Who Was Mary Magdalene?

March 6, 2018

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When Jesus first met Mary Magdalene, she was afflicted with seven demons. Jesus cast them out of her, and she went on to become one of the most prominent female disciples of the early church. Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name as having stayed by Jesus through His crucifixion, while most of His other disciples fled.1 She helped to bury Him and went to the tomb the following Sunday, finding the stone rolled away and angels declaring that He had risen.2 She was also the first recorded person to see Jesus after His resurrection.3 In addition, Jesus and His disciples likely needed places to stay at times, as well as food to eat, and Mary Magdalene supported their mission by providing these things.4—R. A. Watterson

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

When novelists and screenwriters try to insert something salacious into the life of Jesus, they focus on one woman: Mary from Magdala. Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

Only in the Gospel according to Luke is there even the slightest implication that she might have had a past life that could raise eyebrows and the question: Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Luke 8 names her among other female followers and financial supporters and says that she had been released from the power of seven demons.

Theologians in later centuries consciously tried to downplay her role as an influential follower of Jesus. She became identified with the “sinful woman” in Luke 7 whom Jesus forgives as she anoints his feet, as well as the woman “taken in adultery” whom Jesus saved from stoning. In the sixth century Pope Gregory preached of her being a model penitent.

Only the Western church has said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. The Eastern church has always honored her as an apostle, noting her as the “apostle to the apostles,” based on the account of the Gospel of John which has Jesus calling her by name and telling her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.—From biblicalarchaeology.org5

From saint to sinner

Dan Brown, William Phipps, Martin Scorsese—when looking for a lover or wife for Jesus, they all chose Mary Magdalene. It’s not surprising. Mary Magdalene has long been recognized as one of the New Testament’s more alluring women. Most people think of her as a prostitute who repented after encountering Jesus. In contemporary British artist Chris Gollon’s painting of “The Pre-Penitent Magdalene,” Mary appears as a defiant femme fatale adorned with jewelry and makeup.

Yet, the New Testament says no such thing. Rather, in three of the four canonical Gospels, Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name only in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. She is a witness to his crucifixion6 and burial.7 She is one of the first (the first, according to John) to arrive at the empty tomb.8 And she is one of the first (again, the first, according to John) to witness the risen Christ.9

Only the Gospel of Luke names Mary Magdalene in connection with Jesus’ daily life and public ministry. There, Mary is listed as someone who followed Jesus as he went from village to village, bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. “And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”10Birger A. Pearson

Primary witness to the resurrection

It all comes down to the Resurrection. Twenty centuries of Christianity—and the faith of billions—rest on this singular event. And who is the primary witness to this momentous miracle, the first person to whom Jesus revealed himself? It would seem that fact would be such an essential element of the faith that all Christians should be able to respond without even thinking—as they do to similar questions, like “Who is Jesus’ mother?” or “Which apostle betrayed Jesus?”

But the first witness to the Resurrection—as all four gospel writers agree—was a woman whose name and reputation have become so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misconstrued over the centuries that she is more commonly, though erroneously, remembered as a prostitute than as the faithful first bearer of the Good News.

That woman is Mary of Magdala and, finally, her centuries-old case of mistaken identity is being rectified.

Now that scripture scholars have debunked the myth that she and the infamous repentant sinner who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears are one and the same woman, word is trickling down that Mary Magdalene’s penitent prostitute label was a misnomer. Instead, her true biblical portrait is being resurrected, and this “apostle to the apostles” is finally taking her rightful place in history as a beloved disciple of Jesus and a prominent early church leader….

She is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament—making her the second most-mentioned woman, after the Virgin Mary. Most references are found in the Crucifixion and empty tomb narratives, where she is portrayed as a loyal disciple at the foot of the cross and as one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

Unlike other women in the Bible, Mary of Magdala is not identified in relation to another person; she is not anyone’s mother, wife, or sister. Instead, she is called Mary of Magdala, a title that implies some prominence in the city, a center of commercial fishing on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee. She left her home to follow Jesus, and it is believed she was among several well-off, independent women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry.

These female followers of Jesus—disciples, really—became central when everything started to fall apart. While others fled, the women were faithful, and they were led by Mary of Magdala.

Details differ in the four gospel accounts of the Resurrection as to the number of heavenly visitors at the tomb, which women accompany Mary Magdalene to anoint the body, and whether or not the women are believed when they run to tell the news of Christ’s Resurrection. But on this all four gospels agree: Mary Magdalene was faithful until the end, and her faithfulness was rewarded with an appearance by the risen Lord.—Heidi Schlumpf 11

Published on Anchor March 2018. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.

1 Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25.

2 Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–11.

3 John 20:11–18.

4 Luke 8:1–3.

5 http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/was-mary-magdalene-wife-of-jesus-was-mary-magdalene-a-prostitute.

6 Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25.

7 Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47.

8 Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10.

9 Matthew 28:9; John 20:14–18.

10 Luke 8:1–3.

11 http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/200806/who-framed-mary-magdalene-27585.

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