Saint Mary Magdalene: Minimising an Apostle’s Role

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The years 1976-1985 were named the “Decade for Women” by the UN. Within the context of the activities which were held then, the view was expressed, among other things, that religions bore the responsibility for the denigration of women’s rights. The Christian world responded to this challenge by launching its own decade (1988-98) of “Churches in Solidarity with Women”, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches. But the WCC had already become involved, in General Assemblies and individual activities, with this particular issue. Indeed, between the years 1978-81, a study programme was organized on “Community of Men and Women in the Church”. The culmination of this effort was the International Assembly in Sheffield, which produced the now famous “Sheffield Report”. During the course of all these discussions, the Christian academic community was given the opportunity to re-examine many related issues, such as, for example, the influences on the social life of the Western world from the theology formulated in the West in the 5th century A. D. by, perhaps, the greatest figure in the Western world, Saint Augustine, concerning original sin. Another very important matter which was re-examined historically and theologically in the Christian world, on the same occasion, has to do with the person of Saint Mary Magdalene.

In the artistic, philosophical and- until recently- in the Western ecclesiastical and theological world, outside that of the Orthodox Church, the name of Mary Magdalene has been identified, one way or another, with eroticism in the broader sense. Various artists or writers of fiction, such as, for example, Dan Brown, William Phipps, Chris Gollon, Martin Scorsese and many others have sought or desired to create a lover for Jesus from Nazareth and, curiously, every single one of them has lighted upon Mary Magdalene. This is not surprising since, for a long period, even within the sphere of Church literature, Mary was characterized as the most attractive and enthralling female person in the New Testament. Even today, many people think she was a former harlot, who, of course, repented after her existential encounter with Christ. One of the modern British artists mentioned above, Chris Gollon presents her in his painting “Pre-Penitent Magdalene” as a provocative femme fatale, wearing all the jewellery you’d expect and far too heavy make-up. On the same wave-length, but with serious symbolic poetic thinking, there is also the short text entitled “Magdalene” in Dinos Christianopoulos’ collection, The Time of the Lean Cattle (Thessaloniki, 1950).

And yet, nowhere in the reliable historical sources, particularly the oldest, i.e. the New Testament, is there any mention of this at all. On the contrary, in three of the four canonical Gospels, Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name only in the narratives of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Mark, Matthew and John she’s mentioned as a witness of the crucifixion (“There were also women looking on from afar, among whom was Mary Magdalene…” (Mk. 15, 40). In John she’s placed last (standing at the cross of Jesus were his mother, and the sister of his mother, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene…) and was present at His burial (Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid”, Mk. 15, 47; Matth. 27, 61). For the most part, however, Mary Magdalene is one of the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, that is of the empty tomb. Indeed, in John she’s the first such witness (Mk. 16, 1-8; Matth. 28, 9; Lk. 24, 1-12; Jn. 20, 14-18).

It’s only in Luke that Mary Magdalene is mentioned in testimony regarding the public ministry of Jesus before the story of the passion and resurrection, which is common to all four Gospels. At the beginning of chapter 8, Luke relates that Christ “ went on through towns and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of sicknesses and scourges, of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary called Magdalene from whom seven demons had departed… who provided for him out of their means” (Lk. 8, 1-3).

The epithet “Magdalene”, which always accompanies her name, at least in the Gospels, implies that she wasn’t married, since, in that case, she’d have had her husband’s name. “Magdalene” indicates that this particular Mary came from the commercial city of Migdal (Taricheae) on the west bank of Lake Galilee, or the Sea of Tiberias. She must have been a wealthy woman, provided, of course, we believe Luke’s information, because she gave generous material assistance to the work of Jesus and his twelve disciples, which was revolutionary for the time. According to the same source, she had personal experience of the healing power of Jesus, probably through some kind of exorcism.

On the basic of a strictly historico-critical approach to Luke’s evidence, however, modern scholarship has some reservations, because in this particular Gospel there’s a clear tendency towards minimizing the role of Magdalene, in sharp contrast to the other three canonical Gospels. It should be noted that Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who maintains that the risen Christ appeared exclusively to Peter (Lk. 24, 34; see also I Cor. 15, 5. According to Ann Graham Βrock (Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 19–40), there is no mention of any appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It follows , then, that the reference to seven demons, may well come from this prejudice, unless it has symbolic significance.

If this is the picture presented by the most primitive sources of Christian tradition, one might very reasonably inquire how it is that, with the passage of time, Mary Magdalene was transformed into a penitent harlot and, later, with a large dose of creative inventiveness, into something more than this.

Modern critical research has tended towards the conclusion that this resulted from a deliberate effort on the part of later interpreters of the history of the Christian message to gradually play down her role, at least as this is presented in the most ancient sources of the Gospel tradition. How this happened has to do, initially, with the gradual, and obviously unsubstantiated, identification of Mary from Magdala with other women who are referred to in the Gospels. First of all, with the anonymous woman from Bethany who poured myrrh onto the head of Jesus, a purely symbolic action which recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and which occurred shortly before His betrayal and crucifixion (Mk. 14, 3-9 and Matth. 26, 6-13) We should note that this action is to be interpreted as a “practical” confession of Jesus as Messiah, in much the same way as Peter’s verbal acknowledgement in Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mk. 8, 28).

