Magdalene, Mary

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mary Magdalene

The woman known in Christian tradition as Mary Magdalene has been a controversial figure, interpreted by New Testament references as a repentant prostitute who found healing at the feet of Jesus, as a watcher at the Cross, as an attendant at Jesus' burial, and as the first person to hear the words of the newly risen Christ.

Abeloved figure to many Christians—she is a Catholic saint with a feast day of July 22—Mary Magdalene has suffered at the hands of some historians and been revered by others. While Roman Catholic tradition holds that Mary was a fallen woman who came to accept and revere Jesus and was present at his resurrection, more recent biblical revisionism has given Mary Magdalene a second look. Many historians since the early 20th century—operating in an increasingly more humane, feminist and liberal world view—have given Mary renewed stature by divesting her of the sins of other, minor characters who bear the same name. Interest in Mary Madgalene, the subject of several scholarly works of historical revisionism, became even more widespread with Dan Brown's bestselling murder mystery The Da Vinci Code, which popularized the theory she was the wife of Jesus.

The birth and home of the woman known as Mary Magdalene is, like much in the Bible, shrouded in mystery. Many believe her name identifies the place of her birth as Magdala near Tiberias, a village on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' day. Others believe it derives from a Talmudic expression meaning "curling women's hair," implying a woman of loose moral character.

The Biblical Record

New Testament references to a woman named Mary are few, although collectively they comprise the largest reference to a single female, if indeed there is only one Mary. However, scholars have divided these references into three groups: Mary the repentant sinner, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene.

In Luke 7:37 a woman appears at the home of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee where Jesus is dining; she washes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with oils she carries in an alabaster box. This unnamed woman is a sinner, a city-bred woman who is likely a prostitute. Jesus forgives her sins, telling her "Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace." In John 12:3 this woman is identified as Mary and the ointment described as "spikenard, very costly."

In the tenth chapter of the gospel of Luke, the writer identifies one of the women accompanying him in his journey with the twelve apostles, in 8:2 mentioning "Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils"—the reference to devils perhaps meaning that she was epileptic and seen as being possessed by evil spirits. Luke does not link this Mary with the woman of chapter 7, the sinner anointing the feet of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is also identified as one of three women present at Jesus' death (John 19:25) and entombment, in Mark 15:40: "who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him." Matthew 27:61 has her "sitting over against the sepulchre" after a large stone had been rolled against the opening to protect the body of Jesus.

She is also, according to Matthew 27:55–56 and 28:1, present at the first Sabbath following Jesus' death, when the sepulchre is discovered to be empty. John's gospel goes further into the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection, describing in chapter 20 the details of Mary Magdalene's discovery, in the dark of early morning, that Jesus' tomb has been opened, her efforts to inform the other disciples and her return to the tomb. While weeping alone at the tomb she encounters two angels. "And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (John 20: 13–14). She then encounters Jesus but does not at first recognize him. He tells her that he is to ascend to his father; she returns and tells the unbelieving disciples "that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her" (20:18). In the books of Luke and Mark, Mary Magdalene is joined by Mary the mother of Jesus and either Joanna or Salome in discovering the empty tomb.

In Luke 10:38 the writer describes Jesus' visit to the home of Martha, who "had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word." Martha's home in "a certain village" is believed to be located in a town outside Galilee, possibly Bethany. Luke does not link this Mary with his other two references to women of that name, although in John's version of events, when this Mary anoints Jesus' feet, she does so in the home of Lazarus of Bethany (John 12:1–3). John is also very careful to point out that Bethany is "the town of Mary and her sister Martha, who were both sisters of Lazarus." ("It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment," according to John 11:1–2.) In Matthew 26:6–13 the event is also said to occur in Bethany—although in the home of "Simon the leper" not Simon the Pharisee of Galilee, as in Luke's first account; of the actions of the woman, who remains unnamed, Jesus remarks: "she hath wrought a good work upon me." (26:10). Mark's account of this incident, recounted in chapter 14 of his gospel, parallels that of Matthew in almost all areas.

