A Problem of Identity

In The Templar Revelation (1997), Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett wrote about the enduring controversy surrounding this pivotal biblical character: ‘The identification of Mary Mary Magdalene with her jar of spikenard.Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (Lazarus’ sister) and the “unnamed sinner” who anoints Jesus in Luke’s Gospel has always been hotly debated. The Catholic Church decided at an early date that these three characters were one and the same, although it reversed this position as recently as 1969. Mary’s identification as a prostitute stems from Pope Gregory I’s Homily 33, delivered in 591 CE, in which he declared:

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? ... It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”


Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus‘The Eastern Orthodox Church has always treated Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany as separate characters.’

As David Tresemer and Laura-Lea Cannon write in their Preface to Jean-Yves Leloup’s 1997 translation of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Evidence of the Heretics:

‘Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church officially repeal Gregory’s labeling of Mary as a whore, thereby admitting their error - though the image of Mary Magdalene as the The Penitent Magdalene by Georges de la Tourpenitent whore has remained in the public teachings of all Christian denominations. Like a small erratum buried in the back pages of a newspaper, the Church’s correction goes unnoticed, while the initial and incorrect article continues to influence readers.’

But is it necessarily correct to disassociate her from all suspicion of ‘prostitution’ in an excess of modern zeal to rehabilitate her? As we will see, in her day there were other sorts of ‘prostitutes’ that would provoke extreme distaste among the male disciples in the Holy Land.

Traditionally, the Magdalene was understood to be the anonymous ‘sinner’ who comes out of nowhere to insist on anointing Jesus with costly spikenard from an alabaster jar - indeed, in Church iconography she is usually portrayed carrying the jar (although sometimes she is depicted with a skull). In Luke (7:36-50) we read how when Jesus dined at the home of a hospitable Pharisee a woman ‘who had lived a sinful life in that town’ discovered that Jesus was there, she went up to him, bathing his feet with her tears and pouring ‘perfume’ on them. Unmoved by this scene of apparent devotion, the Pharisee “said to himself” (although in that case, how do we know about it?), ‘If this man were a prophet he would know who is touching him and what Lake Galileekind of woman she is - that she is a sinner’. To offset the criticisms, Jesus then tells the parable of the two debtors, one who owes a little and the other who is massively in debt, both of whom have their debts cancelled by the money lender. He asks which of them would be more grateful, and the Pharisee, whom we discover to be called Simon, replies the one who owed the most.

Jesus then praises the woman’s actions, saying to Simon: ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.

Mary Magdalene by Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘You did not give me a kiss, but this woman from the time I entered has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.'

‘Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven - for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’

While the other guests mutter about the nature of a man who takes it upon himself to forgive sins, Jesus tells the woman that her faith has saved her.

Although a similar episode appears in all four Gospels, only in Luke is it set in the town of Capernaum at the start of Jesus’ ministry. The woman is an obscure member of his following - apparently unknown and unnoticed until that moment - and remains anonymous. In this version, the purpose of including the incident is clearly to delineate Jesus’ power to forgive sins - the woman herself is insignificant.

However, John’s Gospel (12:1-8) is more explicit, explaining that the incident - clearly a species of anointing - takes place at the home of siblings Martha, Lazarus and Mary at Bethany. And it is Mary who performs this strange ritual. Earlier, (11:2) John’s description of the raising of Lazarus from the dead stresses that it was his sister Mary who later anoints Jesus. Neither the gospel of Mark (14: 3-9) nor Matthew (26:6-13) name the sinner, but both state that it happened at Bethany two days (as opposed to the six days of John’s Gospel) before the Last Supper and the subsequent dreadful event.. But they set the event at the house of another Simon - not a Pharisee this time, but a leper.

