Who Was Mary Magdalene? Breaking the Magdalene Code (Third in a series on M.M.)

Last week we saw how Lynn Picknett, the author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, relies on suppressed “alternative” sources beyond the fours canonical gospels to reconstruct her “secret history” which we’ve been reviewing here for the past three weeks.   That emergent story reveals not only the centrality of Mary Magdalene, but also of John the Baptist.

This week, let’s confine our exploration to the identity of Mary Magdalene especially as she appears within the Sacred Canon.  There the confusion starts immediately. For in the gospel texts three women appear who over the centuries have been identified with “Mary Magdalene,” even though only one of them is so identified by name. There is the “Mary called Magdalene;” there is “Mary of Bethany” (the sister of Martha and Lazarus), and then there is the unnamed “penitent woman” who anoints Jesus in preparation, it seems, for his death.

As for the “Mary called Magdalene,” Picknett begins her process of identification with Luke 8:1-3. There an apparently wealthy Mary Magdalene is listed as a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry. As such she is classified with a group of women including Joanna, the wife of Chuza (the manager of Herod’s household), Susana and “many other” women as supporting Jesus work “of their own means.” The only distinguishing information Luke gives about this Mary is that seven demons had come out of her. The Magdalene’s name is cited again at the end of Luke’s story when its bearer comes out of nowhere intending to anoint Jesus’ dead body to give it proper burial. Meanwhile in the Gospel of Mark, Mary Magdalene is named among the women who remained faithful to Jesus in his final hour after he had been deserted by his male followers.  In the apocryphal ending of that same Gospel, she is (significantly) the first witness of the resurrection (16:9). John’s Gospel also identifies her in this way. From this material alone, and to say the least, Mary Magdalene was the most prominent of Jesus’ women followers. Even more, as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, she might arguably be identified as the foremost of all disciples, male or female, and even as the legitimate head of the church. This is because ignoring women altogether, the patriarchy’s traditional argument for identifying Peter as “head of the church” has been that the risen Christ appeared first to him of all the (male) apostles.

By the way, nowhere in the “sacred texts” is the woman “called Magdalene” identified as a prostitute. In fact, that identification surfaces only in the sixth century in a homily delivered by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE. Only in 1969 did the Catholic Church repudiate Gregory’s defamation of the Magdalene. However, even apart from the tradition’s late origin and retraction, a prostitute Magdalene seems unlikely in the light of the role Luke assigns her as a financial supporter of Jesus’ work. Otherwise, as Picknett acerbically observes, “We are faced with the unpalatable suggestion that Jesus and the likes of Peter were happy to live off immoral earnings!” (42)

The second and third “Marys” traditionally conflated with the Magdalene are Mary of Bethany on the one hand and on the other, an unnamed “penitent woman” whom the Synoptics identify as anointing Jesus with costly spikenard from an alabaster jar. Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, good friends of Jesus who resided in that town. This Mary is famous for the argument involving her sister, Martha, about the relative merits of sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his words vs. serving at table. It is specifically this Mary (of Bethany) whom the Gospel of John has anointing Jesus just prior to his crucifixion (11:2).  Meanwhile, in the Synoptics the anointing woman is described as penitent, but remains unnamed.  However, both Mark and Matthew also record her act as happening in Bethany close to the time of Jesus’ execution (Mk. 14:3-9; Mt. 26:6-13). Only Luke locates the anointing in Capernaum and at the beginning of Jesus’ mission (7:36-50). For Picknett, John’s identification of the penitent woman as Mary of Bethany along with the locations cited by Mark and Matthew are enough for her to conclude that the penitent and Mary of Bethany are one and the same (50).

And what do the texts reveal about this woman anointer of Jesus? First of all, that her identity was not unknown (as the Synoptics would have us believe), and certainly no stranger to Jesus. Instead she was a member of a family which regularly offered Jesus hospitality. Significantly, the anointer and anointed were on familiar terms. Second, this Mary disregards Jewish law restricting women and governing interaction between the sexes. For one thing, she wears no head covering in public – an omission associated with sexual license in Jesus day (as it is today among Muslims and Jews in the Middle East). Moreover, she flaunts this disrespect of Jewish custom by appearing before Jesus (and those present at the event) as a woman was allowed only before her husband – with hair loose and flowing (55). Then she performs an act that could only be seen by onlookers as inappropriately intimate. She incessantly kisses his feet, wets them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. She finishes by breaking open an alabaster vessel of costly spikenard ointment and using its content to anoint Jesus’ feet. All of this Jesus approves. Far from rebuking her, Jesus is remembered as saying “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14:4). In other words, Jesus saw this woman’s act not only as appropriate but as central to his mission and to the preaching of the gospel.

Why then was Mary Magdalene not given her due or even clearly identified by the Synoptics? Why did Luke gratuitously say that seven demons had been driven from her? Was there some sort of early church vendetta against MM? Picknett thinks there was.

Next Week: Magdalene as Egyptian Priestess

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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