Mary Magdalene

To find out about Mary Magdalene we need to undertake a Gospel investigation.

Let us start with the bald Mark 14.3-9 where a woman pours ointment, in an anointing gesture, over Jesus' head, which he takes not to be a mark of kingship but a foreshadowing of his burial; and Matthew 26.6-13 tells the same story almost word for word. Both accounts are in the House of Simon the Leper in Bethany.

Then Luke 7.36-50 transposes the story to the house of Simon the Pharisee (who could not, because of the Book of Leviticus, have been a Leper and whose house is not, as far as we can tell, in Bethany but more likely in Galilee). The woman has committed "many sins" but if it is the same woman in Luke as in Matthew and Mark, her ointment costs 300 Denarii which is about a year's labouring wages which means that the gift could hardly have been purchased by a common prostitute, so it is not clear what kind of sinner she is on the evidence. But the hint of the seductive narrative that enters the Christian tradition begins as the woman in Luke wipes the feet of Jesus with her hair, the supreme Middle Eastern symbol of eroticism; and there are tears. Jesus forgives her sins. But then we have a directly consecutive passage in Luke 7.1-3 which might be an accident or deliberate where Luke comments on a number of women who follow Jesus, one of whom is Mary of Magdala who has had "seven demons" cast out of her, presumably by Jesus. So if we track the association back from Luke 8.1-3 to Luke 7.36-50 we are faced with a woman, if it is the same woman, cured of some kind of serious mental illness who makes a substantial gift to Jesus out of possible gratitude but who is supposed by later tradition to be a prostitute.

But might the sinful woman in the synoptic Gospels be the same as the woman in John 8.1-11, which is actually a Lucan story, who is charged with committing an act of adultery (where the male role in the affair is disregarded) and have absolutely nothing to do with Mary of Magdala, cured of her illness to become a faithful follower of Jesus? WE might have two women, the cured follower and the sexual sinner.

But back to Bethany where there is another anointing in John 21.1-8 with the same ointment, feet and hair and the price tag of 300 Denarii but this time it's Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, reported first in Luke 10.38-42 where Mary sits at Jesus' feet. As this Mary is a close friend of Jesus she can't be the woman of "many sins" and if she had been cured of "seven demons" it is highly likely that John would mention this. So it seems that we have now identified three separate women.

Mary of Bethany then disappears from the Gospel narratives but Mary of Magdala comes into sharp focus in: Mark 15.40-41; 15.47-16.1; Matthew 27.55-56; 27.61; 28.1-10 where she held Jesus by the feet, a significant addition by Matthew to Mark; Luke 23.27-31; 23.49; 23.55; 24.1-11; and John 19.25-27; 20.1-18.

At this point, against all custom and practice - which is a pretty reliable indicator of veracity - Mary is identified by latter First Century authors as a leading figure in the Crucifixion and Resurrection story (noting that, contrary to sloppy reading of the above texts, it is a man, Joseph of Aramathea, not women, who anoints Jesus on Good Friday). But what emerges in all four Gospels is Mary of Magdala, the leader and the person who was the first witness of the risen Christ. 

The sexual conduct of Mary of Magdala follows two traditions: first, the Apocryphal Gospel of Philip says:  "The saviour loved her more than the other disciples and kissed her often on the mouth". Dan Brown extrapolated this to propose that Jesus had sexual relations with this Mary who bore his children. Secondly, and much more persistent, is the image of the repentant whore. Whether this was a direct result of a down-grading of the role of women in the expanding church, under-written by the Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD) or whether the emerging image was simply irresistible is an interesting point. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) believed that Rome could be saved from plague through personal penitence and he dug up Mary in 591 in a set of homilies, conflating all the Mary stories, explaining that the woman used the ointment to perfume her body for forbidden acts before turning from crime to virtue to serve God entirely in penitence. Mary was then conflated with Mary the harlot saint who spent 47 years as a hermit in the Egyptian desert, her naked body blackened by the sun. In the 13th Century "Golden Legend" Mary, a woman of riches and beauty that lead to moral descent, accompanied her virtuous brother Lazarus to France, cures barrenness and then motivates the prince to destroy pagan temples and build churches to Christ. Rome wanted to obscure her but these stories made her more famous than the Apostles until the 15th Century when the situation was getting out of hand, only to be damped down by the Council of Trent's (1545-1563) austere reaction to the Reformation. The Greek Orthodox Church never suffered from these excesses and stayed true to the image of Mary of Magdala, the "Disciple to the Disciples".

Incidentally, it might be interesting to look at the following passage in the NRSV, John 20.17:

Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God".

Now read it again, bearing in mind that the original Greek had no punctuation:

Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me Because I have not yet ascended to the Father, go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."