In the later Gospels, the scene of this anointing of Jesus is transposed to the beginning of Christ’s public ministry (by Luke to 7, 36-50) and, significantly, the myrrh is not poured onto His head, but His feet, in both Luke and John, though the latter does retain the chronological moment of the event as being within the history of the passion, while identifying the anonymous woman with another Mary, the sister of Lazarus). Luke adds the motif of repentance and the subsequent forgiveness of the woman’s sins by Jesus.

The second mistaken identification of Mary Magdalene is with the anonymous adulteress (Jn. 7, 53-8, 11), whom Jesus saves from stoning with the famous words: “Let him who is sinless among you cast the first stone” (8, 7). This was the identification accepted by the famous actor and director Mel Gibson in his much-discussed film The Passion of Christ (for more on this identification, see Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, New York: Continuum, 2002, pp. 65–77, 82).

This process of the gradual de-assignation of the role of Mary Magdalene, with the mistaken readings and identifications, was completed in the 6th century by the declaration by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 A.D.) who, in a homily, presented her as a model of repentance. Pope Gregory took a positive view of the anointing by the anonymous woman, but also assigned it to Mary Magdalene and claimed that the unguents she poured onto Christ’s feet were those she had previously used on her own body. At the same time, the seven demons were identified with the seven deadly sins. Pope Gregory wrote, in fact, that when Magdalene fell at Jesus’ feet, she transformed the multitude of her sins into virtues, so that she was able to serve God in total repentance (See Jane Schaberg, op. cit., p. 82). And so the myth became established that Mary Magdalene was a harlot with a heart of gold. This is the motif chosen by Dinos Christianopoulos in the work we mentioned above and also by a whole host of other poets and writers.

But it’s a strange and very interesting fact that, for some reason, this myth about Mary being a penitent harlot is to be found only in the tradition of the Western Church. In the Orthodox, Eastern tradition, she continues to be honoured for what she really was: equal to the apostles, the apostle of the apostles, a saint and a witness of the resurrection. There is another homily, also from the 6th century, by another Gregory, the Patriarch of Antioch, in which the risen Lord is reported to be addressing the women, including Mary Magdalene, who “ran to the tomb”, with the following words: “Tell my disciples the mysteries you’ve seen. You’ll be the first apostles to the apostles. And let Peter, who denied me, learn that I’m able to make women apostles, too” (see J. N. Birdsall, “Gregory of Antioch: Homilia in S.Τheophania, CPG 7385– Gleanings of Text and Theme,” JTS 60 vol. 2 (2009), pp. 531-7).

This patriarch and saint of the Orthodox Church extends the historical role of Mary as an apostle, which is to be found in John’s Gospel, and naturally links it to her experience at the first appearance of the risen Christ (“And on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”, 20, 1 and 11-19. Verses 2-10 are obviously an addition to the more ancient core of the text, since they obviously spoil the structure of the narrative). In contrast to the picture in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, the fourth Gospel clearly presents Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection, the chief event in the whole of Divine Providence.

This positive role, which, historically, that is on the basis of historical evidence, was played by Mary Magdalene, in the Gospel according to Saint John, was thereafter reinforced by certain Christian circles, who actually elevated her memory and honoured it rather more than was appropriate. The apocryphal “Gospel of Mary”, which was published as late as 1955, is the product of one such ancient- and, for some, marginal- Christian community. In this apocryphal Gospel, and, indeed, in most of the apocryphal texts of the New Testament (although some of these do retain a historical nucleus in their narratives, see the Gospel according to Thomas, to Philip, Faith-Wisdom), the image of Mary is the following: a) she had a prominent position among Jesus’ disciples; b) she survived as a character, not as a memory, even at a time and in a culture that was intensively male-orientated and one which, for many, had a strongly patriarchal ideology; c) she was distinguished for her boldness and spoke freely; d) she clearly played a leading role, even in the presence of the male apostles (whom she called her “brothers”); e) she was a person who was blessed to receive and interpret divine images; f) she was praised for her sound and profound understanding of the divine teachings; g) she is recognized as being a close and familiar disciple of Jesus; h) she has no hesitation in facing up to, and, in certain instances, coming into direct conflict with one or more of the other apostles; i) Jesus defends her.

Lots of these nine characteristics are also to be found in other, non-canonical (apocryphal) texts. Of course, in some of the apocryphal texts from the time of the nascent Christian tradition, her role is altered in a negative fashion, or her name is removed from narratives in which, in other texts, she played a leading role. All of this stopped after the 6th century, and then, in the Middle Ages in the West, we have the appearance of the myth of Mary as a symbol of eroticism and sexuality.

The crucial question which scholarship has to answer is whether the portrait of Mary Magdalene as a leading figure in the early Church represents the actual historical reality. It’s more than likely that something of the sort was the way things really were, especially if we take into account the important position she continues to occupy in the Eastern liturgical and hagiographical tradition. Certain scholars of the N. T. in fact claim that she may have been among the feminine leading personalities to whom Saint Paul addresses warm greetings in the wonderful chapter 16 of his epistle to the Romans (“Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you”, 16. 6). This, of course, is no more than a supposition. But there’s absolutely no historical evidence, or even a suggestion, that she was ever a harlot, lover or companion of Jesus. On the contrary, it’s very much the case that she was a prominent disciple of His, the apostle of the apostles, and that, in the course of history, these features of her life have been deliberately marginalized or even successfully expunged- at least until today, when scholarship has shown the true significance of the “Historical Magdalene”.

Note: Taken from an article by Prof. Petros Vasileiadis, of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, source, source