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.”