Who was Mary of Magdala?
Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, one of the most misunderstood of all saints. In this excerpt from A Jesuit Off-Broadway, I relate her (true) tale and how her life intersected with that of the gifted actress who would portray her in the play "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot."
The Woman from Magdala
One of the note cards from the cathedral gift shop in Los Angeles struck a chord with the actress Yetta Gottesman, because it depicted her character, Mary Magdalene. The delicate tapestry presented a young woman with close-cropped black hair, her head bowed in prayer, her hands clasped to her chin.
Thanks in great part to Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, interest in the historical Mary Magdalene has risen stratospherically during the past few years. As with her fellow disciple, Judas, we know very little about her. Jesus cast seven demons out of her (we don’t know how these demons had manifested themselves in her behavior); she remained at the cross with two other women when the other (male) disciples had all fled; she watched Jesus die; and she was the first one to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection. In a touching scene on Easter morning, a grieving Mary initially mistakes the risen Jesus for the local gardener.
Even with these distinguished credentials, Mary Magdalene (the name means “of Magdala,” a town in Galilee) gradually became known as a prostitute, though there is no mention of this in the Gospels. (The word maudlin comes from her name, presumably the result of her grieving for a sinful past.) The most benign explanation for this confusion over Mary’s identity is that there is a veritable crowd of Marys in the Gospel stories (besides Mary, the mother of Jesus, there is Mary of Bethany and Mary, the wife of Clopas). Mary Magdalene was also, oddly, conflated with a woman who had bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with oil. In AD 591, Pope Gregory I preached a sermon in which he proclaimed, “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.”
This inaccurate identification became more or less church teaching for at least a millennium.
A less benign interpretation of this “confusion” is that the early church was threatened, even horrified, by the stunning example of a woman among the early disciples. Strictly based on the evidence in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene enjoyed an exalted standing. She was not only the first one to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection, but also the one who proclaimed the news of his resurrection to the other disciples, including those who would be the leaders of the early church communities: Peter, James, Andrew, and the rest.
Thus comes Mary’s traditional title: “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her fidelity to Jesus during the Crucifixion, as well as Jesus’ appearance to her, are marks of distinction that place her, at least in terms of her faith, above the men. Some of the “extracanonical,” or “apocryphal,” gospels (that is, those not included by the early church councils with the traditional four Gospels) picture her as the most favored of all the disciples. “[Christ loved] her more than all the disciples,” says the text known as The Gospel of Philip.
Perhaps it was convenient for the early church fathers to dismiss Mary Magdalene and even insult her as a prostitute, fearful of what her role would mean for the place of women in the early church. As Jane Schaberg, a professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, writes in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, “The pattern is a common one: the powerful woman disempowered, remembered as a whore or whorish.”
As many historians have noted, the exaltation of a relatively few women in the early church—most notably the Virgin Mary— occurred at the same time that the contributions of almost every other woman in Jesus’ circle were forgotten, ignored, or actively suppressed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s influential book In Memory of Her, a reconstruction of the contributions of women among the disciples and in the early church, takes its title from the Gospel tale of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus. In response to the woman’s selfless action, Jesus announces that whenever the story is told, it will be told in memory of her.
Yet, as Schüssler Fiorenza notes, the Gospel writers don’t bother to give us this woman’s identity: “Even her name is lost to us.” Despite Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, the church preserved no memory of her. In a trenchant aside, Schüssler Fiorenza says, “The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman.”
Given this milieu, it is not surprising that the role of someone like Mary Magdalene would be elided by the evangelists and the early church.
In many ways, Mary Magdalene is the star of The Da Vinci Code. In the novel, she fulfills one of the many long-lived rumors about her: she is the wife of Jesus, something that finds no credence anywhere in the New Testament. In the months after Dan Brown’s novel was published, I found myself invited to give several presentations to church groups and called on by the media to comment on the historicity of the book. By far the most popular question was: Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? Or, as one young man in a Catholic audience put it, “Was Mary Magdalene really Mrs. Jesus?” (I was even asked that question when my talks had nothing to do with The Da Vinci Code.)
But by the simple criterion of “embarrassment,” the theory fails. As the Rev. John Meier points out in his book on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, being unmarried was seen as undesirable for most rabbis at the time, and it is unlikely that the Gospels would have concocted the story that he was celibate if he was in fact married. Also, the Gospels describe Jesus returning to his hometown and coming into contact with his mother, his brothers and sisters, and the townspeople of Nazareth. The silence about a wife (and children) in this context, writes Meier, probably indicates that Jesus did not have a wife and children in his past life in Nazareth. “The position that Jesus remained celibate on religious grounds [is] the more probable hypothesis,” Meier concludes, after sifting through the evidence.
