Let me preface this post by expressing a debt of gratitude to Elaine Pagels’ book, The Gnostic Gospels, and Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code for supporting my own heretical ideas about Magdalen, and for providing references and sign posts for my web research. The orthodox tradition has portrayed Magdalen as a prostitute and redeemed sinner by, in my opinion, conflating the woman who Jesus saved from stoning for adultery, the woman who anointed his feet with expensive perfume, and Mary Magdalen into one and the same person without any scriptural support. Rvery reference to Magdalen in the canonical Gospels mentions her by name but the references to the other two women mention no names. Those two references, which may or may not refer to the same woman, mention no names as far as i can tell from my research of the canonical Gospels. Any reference to one of Jesus’ female followers includes her name no matter how insignificant in the context of that Gospel writer’s perspective she may be.
CF Nark 15 40 Luke 8 13 Matthew 27 56 and John 1925. Other than the verses from Luke quoted above, all references to Mary Magdalen are part of either the Crucifixion narrative or the Resurrection narrative of the respective Gospel writer. What is intriguing about the Luke reference is that the three women he mentions by name all were cured of demon possession by Jesus, including Magdalene. Whether this is an authentic miracle or an apocryphal addition is open for discussion but it does serve the needs of orthodoxy’s attempt to downplay and demonize the role of women in Christianity, as we shall see.
The other three Gospel verses cited above all have magdalen present at the Crucifixion. I give special merit to the fact that Mark has her there since Mark’s gospel is generally accepted as the oldest of the canonicals and the one with the fewest theological axes to grind. All three gospel writers mention three women by the name Magdalen, in all three a woman named Mary who only in John’s is identified as the mother of Jesus, and a third woman who may be the same person in both Mark and Matthew, but is someone completely different in John.
In both Mark and Matthew, Magdalen is mentioned first, but in John she is the last mentioned. Why would Mark and Matthew mention Magdalen first among the women at the Crucifixion possibly before the mother of Jesus if she was only some poor deranged witch that jesus had cured? Why would she put herself in jeopardy to the Romans if she was not something more significant in his life? After all, depending on which of the four canonical Gospels you read, all or many of the Twelve had fled after Gethsemane and were not present at the Crucifixion out of fear for their own safety. Didn’t Peter the supposed rock deny any affiliation with Jesus three times the night of Jesus arrest? The Resurrection narratives of Mark, Luke, and John all make Magdalen the first or among the first witness to see and speak to the risen Jesus. She was the first to visit his tomb after his burial. Again, why would a deranged witch or a prostitute be the first to visit his tomb? I would think that the first person there would be his mother or, dare i say it, his wife or a very special follower. Perhaps his favorite most apt pupil? Someone who understood his mission and message better than anyone else? Or perhaps, some combination of these?
Perhaps whoever Mary Magdalen was. She was not a prostitute. That particular characterization was perpetuated by what became Christian orthodoxy to downplay and denigrate the influence of women in the fledgling Church as a way to establish the power of the tripartite male-dominated hierarchy of deacon, priest, and bishop. It is quite possible that Paul was directly responsible for the basic male chauvinism that permeates much of Christianity even to this day. We shall discuss this in much more detail when we deal with Paul directly in upcoming posts.
We still have not answered the basic question of this post: who was Mary Magdalen? Using the canonical scriptures has given us no clear answer, only some hints. There are, however, some non-canonical scriptures (The Gnostic Gospels) that do provide some very clear answers to Magdalen’s relationship to Jesus and her role after the Resurrection. They also provide some very telling insights into the political power struggle that shaped the early Church. We will take up that discussion next time.