9th in a series.
I am going down a bit of a rabbit hole in this post, so hang on, as it is going somewhere… When many Christians read the Gospels, they will often smash different elements of the stories together, creating a type of “super-narrative,” neglecting the subtle and not-so subtle nuances employed by the four, individual Gospel writers. The question of, “who was Mary Magdelene?,” is a case in point.
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was “the repentant prostitute.” You see this idea conveyed in a famous scene in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus intervenes to save the woman caught in adultery. Gibson has her dressed as a prostitute, none other than Mary Magdalene.
What Pope Gregory did, that inspired folks like Mel Gibson, was to take Mary of Bethany, a woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:1-2), another unnamed sinner, who poured alabaster oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and this woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and then combine all three women figures into yet still another, single composite character, Mary Magdalene, named in Luke 8:1-2.
In 1517, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a French Bible scholar during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise arguing that the three “Mary’s”; Mary of Bethany, the unnamed “Mary the sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magadelene, were actually different people. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was reviled by the church establishment for his views, challenging church tradition, and he had to flee France, to save his life.
Some beloved church traditions can be hard to break.
However, it is important to note that among the Eastern Orthodox, this tradition established by Pope Gregory never took root. In the Christian East, Mary Magdalene is instead often known as “an apostle to the Apostles.” She was the one who announced to the male disciples that Jesus was Risen from the dead (John 20:11-18).
This one little piece of information is significant in the debate over women in church leadership today. For example, some contend that women should not teach a man, unless a man in present. After all, when Priscilla sought to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more accurately,” her husband Aquila, was right there with her, and joining in the teaching effort (Acts 18:26 ESV).
But here, when Mary Magdalene goes off to inform the male disciples, as to what the Risen Lord Jesus had said to her, she was acting solo. But those who reject the practice of having women as teachers over men, without qualification, should note this important story of Mary Magdalene. While no men accompanied her when she presented her case for the resurrection to the male disciples, she was still acting under the spiritual authority of Jesus Himself, who as we should remind ourselves, was male.
So, was Mary Magdalene “teaching?” If so, in what way was she “teaching?”
Recovering the Historical Mary Magdalene
Though some Roman Catholic scholars have tried to re-piece together Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene, the majority of scholars today agree with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples that such a composite association of Mary Magdalene is highly unlikely. For one thing, “Mary of Bethany,” came from the town of Bethany. “Mary Magdalene,” or “Mary the Magdalene,” is another way of saying “Mary of Magdala.” In other words, she was from Magdala, which is a different town, nowhere near Bethany. Magdala is near Galilee, in the north of Israel. Bethany, is in the south, near Jerusalem.
The unnamed “Mary the sinner” of Luke 7 shows up right before Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8, but there is no obvious link between the two women. Though it is possible to link the unnamed “Mary the sinner” with Mary of Bethany, because of their similar treatment of Jesus’ feet, nothing else in these two episodes links these two women together.
Furthermore, nowhere in the Gospels is the woman caught in adultery ever identified as being Mary Magdalene!
Modern scholarship confirms that the name “Mary” was a very popular name among Jewish women, in the first century, so the confusion is understandable, which partly explains why the Gospels specifically identify “Mary of Magdala” apart from “Mary of Bethany.”
Aside from the risk to d’Étaples’ life, you could say that little harm has been done here by this confusion of the Mary’s. No critical theological doctrine is at stake. Gregory probably meant well by trying to simplify the story of these Mary’s.
But the biggest problem with Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene approach, is that it has generated endless speculation into the notion of Mary Magdalene as “the repentant prostitute,” particularly among those who love the thought of scandal:
Was she really that repentant? The Gospels’ presentation of Mary Magdalene does identify her as being in Jesus’ immediate circle. Perhaps she and Jesus had some type of … you know…. (hush, hush, whisper, whisper)… thing going on?
