On July 22, Catholics celebrate the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, which Pope Francis elevated from a Memorial to an official Feast in 2016. This change in status puts her liturgical celebration on the same level as those of Jesus’s twelve apostles. It signifies that Mary Magdalene is a pivotal figure in Christianity — and yet, there are vastly different perceptions of who she is because of a complicated history that has filtered down from the Church into pop culture. So, who was Mary Magdalene, really? Let’s start with what the Gospels tell us.
Fact: What the Gospels Tell Us About Mary Magdalene
Jesus rid Mary Magdalene of seven demons.
Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 tell us that Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of seven demons. In both cases, the Gospel writer mentions it as an aside, or as a way of explaining who Mary is, rather than including a full story about it. Neither gospel offers any further explanation or interpretation of the “demons” within the text, but traditionally “demons” can be interpreted to represent either a physical or moral malady.
Mary Magdalene was a close follower of Jesus.
The four Gospels agree on the overall arc of the story of Jesus’s ministry, but they are geared toward different audiences and sometimes contain different stories. Yet, all four Gospels agree about the fact that Mary Magdalene was a close follower of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke includes her in a group of “women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:2) who traveled alongside Jesus and his apostles, and who “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:3). The footnote in my New American Bible notes that it would have been very unusual to associate women with Jesus’s ministry in this way given the typical attitude of first-century Palestinian Judaism toward women, which would have cautioned against speaking with women in public.
Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross.
This is another element of the crucifixion story that is common across all four Gospels. While the majority of Jesus’s male apostles fled the scene when Jesus was sentenced to death, Mary Magdalene was among a small group of women who stood by Jesus’s side as he died.
Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning.
Once again, all four Gospel writers agree upon this fact, even if the stories are slightly different. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary is among a group of women who had returned to the tomb but found it empty. After meeting an angel who told them the news of Jesus’s resurrection, the women are sent to tell the disciples. In the Gospel of John, it was Mary Magdalene alone who discovered the empty tomb.
Not only was Mary the first witness to the empty tomb, but she was the first one to whom the Risen Jesus appeared. Jesus calls Mary by name before instructing her to “go to [his] brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). She does as she is told, and is the first to tell Jesus’s disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). For this reason, she is often called the “Apostle to the Apostles,” a title first coined by St. Thomas Aquinas.
For many Catholics who are most familiar with the Easter story as it is proclaimed from the Gospel on Easter Sunday, the part of the story where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene is unknown. This is because even when the Gospel reading for Easter Sunday Mass is from the Gospel of John, the reading ends before the passage with Jesus’s appearance to Mary Magdalene.
Fiction: The Myths About Mary Magdalene
Beyond these facts, we can’t say anything about Mary Magdalene for sure. This means that several common myths about her are, at the very least, unproven, and at the very worst, ill-intentioned. Let’s look at a few.
Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
There is nothing in the text of the Bible to support this common perception of Mary Magdalene. As stated above, two of the Gospels mentioned that she was healed from seven demons, but neither of them mention sins caused by those demons, let alone specifically sexual sins. So, where did this idea come from?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with an unnamed sinful woman in Luke chapter 7, as well as with Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister). The text of Luke 7 does not label the sins that the “sinful woman” had as sexual, nor does it name her as Mary Magdalene. Yet, this statement from his homily became Church teaching.
In 1969, as a part of a revision to the liturgical calendar and practices, the Church acknowledged that these were three distinct women who should be separated. However, it is hard to undo more than a millennium’s worth of damage in a small portion of a text that the majority of Catholics would not read — so this caricature of Mary Magdalene still remains in many people’s imaginations.
Mary and Jesus had a romantic relationship.
For people who encounter the story of Mary Magdalene mostly through pop culture, this might be the most prevailing myth about her thanks to The Da Vinci Code and Jesus Christ Superstar.
I have always thought the development of this trope of a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was due to a misguided assumption that men and women cannot have close friendships or working relationships without there being romantic or sexual tension. If not that, then a related sexist attitude that cannot accept a woman on her own terms, and must define her by the man she spends the most time with.
I still think that is part of it, but it turns out that these pop cultural interpretations aren’t entirely without textual basis. They can be traced back to an apocryphal gospel (meaning that it was not chosen by the Church to be included in the Bible) known as the Gospel of Phillip. It referred to Mary as “Jesus’s companion” and stated that Jesus loved her most out of all of the disciples. It also stated that Jesus would kiss Mary, but damage to the text caused the word that describes where he would kiss her to be unreadable. Some scholars filled in that missing word as mouth, which furthered the interpretation of their relationship being romantic.
Mary Magdalene: Prototype for Female Leadership in the Catholic Church?
Mary Magdalene’s presence in the history of Christianity has been tumultuous, to say the least. Many (maybe all?) of the decisions about how her story was integrated into the tradition of the Church were made by men, which has led some to blame misogyny for the fact that she was mistakenly viewed as a quiet, repentant prostitute for more than a millennium, and for the fact that the story of Jesus’s appearance to her and commissioning of her to the Apostles has been left out of the Easter lectionary.
In a world where women are simultaneously over-sexualized and punished for being too sexual, it feels like a familiar framework to see a woman who is identified purely by her (unproven) sexual sins, while her leadership role is downplayed.
We don’t know anyone’s true motivation for these decisions, but the effects remain the same. A woman who ought to have been celebrated from the beginning as someone who closely followed Jesus, provided for him and his disciples, and was the first to proclaim his resurrection was instead largely silenced and discounted. Thankfully, the Church has clarified its tradition, and with the help of Pope Francis’s elevation of her Memorial to a Feast, she is quickly becoming viewed more as the prototype for what female leadership in the Church could look like.