Mary Magdalene: The Most Misunderstood Woman in History?

Up until the 1960s, Mary Magdalene was officially a ‘sinful woman’ in Roman Catholicism. In twentieth century Ireland, for example, homes for unmarried mothers were referred to as Magdalene laundries; here so-called ‘fallen’ women who had borne children outside wedlock lived out their days washing and ironing for the well-off. It was thought that this unpaid, menial work was a means for the women to atone for their sins, as Mary Magdalene had atoned for hers.

After Vatican II, with its new emphasis on Scripture, Mary Magdalene’s name was finally cleared. In popular Christian consciousness, however, she continues to be confused with the unnamed prostitute who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair, although even a superficial reading of the Gospel texts tells the reader a very different story.

Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who travelled around with Jesus. We know that women travelled alongside the male disciples only because Luke mentions it briefly in Chapter 8 of his Gospel. Many biblical theologians have commented on the near silence in the Gospel texts concerning these women; the reticence of the evangelists on the subject was undoubtedly due to the fact that during the time of Jesus, women were segregated from men and excluded from public and social life. Whether rich or poor, any woman who crossed the threshold of her home had to be so heavily veiled as to be unrecognisable; there was a general fear and suspicion of possible relationships that might arise as a result of women going about in public. It is easy to understand therefore why Jesus’ openness to women’s company and friendship would have been perceived as dangerous and even sinful by the establishment of the time and also why the evangelists were so reticent on the subject. Even Luke, whose Gospel is noted for its positive attitude to women, leads up with meticulous care to the revelation that women as well as the twelve formed part of the inner circle that surrounded Jesus. Luke, of course, would have been anxious to avoid antagonising his predominantly male readership. The importance of Mary Magdalene’s role among the women disciples is, however, clear: she is generally the first woman mentioned in any list of the women, in parallel fashion to the way that Peter is always mentioned first in any list of the male disciples, even though the texts give us far more information about Peter.

What, then, can we know for certain about Mary Magdalene? Luke informs us that some of Jesus’ female companions had been cured by him of “evil spirits and infirmities”. Luke mentions three of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna. In modern parlance this means that Jesus had cured them of either physical or mental illness: in the thought-world of 21st century Palestine, what we would now understand as psychosomatic disorder was thought to indicate diabolical possession. The text is unclear as to whether or not Joanna (the wife of Herod’s steward) and Susanna were cured of physical or mental illness. There is no such ambiguity however in the case of Mary Magdalene; we are told that “seven demons” had gone out from her. The number seven had a special significance all around the Mediterranean world at that time; symbolically it stands for fullness or completeness. When Luke writes that Mary Magdalene had seven demons driven out of her, he is describing not only severe mental illness but also a total cure. Women who were damaged in various ways were obviously drawn to Jesus; considering the scandal and outrage all of his women followers – including the well-off ones who, we are told, provided financial support to the group – would have caused by leaving home for an itinerant existence, we are justified in concluding that Jesus had been able to heal them of wounds inflicted by the highly patriarchal society in which they lived or by the significant males in their lives.

The embarrassment caused both during his life and after his death by Jesus’ association with women continues in Christianity to the present day; it is especially reflected in the general liturgical bypassing and downplaying of Mary Magdalene’s role in the Resurrection narratives; the Easter Sunday and Monday readings traditionally highlight the role of Peter, even though Mary Magdalene and some of the other women are reported in all four Gospels as being the first visitors to the empty tomb. This is because women’s witness to such a miraculous event would not carry the same weight as men’s. Yet John’s Gospel, in a beautiful vignette, describes how Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. Not only does this scene establish Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles, it also reveals the true nature of her relationship with Jesus and provides compelling evidence for the truth of the Resurrection.

The earthly relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is revealed almost by chance in the evangelist’s Resurrection narratives; his intention is not so much to recount an emotional episode between the two as to provide convincing evidence that Jesus has risen from the dead. Mary has gone to visit the tomb alone and, finding it empty, runs in great distress to inform Peter and John that Jesus’ body has been stolen. All three return to the tomb and, seeing that it is indeed empty, the two men return to their homes. Mary is inconsolable, however, and can’t bring herself to leave; looking into the tomb, she sees two angels “in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying…” They ask her why she is weeping and she answers “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20 v. 13). The text continues: “When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’. Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (vv. 14-16).

As this and other post-Resurrection passages make clear, the risen Jesus is in some way unrecognisable to those who knew him in his earthly life, and at first Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener; Jesus is depicted as going along with this in a mildly teasing way. When she still doesn’t recognise him, he speaks her name in a tone of voice that instantly evokes for her the essence of their relationship.Theirs must have been a relationship of great depth and intimacy; it is also clear, however, that it was not the type of bond that has been suggested in books such as the Da Vinci Code or even in some of the apocalyptic gospels. The amazed response of “Rabbouni!” gives conclusive insight into the relationship that had existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. ‘Rabbouni’ means ‘teacher’ or ‘master’; theirs was a relationship that had clearly evolved from psychical healing by Jesus to deep friendship and mentoring. To compare the relationship between the two to one between teacher and pupil or master and disciple is, of course, only to describe its structure. The joyful tenderness of their post-resurrection encounter implies that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were extraordinarily close; that their relationship was a physically affectionate one is evident from what Jesus says immediately following Mary’s recognition of him “Do not hold onto me….” Simultaneously with her cry of recognition, Mary instinctively throws herself upon Jesus. Theirs was certainly a bond of deep love, but it was a platonic love. That Jesus really ‘saw’ women is evident in his sayings, deeds and preaching; I think it’s safe to assume that the other women who travelled with him also experienced some degree of this unique male love. It is no wonder that women flocked around Jesus. So, to answer Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s classic feminist question from a Christian perspective, yes: in my opinion, Jesus certainly did promote the full humanity of women.

The crass and inaccurate stereotyping of Mary Magdalene as the archetypal prostitute who repents of her ‘falleness’ (a term, remember, that can never be used in reference to a man) is a travesty of her depiction in the Gospels, a gross insult to the manner in which her relationship with Jesus is portrayed, and a gross insult to the female sex overall. It highlights the destructive power of the double standard, and the vulnerability of women who cannot be neatly slotted into a conventional societal niche to being tarnished by it. Further, in liturgically minimising her role to the advantage of Peter in the resurrection narratives, institutional Christianity is doing itself no favours; for John’s account is far more convincing about the truth of the Resurrection than any other, precisely because of its emphasis on the role of Mary Magdalene. It is highly unlikely that the evangelist would have included such an account if it weren’t true, because the witness of a woman was considered to be so unreliable; indeed, the tale has the authentic ring of a first person account, and many biblical theologians believe that Mary Magdalene was associated with the Johannine community from which the Gospel emerged. The aspect of the narrative, however, that convinces me more than anything else of its authenticity is the incidental revelation of the nature and significance of Mary Magdalene’s bond with Jesus: could the author of what is generally considered to be the most beautiful and theologically brilliant of the Gospels really have been a master of deceit capable of faking such transparency and artlessness?

Mary Magdalene is, by the very definition of the word, the first apostle to the Resurrection and the first one sent to proclaim the message of Christianity. Whatever significance that may have for the role of women in the Church has been for far too long obscured by prejudice, carelessness and misogyny. With the impetus that Vatican II gave to scriptural study and to feminist theology via the opening of theological studies to women, much of the debris surrounding her has been cleared away. The implications of this will, I believe, transform the role of women within the Church and provide fresh impetus to third wave feminism.

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