Who was Mary Magdalene?

Today is the feast day of Mary who came from the town of Magdala. There is an icon of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the chancel steps. The central window of our three lady saints is Mary Magdalene, which were given in memory of Dale Anne Freed, who died on Mary Magdalene’s feast day. All four Gospels cite Mary Magdalene in the Crucifixion and Resurrection stories. She was the first person to recognize the Risen Christ at the Resurrection, and to give that news to the male disciples. That is why she is called the ‘apostle to the apostles’ as we sang in the chant before and after today’s Gospel. However, all that is known of her outside the Crucifixion and Easter events is that she was a wealthy woman who accompanied Jesus and the twelve in their travels, supporting them materially, and that she was cured of seven demons (Luke 8).

Devotion to Mary Magdalene is consistent with the esteem in which the early Church held women – unlike through most of Church history. Acts of the Apostles tells of prominent women who helped Paul and Barnabas in their travels. Paul was clear in his message of inclusion for Christians – in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. It was a very radical position for Paul, an ex- Pharisee, because the Yahweh of Judaism is a very male divine figure (the female Canaanite divinities, Asherahs, were highly suspect in Old Testament theology). Putting women equal with men was just as scandalous as equating free-born citizens with slaves, or Jews with Gentiles.

There is a legend that Mary Magdalene travelled to southern France later in her life, where she remained a popular saint. Whether or not this early version of the faith was brought by Mary Magdalene, Christianity had reached that area by the time of Paul’s journeys (though not by Paul himself), long before it became an officially sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire. Writing online, Val Wineyard records a more elaborate and fanciful legend that Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself travelled to the Narbonne area and promoted early Christianity there together.

Mary Magdalene became controversial in early Christianity. My guess is that her name was used as a cypher to promote rival positions in the Church, concerning the relative importance of men and women. Even in the New Testament there are signs of push-back – the letters to Timothy and Titus (wrongly ascribed to Paul) are more patriarchal than Paul’s authentic writings.

The main controversy was over the roles of Mary Magdalene vs. Simon Peter, who was accepted early on as the first Bishop of Rome. This primacy justified the Bishop of Rome as the spiritual leader (Pope) of the Western Church. In reality, these arguments have little to do with the historical Mary Magdalene, about whom we know so little, other than the concept of Mary Magdalene as ‘apostle to the apostles’. Thus in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas Simon Peter says, “Let Mary [Magdalene] go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life.” Jesus scolds him by saying, “I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus says that he will set aside the ancient world’s dogma that women were inferior to men – incomplete men.

Parallel to this, at a time when the nature of God and of Christ were still in discussion, the Gnostics favoured Mary Magdalene as embodying the feminine principle. For that reason, many non-Biblical Christian writings of the 2nd century CE placed Mary Magdalene above Simon Peter as the leader of the apostle group. In most of these exchanges Simon Peter is like a whiny teenager, complaining that Jesus gave Mary special favours. We see this in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), which exists only in fragmentary form. Mary tells the other disciples about a vision in which Jesus spoke to her privately. Andrew cannot believe this (“it’s a very strange teaching”), and Peter gets all upset. He can’t believe that Mary would be spoken to privately, because that would mean that Jesus prefers Mary to him as the leader of the apostle group. But Levi (Matthew) tells Peter to “get a grip” and stop behaving like the unbelievers. Don’t be so petty; get on with the work of spreading the Gospel!

Other sources besides the Gospel of Mary suggest conflict over the roles of women and men in early Christianity. In the Pistis Sophia, Jesus calls Mary Magdalene “more blessed than all women on earth”. This causes Peter, who is annoyed at Mary’s contributions to the conversation, to reply, “Master, we cannot endure this woman. She gets in our way and does not let any of us speak; she talks all the time.”

The author of the Gospel of Philip wrote, “There were three who always walked with the Lord – Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, who was called his companion. They were all called Mary.” Later, this was expanded. “The companion of the Saviour was Mary Magdalene. Christ loved Mary more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’”

The statements about “companion” and “kissing” have been seen in modern times as implying a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary. The Greek word koinônos can mean both friend and spouse or sexual partner; in Gnostic literature it probably refers to a spiritual partnership. As to kissing, the kiss of peace was the normal way of greeting among early Christians. Nevertheless, modern usage tends to detect a romantic attachment, consistent with the more prurient recent interest in whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, as elaborated in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, nearly two decades ago. However, most historians agree that The Da Vinci Code is merely entertaining fiction.

By the 4th century, about 200 years after these documents were written, the Church had become very patriarchal, following Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. My opinion is that Roman norms made it necessary to downplay the role of Mary Magdalene, since Simon Peter was seen as the first Bishop of Rome and the first Pope. In that culture, it would have been inconceivable for the Pope’s authority to be challenged by groups that considered Mary Magdalene to be his equal, or worse. By the 6th century, Pope Gregory had identified Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at a Pharisee’s dinner (Luke 7). In the medieval period, the western Church came to associate Mary Magdalene with other “fallen women”, including the unnamed woman taken in adultery (John 8). This very unfair and unwarranted characterization of Mary has no basis in Scripture.

The feast day of Mary Magdalene was restored in Anglican prayer books during the 20th century. In 1969, the Vatican finally disassociated Mary Magdalene from the sinful woman who poured oil on Jesus’ feet; then in 2016, Pope Francis declared July 22 a major feast day for Mary Magdalene, putting her celebration almost equal with those for the male apostles. Sixth century patriarchy denigrated Mary Magdalene; modern sensibilities about the roles of men and women have restored her.

The simple Collect of the New Zealand prayer book recalls both Jesus’ healing of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8) and her witness to the Resurrection: “Merciful God, your Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind and called her to be a witness of his resurrection; heal us and make us whole that we may serve you in the power of his risen life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”