Mary Magdalene, first among equals
Additional Background by Anne Camp
Mary Magdalene: Leader, Risk-taker
Mary appears to have been a respected leader of women. She is named in all four Gospel accounts of the Empty Tomb, and her name is listed first.
- as a witness to Jesus’ death,
- as discovering the empty tomb, and
- as receiving either the news or the appearance (in John) of the risen Christ to pass on to the rest of his followers.
That Jesus had female disciples is presented in the Gospels without comment. Ben Witherington notes, however, “In their honor-and-shame culture, these women were taking a major risk of becoming outcasts in their own hometowns by traveling and studying with Jesus.”(2)
In its article on “women,” The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary affirms the obvious: that the biblical world was undoubtedly centered around men.(3) While very notable exceptions can be found, generally women were the property of their fathers, who passed that responsibility to husbands selected for them by those fathers. Women lived almost exclusively within their extended family. They did not speak to strangers, appear in public and certainly did not make public statements. It was inconceivable that their testimony would be received in any legal proceeding.
What then gave Mary her due respect against the conventions of the day? Jesus.
The Resurrection is first announced to women!
That the most miraculous event of all time should have been revealed to women would have seemed a preposterous proposition in every age but our own. And yet, all four Gospels agree that is precisely what happened.
Matthew and Mark both report that, after Jesus’ arrest, all the disciples deserted him and fled. But, as noted above, all the Gospels make equally clear that the women kept vigil at the cross. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they followed those who carried the body to the tomb so that they could know where he lay. They were determined to anoint his body properly after the Sabbath had ended, and when they went to do so, they found the tomb not only empty but also occupied by angels, a vision that neither Peter nor John received after their race to the tomb.
Carla Ricci summarizes: “Mary Magdalene, together with the other women who followed Jesus, was a witness to the Master’s life and preaching from the time in Galilee down to the dramatic events of his crucifixion and death; this should be seen in the Hebrew context in which, from the legal point of view, a woman’s witness had no value. Jesus, in effect, changed this mentality, first by gathering the women around him, thereby giving a value to their presence and making them effective witnesses to his life and message. Then, having brought them into the closest and most privileged circle of those gathered around him, he made them recipients, with the other disciples, of his special proclamation [of God’s kingdom].”(4)
And it didn't have to be that way. Jesus could have chosen to follow the social mores of his day, and then appear at the Resurrection to the male disciples first. But in all four Gospels, it is the women (or woman) who first see the tomb empty and hear the announcement from God's messenger. It is in Matthew and John that the Risen Jesus first appears to women, and then to the disciples.
"Mary" Confusion and Legends
The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary counts seven women named “Mary” in the New Testament – “unless two or more are identical.”(9) With the information we have at present, we simply cannot be sure that these are seven distinct women, but the amount of confusion that surrounds Mary Magdalene seems extreme. We’re familiar with references to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus; they like Mary Magdalene speak and participate in the story. However Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Jerusalem the mother of John Mark, and a Mary mentioned by Paul in Romans, exist at the periphery of descriptive detail; we can only deduce their involvement in the unfolding story from the places in the narrative where their names are mentioned. And one of the main deductions we can make is that women played a critical role in supporting Jesus and his entourage of disciples as they moved across the landscape.
It is extremely unfortunate, and perhaps a sign of past times, that some in The Church chose to denigrate Mary Magdalene by suggesting she had an unsavory reputation. To be "healed of demons" as Mark puts it (and Luke repeats), was a common way to describe a healing from any variety of illness, as well as sin thought to have been passed on to her by her parents. But Mark and Luke never speculate what those demons actually were. This left a vacuum for others to step into. Church artists looking to spice up their work, and ill-meaning preachers looking for an opportunity to rail against sexual sins and women, made Mary of Magdala the object of their titillation and derision by guessing, and by inferring from other stories about women that had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.
The confusion of Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery, the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her hair, as well as with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus was unfortunately made official in a sermon delivered by Pope Gregory the Great in 591 AD. (Gregory was first to send missionaries to England.) He announced that several of these descriptions applied to the same woman. This speculation was also fueled by legends of Mary's whereabouts after the Resurrection. One legend said that Mary Magdalene escaped from the Holy Land during the early persecution of Christians and traveled with Lazarus and Martha in a miraculous boat without sails or oars, landing on the shores of Provence, France. Reports that she converted many heathens resulted in her becoming patron saint of that region and inspiring still more legends about her retiring to a cave to continue her repentance.(10)
Perhaps because of the lurid appeal of "a wayward woman who has seen the error of her ways," Mary is often depicted in art, particularly Renaissance art, as a voluptuous, wealthy young woman in various stages of undress. She frequently wears vibrant shades of red and carries a jar (ointment for anointing Jesus’ feet or his corpse) or a book (possibly to indicate her new contemplative status). In fact, we can surmise by the company she kept (Mother Mary and "the other" mothers) and her ability to travel, that Mary Magdalene may have been an older woman of some means and ability to freely travel without risk of reputation.
The suggestion that she, not John the Beloved Disciple, is the one seated at Jesus’ right hand in DaVinci’s Last Supper seems silly. If that’s Mary, where’s the twelfth disciple?
Fictitious interpretations of Mary's story only serve to further obscure a simple fact: Jesus called women to faith, and to one in particular he gave a special honor. Attempts to sexualize Mary's relationship to Jesus are misguided, or at worst, misogynist, as if women do not deserve to be taken seriously as disciples and leaders.
Modern scholarship and interpretation have "resurrected" the important role these women played in the absolute turning point of history and salvation. Towards the end of a detailed examination of Mary Magdalene and the other women, Carla Ricci observes, “We need to free ourselves from the appeal of trying to show that women had roles and places exactly like the men…. We have in fact seen that Jesus refused to relate to people by virtue of their established roles and ties of kinship….” (11) When Jesus asked, "Who are my mother and brothers?" he answered his own question with “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35; Matthew 12:50; Luke 8:21). Mary's faithful presence throughout Jesus' ministry and especially his passion and her willingness to transcend convention to carry the news of his resurrection to his other followers surely places her among those who have heard and done God's will.
(2) Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and DaVinci, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, p. 74.
(3) The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, general editor, HarperCollins: San Francisco, 1985, 1996, p. 1218.
(9) HarperCollins, pp. 657-658.
(11) Ricci, CarlaMary Magdalene and Many Other Women who Followed Jesus, translated from the Italian by Paul Burns, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994 (originally published in Italy, 1991, Maria di Maglia e le molte altri,p. 191.
The Thoughtful Christian's two-session study "Mary Magdalene: Tradition or Gospel" lists the following books for additional information:
- Esther de Boer, Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth, trans. 1997; and The Gospel of Mary: Listening to the Beloved Disciple (New York: Continuum, 2005).
- Margaret George, Mary, Called Magdalene: A Novel (New York: Viking, 2002).
- Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1993).
- Marjorie M. Malvern, Venus in Sackcloth: The Magdalen’s Origins and Metamorphoses (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975).
- Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2002).