Dan Brown’s presentation of Mary as “Mrs. Jesus” fails by another important criterion: Mary would have been referred to, like every other married woman identified in the Gospels, by her husband’s name. She would almost certainly have been called not “Mary Magdalene” but “Mary, the wife of Jesus.”
Unfortunately, many have read The Da Vinci Code as a reliable and factual account of the early church, despite all the evidence to the contrary. (When I told a group to remember that the book was fiction, one doubtful young man raised his hand and said, “Well, you have to say that, don’t you, Father?”) The most unfortunate part of the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in The Da Vinci Code, however, is that once again she is reduced to a subordinate role: she is the wife of Jesus. Rather than being honored as the most faithful of disciples, the first witness to the Resurrection, the remarkable leader in the early church, and a model for independent women, she is notable only for her husband. The marginalization of Mary Magdalene continues, albeit in a new form.
I was happy that the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis took the time to set things right by Mary Magdalene in his play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. His second act opens with Mary Magdalene standing beside the tough-talking Saint Monica, who describes Mary as the “only bitch I let hang with me up here.”
In his streetwise way, Guirgis’s soft-spoken Magdalene quickly demolishes many of the myths about this astonishing woman as Saint Monica shouts out her approval:
Mary Magdalene: My name is Mary of Magdala. I was a disciple of Jesus, I was present at the crucifixion, and I was the first person He appeared to after the resurrection.
Saint Monica. Bitch got clout!
In a lively fictional dialogue with Monica, Mary Magdalene sketches for the audience her background as one of the founders of the Christian religion, and she sets the record straight on other matters as well. “I was not a whore,” she says. “I was an unmarried woman in a town of ill repute.”
Finally, she offers a neat rejoinder to The Da Vinci Code:
Mary Magdalene: And also, I was not the wife of Jesus either.
Saint Monica. Still love ya!
When I presented the note card featuring Mary Magdalene to Yetta, her dark eyes filled with tears. After the show ended, she explained that the photo had given her more insight into the character. Yetta had done a great deal of research on Mary and had reached her own conclusions about her character. “It’s easy for people to deal in stereotypes and prejudices, especially when it comes to women, so I wanted to read for myself about Mary Magdalene’s life.
“I see her as a person who searched and finally found someone who understood and accepted her,” said Yetta. “And in response to Jesus’ acceptance, she led a life of passion, and she believed passionately in him.”
Yetta had done some searching as well. Her father was Jewish and her mother a Catholic who had left the church; they had allowed Yetta to choose her own religion. But, as she said, “I haven’t chosen yet.” She is a delicately featured woman with dark hair and alabaster skin. In reference to her time at St. John’s University, a Catholic college in New York City, she described herself as “probably the only Puerto Rican Jew in the whole place.” Yetta tries to pray every day—in gratitude and for friends and family. “Even though there’s a bit of the skeptic in me, I feel like I have a very close relationship with God. And when the lines of communication are open, my heart is, too.” She has never felt completely alone in her life, always feeling that someone is looking out for her, and this she associates with God.
I asked what her image of God was like. Yetta thought for a moment before saying, “Well, he’s not the guy with the white beard.” Then she laughed. “And he doesn’t have an English accent either!”
For her, the table readings were a way of learning something new. “I loved studying all that history!” Even after the play ended, she continued reading about Mary Magdalene. “It’s a simple story,” she said, “but I guess until now I always thought of it more as a fable, not history. Now I think of Jesus as a real man, someone far ahead of his time, a revolutionary. No one had done things the way he had done things, and no one had risked the way he risked things. And I thought of Mary Magdalene as a real woman, too. I never believed that stuff about her being a prostitute anyway. From what I’ve read, she was probably capable, straightforward, and passionate about what she believed in.”
The image of Mary Magdalene remained taped to Yetta’s dressing room mirror for the run of the show. As the biblical scholar Bruce Chilton says in his biography Mary Magdalene, “Mary conveyed the truth of Spirit to those who followed her disciplines, whatever their backgrounds may have been, and she has not ceased to find disciples.”
From A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Behind the Scenes with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More.
