Saint Mary Magdalene (22nd July)
Mary Magdalene, the clichés
Mary Magdalene's story is intimately linked with Jesus. She plays a starring role in one of the most powerful and important scenes in the Gospels.
But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different. In art, she's often semi-naked, or an isolated hermit repenting for her sins in the wilderness: an outcast. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. But we know her best as a prostitute.
The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is fallen and redeemed, is a very powerful image of redemption a signal that no matter how low one has fallen, one can be redeemed.
Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, but not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or a sinner. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from Luke's gospel (7:36-50) both of whom wash Jesus' feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made this assumption official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation still lingers.
Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic,Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches with a feast day of 22nd July. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers which is the second Sunday after Pascha (Easter). She is also an important figure in the Bahá'í faith.
Susan Haskins and Belinda Sykes discussed Mary's journey from sinner to saint on Woman's Hour.
Although we know something about Jewish society in ancient Palestine 2,000 years ago, we know very little about Mary herself. The Bible provides no personal details of her age, status or family.
Her name, Mary Magdalene, gives us the first real clue about her. It suggests that she came from a town called Magdala. There is a place today called Magdala, 120 miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We do know there was also an ancient place called Magdala from literature. The name occurs in the New Testament, and also in Jewish texts. Its full name is Magdala Tarichaea. Magdala seems to mean tower, and Tarichaea means salted fish. If the name of the town wasTower of Salted Fish, it's no surprise that its main business was fishing. As a woman living in Magdala, Mary may have worked in the fish markets.
We know there were brothels elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and Galilee was probably no exception. It was part of the Roman Empire, which placed a heavy tax burden on families, and often women paid the heaviest price.
The Roman conquest, and then Roman imperial rule, would have made quite a dramatic impact on Galilee. Economically it would have brought the people greater and greater tax burdens, and that would have put pressure on families.
When tax burdens were at their worst and a family could no longer pay off its debts, children were sometimes given up as slaves. Perhaps this was Mary Magdalene's fate.
With such a tough background, it's not hard to imagine that Mary might have been a prostitute, but this evidence is purely circumstantial. However, her name, Mary of Magdala, could suggest something else altogether: she was unmarried. A married woman would have carried her husband's name and Mary didn't.
There is nothing in the limited amount of material we have about Mary in the Gospel traditions that suggests she is married, she's never described as being a widow and she not said to have any children.
2,000 years ago an unmarried woman was viewed with suspicion. Perhaps this isolated Mary, but it wouldn't fully account for her negative image.
Jesus was known as an exorcist. In all of the gospels, one of the principal things he is doing in his campaign for a renewal of Israel is exorcism. The exorcisms and healings probably go together with the teaching and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.
At that time, people believed that the demons possessed people who had done something wrong, and deserved to be possessed, whereas good, virtuous people were protected from demon possession.
Penitent Magdalene by El Greco, painted 1585-90 ©
Whatever the cause of her possession, Mary's exorcism is the catalyst which makes her sign up with the Jesus movement. The message that Jesus is said to have preached seems to have particular appeal for people who are in the margins of society. Luke chapter 8, tells us that Mary was one of Jesus' followers and travelled with him.
But the Bible isn't the only source. In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, in southern Egypt, two men came across a sealed ceramic jar. Inside, they discovered a hoard of ancient papyrus books. Although they never received as much public attention as the Dead Sea Scrolls, these actually turn out to be much more important for writing the history of early Christianity. They are a cache of Christian texts.
The Nag Hammadi texts tell us about early Christians. They were written in Coptic, the language of early Christian Egypt. As most ancient Christian texts have been lost, this discovery was exceptional.
The discovery includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Peter. None of these texts were included in the Bible, because the content didn't conform to Christian doctrine, and they're referred to as apocryphal. They tend to concentrate on things that one doesn't read about in the Bible. For example, New Testament gospels report that after the resurrection Jesus spent some time talking with the disciples, but you don't learn much about what he said. In the gospels of Nag Hammadi you can read what he said.
Although they're not Biblical texts, experts still believe that they give us significant insights into Christian history. In these apocryphal texts we might have genuine traditions about Jesus that for one reason or another didn't make it into the New Testament.
For the first time in hundreds of years there was a new source of information about Mary Magdalene. She appears very frequently as one of the prominent disciples of Jesus. In certain texts where Jesus is in discussion with his disciples, Mary Magdalene asks many informed questions. Whereas the other disciples at times seem confused, she is the one who understands.
One of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is the Gospel of Philip, in which Mary Magdalene is a key figure. It has been the cause of one of the most controversial claims ever made about her.
During their long burial in the desert, some of the books were attacked by ants. In this Gospel, the ants made a hole in a very crucial place. The text says:
And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [...]. The rest of the disciples [...]. 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? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness." (Gospel of Philip)
The lacuna, or gap, which hides where Jesus kissed Mary has tantalised scholars for decades.