Conflicting Views throughout History

The woman clearly identified in the New Testament as Mary Magdalene, a Jew and perhaps an epileptic, was a constant companion of Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and was one of his earliest followers. She was also likely affluent enough to be a self-supporting unmarried woman while aiding in the support of Jesus and his small ministry. Loyal to the last, Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion and the interment of Jesus' body in the tomb; she was also the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. According to John, the resurrected Jesus singles Mary Magdalene out from all others, charging her alone to bring news of his transcendence over death to his disciples. The possible links to a sinful, wanton woman who finally repents to Jesus, as well as to several instances where women named Mary honored their spiritual leader by washing and anointing him, have created centuries of controversy. Rightly or wrongly, they have also done much to create the beloved figure of St. Mary Magdalene, passionate penitent.

Scholars have puzzled over the differences in the accounts of Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew for centuries. Explaining the ambiguities that arise regarding Mary, some have hypothesized that John, who recorded his recollections 85 years after Jesus' death, felt able to expose Mary of Bethany as the same repentant sinner who anointed Jesus' feet because her death had freed him from the need to protect her reputation. Luke's account, written much earlier, might have been written by a diplomatic man who desired no harm to a woman still living. Mark's account raises a possible link between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene through his description of Jesus' gratitude for the woman's actions so close to his death: "she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached … this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her" (Mark 14: 8–9). Perhaps in further gratitude, this Mary was one of the few women who stood loyally by, witnessing the death, burial, and rebirth of Jesus, and identified at this point as Mary Magdalene.

The writings of Pope Gregory the Great, who rebuilt the Roman Catholic Church into a controlling force throughout medieval Europe, were the first to establish all biblical references to Mary as referring to a single woman named Mary: a reformed sinner who became the penitent prostitute of Christian tradition. However, many have taken issue with Gregory's position and have seen the conflated view of Mary a strong, resilient woman who achieves redemption by humbling herself before Jesus. Many recent scholars, in the wake of a developing feminist consciousness, have ascribed to Gregory a misogynist tendency they perceived in much Catholic doctrine. Jane Schaberg refers to this in her The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene as harlotization. In response to such critics, the Catholic Church in 1969 revised its teachings to separate Mary into three unique women.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition biblical references identify the Mary of Roman tradition as three separate persons: the fallen woman who appears at Jesus' table in Luke 7:36–50; Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus in Luke 10:38–42 and John 11 and 12; and the woman clearly referred to in accounts of the death and resurrection as Mary Magdalene. In this interpretation Jesus was anointed with oil on two separate occasions, only once by a woman named Mary.

Protestant historians have put forth the notion of two distinct persons known as Mary, discounting the Roman Catholics' willingness to equate Mary of Bethany with the "sinner" referred to in Luke 7:37. Roman Catholic historians counter that Protestants are unappreciative of Mary's role in illustrating the importance of the forgiveness of sin.

Appearance in Other Texts

During the 19th and 20th century several ancient Christian texts were discovered hidden in Egypt and dating to the second and third centuries. These writings portray Mary Magdelene as not only a woman requested by Jesus to spread the good news of his resurrection to his twelve disciples; they reveal a loyal disciple who was a leader in the early church due to her actual witnessing of Jesus' rebirth.

The Sophia of Jesus Christ names Mary Magdelene as one of a small group of men and women entrusted by the risen Jesus with preaching the gospel. In the Gospel of Philip she is referred to as Jesus' companion and as one loved more than all other disciples. This work's reference to Jesus kissing Mary on the mouth—a reference that appears in other texts—supports the contention that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' lover as well as his most ardent follower. In the Dialogue of the Savior and the Pistis Sophia she is cited as an equal among the other disciples, all men.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which dates from A.D. 125, accepted by many as a record of her writings, Mary Magdalene is shown to be resolute in her belief in Jesus as the son of God. Following Jesus' death she takes on the role of spiritual guide, counseling others in Jesus' teachings and inspiring many to join her in the Christian faith. She also reveals her close relationship with the living Jesus and admits experiencing visions in which she receives the teachings of the risen Christ.

