. Even though an image of Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute is still popular among average churchgoers, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, this view is not accepted by any reputable biblical scholar today.        

5. Was Mary Magdalene really married to Jesus?

Mary’s special relationship to Jesus is a prominent theme in several Gnostic writings surveyed above, but the idea that she was married to Jesus is usually derived from a few references found in the Gospel of Philip. This late 3rd century Gnostic writing has captured much public attention after the publication of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, which asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child with her. Brown also alleges that the Church wanted to cover up this secret in order to protect Jesus’ divinity. The Gospel of Philip contains two elements on which the theory of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is based. First, Mary is called the companion of the Lord and described as a person who always walked with him. It should be noted, however, that the Coptic term used here does not mean a spouse, but a companion or an associate. Second, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as the woman whom Christ loved more than the other disciples and used to kiss her, presumably on her mouth. However, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus’ love for Mary was a different kind of love, such as erotic love, than the love he had for other disciples. The disciples do not complain that Jesus loved Mary in a different way than them, but only that he loved her more than them. Thus, the point of dispute is not the type but the degree of his love toward Mary. Also, a kiss on the mouth was a common Gnostic practice, which has most likely shaped the formulation of the text. The fact that the Gospel of Philip was composed more than two centuries after the composition of the writings that became part of the New Testament further weakens any possible contribution that this text could offer to our attempts to reconstruct the life, and especially the marital status, of the earthly Jesus.

Our main sources here are still the four biblical gospels, which show no indication that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married. In fact, they contain no hint that Jesus was ever married. His other family members – mother, brothers, and sisters – are mentioned more than once, but never a wife. Also, there is no indication that Jesus was widowed. Even though marriage was common among the Jews, there were always individuals who remained single, such as the Essenes, John the Baptist, and maybe Paul. It should also be stressed that had Jesus been married and had children, this would have in no way endangered his divinity. Sex and eventual offspring would not be defiling, since Jesus held marriage in high regard and loved children. If so, the only plausible explanation of the silence of the sources with regard to his eventual spouse is that he had none.

6. Could Mary Magdalene be considered an apostle?

The question of whether a person could be considered an apostle is directly related to the question of the criteria for apostleship. In the New Testament, we can identify at least two different views with regard to apostolic prerequisites. According to Luke (Acts 1:21-22), an apostle is a person (a) who has accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, and (b) who has become a witness to his resurrection. According to Paul (Gal 1:11-19; 1 Cor 9:1; 15:3-11), who himself did not fulfill Luke’s first condition but nevertheless repeatedly emphasized his own apostolic standing, an apostle is a person (a) who has witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ, and (b) who has received a divine call or commission to proclaim Christ’s message.

Mary Magdalene fulfills all these criteria, both Luke’s and Paul’s, and therefore could be considered an apostle. All three synoptic gospels confirm that she accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry. All four gospels unanimously agree that she was among the women who discovered the empty tomb and received the angelic message about Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew and John also add that she has witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ and received a commission to proclaim the news of his resurrection to his disciples. Finally, John reports that she fulfilled this task by declaring to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” It is therefore not surprising that some early Christians, such as Hippolytus, bishop and martyr of Rome who died around 235, gave Mary Magdalene the title “apostle of the apostles.”

In the New Testament itself, however, she is never called an apostle. Moreover, Luke’s Gospel discloses that already in the first century, some Christian circles not only considered Peter as the first witness of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances but also completely erased Mary’s name from the list of those who have seen the risen Jesus. A confirmation of this tendency can be found in 1 Cor 15:3-7, where Paul quotes a very early tradition handed over to him that Jesus first appeared to Peter, then to the twelve, then to five hundred brethren, then to James, and then to all the apostles. On this list of authoritative resurrection witnesses, there is no mention of Mary Magdalene.

This propensity has frequently been explained as an early Christian attempt to give credibility to Jesus’ resurrection by mentioning only male witnesses. This is because in the first century, so the argument goes, female testimony was not legally binding and could be easily dismissed in court. However, another explanation is also possible. If witnessing Jesus’ resurrection was one of the most important criteria for apostleship, the aforementioned difference between his account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the accounts of other evangelists could be taken as evidence of an initial struggle for authority between Peter and Mary. Early Christian non-biblical writings, even though they postdate the New Testament and frequently reveal Gnostic influences, offer additional support to this reconstruction of early Christian history.

7. What does the story of Mary Magdalene teach us about Jesus' view of gender and ministry?

The story of Mary Magdalene shows that Jesus’ closest followers consisted of both men and women. It is also interesting to note that these women like Mary Magdalene were persistent followers of Jesus because, unlike his male disciples at this point in history, they did not desert him when he was arrested and crucified. Only the women witnessed Jesus’ burial and discovered the empty tomb on the Easter morning. Moreover, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene clearly demonstrates that he himself not only highly valued women but also considered them worthy of receiving the apostolic commission. Mary’s message to other disciples, that she has seen the risen Lord, should not be dismissed as a mere personal testimony. It has all the qualities of the evangelistic proclamation of the gospel message about Jesus that spread the good news of the resurrected Lord (kerygma), and as such verifies that the question of gender is irrelevant for Christian ministry. 

Unfortunately, the biblical and early Christian non-biblical writings available to us indicate that in the aftermath of these events, the Church struggled with the question of gender equality. On the one hand, early Christian writings, such as Pistis Sophia and the Gospel of Mary, offer literary representations and preserve historical memories of strong female figures who had leading roles in proclaiming the word of salvation. They affirm that in some Christian circles, men and women were able to exercise leadership on the basis of their spiritual maturity and not on the basis of their gender. The same conclusion can be made on the basis of Pauline letters that also indicate that both men and women publicly prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:2-16) because their gender was irrelevant not only for their salvation but also for their ministry (Gal 3:28). On the other hand, all of the non-biblical writings discussed above bear the traces of a conflict between Mary Magdalene and the leading male disciples, especially Peter. This conflict can be detected already in Luke’s resurrection account and the list of authoritative witnesses in 1 Cor 15:3-7. These texts most likely reflect a developing tension between those who claimed authority based on the idea of succession and those who claimed authority based on spiritual gifts, especially prophetic experience. 

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