What Happened to Mary Magdalene?
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There’s no doubt that Mary Magdalene was a significant person to Jesus and the first-century church. But there’s no mention of her after Jesus rose from the dead. Who was this woman, and what do we know about her?
Magdalene wasn’t her surname. In Jesus’ time, people were either known by who they were related to or from. For example, Jesus called Peter Simon bar-Jonah. Bar means “son of,” and Jonah was Peter and Andrew’s, father.
Mary Magdalene was Mary of Magdala. When I searched Magdala online, the first selection was Magdala fine foods, near Geelong. But that’s not the one we read of in the Bible. Magdala is a city in Galilee, located in the northernmost region of ancient Palestine (now northern Israel). It’s a beautiful town on the West bank of the Sea of Galilee.
The ancient town of Magdala has been excavated since 2009. It was covered with repeated landslides over the centuries. Still, since its discovery, archaeologists have uncovered a first-century Synagogue, a marketplace, Menorah, fishing pools, four mikva’ot (Jewish ritual baths), mosaics, a domestic area, a wharf, and a harbour.
Mary from Magdala was one of the earliest followers of Jesus. According to the Bible, she travelled with him and was present when he was crucified and died, buried, and resurrected.
She’s mentioned in all four Gospels demonstrating how important she was considered by the gospel writers and the early church.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons.
It was Mary, along with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection.
Luke 8:1-3 gives the most comprehensive account of Mary, “Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, wrote, “She was named in the Gospels, so she obviously was important. There were apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of followers of Jesus, but we don’t know most of their names. So, the fact that she’s named is a big deal.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—Mary Magdalene’s evident importance in the Bible, some early Western church leaders sought to downplay her influence by portraying her as a sinner, specifically a prostitute.
Robert Cargill again: “There are many scholars who argue that because Jesus empowered women to such an extent early in his ministry, it made some of the men who would lead the early church later on uncomfortable, and so, there were two responses to this. One was to turn her into a prostitute.”
And so, Mary became linked with the unnamed woman with the alabaster box (Luke 7:37) who had lived a sinful life as a prostitute.
In 591 CE, Pope Gregory the Great solidified this misunderstanding in a sermon: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.”
In this way, the church’s patriarchal leadership sought to diminish her, downplaying the importance she held in Jesus’ and the gospel writers’ eyes. The inference being, “She couldn’t have been a leader because look at what she did for a living.”
The other response was to elevate her: Some argued she was actually Jesus’ wife or companion who held a special status. That’s the view explored by Dan Brown in his riveting novel, Da Vinci Code (It’s a great book but a lousy movie).
The book’s blurb states: Mary Magdalene was depicted as being of royal descent (through the Jewish House of Benjamin) and was the wife of Jesus, of the House of David. After Jesus’s Crucifixion, she fled to Gaul, where she was sheltered by the Jews of Marseille. She gave birth to a daughter named Sarah.
The Gospel of Mary, a text dating from the second century CE that surfaced in Egypt in 1896, placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’ male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, a group of texts believed to have been written by early Christians as far back as the second century but not discovered until 1945, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
One of these texts, known as the Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary often.
Then in 2012, the Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King unveiled a previously unknown papyrus fragment she believed to be a copy of a second-century gospel. In the text, Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as “my wife.” After defending the document’s authenticity against a barrage of criticism, King eventually changed her stance, concluding that the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s wife” was probably a forgery.
The Bible gives no hint that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife.
None of the four gospels suggests that sort of relationship, even though they list the women who travel with Jesus and in some cases include their husbands’ names.
The version of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute held on for centuries after Pope Gregory the Great made it official in his sixth-century sermon. Finally, in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church admitted that the text of the Bible did not support that interpretation. Today, Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches, celebrating a feast on July 22.
Robert Cargill again: “Mary appears to have been a disciple of Jesus. What’s important is that Jesus had both male and female disciples in his ministry, which was not necessarily common at the time.”
The prostitute and the wife theories may have been around for centuries, but they are legends and traditions that grew up long after the fact: Neither of them is rooted in the Bible itself.
Conclusion: Mary Magdalene was an astonishing woman, a disciple of Jesus, and, no doubt, became a significant leader in the first-century church.