The Cult of Mary Magdalene

In the centuries following her death, legends surrounding Mary Magdalene evolved. Speculation has abounded about the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, some even saying that Mary was pregnant with Jesus' child at the time of his death. According to the writings of Gregory of Tours and Greek Orthodox Church tradition, the saint retired to Ephesus with John and died there, and her body (or relics) was moved in 886 to Constantinople. Other stories hold that she moved to Gaul after Jesus' crucifixion or to a desert to live out her life in isolation.

One French tradition, recounted in Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend, and which first surfaced in the ninth century, holds that Mary Magdalene traveled with a small group that included Joseph of Arimethea and Lazarus and his sister Martha, sailing to France and spreading the Christian gospel throughout the area that is now Provence. Retiring to a small home on a hill at Sainte-Baume, she lived as a recluse for several decades until her death. According to this tradition, Mary's body was interred at Villa Lata (later St. Maximin), in Aix-de-Provence. In the 730s and 740s, according to historian Sigebert, fear of Saracen raids prompted the temporary transfer of Mary Magdalene's remains to Vézelay. Many centuries later, in 1279, a Dominican convent was built at Sainte-Baume on orders of King Charles II of Naples, and an ancient shrine was uncovered. In 1600 the remains discovered there were protected by a sarcophagus on order of Pope Clement VIII. Following the Napoleonic wars, the convent at Sainte-Baume was rebuilt and the ancient tomb reconsecrated. Although the site has been a traditional place of pilgrimage, the Roman Catholic Church does not support the contention that the remains at Sainte-Baume are those of Mary Magdalene.

As Lynn Picknett recounted in her book Mary Magdalene: Christianity's Hidden Goddess, belief in Mary Magdalene has been so strong that many have been martyred because of it. On St. Mary's feast day of July 22, 1206, for example, every man, woman, and child living in the small French town of Béziers was massacred by crusaders from Rome, because they were unwilling to relinquish their belief that Mary had once been the lover of Jesus.

St. Mary Magdalene has become an icon representing the penitent fallen woman. Paintings of her throughout the ages often depict her as a somewhat lusty woman with the red, unkempt hair that might befit a whore. She is depicted as bathing the feet of Jesus or standing face to face with the risen Christ near Jesus' open tomb. Mary Magdalene also appears in many artistic representations of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. The popular French name Madeleine is derived from the word Magdalene.


Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, edited by Serenity Young, Macmillan Reference, 1999.

Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version, William Collins & Son, 1839.

Picknett, Lynn, Mary Magdalene: Christianity's Hidden Goddess, Carroll & Graf, 2003.

Schaberg, Jane, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, Continuum, 2002.


Time, August 11, 2003. U.S. Catholic, April 2000.


Catholic Encyclopedia, (January 26, 2004).

Mary Magalene, (January 26, 2004).

Mary Magdalene

views updated May 29 2018


MARY MAGDALENE . Mentioned by name in only fourteen verses in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is nevertheless one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Christianity. Mary came from a prosperous town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which in the canonical gospels is called by its Aramaic name, Magdala. In Greek it is known as Tarichaeae. In antiquity the town had a reputation for exporting quality salt fish and fish oil. It is possible Mary herself was engaged in some business related to the fishing industry. This occupation is well attested for women in early Roman Palestine, and the Herodian court at nearby Tiberias regularly purchased goods from female suppliers. When Mary is introduced in Luke 8:2, she is in the company of Joanna, the wife of a Herodian official, suggesting Mary had contact with the court.

Luke presents Mary Magdalene as one who followed Jesus during his ministry in the Galilee. According to the third gospel, Jesus healed Mary of an unspecified disorder, which singles her out as the only close companion whom he cures. Luke also records that Mary "ministered" (the Greek verb means "to care for" or "to provide") to Jesus and his followers "out of [her] resources." The verse may recall Mary's patronage as a well-to-do businesswoman.

Whenever a group of women followers is listed in the canonical gospels, Mary is mentioned first, an indication of her preeminence. The gospels also relate that Mary is present at the crucifixion in Jerusalem. Finally, she is the only person to be named in all four gospels as a witness to the resurrection, subsequently qualifying her to receive the accolade of apostle.

