This Catholic Update examines the facts and fiction about St. Mary Magdalene. Learn about the real Mary through Bible stories that portray her as a witness, disciple, partner and evangelist.
St. Mary Magdalene
Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation
by Carol Ann Morrow
The Da Vinci Code, as a best-selling novel and a heavily promoted film, has introduced many to a Mary Magdalene they hadn’t met before. But behind the scenes, there has been a renaissance of interest in this “Apostle to the Apostles” in recent decades.
Authors and theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., have researched what we really can say about St. Mary Magdalene, by sorting through the Bible stories and showing how she can be a saint for our times. Their serious scholarship helps us to keep the current
“buzz” about this faithful friend of Jesus rooted more realistically.
This Catholic Update, with some help from Sister Elizabeth Johnson and a multitude of others, tries to sort out the fictions, the facts and the notable qualities of St. Mary that can inspire us all to be faithful followers of Christ in this 21st century. We celebrate her feast each July 22.
Mary Magdalene is, it can be argued, the second-most important woman in the New Testament. Within the four Gospels, hints of Mary Magdalene’s importance in the early Church can be discerned. She is named 14 times, more than most of the apostles.
The assembled Gospel references describe Mary Magdalene as a courageous servant leader, brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death and beyond. Scholar Mary Thompson points out that she is the only person to be listed in all four Gospels as first to realize that Jesus had risen and to testify to that central teaching of faith. This is a spectacular first indeed!
Other Gospel passages can confuse us, because other women also named Mary and some anonymous women, to boot, can seem to merge several women into one. This phenomenon—fusing several stories into one composite—is called conflation.
We saw this recently in Mel Gibson’s 2005 film, The Passion of the Christ. And we’ve seen it over the centuries from Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth, and many artists, writers and Scripture commentators who followed their lead.
One Mary, the Mother of Jesus, retains her unique status and reputation as the number-one woman in the Gospels. But other women—Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, a woman who anoints and one identified as an adulterer—are mistakenly fused into one sensual young sinner.
Pope Gregory, who became pope in 590 A.D., clinched Mary’s mistaken reputation as sinner when he delivered a powerful homily in which he combined Luke’s anonymous sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50) with Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. He said, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?”
Gregory, like the much later Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) and many other famous preachers, loved to give a moral “spin” or interpretation to Scripture. How could the pope as pastor use the story of the Magdalene to encourage repentance during a time of famine and war in Rome? The seven devils morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well, just to add insult to injury.
But, the pope concluded in a sentence that rehabilitates Mary into an example of conversion, “She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.” Elizabeth Johnson imputes no slanderous motives to the pope, who obviously had no access to the contemporary scriptural scholarship that helps modern readers to sort such things out. The pope used the Magdalene as a “type,” a stereotype, and probably didn’t think she’d mind.
But contemporary biblical scholarship, encouraged by Vatican II and accessing resources never dreamed of in the sixth century A.D., confirms that there were several Marys. “If we go on making Mary Magdalene a prostitute when we have clear evidence to the contrary, that would be deliberate,” an intentional falsehood, says Johnson. And women in the Church and beyond might well wonder why.
Marys the Magdalene is not
What new insights lead biblical scholars to separate Mary the sinner from Mary Magdalene? Here’s some of their reasoning.
One person and one place—such as Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Arimathea, Simon of Cyrene, Mary of Magdala—are connected frequently in the Gospels. Mary of Magdala (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) is actually named more often than Mary the Mother of Jesus. Scholars conclude, using this kind of analysis, that when a woman named Mary is not called the Magdalene, that’s not who is intended. According to this rationale, she is not the “woman with the alabaster jar” (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7), even though artists over the centuries have assigned her that identity. But Mary is more than just a pretty picture.
She no doubt sinned in her life, but she is not the forgiven sinner of Luke (caught with that alabaster jar). However inspiring that woman’s reformation may be, prostitute is still a label by which no woman cares to be remembered.
Her fortunes changed a bit in 1969, when the liturgical calendar was reworked. (This is when we “lost” some favorites, such as St. Christopher.) The pertinence of Scripture readings assigned to feasts was revisited. The Gospel proclaimed on Mary Magdalene’s feast would no longer be Luke 7:36-50 (the pardon of the sinful woman), but rather Mary’s discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb in John 20. Bad reputations, though, are hard to live down!
It’s those demons that still tempt readers to think Mary a fallen woman. In Luke 8, some Galilean women are described journeying with Jesus, together with the Twelve. They include “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities [and] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”
Famous Presbyterian scholar George Buttrick, in his 1962 Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, says Luke’s phrase doesn’t mean possession but physical sickness. “She had been cured of a serious illness,” he believes. “The number seven would accentuate the seriousness of her condition or possibly its recurrent nature.” Elizabeth Johnson adds that the demons possessing scriptural men are not associated with sin; the same principle should hold for Mary.
Mary's principal role
Today’s scholars, more and more, embrace the earlier view of St. Augustine, in the fourth century, who said, “The Holy Spirit made Magdalene the Apostle of the Apostles.”
Apostle is a title of distinct importance in the Bible. Paul prized it greatly. In 2 Corinthians 12:11-12, he seems rather annoyed not to be counted as one. Yet Mary too could say, with Paul, “I am in no way inferior to these “superapostles....” This is her entirely legitimate and scripturally based claim to fame. The word means, says Webster, “one sent on a mission” and it was Jesus himself who said to her, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father…’” (Jn 20:17).
