Mary Magdalene

Scripture Readings: Luke 8:1-3, John 20:1-18

Who was Mary of Magdala? We read in Luke 8:1-3 that she was one of several women traveling with Jesus and the disciples through cities and villages in Galilee, that she had been "cured of evil spirits and infirmities," that "seven demons had gone out" of her, that within the Jesus movement she was known as "Magdalene," and that she and the other women "provided for" the disciples "out of their resources.

This brief passage is extraordinary. A preacher traveling with a woman not under the care of her father or husband would have been scandalous in first century Jewish society. However we understand Mary’s healing, certainly her life was transformed. Furthermore, Mary of Magdala is described as a woman with independent resources, which she was using to fund the ministry of Jesus. Finally, in this movement she had a special name, Magdalene.

We hear nothing more about Mary Magdalene in the New Testament gospels until the end of each. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, Mary Magdalene is named as a witness to the death of Jesus on the cross, and she is the only witness named in all four gospels who is present after the sabbath among the women who come to the tomb and find it empty. In addition, in the gospel of John she is the first to experience the resurrected Lord, who tells her to explain to the disciples what has happened.

The primary role of Mary Magdalene at the end of the gospels, and especially in the gospel of John, is even more astonishing when we consider 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. "For I handed on to you," Paul writes, "as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James [the brother of Jesus], then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

This teaching, which Paul says came from Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, the leading apostles of the Jerusalem Church, tells us nothing about the appearance of the risen Lord to Mary Magdalene related in the gospel of John.

Acts and the letters of Paul are silent about the woman the gospel of Luke says was remembered in the early church as Magdalene. But she is prominent in some of the early Christian writings discovered in the middle of the twentieth century near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Fragments in Greek and Coptic of what is called "the gospel of Mary," which dates to the late first or early second century, depict Mary Magdalene as a leader among the apostles.

In this gospel Mary encourages the apostles, who are despairing. "Do not weep and be distressed," she says, "nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you." (5:5-6) In this account Peter says to Mary, "Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard." (6:1-2) After Mary speaks to the apostles at length, Peter objects to her teachings. "Has the Savior spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not wish to indicate that she is more worthy than we are?" (10:3-4)

The text continues: "Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’" (10:5-6) At this point in the narrative, Levi [Matthew] confronts Peter and defends Mary: "Peter, you have a constant inclination to anger and you are always ready to give way to it. And even now you are doing exactly that by questioning the woman as if you’re her adversary. If the Savior considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he knew her completely and loved her devotedly." (10:7-10)

What is known today as the gospel of Mary clearly continues the tradition found in the New Testament in the gospel of John. The gospel of Mary affirms that the Magdalene had a special relationship with Jesus, and that he entrusted her to encourage and guide the apostles.

We know today that Peter, who in this lost gospel opposes her leadership, is identified in Matthew 16:18-19 as the apostle chosen by Jesus to lead the church. Yet, in the latter part of the third century before the New Testament canon was closed in the fourth century, Christians wrote in what is known today as the gospel of Philip: "And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. 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 Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?’

Neither the gospel of Mary, nor the gospel of Philip was included in the New Testament, because each was judged to lack apostolic authority. From the fifth century on, both of these gospels and other church writings were identified by church authorities as teaching the heresy of Gnosticism, and so they were suppressed. Our awareness of them today enables us to see that the first few generations of the church were marked by a greater diversity of Christian witness than is represented in the New Testament.

Even as we cannot recover the historical Jesus, we will never know the historical Mary of Magdala. The New Testament gospels are not journalistic accounts of first century events, but are narrative sermons witnessing to the meaning of Jesus Christ for the first century Christians who wrote them. However, these stories include a prominent place for Mary Magdalene, as a supporter and confidant of Jesus, and as a model of faith for many Christians in the first three centuries. Christian literature from this period verifies that among early Christians Mary Magdalene was remembered as a woman of great faith.

November 10, 2002 © Robert Traer 2016