Who Was Mary Magdalene?

From the writing of the New Testament to the filming of The Da Vinci Code, her image has been repeatedly conscripted, contorted and contradicted

Vision of St Maria Magdalena di Pazzi from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Pedro de Moya)
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The whole history of western civilization is epitomized in the cult of Mary Magdalene. For many centuries the most obsessively revered of saints, this woman became the embodiment of Christian devotion, which was defined as repentance. Yet she was only elusively identified in Scripture, and has thus served as a scrim onto which a succession of fantasies has been projected. In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty. How the past is remembered, how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination—all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth.

Who was she? From the New Testament, one can conclude that Mary of Magdala (her hometown, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee) was a leading figure among those attracted to Jesus. When the men in that company abandoned him at the hour of mortal danger, Mary of Magdala was one of the women who stayed with him, even to the Crucifixion. She was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to preach the “Good News” of that miracle. These are among the few specific assertions made about Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. From other texts of the early Christian era, it seems that her status as an “apostle,” in the years after Jesus’ death, rivaled even that of Peter. This prominence derived from the intimacy of her relationship with Jesus, which, according to some accounts, had a physical aspect that included kissing. Beginning with the threads of these few statements in the earliest Christian records, dating to the first through third centuries, an elaborate tapestry was woven, leading to a portrait of St. Mary Magdalene in which the most consequential note—that she was a repentant prostitute—is almost certainly untrue. On that false note hangs the dual use to which her legend has been put ever since: discrediting sexuality in general and disempowering women in particular.

Confusions attached to Mary Magdalene’s character were compounded across time as her image was conscripted into one power struggle after another, and twisted accordingly. In conflicts that defined the Christian Church—over attitudes toward the material world, focused on sexuality; the authority of an all-male clergy; the coming of celibacy; the branding of theological diversity as heresy; the sublimations of courtly love; the unleashing of “chivalrous” violence; the marketing of sainthood, whether in the time of Constantine, the Counter-Reformation, the Romantic era, or the Industrial Age—through all of these, reinventions of Mary Magdalene played their role. Her recent reemergence in a novel and film as the secret wife of Jesus and the mother of his fate-burdened daughter shows that the conscripting and twisting are still going on.

But, in truth, the confusion starts with the Gospels themselves.

In the gospels several women come into the story of Jesus with great energy, including erotic energy. There are several Marys—not least, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. But there is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas. Equally important, there are three unnamed women who are expressly identified as sexual sinners—the woman with a “bad name” who wipes Jesus’ feet with ointment as a signal of repentance, a Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at a well and an adulteress whom Pharisees haul before Jesus to see if he will condemn her. The first thing to do in unraveling the tapestry of Mary Magdalene is to tease out the threads that properly belong to these other women. Some of these threads are themselves quite knotted.

It will help to remember how the story that includes them all came to be written. The four Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. They were written 35 to 65 years after Jesus’ death, a jelling of separate oral traditions that had taken form in dispersed Christian communities. Jesus died in about the year a.d. 30. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke date to about 65 to 85, and have sources and themes in common. The Gospel of John was composed around 90 to 95 and is distinct. So when we read about Mary Magdalene in each of the Gospels, as when we read about Jesus, what we are getting is not history but memory—memory shaped by time, by shades of emphasis and by efforts to make distinctive theological points. And already, even in that early period—as is evident when the varied accounts are measured against each other—the memory is blurred.

Regarding Mary of Magdala, the confusion begins in the eighth chapter of Luke:

Now after this [Jesus] made his way through towns and villages preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.

Two things of note are implied in this passage. First, these women “provided for” Jesus and the Twelve, which suggests that the women were well-to-do, respectable figures. (It is possible this was an attribution, to Jesus’ time, of a role prosperous women played some years later.) Second, they all had been cured of something, including Mary Magdalene. The “seven demons,” as applied to her, indicates an ailment (not necessarily possession) of a certain severity. Soon enough, as the blurring work of memory continued, and then as the written Gospel was read by Gentiles unfamiliar with such coded language, those “demons” would be taken as a sign of a moral infirmity.

This otherwise innocuous reference to Mary Magdalene takes on a kind of radioactive narrative energy because of what immediately precedes it at the end of the seventh chapter, an anecdote of stupendous power:

One of the Pharisees invited [Jesus] to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.”

But Jesus refuses to condemn her, or even to deflect her gesture. Indeed, he recognizes it as a sign that “her many sins must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love.” “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her. “Go in peace.”

This story of the woman with the bad name, the alabaster jar, the loose hair, the “many sins,” the stricken conscience, the ointment, the rubbing of feet and the kissing would, over time, become the dramatic high point of the story of Mary Magdalene. The scene would be explicitly attached to her, and rendered again and again by the greatest Christian artists. But even a casual reading of this text, however charged its juxtaposition with the subsequent verses, suggests that the two women have nothing to do with each other—that the weeping anointer is no more connected to Mary of Magdala than she is to Joanna or Susanna.

Other verses in other Gospels only add to the complexity. Matthew gives an account of the same incident, for example, but to make a different point and with a crucial detail added:

Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, when a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant. “Why this waste?” they said. “This could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Jesus noticed this. “Why are you upsetting the woman?” he said to them.... “When she poured this ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever in all the world this Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.”


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