So it seems that Mary of Bethany is the same as the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet. So why did Luke not mention the woman’s name, and set the scene in Capernaum, at the beginning - not the end - of Jesus’ mission? Was he simply ignorant of the facts? Perhaps not. The answer may lie in how he tells of Jesus and the disciples arriving at an unnamed village (in the King James version it is deliberately vague - ‘a certain village’) where he visited the sisters Martha and Mary. Why not mention the name of the place? The other gospel writers clearly knew it. And why not include Lazarus? Picknett and Prince believe that there is something about Bethany and that particular family that makes Luke - and to some extent the other chroniclers - uncomfortable. It does seem, to some extent, as if they all fudge the issue, while ensuring that they include the incident, as if it was too well known and too important to leave out altogether.

Mary the Great

This enigmatic woman, who was so obviously a central part of the mission of Jesus, is referred to in the Bible as ‘Mary Magdalene’ or simply ‘the Magdalene’, which conveys a pervasive sense that the gospel writers expected their readers to know who she was, recognizing her name immediately. (Even so, she is hardly a central figure in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, almost as if she was only included simply because she was too famous to be left out completely. Perhaps the authors were afraid that if Mary Magdalene were omitted altogether, their reading public would want to know why.) Her name is usually taken to mean ‘Mary of Magdala’, referring to her place of origin. This early 20th-century analysis gives a largely conventional interpretation, which is still generally accepted today:

‘Mary Magdalene is probably named from the town of Magdala or Magadan... now Medjdel, which is said to mean “a tower”. It was situated at a short distance from Tiberias, and is mentioned... in connection with the miracle of the seven loaves. An ancient watchtower still marks the site. According to Jewish authorities it was famous for its wealth, and for the moral corruption of its inhabitants.’

One interpretation of ‘Magdala’ is indeed ‘tower’ - although it may more properly be understood in its metaphorical sense as ‘elevated’ or ‘great’ - but what of the commonly-held belief that her home was on the shores of Lake Galilee? We know from the 1st-century Jewish chronicler Josephus that the town now called el Medjdel or Magdel today was known as Tarichea in the days of Jesus’ mission - not Magdala.

She is also described as ‘Mary (called Magdalene)’, which is a very different form of words from the likes of, for example, ‘Simon of Cyrene’.

In fact, nowhere in the New Testament does it spell out where Mary comes from, which has led scholars and churchgoers merely to assume that she hailed from the shores of Lake Galilee.

There is no necessity to endeavor to crowbar her into a Galilean setting, for there are other intriguing alternatives for her place of origin: although there was no ‘Magdala’ in Judea in her day, there was a Magdolum in Egypt - just across the border - which was probably the Migdol mentioned in Ezekiel. There was a large and flourishing Jewish community in Egypt at that time, which was particularly centered on the great sea port of Alexandria, a seething cosmopolitan melting pot of many races, nationalities and religions and perhaps where the Holy Family had fled to escape the depredations of Herod’s men.

The use of Mary’s name in the Bible is interesting: she is pointed out as ‘the Magdalene’, which sounds remarkably like a title. Indeed, as Margaret Starbird points out in her 1993 examination of the Magdalene cult, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: ‘In Hebrew, the epithet Magdala literally means “tower” or “elevated, great, magnificent”.’ And in many other languages the adjective or name ‘Magda’, while strictly carrying the definition of ‘maiden’ implicitly means ‘magnificent [female] one, while ’‘Magna’ simply means ‘great’, as in the Latin ‘Magna Mater’, the title of the Great Mother goddess.

But if ‘the Magdalene’ is a rank, perhaps indicating that she was the Chief Priestess of some ancient pagan cult, or in any case suggestive of great magnificence, who gave her the honor? Certainly not the gospel writers, who obviously found the whole subject of the Magdalene uncomfortable - and, as we will see (The Evidence of the Heretics), neither was this kind of praise likely to originate with the Twelve, especially Simon Peter, who clearly found her particularly difficult, let alone agreeing to bestow a title of greatness upon her. However, although one searches in vain through the biblical texts for any information that would account for Mary’s ‘greatness’, there is plentiful evidence from other sources that not only was she ‘magnificent’ in her own right, but that Jesus himself recognized that she was a woman of extraordinary power.

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 The Magdalene
in the New Testament

The Magdalene of the Heretics - Part I

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