You really think them cads enough to stuff living women into cloisters and shadows, the kitchen or the convent...and yet accept that they wouldn't have dared edit the scriptures and accounts of the martyrs to reflect this supposed sexist patriarchy? Really? Fascinating.
The canon of scripture, the creeds and accounts of the martyrs, the approval and promotion of women's religious communities and marital law besides were all approved and defended against enemies foreign and domestic by the 3rd century church at whose feet these authors place the charge of sexism and partiarchy. Why would these men so steeped in anti-female sinnful 'structures' approve unedited as inspired the very Gospel accounts that bear witness to this extraordinary woman and others besides?
Why praise the witness of female martyrs, why honor the virgins and consecrated women who were not only "allowed" but encouraged to run their own communities? Me thinks these vaunted scholars focus so much on their modern feminist critiques that they don't take into account what was happening in the lives of those early Christians and in the larger society circa 100 to 400 AD or have even spent much effort looking at the enormous amount of social data we have come to know from the dying days of Empire.
You don't suppose serial government persecutions and dislocations of war and plague, famine and disaster might have had an impact on the small Christian communities and their constituent families do you?
Phenomenologically, how do women typically fair during times of civil war or foreign invasion when local and national "law enforcement" is swept away? What does the data of Vietnam, Camodia, Africa, and the Balkans of the modern 20th century teach us is the sad fate of women at such times? Does it strike you as weird that men do everything they can to hide and protect their wives, daughters, sisters, aunts and nieces during such times of anarchy rather than let these "strong women" stand on pillars where the barbarians can see them? No? neither do I. Well guess what "scholars", Roman era social disintegration wasn't too different from our modern era social disintegration and hence, Christian men-folk did what men always do - hide their women to save their lives. Only now, at a distance of 1700 years they (and we) are condemned as sexists for not putting these same women in front where they could be raped and killed by the barbarians?
You don't suppose the Arian heresy which denied Mary's role (and through her the dignity of the role of wifes, mothers and virgins), the invading barbarian hordes who raped and pillaged away the remnants of Roman civilization and social mores might have made the lot of "strong independent women" a bit untenable unless they were protected by their men folk or some isolation do you? Nah, had to have been pure, egregious sexism. Because we all know how urbane and sophisticated and calm things were from 33 AD through 380 and what a cake walk it was from then until now for the Gospel message and messengers......not!
Tell me how western style feminism is doing in Africa vs. how holy women and the esteem they have among men there is doing? You seek worldly power and ecclesial honors as the proof of 'equality' when in reality the only equality we have is found in holiness, not job description. And honor by the community comes not with a title or ex officio power, but always from the heroic witness of life. Millions know and love St Theresa the little flower and are utterly ignorant of the cardinals and bishops who 'ran the church' during her lifetime. So who had more "power and honor"? The men in their mitres or that quiet humble young woman in the cloister?
Few know who was Cardinal of India during the time of Mother Theresa of Calcutta - but everyone knows and honors her and her incredible achievements...so who had the power and glory? The men in the collars or the nun in her sari?
These authors do a disservice to our Christian forebears by dissing them as sexist for some perceived lack of honor for St Mary of Magdala and other "strong women" as though the ONLY possible proof of honor is ordination when in reality the only proof of honor is in what history actually shows us and that is popular piety, the devotion of countless Catholic generations to the intercession of these female saints departed, the naming of countless churches in honor of the holiness of life and teaching that inspired nations and people of good will to know Jesus Christ through their witness!
For all the supposed crimes against "strong women" our Catholic ancestors supposedly indulged in, where are all the pagan matriarchical societies flourishing and full of "strong women" whose evident virtues and skills may awe us into shame? Oh that's right, none exist. Because men are brutes outside of the body of Christ and besides flesh and blood, the principalities and powers against which we all must struggle definitely despise and plot the damnation of women especially.... the only safe place women have is in the Church and the culture the Church produces and yet that's the sole target of so much feminist wrath!
The only men on this earth who are not threats to your bodily integrity are the very men currently put down and despised as sexist and patriarchical old foggies afraid of "strong women"!
Mary of Magdala was called apostle to the apostles and some women think this means the bible calls for women priests and bishops and Popes or else womenkind have no dignity and power and 'equality'???
Have you no idea ladies that Our Blessed Mother is not priest but the very tabernacle of God? That womankind's very essence is not priestly but more sublime and ultimately of more consequence? You chase this cup of priesthood as though it is something "higher" than your destiny when in fact it's lower.