It would be easy for The Da Vinci Code readers and viewers to think that Mary Magdalene was supposed to tell these brothers, “Jesus and I were married, so now I’m taking over!” After all, its author claims on page one that his book is rooted in historical fact. He never claims theological accuracy, to his credit. And his use of the word fact simply is not factual.
Some of author Dan Brown’s “facts” are total fabrications or imaginative hypotheses, while others can be traced to sources such as the apocryphal (gnostic) gospels. One such source, the Gospel of Mary, is even named for Mary Magdalene.
In this and other gnostic texts, Mary Magdalene is featured more prominently than in the four canonical Gospels. She even seems to be pitted against Peter. You can imagine trouble brewing, I’m sure.
To oversimplify, these gnostic texts do not reveal deep secrets, nor are they “forbidden books.” They simply are not part of our canon of Scripture, our Bible.
Why not? One reason is that the apocryphal gospels were not written by people who had witnessed events as they happened—or even heard from eyewitnesses later. They were composed centuries after the New Testament’s four Gospels. Those four Gospels were chosen as “canonical” (official) by the early Church as the strongest, most authentic written representations of the Gospel story as it was being told and lived by the Christian community.
So Dan Brown isn’t making appropriate use of either history or Scriptures (canonical or otherwise) when he tells us (in about 25 pages of his thick thriller) that Mary Magdalene, of royal blood, was the wife of Jesus, that they had a child together and that Magdalene and her daughter began a dynasty that survived in France.
To top it all off, Brown asserts that the Church intentionally slandered Mary Magdalene, promoting violence and mayhem so that no one would ever honor this woman or her offspring. In Brown’s view, the Church feared that power and leadership would then be in the hands of a woman.
One thing on which we all might agree: The Church has not valued women enough, especially a woman whose greatest assignment was to tell the apostles the pivotal news that Jesus was alive. Her words, “I have seen the Lord,” are the first act of faith in the Resurrection.
Mary, first witness and faithful disciple
Does it really matter all that much which biographical details we attach to a long-ago woman? In a word, yes. In the 21st century, as in centuries before, the Church is full of sinners. We all are sinners. It’s good and instructive to be convinced that Jesus loved sinners, because that’s our human history and weakness.
But we also need the example of sanctity. Women especially need the encouragement of a Gospel role model who exercised bravery and leadership in challenging circumstances.
Perpetuating demeaning and unflattering stories about Mary Magdalene “reminds women of what has been done generally in the Church and in the world,” says Elizabeth Johnson. And that has not always been honest or affirming. Why compound the challenge when Mary Magdalene can and should inspire women and men to be full, effective and dedicated witnesses to the gospel?
Mary herself may not have cared what we 21st-century Catholics think of her, so long as we believe her testimony to the Resurrection. Indeed, as Augustine said, she was “Equal to the Apostles,” the title by which she is honored in our “other lung,” as Pope John Paul II called the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Apostle has multiple meanings and most of them apply to Mary Magdalene with ease. She is one sent on a mission. She is an authoritative person sent out to preach the Gospel. She is first to advocate an important belief. Or to put those in other terms, she points the way as disciple, partner and evangelist. Preceding all of that, of course, she is an eyewitness to the wonders of Jesus among us.
Let’s close this article by pondering a little more deeply what each of these means.
WITNESS. “If the women had not stood by and witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross, then followed his body, accompanied it to the tomb, returned on the first day of the week in the morning to anoint again and found the tomb empty, then announced to the disciples their experience of the risen Lord,” Johnson suggests that “we wouldn’t know what happened! They [the women, with Mary Magdalene always in their number] are the thread of continuity through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.”
DISCIPLE. “Mary Magdalene is a founding mother of the Church,” says Johnson. “She ministered to Jesus during his own ministry, sharing things with him, and was one of his followers in Galilee. She was a faithful disciple during the last hours of his life.”
PARTNER. This more accurate assessment of Mary Magdalene’s role in the Easter mystery can support and strengthen women in the Church today. Professor Johnson feels that it can inspire everyone. “Those men who are desirous of partnership with women in the Church also find this a joyous rediscovery. Partnership is a different view of the beginning of our history as a Church, which then gives a different view of what our future could be as well.”
EVANGELIST. Elizabeth Johnson describes the Acts of the Apostles as Volume II of Luke’s work, telling the history of the early Church. It is Acts 1:14 that she cites: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
Biblical scholars, explains Johnson, ask who these women are. “The only logical answer is that they’re the women Luke [author of Acts] named as those present at the tomb, at the cross, at the Resurrection. Reviewing the ministry of Jesus, these would logically be the same women who had followed him earlier.
Then in Acts 2:1-4, “[T]hey were all in one place together....Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire. . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” And that would include the women? Yes, says Johnson.
What did they proclaim? Mary Magdalene was sent forth from the tomb with the message, “Jesus is risen.” Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith”
(1 Cor 15:14).
That is the Gospel truth, first heard from the lips of a woman, a woman named Mary Magdalene. Throughout the Church year, it is Mary’s message that we are challenged to proclaim with as much boldness and integrity as she did.
Carol Ann Morrow, who interviewed Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., shortly after The Da Vinci Code hit the best-seller list, is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and managing producer of audiobooks for St. Anthony Messenger Press