Few people mentioned in the New Testament have been more misrepresented than Mary Magdalene. In a 6th century sermon, Pope Gregory the Great confused her with the unnamed sinful woman, presumably a prostitute, from Luke 7:36–50. She is also often associated with the woman caught in adultery described in John 7:53–8:11, even though the text never mentions her name. Because of misunderstandings like these, Mary Magdalene is usually remembered as a woman of questionable reputation rather than as the first witness of the resurrection. As such, she has inflamed sexual fantasies of numerous artists who portrayed her naked or half-naked.
The alabaster jar with ointment mentioned in Luke 7:37, which the anonymous sinful woman poured out on Jesus’ feet in an act of remorse, also appears as an identifying motif on the paintings of Mary Magdalene. This erroneous image has been frequently exploited on the big screen. For example, in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, she is presented as a reformed prostitute who embodies Jesus’ longing for marriage and normal family life. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Mary Magdalene, who constantly accompanies Jesus’ mother during Jesus’ final hours, remembers Jesus’ kindness when she was brought to him under the accusation of adultery.
Even when this faulty association of Mary Magdalene with prostitution/adultery is left out, her sexuality frequently remains her dominant characteristic. Thus in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene is depicted as Jesus’ secret spouse with whom he had a child. Public fascination with such images, especially the way they affect our understanding of Jesus of history, is understandable. Yet, this thirst for sensationalism has no support in the New Testament or early Christian writings.
In the following, I will offer a brief survey of the earliest evidence available to us, which demonstrates that Mary Magdalene was primarily remembered as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection and, if we grant some merit to early Christian non-canonical writings, as the woman who had a leading position in the early church. At the same time, these writings reveal that in some Christian circles, her role in the events following Jesus’ resurrection and her possible leading role in the church were seriously disputed.
Mary Magdalene in the New Testament
Mary Magdalene appears in all four gospels as a witness of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The second part of her name, Magdalene, distinguishes this Mary from all other Marys mentioned in the New Testament. It refers to her place of origin, the city of Magdala located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee north of Tiberias.
An identification of a person by his/her place of origin was quite rare in ancient Judaism. Designations based on family relations, such as a parent or a husband, were more common. The fact that we don’t find such a relational term for this Mary suggests that she was neither a young girl under her father’s guardianship nor a married woman accountable to her husband. Most interpreters therefore presuppose that she was a widow. A short remark found in all three synoptic gospels that she, like some other Galilean women, provided for Jesus and his followers indicates that she was a woman of means.
In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene appears for the first time in the crucifixion scene as one of several women who were present near the cross (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 regarding the names of other women, all three evangelists agree that Mary Magdalene was there. Both Mark and Matthew explain that these women followed Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee.
A similar explanation is found in the Gospel of Luke, but at a much earlier point of the narrative and with some modifications: Luke 8:1–3 informs the reader that Mary, called Magdalene, was among the women who followed and provided for not only Jesus but also the twelve. Luke 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 former illnesses from which she has been cured, presumably by Jesus.
Moreover, unlike the other three evangelists, Luke 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). Readers can conclude that Mary of Magdala was nevertheless part of this group on the basis of the next scene described in chapter 24, when the same 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, follows the empty tomb scene by describing Jesus’ appearance to the same group of women as they were leaving the scene of the burial.
The Gospel of John 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 also reports that she fulfilled this commission by declaring to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:11–18). It is therefore not surprising that some early Christians, such as Hippolytus, bishop and martyr of Rome who died in c. 235, gave her the title “apostle of the apostles.”
Luke’s Gospel again differs 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 Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32), he gives Peter credit as the first person who met the risen Jesus (Luke 24:34). Consequently, Luke’s description of the post-resurrection events elevates Peter to a position of prominence, which is 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.
Luke’s Gospel thus suggests 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 Corinthians 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 omission is usually explained as an early Christian attempt to give credibility to Jesus’ resurrection by mentioning only male witnesses, 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 as Luke indicates in Acts 1:22, the omission of Mary’s name from the list of witnesses could be evidence of an initial struggle for authority between Peter and Mary. Early Christian non-canonical writings, even though they postdate the New Testament and frequently betray gnostic influences, can offer additional support to this reconstruction of early Christian history.
Mary Magdalene in Early Christian Writings
In the 2nd century Gospel of Peter, Mary Magdalene is called a “female disciple of the Lord” who, being afraid of the Jews, did not weep at Jesus’ burial as was customary for women to do for “the dead beloved by them.” Having therefore decided to weep at the tomb of Jesus, she went there with her women friends. However, after discovering the empty tomb and hearing the message of the young man in shining robes, the women fled away in fear.
The Gospel of Thomas, a 2nd century gnostic collection of Jesus’ sayings, depicts Mary as a person who has a special relationship with Jesus, which is expressed through her tendency to ask questions that he answers. A brief episode at the very end suggests that there was 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 her rivalry with Peter, are also found in other writings from the same period. In the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a woman who wants “to understand all things, just as they are.” She is one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching, but she is 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. Thirty-nine out of sixty-four 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 apocryphal gospel attributed to Mary Magdalene called the Gospel of Mary, which survived in two 3rd century Greek fragments and a 5th century Coptic 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, this is met with unbelief by Andrew and ridicule by Peter. Interestingly enough, Peter does not object to the content of Mary’s revelation as Andrew does, but rather 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?”
Mary’s special relationship to Jesus is a prominent theme in the Gospel of Philip, a late 3rd century gnostic writing. This text has captured much public attention after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, because it 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, together with his mother and his sister. 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 [often] on her […].” The missing word indicated by the dots in the brackets, is frequently reconstructed as “mouth,” but this is far from being certain. Also, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus’ love for Mary was a different kind of love, such as romantic love. The disciples do not complain that Jesus loved Mary in a different way than them, but rather that he loved her more than them.
Early Christian writings like those surveyed above, especially 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.
Furthermore, these writings contain 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 Corinthians 15:3–7. Major non-canonical writings that mention Mary Magdalene also offer a glimpse into the nature of the conflict concerning her, which seems focus on two themes: (a) her gender and (b) her remarkable understanding and appropriation of Jesus’ teaching. This controversy most likely reflects 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.
Greater awareness of Mary Magdalene’s exceptional role in the events surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and her leadership in the early church should not only help us do justice to her memory but also inspire us in our struggle for gender equality.