We Catholic husbands, fathers, and sons will go to our deaths gladly to save you from evil men and the evil spirits inspiring them and yet you think our sacrificial acts as priests are more valuable than your being spared this cross for the higher dignity of motherhood and divine espousal?
St Mary of Magdala was beloved by Our Lord which is why she wasn't called to priesthood and membership among the 12.... because her task and dignity would have been sullied, not ennobled and raised.
The Word had to become flesh and die on a cross as a man because Adam failed to fight the serpent to the death to protect his bride, Eve, mother of all the living.
In other words, Eve's dignity and life was worth Adam's priestly sacrifice of himself.... and since he did not make it, God became a man to make that sacrifice for Adam and Eve and all the sons of adam and daughters of eve since.
Priesthood is male because of Adam's sin. But the destiny of women is beyond telling - the treasure and reason that the fall obscured. Don't fall for the trap of giving up your real glory for something far less honorable and glorious.
I think that Mary Magdalene is the missing key to understanding the role of women in the mystery of what we call church. I could mediatate on her person for a long time. Thank you for bringing her up on this, her feast.
Throwing in the fathers of the church in a time when women's equality was unthought of didn't strike me as having a lot of resonance.
The position of women in Africa today is hardly a prime example of how many if not most here would see as any kind of paradigm.
Fr. Martin makes a fine post and gets grief for it .... so it goes at America blogs.
That they've always been honored and held in esteem while alive or dead means nothing apparently. That the virgins, mothers, martyrs, and mystic women of all centuries and places have been honored by Christians throughout time and place means nothing just because certain markers of respect as today's society sees them, weren't in evidence?
Much is made of whether 3rd century women could own and sell property like men could or whether strong women could run the local churches and vote in ecumenical councils like some men did. As though that's what equality in Christ was ever about!
Yet Jesus told us that the first would be last...and so if women are apparently last - as the world keeps score, jealous of exterior honors and pomp....is this not enough for them to be first with God? Apparently not.
We are told how us men are afraid of women's sexuality and strength etc. and that's why we're so mean and patriarchical etc. and nary a peep is made of the facts on the ground during those early centuries and subsequently about what us Christian husbands and fathers have faced in the world of paganism and darkness - as though the Church was never under persecution or threat of obliteration.
And that galls me. How can you develop a theory of some supposedly dastardly lack of theological courage with respect to women - and not take into account what the Church and church community has almost always faced?
I'm quite frankly fed up with being branded the barbarian who's mean to women when people like me are the thin line keeping genuine barbarian savages from having their way with all these women who seem oblivious to this terrifying fact.
The fathers of the Church lived under persecution - as have most bishops and priests in most Catholic countries since then with very few exceptions and for very few periods of calm. And the persecution they suffered under was always conducted by ruthless, savage pagan men who have never had much respect for women in deed (although they talk a good game in words).
I'm fed up with theologians who don't seem to have ever pondered the tremendously important fact that Eve was tempted but the human race didn't fall until Adam ate the fruit....and that therefore the great role for Eve was lost - by Adam's omission...that priesthood is an effort to restore balance not by making Eve's daughters priests but by making men the priests so women can be women!
Complementary, diverse in some ways, equal in others. Both/and, not either/or (either women can do all men do or they're not equal")
Why can't we see in Mary of Magdala a template of a strong woman among strong men? Why must she be the lightning rod for claims of millennial old male patriarchy vs. the genius of women supposedly unjustly kept down rather than a positive role model of disciple who serves the Lord not for the sake of rule and authority, places of honor or respect but simply because she loves him and those he loves?
In other words, why take the occasion of a saint of God and make it about differences and why they're somehow wrong rather than accept the differences and ponder the unity we all have in the Lord who calls each to unique tasks?
Why look at those early Christians and say "they" rather than "we"?
I used to fall into the same rationale as you do - that women are indeed being "taken care of", and elevated in the eyes of God because of their more "subtle" place in the world. It took me awhile to get it.
You are correct, women and men both bring different gifts to the world and to each other.
But do you know that women not only have not been able to own their property, but they have been (and in some places still are) the legal property of men, with no rights of their own?
Do you know the power that those men only in the Church who supposedly hold the keys to sacramental grace and salvation have yielded over the populace and human history?
It may be that women have yet come to know their own unique dignity and contribution (and power) in the world, but they're not going to come to this realization by continuing to relinquish power to men.
I don't feel like getting into it now, but believe me, sexuality and a fear of that feminine energy is a big part of this story.
