The Magdalene in the New Testament

For centuries the Church has fostered the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute - the same as Mary of Mary Magdalene embraces Jesus at foot of cross in this illustration from a mediaeval manuscript.Bethany, the sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet with spikenard - who was converted by Jesus and spent the rest of her life as a penitent. Even though this position was officially reversed in 1969, most people still think of her as a repentant whore. What is the truth about her identity? And why was it ‘fudged’ by the gospel writers? What were they covering up?

Many commentators have noted that there is something suspicious in the way Mary Magdalene is represented in the Gospels: on the one hand she appears to be so well known that, unlike all the other women listed, she is described merely by name and not in terms of her relationship to a man - she is not ‘Mary Magdalene the sister of James’ or ‘Mary Magdalene the wife of John’, for example. This alone distinguishes her as especially The Vatican.significant. And, apart from Mary the Mother, her name always appears first in a list of the women who followed Jesus. Yet there is nothing there to inspire the kind of fanatical devotion that was accorded her by various groups of heretics (see Magdalene of the Heretics) over the centuries - why? What is missing from the New Testament about Mary Magdalene that is known elsewhere?


One looks in vain in the canonical books for evidence of her ‘star quality’. Apart from a single appearance in Luke, she is not mentioned again by name until the crucifixion, when she appears to come out of nowhere with her jar of costly unguent - spikenard- with which she intends to perform the ultimate act of devotion to Jesus, the anointing of his dead body in preparation for his entombment. The three short verses in Luke (8:1-3) in which she is mentioned, read as follows (the New International Version of the Bible is used throughout):

 ‘After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evils spirits and diseases. Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna and many others. These women were helping to support them of their own means.’

Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Jesus.This short passage is interesting for several reasons: clearly Jesus had female disciples - despite the entrenched argument of the Church to the contrary, there can be no doubt about it - and they kept the menfolk out of their own financial resources. Indeed, if the Catholic Church’s belief that the Magdalene was, or had ever been, a prostitute is correct, then we are faced with the unpalatable suggestion that Jesus and the likes of Simon Peter were happy to live off immoral earnings! Clearly, she and the other women had access to money, or were independently wealthy.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of those three short verses in Luke is, as Carla Ricci says in her book Mary Magdalene and Many Others (1994): ‘Going through the indexes to whole stacks of exegetical and theological writings held in the Pontifical Biblical Institute showed me that these verses were almost left out.’ She adds that ‘little has been written, specifically and purposively, on Luke 8:1-3.’ Is this attitude of the gospel writers merely a reflection of their cultural disregard for Jesus’ women followers, or is there something deeper involved? Is it the fact that they contain the name of the Magdalene, rather than it being simply, if offensively, a matter of male chauvinism?

If the verses had been left out, she would have barely appeared - by name at least - in the whole of the New Testament, which is very odd, considering how important she clearly was to certain aspects of the Jesus story. In fact, this omission is downright suspicious, especially when one considers what has happened as a result of her marginalization.

The Authority of the Church

The whole of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church - the idea that its authority has come down St. Peter.unbroken from St Peter and therefore from Jesus himself - is based upon the ‘fact’ that Simon Peter was the first disciple to see Jesus after his resurrection. This was stressed by the German scholar Hans von Campenhausen, who says that because: ‘Peter was the first to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection’, he became the first Christian leader (or ‘Pope’). Elaine Pagels, in her now-classic The Gnostic Gospels (1979), comments: ‘One can dispute Campenhausen’s claim on the basis of New Testament evidence: the gospels of Mark and John both name Mary Magdalene, not Peter, as the first witness of the resurrection. But orthodox churches that trace their origin to Peter developed the tradition - sustained to this day among Catholic and some Protestant churches - that Peter had been “the first witness of the resurrection”, and hence the rightful leader of the church.’

Carla Ricci continues: ‘As early as the second century, Christians realized the potential political consequences of having “seen the risen Lord”: in Jerusalem, where James, Jesus’ brother, successfully rivaled Peter’s authority, one tradition maintained that James, not Peter (and certainly not Mary Magdalene) was the “first witness of the resurrection”.

No doubt the fiction that Peter should be leader because he was the first witness to the risen Christ was relatively easy to maintain in the days when the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate and the Church’s flock was largely illiterate and therefore could not learn the truth for themselves. But these days there is no excuse for Mary Magdalene by della Francesca.upholding this deliberate distortion of the truth, for in Mark (16:9) it states unequivocally: ‘When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week [i.e. was resurrected on the Monday], he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.’

Nothing could be clearer: it was the Magdalene, not Simon Peter, who saw the risen Jesus first, yet the Church does not accept that this undermines the whole concept of the Apostolic Succession because they still largely refuse to countenance the idea that women could be disciples. If they were good enough to finance Jesus’ mission, and follow him everywhere doesn’t that make them disciples? And when all the men except John the Beloved deserted their master, only the women attended his lonely and horrific ordeal on the cross. Surely that alone qualified them as disciples.

Judging by the three contentious verses from Luke given above, the women, while not being considered part of the Twelve, were clearly an important part of his retinue. In Mark 15:40 their devotion is underlined, at the critical time of Jesus’ death on the cross:

‘Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.’

Yet according to the Gospels, it was the Magdalene who encountered the risen Jesus first, believing him to be a gardener. It was when he simply spoke her name, simply saying, ‘Mary’, that she recognized him through her tears.

If Jesus did have female disciples and the Magdalene was the most important of them, then this is a major issue and should cause some serious heart-searching among Christians - particularly Roman Catholics - today. Although there is much theological debate on this subject, the essence is very simple: if there is a shred of doubt about the first person to see the risen Christ then it could be said that the whole of the authority of the Catholic Church is dangerously in question.

The gospels of the New Testament appear to become very evasive whenever the Magdalene is mentioned. For example, the last eleven verses of the Gospel of Mark, in which she is specifically described as having been the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and his rebuking of the male disciples for their lack of faith, were not originally included in the earliest manuscripts -showing the same ambivalence towards the women, and specifically the Magdalene, that nearly caused the list of the female disciples to be omitted from the text of Luke’s Gospel.

Perhaps the men who wrote the Biblical gospels would have preferred to leave this intriguing character out of their text altogether, if they could have got away with it. Obviously, questions would have been asked in some quarters if the Magdalene had not appeared. Why was she too important to leave out but somehow too disturbing - or even downright dangerous - to describe in any detail? Who was Mary Magdalene, and why should the writers of the gospels have been wary, perhaps even afraid, of her?

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