Mary in Non-Canonical Literature

In the late nineteenth century fragments of an extra-canonical gospel written in the name of Mary Magdalene were found. The discovery of an incomplete Coptic manuscript was followed in the early twentieth century by the recovery of additional portions of the text in Greek. Scholars generally date its composition to the second century. The gospel portrays Mary as the recipient of a vision of Christ in which she is praised for her fidelity. Peter appears as an adversary, attacking Mary when she explains her vision. Peter asks incredulously whether Jesus really did "speak with a woman without our knowledge [and] not openly."

The Gospel of Thomas, also a second-century text, depicts Peter's attempt to discredit any authority Mary possesses among the disciples, attributing to him the declaration, "Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life." The risen Jesus refutes Peter's dismissal, replying, "Look, I myself shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."

A large corpus of Gnostic literature found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 was published in the 1970s. The texts include a number of extra-canonical manuscripts concerning Mary Magdalene, notably the third-century Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Philip, and the Dialogue of the Savior. The Sophia of Jesus Christ was dated to the early fourth century, although some scholars argue that it exhibits features suggesting an earlier date of composition. These writings aroused new interest in Mary's relationship with Jesus and in her authority among early Christians. They also indicate a wide diversity of teaching during the formative years of the new religious movement.

Mary is depicted in the Gnostic works as having a particularly intimate relationship with Jesus. She is praised as worthy of having received private teaching from him and she is presented as a leader within the Christian community. Of particular interest, the Gospel of Philip portrays Mary as the one whom Jesus loved more than the other disciples and as one whom he kissed frequently. The act of kissing as a greeting and sign of affection is well attested as a common practice among early Christians, as Paul's epistles witness. Jesus' kiss, therefore, does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship, though some twentieth-century commentators have interpreted it that way.

Peter appears in the Gnostic texts consistently opposing Mary's authority. As a result, some scholars suggest that the Gnostic writings reveal a struggle within the early church between a faction that recognizes in Mary a model for women's authority and leadership, and a Petrine group that opposes women's authority. Other scholars interpret Peter as representing the emerging orthodox position, while Mary stands for the Gnostic view.

"Apostle to the Apostles"

Writing in Galatians 1:1117, Paul intimates that an apostle is one who receives an appearance of the risen Lord and one who is commissioned to proclaim his message. In the canonical gospels Mary is recorded as fulfilling both of these conditions. Hippolytus, a third-century bishop, is generally thought to be the first person to name her as an "apostle to the apostles." Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and John Chrysostom in the fifth also accord Mary this title. Some scholars argue that the appellation of apostle is honorific in Mary's case. However, as she meets the criteria, there seems no need to assume the title was anything less than recognition of her apostleship. The persistence and survival of the epithet confirm Mary's importance among early Christians.

In the sixth century Pope Gregory I (the Great) declared that Mary Magdalene was beloved of the savior and was the leader of a group of apostles. He also proclaimed that the Galilean Mary Magdalene, the Judean Mary of Bethany, and the other Mary were one and the same person, conflating three distinct women. In the West, pious myths arose based on the conflation. According to an eleventh-century tradition, Mary, now identified as the sister of Martha and Lazarus, introduced Christianity to France. In eastern Christianity the confusion did not arise, for the distinctions among the women were maintained.

Mary the Penitent

Mary's reputation as an apostle, preacher, and leader declined as male authority increased in orthodox Christianity. Gregory I not only conflated three Marys, he also made Mary Magdalene into a prostitute, declaring her a redeemed whore in a sermon in 591. Mary was stigmatized as a prostitute through an association with the unnamed sinner mentioned in Luke 7:3650, an erroneous identification that endured for fourteen hundred years. In church teaching and Christian art, Mary was portrayed as a model of repentance and was used as a propaganda tool. Her misrepresentation served the purposes of a church promoting asceticism, by making her into a moral paradigm: the unfaithful harlot forgiven and restored.

