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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This passage shows what Scripture scholars commonly call the “telephone game” character of the oral tradition from which the Gospels grew. Instead of Luke’s Pharisee, whose name is Simon, we find in Matthew “Simon the leper.” Most tellingly, this anointing is specifically referred to as the traditional rubbing of a corpse with oil, so the act is an explicit foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. In Matthew, and in Mark, the story of the unnamed woman puts her acceptance of Jesus’ coming death in glorious contrast to the (male) disciples’ refusal to take Jesus’ predictions of his death seriously. But in other passages, Mary Magdalene is associated by name with the burial of Jesus, which helps explain why it was easy to confuse this anonymous woman with her.

Indeed, with this incident both Matthew’s and Mark’s narratives begin the move toward the climax of the Crucifixion, because one of the disciples—“the man called Judas”—goes, in the very next verse, to the chief priests to betray Jesus.

In the passages about the anointings, the woman is identified by the “alabaster jar,” but in Luke, with no reference to the death ritual, there are clear erotic overtones; a man of that time was to see a woman’s loosened hair only in the intimacy of the bedroom. The offense taken by witnesses in Luke concerns sex, while in Matthew and Mark it concerns money. And, in Luke, the woman’s tears, together with Jesus’ words, define the encounter as one of abject repentance.

But the complications mount. Matthew and Mark say the anointing incident occurred at Bethany, a detail that echoes in the Gospel of John, which has yet another Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and yet another anointing story:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair.

Judas objects in the name of the poor, and once more Jesus is shown defending the woman. “Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial,” he says. “You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.”

As before, the anointing foreshadows the Crucifixion. There is also resentment at the waste of a luxury good, so death and money define the content of the encounter. But the loose hair implies the erotic as well.

The death of Jesus on Golgotha, where Mary Magdalene is expressly identified as one of the women who refused to leave him, leads to what is by far the most important affirmation about her. All four Gospels (and another early Christian text, the Gospel of Peter) explicitly name her as present at the tomb, and in John she is the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. This—not repentance, not sexual renunciation—is her greatest claim. Unlike the men who scattered and ran, who lost faith, who betrayed Jesus, the women stayed. (Even while Christian memory glorifies this act of loyalty, its historical context may have been less noble: the men in Jesus’ company were far more likely to have been arrested than the women.) And chief among them was Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of John puts the story poignantly:

It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we don’t know where they have put him.”

Peter and the others rush to the tomb to see for themselves, then disperse again.

Meanwhile Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” As she said this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said, “Mary!” She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni!”—which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to...my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.

As the story of Jesus was told and told again in those first decades, narrative adjustments in event and character were inevitable, and confusion of one with the other was a mark of the way the Gospels were handed on. Most Christians were illiterate; they received their traditions through a complex work of memory and interpretation, not history, that led only eventually to texts. Once the sacred texts were authoritatively set, the exegetes who interpreted them could make careful distinctions, keeping the roster of women separate, but common preachers were less careful. The telling of anecdotes was essential to them, and so alterations were certain to occur.

The multiplicity of the Marys by itself was enough to mix things up—as were the various accounts of anointing, which in one place is the act of a loose-haired prostitute, in another of a modest stranger preparing Jesus for the tomb, and in yet another of a beloved friend named Mary. Women who weep, albeit in a range of circumstances, emerged as a motif. As with every narrative, erotic details loomed large, especially because Jesus’ attitude toward women with sexual histories was one of the things that set him apart from other teachers of the time. Not only was Jesus remembered as treating women with respect, as equals in his circle; not only did he refuse to reduce them to their sexuality; Jesus was expressly portrayed as a man who loved women, and whom women loved.

The climax of that theme takes place in the garden of the tomb, with that one word of address, “Mary!” It was enough to make her recognize him, and her response is clear from what he says then: “Do not cling to me.” Whatever it was before, bodily expression between Jesus and Mary of Magdala must be different now.

Out of these disparate threads—the various female figures, the ointment, the hair, the weeping, the unparalleled intimacy at the tomb—a new character was created for Mary Magdalene. Out of the threads, that is, a tapestry was woven—a single narrative line. Across time, this Mary went from being an important disciple whose superior status depended on the confidence Jesus himself had invested in her, to a repentant whore whose status depended on the erotic charge of her history and the misery of her stricken conscience. In part, this development arose out of a natural impulse to see the fragments of Scripture whole, to make a disjointed narrative adhere, with separate choices and consequences being tied to each other in one drama. It is as if Aristotle’s principle of unity, given in Poetics, was imposed after the fact on the foundational texts of Christianity.

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