Apostle to the Apostles
I like to start my classes on Mary Magdalene with a question to the audience about her, a question Jesus asked his disciples: “ Who do you say I am?” The answers are varied, but almost always given in this order:: prostitute, adulteress, maybe Jesus’ bride, possibly a disciple, maybe “something about the Resurrection?” There is so much controversy over Mary Magdalene- and there will be more to come in the future, as she makes an appearance in the hallowed but secular halls of the concert and opera stage this year and scholars debate about whether an ancient manuscript Harvard professor Karen King is calling the Gospel of Jesus’ Wifeis authentic or a fake.
I am primarily a mythologist.- which means that I believe there is depth and meaning in all the stories, even the ones that are factually inaccurate. But I am also a cultural historian, which means that I do like to at least have an idea of what might have actually happened. If determining Mary Magdalene’s true identity were a court battle (and sometimes it feels like it is!), we would have to decide on what evidence was admissible. And in discussions with Christians- particularly Christian priests and ministers- the one thing we can certainly agree on is admitting the evidence of the Canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
I think it is fair to say that most of my church audiences are stunned when we actually look at the Bible and see what is written there about the woman specifically named Mary Magdalene. There are twelve passages altogether- (you can look them up for yourself on Blue Letter Bible.org)
Chronologically in the timeline of Jesus’ life, she appears first in Luke:
Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another—The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.( Luke 8:1-3)
This passage bears mulling over. What the passage tells us explicitly is that she was a follower, along with the twelve disciples, and that she was helping to financially support his ministry. We can infer that she the most important (of the women at least) because she is the only one who is named, and we can deduce that she was quite wealthy, because she was able to afford to support them. The line about the seven demons is more problematic to interpret- we will return to that in a later post.
Her role as a supporter is also noted in Matthew, where we next find Mary Magdalene at the scene of the crucifixion.
There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee
Her presence at the cross is affirmed by the other Gospel writers as well:
There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary (the mother of James the younger and of Joses) and Salome. Mark 15:40
…but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene John 19:25
Notice that the Gospels differ in who they say was there. (That is not unusual, by the way- it is actually more unusual for the Gospels to agree than disagree!) However, the only person all the gospel writers agree on is Mary Magdalene. It bears remembering that the male disciples have fled in fear- and that Peter has already denied knowing Jesus three times.
We next find Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb to prepare Jesus body for burial. Once again, we have a diversity of perspectives from the Gospel writers, and yet once again they agree that Mary Magdalene was there- and they name her first, in the position of greatest importance:
Mark 16 tells us, “ When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
In Matthew 28, we hear , “ Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb”
In Luke, it is “Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James” who arrive to prepare the body. when they find two men in dazzling white.
In John 16, she comes alone: “ Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”
Mary Magdalene is a figure who has fascinated us for centuries. I’ve met people who claim they are her descendants from the Merovingian line, I’ve met women who believe they are her re-incarnation, and I have met angry fundamentalists who blaze with fury as they declare, “ I don’t want to talk about that whore!” Luther believed she was Jesus’ wife; Brigham Young thought she was one of three wives (along with Martha and Mary of Bethany). In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is simply revered as the “Apostle to the Apostles”. There is no consensus, just as there is no consensus about much of anything between the Canonical Gospel writers . Except for one thing, obvious but unspoken and virtually unnoticed. Mary Magdalene is the hinge on which Christianity hangs. If we were to cut her out of the story entirely and omit the passages in the Bible where she appears, we would have to cut out both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and the entire religion of Christianity would disappear. And whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing in terms of the history of the world, it is certainly an important thing.