Scholarly consensus since the 1980s has returned Mary Magdalene to her position of authority and leadership in early Christianity. The identification of her as a prostitute has been exposed as mistaken and rejected for lack of evidence. Study of the noncanonical literature has revealed that Mary's influence endured for at least six centuries prior to her conflation with Mary of Bethany and the so-called other Mary. At the same time, the Gnostic literature has raised questions about early Christian teachings regarding the salvation of women. Mary's canonical role as a close associate of Jesus, a faithful disciple, and a witness to the resurrection, coupled with the noncanonical accounts of her as a preacher and missionary, have revised her memory as a role model for Christian women.

See Also

Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Christianity; Gnosticism; Nag Hammadi.


Boer, Esther de. Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth. Translated by John Bowden. Harrisburg, Pa., 1997. De Boer revisits the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a redeemed prostitute. She examines both the canonical literature and the Gospel of Mary, placing the accounts in their historical, social, cultural, and theological contexts within formative Christianity. De Boer's work concludes that Mary was not a penitent whore, but a courageous and persistent disciple.

Brock, Ann Graham. Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. This revised doctoral dissertation argues that the Magdalene fulfills the criteria of an apostle. Brock carefully and persuasively reexamines the canonical gospel portraits, particularly those of Luke and John, before turning to the Gnostic literature. Her treatment of a frequently hypothesized rivalry between proponents of the Magdalene and a Petrine group is especially instructive. Brock provides a comprehensive bibliography of the literature in French, German, Italian, and English.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. London, 1993. Haskins explores how the story of the Magdalene has been transmitted through Christian history not only by means of biblical and early Christian texts, but also through visual representations from the mid-third century through the last decade of the twentieth century. Haskins's analysis of the texts seems rudimentary compared to subsequent studies, but as one of the first scholarly works on Mary Magdalene, her book remains an important contribution. It is particularly valuable for its medieval representations.

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. "Maria Magdalena: Apostolorum Apostola. " In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, pp. 5796. Berkeley, Calif., 1998. Jansen notes that between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries medieval preaching circulated the story of the Magdalene as apostola. She looks at examples that draw upon pious traditions presenting Mary as a model missionary.

King, Karen. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, Calif., 2003. A scholar of Gnosticism, King argues the Gospel of Mary privileges inner spiritual knowledge over externally acquired knowledge. She examines the Gospel' s teaching on various topics such as the body, women's authority, and visionary experiences, pointing out that the writing rejects Jesus' suffering and death as a path to eternal life.

Marjanen, Antti. The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents. Leiden, 1996. This study, a revised dissertation, evaluates the descriptions of Mary Magdalene found in Gnostic literature. It concludes that she is presented as a prominent, even intimate, disciple of Jesus, who is a role model for women in early Christian communities. Marjanen observes a tension, however. Although Mary Magdalene is commended, the language subversively reflects a patriarchal culture that connects the male with the spiritual, perfect, and transcendent and the female with the sensual, incomplete, and mundane.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Translated by members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. San Francisco, 1977.

Schaberg, Jane. Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: The Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. New York, 2002. Drawing on canonical and extra-biblical literature, this feminist study approaches its subject through an analysis of legend, archaeology, and Gnostic traditions, employing Virginia Woolf's insights into structures of domination and communality.

Diane Treacy-Cole (2005)

Mary Magdalene

views updated May 17 2018

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene (Mary of Magda, currently Mejdel in Israel) is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, appearing at the scene of the Crucifixion: "There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee" (Matthew 27: 55-56). Mary Magdalene is also the most notable witness to the Resurrection, together "with the other Mary": "Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher …" (Matthew 28: 1-10). The women are told by the Angel of the Lord that Jesus has been resurrected, and they inform the Apostles.

Mary Magdalene is present at the Crucifixion in all three synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John, which stresses the importance of this woman disciple by describing her as the first person to whom the risen Jesus appears in the garden and addresses: "But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb … she turned around and saw Jesus standing…. 'Mary….' She turned and said to him in Hebrew 'Rabboni….' Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples 'I have seen the Lord,' and she told them that he had said these things to her" (John 20: 11-20).