I find your comments insulting in their naivete.
Then you claim church men (and catholic dads, husbands and the culture we live in) are afraid of women and their sexuality?? Really? This society that objectifies girls and women and has convinced them that 'freedom' consists in them being our slaves without strings attached is afraid of women?
Or the church which fights for the rights of women by fighting for marriage and the rights of the weak against the strong are afraid of women's nature? I think you confuse 'fear' with 'respect'.
Because I respect my daughter's dignity and fear men, I'm building an aegis of protection around her - not because I doubt her strength of character but because I know the character of pagan men (and a sex predator search has revealed 17 of those men within a square mile of our home). I'm not afraid of her, I'm afraid for her. Big difference.
The early church was NOT sexist and the bishops and popes and saints and martyrs' were NOT afraid of "strong women" or their sexuality (what ever that's supposed to mean), but were afraid FOR their safety in a world of barbarians in which the Christian flock was a minority.
It's an insult to an adult Catholic to be told that the Churchmen insulted Mary by calling her a prostitute - when in fact the sin of men and women before their conversions has always been acknowledged as part of their story. Paul was Saul. St Augustine was a sinner too.... and his conversion made his later life all the more powerful. That prostitutes could be forgiven and made saints is part of the glory of Catholicism, not some sexist put down.
Half the female leaders of the pro-life movement have had abortions. Half the male leaders were abortionists themselves.... and it's known and accepted and these sad facts of their lives make their conversion to the pro-life cause that much more real and convincing... we are all sinners so it stands to reason that Mary of Magdala who may have been the harlot or the possessed woman could also be a great saint and that her mission as apostle to the apostles on Easter was entirely understandable given the Good News we preach.
Instead of this inclusive message though, the author treats the occasion of her feast day to go on a literary excursion through the misconceptions, half-truths and myths of the pagan world with respect to Jesus, Mary, Mary of Magdala, the Church and modern women.
All I can add to the discussion is that in the early Church there were strong women leaders, and in the apostolic sense Mary Magdalene was prominent. Paul mentions several house churches with women at the head...Deaconess Phoebe comes to mind. Where are the deaconesses now?
The deaconnesses of those days were assistants at baptism of women. Not ordained ministers of the liturgy.
A church that would face the gallows rather than deny any small detail of its deposit of faith would hardly have kept women from liturgical ministry if that was the will of the Holy Spirit, so the absence of any record of women in liturgical functions is the give away as to the distinction between ordained deacons and deaconnesses (diakonia is a descriptive greek word first and then a theological title, ergo the possibility of confusion.)
Women were expected to preach and teach and help baptise their fellow women - so offering their homes as the meeting places for the community is no shock. But again, at no time in the early centuries do we see unequivocal evidence that the first generations considered women functionally equivalent to apostles, bishops, presbyters and deacons in terms of orders, while they are in evidence as missionaries, helping spread the faith etc.
This is all so much like "did God really say you couldn't eat of any tree in the garden"? To make holy orders the be all and end all of "proof of equality" is to completely miss the boat. It also sets women up to no alternative but apostasy as the Church is not going to change its self understanding of priesthood and orders out of some sort of fear of a pressure group's agitation and politicking.
Communism was a far more potent force than modern feminism and yet the Church did not surrender to that so do you really think the Catholic church is going to surrender to women who offer 1) indirect arguments based on equivocal greek terms without historical evidence that the early christians understood those terms as these modern scholars do and 2) that besides there being no historical record of said understanding there's been no evidence since of the Holy Spirit raising up saints and Marian apparitions calling for this but instead we have rebellious, angry women demanding it while not showing much evidence of fideltity to OTHER doctrines of the faith - which they would if presumably they were inspired by God.
Your opinions are very quaint and homey, and you are certainly welcome to them. Have you formed them based on any lived experiences? Perhaps participating in actual collaborative ministry with women and others different from you might broaden and deepen your perspective.
There is an ancient legend that Mary Magdalene, before she died, journeyed to Rome to 'evangelize' the Emperor. After listening to her, the Emperor replied, pointing to a basket of white eggs on a nearby table, "It is as true to say that your Jesus is God as it is to say that those eggs are red!" And immediately, the eggs turned red.
On Easter Sunday, in Eastern Orthodox Churches, the faithful are given red eggs at the Anastasis (Resurrection) Divine Liturgy. I don't think the East has ever accepted the West's portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.
More photos of this extraordinary sculpture are here: