Mary Magdalene: 5 Things You Should Know

Gail Wallace

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MARY MAGDALENE

(Revised 4/16/2017).

That Mary Magdalene was a prostitute is just one of the many depictions of her put forward over the centuries. She has also been made out to be the seductress of Jesus (for instance the film “The Last Temptation of Christ”), Jesus’s wife (a myth debunked by Duke scholar Mark Goodacre – see note below), or a promiscuous woman. None of these claims are supported by the biblical texts.

The Catholic Church formally rejected this characterization of Mary in 1969, but it continues to be perpetuated through Easter sermons, as well as books and films like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and most recently, Risen (2016), a Columbia Pictures film starring Joseph Fiennes. [2]

 1. Why She is Called “The Magdalene”

The most likely reason Mary is called “The Magdalene” is that she was from Magdala, a thriving fishing town on the coast of Galilee. While there were other towns with similar names, Magdala is within walking distance of Capernaum, where Jesus was based at the start of his ministry. Recent archaeological findings in the current day Israeli town of Migdal, including a 1st century synagogue, support this explanation.

There are other theories about the title “Magdalene” (explained here).  Whatever the origin, this “nickname” helps us distinguish her from the half-dozen Marys mentioned in the Bible. Of course, the most distinguishing characteristic about this Mary is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2-3).

2. How She Became Known as a “Repentant Prostitute”

The characterization of Mary Magdalene as an adulteress or prostitute shows up several hundred years after the time of Christ when her identity was merged with that of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50).  This “composite Magdalene” was popularized in a sermon given by Pope Gregory I  around 591 AD. Here is an excerpt:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts… What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.” — Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII)

Conflating the stories of biblical characters was not uncommon in those days. But Mary Magdalene is named at least 12 times in the gospels, and not one of those references supports this interpretation. [3]

3. She Traveled with Jesus and the Disciples

The most important thing to know about Mary is the depth of her devotion to Jesus. The gospel writers are specific in noting that Mary and a number of other women had followed Jesus from Galilee (Matthew 27:55). The first mention of her is in Luke 8:2-3, so we know that she was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. The last mention is in John 20, where we find Jesus appearing to her at the empty tomb.

Mary left home and all that she had to follow Jesus for most of his three year public ministry. The film “Magdalena: Released from Shame“ imagines this experience for us from Mary’s perspective.

4. She Funded Jesus’s Ministry

In Luke 8:1-3 we read that at the start of Jesus’s ministry:

The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.”

Most scholars agree that this was financial support rather than domestic support, although the women probably did that as well. Bauchman writes “throughout the New Testament and frequently outside the New Testament [the Greek phrase used here] refers to material possessions or economic means” (p. 113). For example, the same term is used in Matthew 19:21 when Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.

5. She is Called “Apostle to the Apostles”

After giving her report that Jesus had risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. But we find some clues about her later life in extra-biblical texts. The apocryphal gospels depict Mary as a disciple who has a deep understanding of Christ’s teachings.

Several early church writers portray her as a leader in the early church movement. At some point she was given the title “Apostle to the Apostles”, because she was the first person to see the risen Christ and the first to share the news of the resurrection with the disciples.

In light of recent conversations about the role of women in the Catholic Church it is interesting that Pope Benedict XVI had this to say in a 2007 address:

St. Thomas Aquinas reserved the special title, “Apostle of the Apostles” (apostolorum apostola), dedicating to [Mary Magdalene] this beautiful comment: ‘Just as a woman had announced the words of death to the first man, so also a woman was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life’ (Super Ioannem, ed. Cai, § 2519).

In recent years efforts have been made to educate the public about Mary Magdalene’s role as a devoted disciple and respected early church leader. Groups like FutureChurch and Call to Action promote national observances of Mary Magdalene’s feast day (July 22) to make current biblical scholarship known. A new church built on the archaeological site at Magdala gives tribute to Mary and other notable women in the bible.

Even though Mary was probably not an adulteress or a prostitute, people would have known that she had been possessed by seven demons (whether that was literal demon possession, or a myriad of physical and mental illnesses as some scholars believe).  Also, there would have been a social stigma related to being a woman traveling with a group of men – something unheard of in those days. But from what we can tell, Mary did not let this get in the way of following Jesus.

This is a valuable lesson for all of us, but especially for women experiencing marginalization and discrimination.  I once heard someone say that “Mary owed much, gave much, loved much, served much”.

We would be hard-pressed to find a better role model in the Bible than Mary Magdalene.

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[1] See Experts Debunk Claim Jesus was a Husband and Father

[2] One exception is the 2013 History Channel series “The Bible” (Mark Burnett and Roma Downey). In this post Mark Goodacre (Duke University) commends the series for not depicting Mary as a repentant prostitute, but as one who follows Jesus and ministers to him from Galilee (Mark 15.40-41; Luke 8.1-3) to Jerusalem, to the cross (Mark 15.40-1, John 19.25), his burial (Mark 15.47) and his resurrection (Mark 16.1-8; John 20.1-18).

Others would be the BBC/HBO’s The Passion (2008) and Magdalena: Released from Shame. Note: The Da Vinci code does not label Mary a prostitute but claims she had a sexual relationship with Jesus.

[3]Scripture References to Mary Magdalene—Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1-19;Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18.

Image Credit: “Resurrection” by He Qi. Used with permission.

Gail Wallace

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26 Comments

  • I first started really examining the biblical accounts of Mary after reading a novel – Margaret George’s “Mary Called Magdalene”. It’s not a “Christian” perspective, just a really good historical one, which honors everything we know about her…. and ends up being awfully Christian. It’s a great book and helps make her all the more real to me! At the end people travel from all over just to come ask her “What was Jesus like?” I think that’s exactly how I’d be too.

    • Wonderful! Thanks for sharing that resource. I will definitely look it up.

  • I am embarrassed by how recently I discovered this information.
    Since, I have had a new appreciation of Mary, and you’re right, I find her so much more relatable now (which is not everything, but it is something).
    Thank you so much for sharing this, Gail.

    • Me too, Cara! I was trying to remember where I first learned that she wasn’t a prostitute – I think it was when reading RHE’s book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. And I’m a lot older than you are!

  • Even I don’t understand English well, I like to read all of your writing. I am looking for stronger clue Jesus was never marry to Mary Magdalene. We can understand Bible only from Holy Spirit.

  • I found this article very interesting. It’s great to bring light to scripture that may have been misrepresented by a commentary, and I’m sure if I was Mary and not a prostitute I would want someone to clarify. However I don’t think it brings her any more credibility. Jesus redeemed her regardless of her previous life. I also think that many women need to hear about women who made mistakes, especially sexual mistakes as so many women find that they have also made these mistakes. If Christ only called perfect women then I guess He can’t call me. I’m glad this is not true and He can use us because He is righteous and not me. I also think that our name is not out own but we now carry not only Christ’s name but His grace and mercy.

    • Andrea, I agree with you that our credibility lies in what Jesus has done for us, not in anything we have or haven’t done! I’m glad we do have the story of the woman caught in adultery to remind us that even sexual mistakes aren’t held against us 🙂 Blessings.

  • I want to give a big thank you to everyone who works on this blog, especially for telling stories of the all-to-often overlooked women in the Bible. I’ve always loved stories and I’ve had a penchant for the outcasts and for flipping the tables (“The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” – told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective was a game changer) and in Sunday School that meant looking for the women. Too often they were overlooked or ignored or joked (poor Rhoda and her, admittedly, comic reaction to Peter). You all are giving voices to those who were silenced and these types of posts are near and dear to my heart.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words! One of our goals for the blog in the coming year is to build up our library of posts about women in the bible so that our teaching can be more robust and less one-dimensional. And thanks for bringing up Rhoda – she would be a great one for us to add to the list!

  • Thank you for this insightful commentary! Mary at Jesus’ tomb is a biblical passage that I deeply treasure, and it grieves me that she is so often misrepresented. I’m glad you’re setting the record straight.

    It seems to me that when Christians insist that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute (“evil sex pervert” as in the quote above), or diminish her very real service of Jesus’ ministry and gospel, it is more of a commentary on the patriarchal culture of the church’s history rather than true biblical and historical account.

    • Yes, I’m sure that the patriarchal culture played a part in diminishing her importance, and still does by impacting the lens through which many people read the bible. For example, it is clear that women were traveling with the disciples throughout Jesus’s public ministry, but rarely have I heard that preached in a sermon. We live in a time when women are leaving the church in higher percentages than men – you just have to think that improving our teaching about women would be important in reaching women!

  • Thanks for more insight into an amazing woman’s life. I’ve never heard the term “apostle to the apostles” though I’m familiar with the other four points.

    • Hello! Yes, that term is fairly new to me as well. What’s fun is to do a Google search for “apostle to the apostles”. Mary Magdalene dominates the first half a dozen pages of the search. Fascinating.

  • I’ve been in a season of reading on Mary Magdalene, so I love that you are setting the record straight. Great read. Thank you, Gail!

    • Hi, Idelette! I’m also doing some reading and was stunned at how much material there is. The more I dug, the more I found. That’s why I ended up doing just a “5 Things to Know” post – there was far too much to try and tell her story in 1200 words! One of the more interesting sites with information on her was the FutureChurch.org site, especially this page http://futurechurch.org/search/mary%20magdalene. I got to visit the archaeological dig at Magdala earlier this year, and hope to write about that as well. Blessings!

  • Thanks for this Gail! My personal 2-cents worth is the “sinful woman” in Luke was not a prostitute. I based this on the Greek word usage: If Luke had meant prostitute he would have use the word to designate it: that is not in that passage. It has been assumed because her hair was un-bound. 🙂

    • Lisa, I was hoping someone would bring that up! I ran out of words and time and so decided to leave it for another post. But yes, Luke only says it was a “sinful woman”, so even that poor woman has been misrepresented. When I think about it, the only named person identified as a prostitute in the Bible would be Rahab, maybe? Now that would be an interesting thing to look up…

  • She was a strong and brave woman, a dedicated follower of Jesus. She deserves to be released from false information… I’m sure that she’s like all of us, a flawed individual whom Jesus loved and whom He used greatly.

    • Hey, Bev! Yes, it is a shame that the power of her story has been obscured in such a way. It will be fun to talk with her in heaven 🙂

  • Gail – very interesting study on Mary Magdalene… shows the transforming power of Jesus in her life and the difference a life can make when your desire is to serve the Lord. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Donn! Very fun to have my pastor comment on the blog 🙂

  • Thank you for this interesting article. I always found it so wonderful that Mary Magdalene was chosen by God to be the first person to see the risen Christ and carry that news to the apostles. Such a great role model to women in her devotion to Christ!

    • Agreed! There is so much more to her story – I had a lot of trouble keeping to our preferred 1200 word limit. Just might have to write a series 🙂

  • Thank you Gail. That was very informative. Truth matters.

    • You’re very welcome! Truth does matter, so it is rewarding to be a part of recovering the truth about the women in the bible 🙂

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