Thus, Mary Magdalene was recognized as the first witness to the most important tenet of Christian dogma: the Resurrection. After the Church began combining the various women named Mary and pronounced without evidence that Mary Magdalene was the sinner who washed and anointed the Lord's feet in the Gospel of Luke, her figure became distorted. Thus, Gregory the Great declared in 591 that Mary was the sinful woman in Luke, the same one whom John calls Mary of Bethany and the one who in Mark is exorcised by Jesus. Many Latin Church fathers adopted that version and identified her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and also with the anonymous sinner in Luke 7: 36-50. The Greek Church Fathers, starting with Origen, ascribed a different identity to each of the three Maries, but throughout the centuries in Europe and America, the world Mary Magdalene became associated with the prostitute who washed Jesus's feet and dried them with her hair.

Popular religious legends and traditions, starting from the ninth century with the Miracula of Mary Magdalene and continuing with the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus of Voragine (born 1230) dated around 1260, have direct bearing on her iconography, and Mary Magdalene has been depicted as the repentant and penitent Magdalene with loose long hair, a symbol of abandonment to God. The Legenda, moreover, records the legend that Mary Magdalene ended up in Marseilles, France, pregnant with a child, perhaps from John, from whom ultimately descends the French royal line.

It also is said of Mary Magdalene, whose second name means remaining guilty and whose first name means marum mare, or bitter sea: "[S]he was magnificent in the superabundance of grace, because where trespass abounded, grace was superabundant." (Legenda Aurea, pp. 374-375). According to the same legend, Mary died at Aix-en-Provence after having spent thirty days in the desert. In 769, during Charlemagne's time, Gerard, the duke of Burgundy, unable to have a son, had a monastery built at Vézelay and ordered that the relics of Mary Magdalene be brought there from Aix. According to the Chronicler Joinville, in 1248 Louis IX, the king of France (Saint Louis) made a pilgrimage to Aix, where the body of the Magdalene was said to lie (Le Goff 1996). In 1279 new remains of relics were discovered at Aix in the crypt of Saint Maximin, who had been Mary's protector from her time in Palestine and to whom Peter had entrusted her (Legenda Aurea, pp. 374-381). She is the patron saint of Vézelay, where her relics are kept and where she is venerated; her feast day on July 22 is a major holy day.


Mary Magdalene has become the patron saint of prostitutes, perfume makers, gardeners, and barrel makers. In France she is associated with the ripe fruits of late summer. The fruits (grapes, peaches, pears, and plums) that suddenly ripen around her feast day were called madeleines, and on that day the wine growers made an offering of their first grapes, hanging them on her altar (Canadé Sautman 1995, Gaignebet and Lajoux 1985). Mary Magdalene is also the patron saint of women in labor and is connected to the red color of the veil she wore at the Crucifixion (Canadé Sautman 1995). According to the ethnologist Claude Gaignebet, the wild man of winter in European popular tradition is a companion of Mary Magdalene and is dressed with her hair (Gaignebet and Lajourx 1985). She also is connected with the Apostle James, who, like her, is a Saint of the Canicula (dog days), stone cutters, the guarding dog, and the shell of Venus.

The word maudlin, meaning tearful penitent, is derived from the Middle English Maudelen, from the Late Latin and Greek Magdalènè. It is apparent that Mary's reputation has been affected by this characterization, though in a melancholy way, and this image has obscured her other side as an exemplar of the contemplative life, in contrast to her sister Martha, as she is seen by Dante (Convivio, IV, xvii, 10-11).


The figure and role of Mary Magdalene are complicated further if one considers the Gnostic Gospel of Mary Magdalene, discovered in Egypt in 1896, in which Mary assumes a leading and principal role, more important even than that of Peter (Pagels 2003). This text establishes Mary Magdalene as a true disciple of Jesus and the one to whom the Risen Christ appeared and imparted things unknown to the others. Thus, Mary becomes, as Ann Graham Brock (2003) states, the "apostle of the apostles," and her figure is a direct challenge to the doctrine of the Catholic Church with respect to the ordination of women in the priesthood. The importance of the various Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Jude, is accepted by feminist scholars who seek to bring back the figure of the historical Magdalene that the Church has chosen to distort. Jane Schaberg, a feminist biblical scholar, does that in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene (2002) by showing that Mary was a powerful woman who was very close to Jesus and even John but whose legitimacy was undermined by the Church in its desire to bury the true image of an important female disciple. Schaberg's contention has been accepted and transmitted in the work of feminist scholars such as Karen L. King (2003), Ann Graham Brock (2003), Margaret Starbird (1993), and Bruce Chilton (2005).