Some scholars have interpreted the kiss in a more spiritual sense and see kissing as a symbol for an intimate reception of teaching of the word of God, of learning. The image of Jesus and Mary as engaged in mouth-to-mouth closeness suggests not necessarily sexuality, but the transmission of divine knowledge.
Mary Magdalene appears in this text also not only as the disciple he loved most but also as a symbolic figure of heavenly wisdom. These stories of Mary - as Jesus' closest companion and a symbol of heavenly wisdom - are in sharp contrast with the Mary Magdalene of popular imagination.
"Apocryphal" took on very negative connotations, especially in comparison to the Bible. It often means that it's not to be read, not to be taken seriously, not to be considered, not true. The contents of these books are regarded by many people as legends. So can we believe the Gospel of Philip? Was Mary really Jesus' closest companion? Well, there is other evidence for this, and some of it is even in the Bible itself.
We're told that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who kept vigil at Jesus' tomb. It was customary at this time for Jewish women to prepare bodies for burial. Corpses were considered unclean, and so it was always a woman's task to handle them.
When Mary goes to the tomb, Jesus' body is no longer there. The fullest account of Mary's role after discovering the empty tomb is in the Gospel of John. She is in a state of shock and runs to where the disciples are gathered to tell them the news. When she reports to the disciples she is not believed. Peter and another disciple return with her to the tomb, to see for themselves.
When they enter, Peter reacts to the sight of the discarded linen burial cloth with anger and dismay. But the other disciple understands what has happened and concludes that Jesus must have risen from the dead.
The two of them leave without a backward glance at Mary. Then, something even more extraordinary happens. It is Mary Magdalene's biggest moment.
Mary is alone when someone asks her why she's crying. She believes it's the gardener, and says, "they have taken my lord's body and I do not know where it is". The figure says her name. And then she sees Jesus. She is overwhelmed and says "Master!" and goes forward to reach out to him, but he stops her. He says "don't touch me". Instead, she must go to the others and tell them that he has risen from the dead. It's an awesome moment. Jesus stands before her, yet he's beyond her reach.
A new concept developed, which had nothing to with what Jesus himself was preaching, and this is the concept that Jesus didn't die - or he did but he was raised from the dead. The movement is not a failure. It is in fact a great success. The person who declares this is Mary Magdalene.
Jesus' resurrection was the turning point for Christianity. This was when it changed from a small movement to a whole new religion. And Mary Magdalene was a key figure in this event.
You might think, then, that at the very least Mary would be recognised as an apostle - one of the early missionaries who founded the religion - as she seems to meet all the criteria set out in the Bible.
The reason why she is not perhaps lies in another long lost apocryphal text. In a Cairo bazaar in 1896, a German scholar happened to come across a curious papyrus book. Bound in leather and written in Coptic, this was the Gospel of Mary.
Like the books found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene is also considered an apocryphal text. The story it contains begins some time after the resurrection. The disciples have just had a vision of Jesus.
Jesus has encouraged his disciples to go out and preach his teachings to the world, but they are afraid to do so because he was killed for it, and they say "if they killed him, they are going to kill us too". It's Mary who steps forward and says: don't be worried, he promised he would be with us to protect us. It says she turns their hearts toward the good and they begin to discuss the words of the Saviour.
In texts like the Gospel of Philip, Mary was presented as a symbol of wisdom. However in the Gospel of Mary, she is the one in charge, telling the disciples about Jesus' teachings.
At this point Peter asks Mary to tell them some things that she might have heard, but which the other disciples haven't. She says "Yes, I will tell you what has been hidden from you". She talks about a vision she had of Jesus and a conversation that she had with him. As the Gospel tells it, Mary then relates the details of this conversation, which is to do with spiritual development and the soul's lifelong battle with evil.
At this point controversy arises, andAndrew steps in and says "well, I don't know what the rest of you think, but these things seem very strange to me, and it seems that she's telling us teachings that are different from the Saviour." Peter then chimes in and he says, "Are we supposed to now all turn around and listen to her? Would Jesus have spoken privately with a woman rather than openly to us? Did he prefer her to us?"
Matthew defends Mary and quells Peter's attack on her. In the text, Peter's problem seems to be that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings. Peter sees Mary as a rival for the leadership of the group itself.
Peter need not have feared. Most people think of Peter as the rock upon which the church was established. He is the main or major disciple figure, and Mary Magdalene is a kind of side figure in the cast of characters.
One of the absolutely fascinating things about the Gospel of Mary is it really asks us to rethink that story about Christian history: did all the disciples get it? Did they really understand and preach the truth?
Perhaps the Gospel of Mary was just too radical. It presents Mary as a teacher and spiritual guide to the other disciples. She's not just a disciple; she's the apostle to the apostles.