There is an old story about Mary Magdalene that was first written down in the thirteenth century. The tale goes that after the resurrection of Christ, she traveled to France, where she lived in a cave near Marseille for thirty years, neither eating nor drinking, in penance for a life of prostitution. In later years, magdalen became synonymous with a reformed prostitute or promiscuous woman. In the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, “magdalen asylums” housed fallen women in Ireland, sometimes institutionalized with their illegitimate children. These church-sponsored workhouses purported to provide shelter and income, but by the 1990s they were embroiled in scandal. Women vulnerable for all sorts of reasons had been hidden away and had ended their stay in mass graves. This is how Mary Magdalene, patron saint of penitents, entered the twenty-first century attached to the church’s abused and concealed women.
Although the character of “the Magdalene” in Western Christianity is mostly limited to the prostitute and her decades of penance, there is little reason to associate Mary with that particular sin. No biblical text indicates she was a prostitute. In the sparse records of Mary Magdalene, we learn that Jesus cleansed her of seven demons (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2), that she traveled with Jesus and supported him financially (Luke 8:1–3), that she was present at his crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25) and burial (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47), and that she was the first witness to the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1–18). In all four Gospels, she brings news of the resurrection to the other disciples (Matt. 28:10; Mark 16:10; Luke 24:10; John 20:18).
How did Mary enter the popular imagination as the femme fatale with a checkered past, made demure and modest by her encounter with Christ? The answer is complicated, but it has much to do with the erasure of other women’s stories. There are at least two other Marys in the Gospels and several other women disciples, named and unnamed. In a sixth century papal sermon, Magdalene was conflated with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Bethany, in turn, is identified in John as the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with precious oil.
Jesus’s anointing is a rare example of a story present in every Gospel. John’s is the only story in which the woman is named. Luke’s is the only story in which the woman weeps, is called sinful, and is forgiven. This woman became Mary Magdalene. That she was guilty of illicit sex was entirely invented! It’s hard to believe that such a winding road of shaky associations made her the Gospels’ consummate female sinner hundreds of years after she died, but that is what happened.
Perhaps, instead of the church-sanctioned story, you’ve heard the tale of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife. Several years ago The DaVinci Code became the latest in a string of novels to popularize the idea that the church had covered up Mary’s licit sexual relationship with Jesus. Being married would not make Jesus any less our Savior and God, but these stories certainly spring from writings outside the orthodox mainstream. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, often dated to the second century, Peter insists that “women are not worthy of the life.” Jesus responds to him, “any woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It was likely this bizarre passage that inspired a similar exchange in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, a Coptic fragment in which Jesus refers to Mary as “my wife.” This tiny bit of text, discovered around 2012, is now widely believed to be a medieval forgery—even by the scholar who first presented it.
So why are there so many stories about Mary Magdalene? Why did the few verses about her inspire so many variations, legends, and slanders? First, the great fascination with Mary Magdalene in early Christian/gnostic literature as the female disciple, to the exclusion of the many other New Testament women whose ministries are attested, suggests she held a prominent but eventually embarrassing position in early Christianity. While Paul’s conflicts with Peter are recorded in detail in the New Testament, Mary has run-ins with Peter in extrabiblical materials, including a scene in the Gospel of Mary in which he expresses doubt that Jesus would trust her with secret knowledge. Mary is upset by this and says, “do you think I am lying about the Savior?” Given the gnostic tint to this exchange, it was almost certainly written many decades after all these people were dead. But many have proposed that because so many early texts include a rivalry between Mary (presented as Jesus’ favorite and best-loved disciple) and a jealous Peter, she must have led an early community or movement, somewhat like Paul. Even if the rivalry was invented, it was a widespread story; it would be strange for tales of conflict with the apostles to circulate about someone whose public ministry was insignificant. One theory even suggests that she is the hidden author (and beloved disciple) of the Gospel of John, made male in order to be palatable to the fledgling and increasingly sexist church of the early second century.
Secondly, notice the content of the two major Western church narratives about Mary. Her most prominent characteristic is either that she repented of sexual sin or that she was sexually involved with Jesus. The implicit message, from both sides, is that a woman could not possibly have exercised influence in the early church apart from her sexuality. Why was she important enough to be the first witness to the resurrection? Why was she traveling with Jesus? Why was she all over the extrabiblical literature of early Christianity? The established church as early as Tertullian solved the problem by making her emblematic of sexually dangerous women whose lives were swallowed in shamefaced penitence.
There’s plenty we don’t know about Mary. What we do know is that she has been turned into something she was not. Maybe there was motive, maybe there wasn’t. But like many women in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the history of the church, Mary’s chaste love for her Savior has been rewritten for an audience afraid of female influence. Maybe you nod knowingly when the women’s resurrection announcement to the male disciples seems to them “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11, ESV). After all, we’ve all heard that women are more susceptible to deceit. We’ve all heard that women need men’s rationality to keep our feet on the ground. But if anything should be important enough for a reliable witness, one who could be trusted by the culture at large and would look sober and responsible to outsiders as the news spread, it’s the Resurrection! Why on earth should someone who would be considered unreliable in court be entrusted with the role of apostle to the apostles? Why should this central biblical story be tainted by a woman’s hysterical crying as she mistakes Jesus for the gardener?
She knows him when he speaks her name. His sheep hear his voice. Though Mary will be ignored by the other disciples and looked at askance by Christian history, she is one of the Shepherd’s own. Mary’s story will be hidden, and her memory abused, but her last recorded words are these: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18, NIV). May we who seek to serve the risen Lord in a church that doesn’t trust us be of the same mind as Mary. May we too be willing to suffer slander, willing to be ridiculed by our own brothers and sisters, willing to be misunderstood, willing to be falsely accused of seeking our own glory, if only we can speak the truth of Jesus Christ. This Easter season take comfort from the Magdalene—who is also a patron saint of people ridiculed for their piety—and proclaim the good news: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
Resurrection (detail), Donald Jackson Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more at www.saintjohnsbible.org.
 Pope Gregory I, 23rd Homily, September 14, 591. For an interesting Catholic perspective, see Heidi Schlumpf, “Who Framed Mary Magdalene?” US Catholic 65, vol. 4 (2000): 12–16, accessed April 7, 2020, http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/200806/who-framed-mary-magdalene-27585.
 Ariel Sabar, “Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife’,” The Atlantic, June 16, 2016, accessed April 7, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/karen-king-responds-to-the-unbelievable-tale-of-jesus-wife/487484/.
 See Leonard Swidler, Jesus Was a Feminist: What the Gospels Reveal about His Revolutionary Perspective (Plymouth: Sheed and Ward), 2007.