Since 1969 the Catholic Church has made a distinction between the sinner described in Luke, Mary of Bethany, and the Mary Magdalene, who was present at the Cross and the Resurrection. Although it recognizes that Mary Magdalene speaks the language of love (as in the "Gospel of John" in The Jerome Biblical Commentary 1968, p. 462), it has not modified its teaching regarding women and the priesthood. In the canonic Gospels, Jesus is shown to have broken the taboo of talking to women in public, as in the case of the Samaritan woman, but the Gnostic Gospels show that Peter and the disciples could not accept the idea that a woman had received preeminence from the Lord, as in the case of Mary Magdalene. The power of popular beliefs and the iconography of the repentant woman implanted and exploited over the centuries made it impossible to dissociate the figure of Mary from the penitent whore. That characterization remained a constant until the work of feminist scholars as well as other biblical scholars raised serious questions about the figure of Mary Magdalene as a sinner or a saint (see Time, August 11, 2003, and The New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2006) and the issue of whether she was one of the first apostles.

Although there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, that she was the lover of Jesus, or that they were married and had a child, there is evidence in both the canonical and Gnostic Gospels that she was an apostle like the others, perhaps one who was even closer to Jesus. The myths and the legends surrounding Mary Magdalene and the popularity of contemporary films and novels such as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code (2003) have reopened the debate and perhaps will give Mary Magdalene her proper historical meaning as one of the closest and first apostles to Jesus.

see also Catholicism; Folk Beliefs and Rituals; Melancholia and Sex.


Brock, Ann Graham. 2003. Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School.

Brown, Dan. 2003. The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. New York: Doubleday.

Brown, Raymond E.; Joseph A. Fitzmyer; and Roland E. Murphy. 1968. The Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Canadé Sautman, Francesca. 1995. La Religion du quotidien: Rites et croyance populaires de la fin du moyen age. Florence, Italy: Leo S. Olschki.

Chilton, Bruce. 2005. Mary Magdalene: A Biography. New York: Doubleday.

Gaignebet, Claude, and Jean-Dominique Lajoux. 1985. Art profane et religion populaire au moyen age. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Hearon, Holly E. 2004. The Mary Magdalene Tradition: Witness and Counter-Witness in Early Christian Communities. Collegeville, MN: Lithurgical Press.

King, Karen L. 2003. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.

Le Goff, Jacques. 1996. Saint Louis. Paris: Gallimard.

Pagels, Elaine H. 1987. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House.

Pagels, Elaine H. 2003. Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House.

Schaberg, Jane. 2002. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. New York: Continuum.

Starbird, Margaret. 1993. The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co.

Wilson, A. N. 1992. Jesus. New York: Norton.

                                         Giuseppe Di Scipio

Mary Magdalen(e)

views updated May 23 2018

Mary Magdalen(e). A follower of Jesus out of whom he cast seven devils, who ministered to him in Galilee (Luke 8. 2). She remained close to the Cross (Mark 15. 40) with other women (when the male disciples had fled), and she was the first to meet the risen Christ, being charged to proclaim the resurrection to the eleven. For that reason, she was called (first by Hippolytus of Rome, early 3rd cent.) ‘the apostle to the apostles’. However, Gregory I merged Mary Magdalene with two other Marys, the sinner who anointed Jesus (Luke 7. 37) and Mary of Bethany who also anointed him (John 12. 3), thus producing the composite figure of the sexually aberrant penitent. From this, ‘Magdalens’ became a term for prostitutes who had turned to Christ, and for the Houses which took them in, sometimes as specific religious orders. There is, however, no ground for Gregory's identifications, and they have been abandoned even by the Roman Catholic Church where they had great emotional importance.

Magdalene, Mary

views updated May 21 2018

Magdalene, Mary See Mary Magdalene

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Mary Magdalene

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