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The truth about Mary Magdalene

Posted April 14, 2018

The latest Bible-themed movie Mary Magdalene has offered another take on the story of Mary Magdalene— one of the most discussed figures in the Bible

Mentioned a dozen times in the Bible, Mary Magdalene has become one of the most written about and talked about figures in it. In the various myths and mix-ups, Mary has been used as proof Christianity is nonsense, and also wrongly labelled a prostitute—it’s even been claimed that she was Jesus’ secret wife or lover.

Although the film relies heavily on later made-up stories and pseudo-religious language, it does at least come closer than those accounts to catching the significance of Mary Magdalene as one of the most important people in God’s story. Mary Magdalene is one of four Marys in the gospels—along with Jesus’ mother, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, and ‘the mother of James’ (we don’t know which James). With about one in every five Jewish women at the time being called Mary, the gospel writers distinguish her as ‘the one from Magdala’— a small town on the shores of Galilee. She is also the most mentioned woman in the New Testament, after Jesus’ mother.

Mary Magdalene first appears in Luke (chapter 8:1–3) and is later echoed in Mark, telling us Jesus healed her of seven demons and she was among a group of ‘many other women’ who followed Jesus around the country and financed his ministry.

We don’t know anything about Mary’s background or family (a few biblical scholars have speculated she was rich, but we just don’t know). But referring to seven demons was a way to describe extreme illness, possibly severe mental illness. Joanna is also mentioned in this story: she was the wife of King Herod’s most important servant—straight from the most lavish high society set around. Yet, it is not the rich, connected Joanna who comes to the fore; it is Mary—the woman healed of severe illness—who we see again at the crucifixion. It is here we start to see Mary’s key role.

Mary in the Easter story

Matthew, Mark and John all specifically name her as one of the women who witnessed the crucifixion. While it was probably safer for the women to go to the crucifixion than the male disciples (who were associated with the so-called treason), this was still an act of serious devotion. As followers of the condemned criminal being executed, they watched a horrible scene, risking the scorn of passersby—while the men, apart from John, ran away.

These women—Mary again named— also went with Joseph of Arimathea to see where Jesus was buried.

On resurrection morning, Mary is also specifically named among the group who went to the tomb to complete the Jewish custom of preparing the body with oils and spices. In fact, she is so central to the story she’s the only woman John mentions there.

They were met with a shock—an empty tomb, two angels who spoke to them and then a dead man appearing to them. The angels, and then Jesus, told them to go and tell the others.

The importance of Mary as the first witness given the command by Jesus to ‘go and tell’ the transformative news of the resurrection, is remarkable. The most important moment in history was first revealed to people considered the weakest of society—lesser witnesses and, most prominently, a woman who had suffered from a severe illness or possession— because they showed the most devotion.

This is the moment Mary became the woman revered by the early church as equal to the apostles—and by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as ‘the apostle to the apostles’.

Mary’s story was clearly central to the early church. She is the only person named in the gospels at every step of the Easter story as a witness and a key player. She gets referenced a lot in early church writings and mentioned in non-Christian texts, suggesting early Christians relied heavily on her account.

Radical women

A hundred years later, the anti-Christian Roman writer, Celsus, holds Mary’s story as central to the whole resurrection story—arguing against it with the quip, ‘But who saw this? A hysterical female.’

This dismissive attitude might seem extreme, but it was not: In Jewish courts women were not allowed to be witnesses except in very specific cases, because they were considered over-emotional and unreliable. A Jewish man would not speak with any woman in public who was not his wife. Teaching of the Torah to women was discouraged (one extreme First Century rabbi even stated it should be burnt rather than given to a woman.

And in their daily prayers, Jewish men of the day prayed, ‘Praise be God that he has not created me a woman’.

Even while the New Testament and the early church writings show a bias towards the male dominated culture of the day, they model a much more equal ideal than we often credit them with.

Women receive a relatively high number of mentions in the gospels compared to other contemporary texts. And while the gospels don’t record Jesus giving explicit instructions on the place of women, they time-and-again show Jesus modelling a radical treatment of women.

Jesus regularly breaks taboos around male–female interaction—from meeting alone with a Samaritan, unmarried, adulterous woman, to teaching Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus in the same way as a male disciple. He consistently defends and refuses to rebuke women, speaks personally in public to unnoticed women, refers to women as daughters of Abraham (a term equal to the regular reference of Jews as sons of Abraham), and praises women as great examples of faith. He even tells parables comparing himself and his work to women, and to typically female jobs.

Mary’s legacy

After Jesus, the legacy of Mary and the other women who followed him and paid for his ministry is seen in the many women who patronised the gospel. Modelling Jesus’ command to Mary to ‘go and tell’, there are also women church leaders mentioned in the New Testament, such as the apostle Junia; and evangelists like Phoebe and Priscilla.

There is a risk of overstating their role, but we know there were other women church leaders in the early church beyond the New Testament. In the next 400 years, we get glimpses of them in inscriptions and church records. The numbers are small, but significantly, they are found across the Mediterranean world.

Christianity then remained—at least in its ideals—a religion where all were equal. It therefore appealed to some of the traditionally outcast or looked-downon sections of society.

Celsus again dismissed Christianity by writing: ‘By the fact that Christians admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to convince only the foolish, the dishonourable, and the stupid, only slaves, women, and little children.

Meanwhile, Paul, in his famous societyreversing declaration, writes that, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

The story of Mary ‘the one from Magdala’, the woman on whom so much of the gospel rests, models an important example of the radical, out of this world nature of that message.

Jesus welcomed, spoke with, touched and ate with everyone equally—including society’s outsiders. What mattered (as we see with the Pharisees) was the attitude people received him with.

After Jesus healed her, Mary received him with the dedicated devotion of a disciple, giving of her time and resources, and following him through the toughest moments. She was rewarded by becoming the first person to see the risen Jesus, and to be commissioned by him to ‘go and tell’ the good news we live by.

by Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 7 April 2018, pp6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.