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Vision of St Maria Magdalena di Pazzi from the Museo de Bellas Artes, Granada (Pedro de Moya)

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

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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.

Thus, for example, out of discrete episodes in the Gospel narratives, some readers would even create a far more unified—more satisfying—legend according to which Mary of Magdala was the unnamed woman being married at the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus famously turned water into wine. Her spouse, in this telling, was John, whom Jesus immediately recruited to be one of the Twelve. When John went off from Cana with the Lord, leaving his new wife behind, she collapsed in a fit of loneliness and jealousy and began to sell herself to other men. She next appeared in the narrative as the by then notorious adulteress whom the Pharisees thrust before Jesus. When Jesus refused to condemn her, she saw the error of her ways. Consequently, she went and got her precious ointment and spread it on his feet, weeping in sorrow. From then on she followed him, in chastity and devotion, her love forever unconsummated—“Do not cling to me!”—and more intense for being so.

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