There is no end to this type of craziness. Novelist Dan Brown made a mint off of his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code, that propagated the conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, the existence of whom the Vatican has been suppressing for centuries, somewhere in France. This is right up there with NASA faking the moon landing on a Hollywood-type set, off in a desert out in Arizona. But a biblically illiterate public today still somehow manages to eat this type of stuff up, just like the Albigensian heresy group did back in the 12th and 13th centuries!
Mary Magdalene continues to fascinate people, though the Gospels only give us a limited amount of information about her. Her biggest role in the Gospels remains that she is explicitly named in the New Testament, as among the women after the crucifixion, the first to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).
Jesus clearly gives Mary certain instructions to pass onto the other male disciples (see also John 20:1-18). But does this necessarily make her the first woman pastor or elder?
New Developments in Our Understanding of Mary Magdalene?
Controversially, some have recently tried to place her as a prominent leader in Jesus’ band, alongside the twelve male disciples, giving her a type of spiritual authority role, thus raising another round of discussion, regarding the roles of women in the leadership of the church today. But we should be very cautious with such speculation.
A case in point is the 2018 film released in the United Kingdom, Mary Magdalene, giving British audiences a new look at who Mary Magdalene might have been. Mary Magdalene wins support from scholars for steering away from the image of Mary Magdalene as a “the repentant prostitute.” But in other respects, the reports are very mixed, and not altogether exciting. Some critics say that Mary Magdalene leans too heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Gnosticism is a heresy that has been condemned by the church in every age. The likelihood of the film’s release in the United States remains in doubt.
The esteemed New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has seen the movie. Though he was not overly impressed by the film, in his informed review, Hurtado carefully summarizes the early speculative traditions about Mary Magdalene, for the serious Bible geek. Even a prominent Australian egalitarian blogger, Marg Mowczko, panned the film. The trailer for the movie that might never make it to the United States is below.
If you want a good, in-depth scholarly explanation for who Mary Magdalene really was, dispelling conspiracy theories, take about 17 minutes for Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video (Dr. Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and author of The Unseen Realm). The renewed interest in “Mary of Magdala,” through books and movies that speculate a lot, may actually spur thoughtful study of the more reliable, biblical framework behind this most mysterious and attractive of Jesus’ early followers.
In the next few blog posts in this series, we will discuss 1 Timothy 2:12, and the nearby verses, one of the most hotly debated passages in all of the New Testament, that divides complementarians and egalitarians. Stay tuned, and learn what the fuss is all about…..
March 18th, 2019 at 7:28 pm
Thanks for this blog post Clarke – it highlights a niggle for me. Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24,John 20 all emphasize that the women, and especially Mary Magdalene, were the first witnesses and preachers of the risen Lord.
When we come to 1 Corinthians 15, we read: “3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
…. Missing out the first witness??? Mary Magdalene and the women have been wiped out of the narrative. Why? Because women, like Shepherds, were not permitted to be witnesses in a court of law? Any other ideas as to what’s going on here?
March 18th, 2019 at 9:31 pm
You do mention a possible explanation for what happened.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians preceded the writing of the Gospels, by several years, if not a decade, or more. So, it not be as fair to say that the women were wiped out of the narrative, in any negative sense.
Rather, Paul might have not thought much about it, at the time. Or else, Paul refrained from mentioning the women at the resurrection, in order to avoid any potential scandal to the Corinthians, at that time.
There are a lot speculative thoughts we might entertain here, that might lead us to consider something important that we have neglected before. We just have to be careful not to run too far with such speculation.
Thanks. Great feedback!
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March 18th, 2019 at 11:12 pm
Thanks Clarke. Good point that the time of writing of Corinthians predates the gospels. That changes the perspective somewhat.
March 19th, 2019 at 10:44 am
Since I don’t usually respond I’m wondering if YOU respond to those who send in a comment, as I did awhile ago? Just wondering…
March 19th, 2019 at 11:08 am
Thanks, Judy. Well, I do try to respond to each comment, though not right away.
Sometimes, the reply to previous comments do not always work as expected, which I think is a WordPress problem. But if I go back to the original posts, all the comments and responses are found there.
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August 5th, 2022 at 10:05 am
Philip Jenkins on the Myth of Mary Magdalene: