Mary Magdalene decoded

Debate over the status of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life has been renewed after the release last month of the Ron Howard film of the Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code [2003]. Elizabeth Julian goes not to pop fiction but to the New Testament in search of an

Elizabeth Julian rsm

Debate over the status of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life has been renewed after the release last month of the Ron Howard film of the Dan Brown book, The Da Vinci Code [2003]. Elizabeth Julian goes not to pop fiction but to the New Testament in search of answers.

I work in a building associated with a lot of Johns. I have to distinguish among them carefully: there’s John G, John K, John B, John Br, John C, John V, John+, and ‘my John’. As well, I have a brother John and a nephew-in-law John.

In the New Testament there are a lot of Marys: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses or Joseph and the ‘other’ Mary, and of course the Mary who came from the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (about midway between Ngauranga and Petone if Wellington Harbour were the Sea of Galilee and Petone were Capernaum) and whom Dan Brown claims was married to Jesus.

Part of the recent confusion about Mary Magdalene for Catholics, I believe, comes from the fact that we don’t know what the New Testament actually says about her because we seldom hear her story proclaimed on Sunday.

She is named 14 times in the New Testament, which is more than most of the apostles whose stories have been selected for proclaiming on Sundays in the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. (Similarly the first reading for each of the Sundays in Easter is taken from the Acts of the Apostles and concerns the sermons and activities of the males – Peter, Paul, Barnabas and Stephen. The stories of the women leaders in Acts – Tabitha, Lydia and Priscilla – are relegated to the weekday readings.)

Almost every Catholic can tell the story of the doubting Thomas, and of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. (We know one of them was Clopas – perhaps his wife was with him, in which case she would be ‘Mary the wife of Clopas’.)

Yet according to Matthew, Mark and John, Mary Magdalene was a very important woman. She was one of a group of women at the foot of the cross (the men had run away). Luke doesn’t name her but records that women were present. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, she was one of a group of women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Matthew and Mark tell us that these women were commissioned to tell of the resurrection. In Luke, while they weren’t commissioned, they told anyway but the disciples wouldn’t believe them! We hear one of these three accounts at the Easter Vigil every year. There’s no avoiding it!

The Gospel for the most important feast in the Church’s liturgical year is the story of the women going to the tomb and learning of the resurrection. (I wonder why women got the message first and were told to proclaim it? I wonder how it has happened that they aren’t allowed to preach it liturgically today?)

But back to Mary Magdalene. If we miss the Vigil and attend Mass on Easter Sunday instead, the Gospel we hear is John’s account of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, seeing the stone has been rolled away and running to tell Peter and the beloved disciple that Jesus has been taken out of the tomb. The two men run to the tomb, look in and believe (John 20 1-10). On the second Sunday of Easter we hear the story of Thomas’ struggle to believe (John 20:19-31). Now the big question I have is: what happened to the wonderful verses in between, ie, John 20:11-17?

These verses tell the story of Jesus’ encounter with a distraught Mary Magdalene in the garden and his commissioning of her. Sadly it does not appear in any of the Sunday readings for the Easter season or in the Sunday lectionary at all, but instead on a weekday (Easter Tuesday) as well as on her feast day, 22 July.

According to John, it is Mary Magdalene alone who was the first witness to the resurrection and the first to be commissioned to tell of it. So the Gospel record then is very clear that Mary Magdalene was a prominent figure in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In all four Gospel accounts she is the only person (male or female) to realise that Jesus was alive and to testify to it.

One story we do hear on a Sunday about women, however, is the story of the woman who was a sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). This story is proclaimed on the 11th Sunday, Year C. Sometimes the verses following it (Luke 8:1-3) are included since they are listed in the lectionary as optional.

These verses tell us that from the beginning, women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna, had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of their private means. Unfortunately, however, we as listeners are led to identify the repentant sinner with Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone out.

Why do we think that Mary Magdalene was a sinner? Why do we think that the ‘seven demons’ were sins? (When men in the New Testament are possessed by demons we don’t seem to associate them with sin.) How did this confusion and distortion arise?

Harvard Church history professor, Karen King, offers the following explanation: The problem is essentially the result of misguided exegesis. Until the fourth century everything was okay. No Church writer claimed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Indeed, it was the second century Church Father, Hippolytus, who gave her the title ‘apostle to the apostles’. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and Augustine (who said some shocking things about women in general) held her in very high regard.

However, the confusion began in the fourth century when some Christian theologians in the Latin West began to identify Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:1-3) with Mary of Bethany (who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus).

First, the story of Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-8) was merged with the account of the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus (Luke 7:36-50).

Next, Mary Magdalene was identified with the unnamed adulteress (John 8:1-11) so that Mary Magdalene the disciple became Mary Magdalene the whore.

Third, as if things weren’t already bad enough, at the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great, having identified Mary Magdalene with the sinner woman of Luke and John, also claimed that Mary Magdalene’s ‘seven demons’ (Luke 8:2) were the seven deadly sins! For some reason, Mary’s ‘demons’ became sexual sins as well as sins of vanity and boldness!

Nowhere in the New Testament is Mary Magdalene called a sinner, let alone a prostitute. This distortion is the product of the male imagination. Pope Gregory claimed that ‘She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance, for as much as she had wrongly held God in contempt.’ It is this unfortunate depiction that has dominated the imagination of the West – Mary Magdalene the repentant sinner. (We hear little about Peter or Paul as the repentant sinners yet surely they deserve the designation.)

What were her ‘seven demons’ then? New Testament scholarship would say physical illness. As Barbara Reid explains, Luke’s use of the number ‘seven’ – the symbolic number for fullness or completeness – was to highlight the seriousness of Mary’s illness and the extent of her cure. (Isn’t it interesting that Peter who actually sins [tells a lie about not knowing Jesus] doesn’t have to carry this baggage forever, while Mary Magdalene who doesn’t, gets whoppers made up about her and is saddled with them to this very day?)

Finally, did Mary Magdalene marry Jesus? The New Testament itself is silent on the question and Catholic New Testament scholar Fr John Meier says that we cannot be absolutely sure one way or the other. However, he argues very strongly in a carefully researched argument that Jesus remained celibate all his life. One of the reasons he gives is that in situations in the New Testament where Jesus’ relatives are mentioned (eg, Mark 3: 31-35) there is total silence about a wife and children.

I believe that Dan Brown has done Mary Magdalene and all women a great disservice by claiming that she was married to Jesus. Mary Magdalene is one of the few biblical women who actually has her own identity, ie, she is not an appendage to or a chattel of her father, husband or brother. So forget Dan Brown. Go back to the New Testament. Find there the woman who is the thread of continuity between the ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Find there the devoted disciple, the courageous leader whose message we are called to proclaim with our lives whether people believe us or not: Jesus is risen!