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 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
“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.”
‘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 penitent 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 kind 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.
‘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
‘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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