Mary Magdalene, St.
MARY MAGDALENE, ST.
A holy woman who ministered to Jesus and His disciples during His public ministry (Lk 8.2–3) and who, according to Jn 20.1–2, 11–18 (see also Mk 16.9–11), was the first person to see the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ. She has been identified, without adequate justification, with the repentant woman of Lk 7.36–50 and with Mary of Bethany (Jn ch. 11).
Life and Character. Mary was a native of Magdala, a prosperous and somewhat infamous fishing village on
the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, four miles north of Tiberias. Sometime after she had been freed by Jesus from a demoniac possession by seven devils—an expression that probably describes a violent and chronic nervous disorder, rather than a sinful state—she and other women gave of their own wealth and service to provide for the material needs of Jesus' apostolic company (Lk8.2–3). In the Passion narratives of the Synoptic Gospels Mary was a witness to Jesus' Crucifixion and burial (Mt 27.55–56, 61; Mk 15.40, 47; Lk 23.49–56; 24.10); in John's account of the Passion she stood near the cross with Jesus' mother and the Beloved Disciple (Jn 19.25–26). When she came, with other women, to anoint Jesus' corpse on Easter morning, she received the Resurrection proclamation from angels and the commission to transmit it to the apostles (Mk 16.1–8 and parallels). Finally, she actually saw the risen Lord, who personally told her to report His Resurrection to His brothers (Mt 28.9–10; Jn 20.16–18). God thus exalted her kind service for the apostolic college to the highest ministry, the proclaiming of Jesus' victory over death to the Apostles and, through them, to the world.
Mary's character appears in the Gospels as that of a practical woman, anxious to serve Jesus and His Apostles. Since, along with her companions, she was prevented from completing Jesus' burial anointing because of the sabbath (Mk 15.42; Jn 19.42), she returned to the tomb, as soon as permissible, to perform this service (Mk 16.1). Immediately on finding the empty tomb, thinking that Jesus' corpse had been stolen, she reported the fact to the Eleven (Jn 20.2). Later, when she saw Jesus, she was still searching for a corpse to be anointed (Jn 20.14–15). Only after Jesus pronounced her name, probably in a familiar way, did she "turn" from looking for a dead body to see and recognize the living "Rabboni," the Master who could no longer be "detained" on earth by her material and emotional service, but who must now be served by her proclamation to the Apostles that He had ascended to His God and Father and theirs (Jn 20.16–18).
These are not the actions of a contemplative and impractical person like Mary of Bethany who, because of her mystical grasp of the life-through-death mystery of Christ, had already anointed Jesus for His burial a week before He died (Jn 12.1–8), nor those of a penitent woman who on one occasion had gratefully shown so much affection to Jesus when He forgave her all her sins (Lk 7.36–50). They are the actions of a practical, material-minded woman, not given to mystical reverie, who would be an unshakable witness to the Resurrection and who reported it in a most matter-of-fact way, "I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me" (Jn 20.18).
False Identification with Other Women. One can understand why a commentator could have inadvertently identified Luke's sinful woman of ch. 7 with Mary of Bethany, as, in fact, Tertullian did (De pudicitia, 11.2), for each were said to have anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them dry with her hair, while He was reclining at a banquet (Lk 7.38, 46; Jn 12.3). A more careful commentator such as Origen clearly distinguished between the two anointings and the different women involved (In Matthaeum, series 77). It is more difficult to understand how the repentant sinner, and therefore Mary of Bethany, following Tertullian, was identified with Mary Magdalene by Gregory the Great (Hom. 25.1.10), since St. Luke introduces Mary by name immediately after finishing the story of the penitent woman, whose name he either does not know or wishes not to reveal. Following Gregory, the Latin Church, generally but not universally, has continued to identify the three women and honors them and their different virtues under the title of St. Mary Magdalene on July 22. Following Origen, the Greek churches honor them, more appropriately, as separate and distinct saints. The late legend that Mary Magdalene, combining the virtues of repentant sinner, contemplative, and practical servant who was the primary witness of the Resurrection, was miraculously transported to southern France in an oarless boat deserves no credence.
Most modern Scripture scholars agree with Origen's opinion that the anointings in Luke and John (see also Mt 26.6–13; Mk 14.3–9) were distinct happenings, despite their partial and mutual assimilation (the anointing of the feet in Luke and John in contrast to that of the head in Matthew and Mark) by oral transmission. Further, they hold that the anointings described in John, Matthew, and Mark were the same occurrence, although there is an apparent chronological inexactness in Mark and Matthew (cf. Mt 26.2 and Mk 14.1 with Jn 12.1). The anointings were made in different places, Luke's in Galilee, John's in Judea; were performed by different women, a repentant, notorious sinner in Luke, an old and very close friend of Jesus in John; and had different purposes, the expression of a loving, tearful gratitude to Jesus for His having forgiven the sinner in view of her great faith, in Luke, the solemn and tearless honoring of Jesus for Lazarus' resurrection and the preparing of His body for burial, in John. Mary of Bethany was certainly not Luke's penitent, therefore, although she may have heard of her poignant gratitude and been prompted to imitate it.
The reasons for not identifying Mary of Magdala with Mary of Bethany are clear also, especially in John's Gospel. There the two Marys are patently distinguished one from the other and given markedly different roles to play in the inexorable movement toward the Johannine concept of Jesus' glorification, which included both His Passion and His Resurrection. Mary of Bethany apparently had a mystical premonition of His death and its victorious value; the Magdalene could only weep because of His stolen corpse, and the duties still to be done for it, until, through His voice calling her name, she was convinced by her senses, as was Thomas (Jn 20.24–27), that He had conquered death.
Iconography. Because the Latin Church fused the characteristics of the nameless penitent with the other two women and because the story of her conversion is so appealing and beautiful, most of the Christian art depicting Mary Magdalene portrays her as a penitent weeping at Jesus' feet. However, there are ancient examples of Resurrection scenes on ampullae, stone coffins, and various other materials, in which Mary can be clearly distinguished as the first witness of the resurrection. She was often depicted carrying a vase and with her hair flowing freely. From the medieval period many of her images were inspired by the numerous popular legends that spread from southern France to all of Europe.
Feast: July 22.
Bibliography: v. saxer, Le Culte de Marie Magdeleine en Occident des origenes à fin du moyen âge, 2 v. (Paris 1959). p. ketter, The Magdalene Question, tr. h. c. koehler (Milwaukee 1935). k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg 1926–28) 2:426–433. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 1955–59) 2.2:556–559; 3.2:846–859. Anchor Bible Dictionary 4 (New York 1992) 579–581. c. m. grassi and j. a. grassi, Mary Magdalene and the Women in Jesus' Life (Kansas City 1986).
[j. e. fallon]