Tomorrow, July 22, celebrates Saint Mary Magdalene, a figure who in modern times has become the center of a powerful myth about Christian origins. While this standard mythology can be dismantled quite easily (which it is), finding the truth is a much more difficult project. The story of Mary contains real mysteries that we are far from having solved. And no, I’m not referring to the world of Dan Brown.
The myth of Mary Magdalene
Modern accounts of Mary Magdalene generally tell a grim tale of systematic misconduct by male church authorities, and such stories usually abound around her July feast day. Mary, we are told, was the principal witness of the Resurrection, and must have exercised real authority in the primitive Christian community. Widely circulated alternative gospels have recorded his mystical dialogues with Jesus. Over time, however, she fell from the picture. These “other” gospels were banned and disappeared from sight for centuries. This sounds like a prime example of the silence of women’s voices. If true, this is a powerful argument for modern Christian feminists. If Mary Magdalene herself was such a critical figure in the early Church, even an apostle, how dare a modern institution not recognize the spiritual gifts of women? The Magdalen has become a powerful symbol in the quest for the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Worse, church leaders decided to identify her with other women reported in the gospels, and not for her benefit. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great identified her as the penitent prostitute who humbled herself before Jesus, and this stigma has persisted into modern times. Modern writers see the Western/Papal transformation not as an innocent misinterpretation, but as a cynical attempt by a patriarchal church to smear an embarrassingly powerful woman. It is, for example, a major theme in a current book by Joan Taylor and Helen Bond, Remembrance of Women: Female Disciples of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022), which is based on a popular British TV documentary series. Over the following centuries, Magdalene Homes was concerned with saving women who had fallen into sexual sin. It’s quite a comedown for someone who would have been one of Jesus’ closest companions.
In fact, we may exaggerate the degree of wickedness suggested by this familiar Magdalen myth. The alternative gospels that featured Mary were much later than the canonical accounts—by a century or two—and they relied entirely on these canonical texts for all historical information about the life and times of Jesus. Although we greatly appreciate the stories they tell, they are historically worthless, and these historical concerns fully explain the exclusion of these texts from the canon of the Church. It must also be said that the identification of Reformed prostitute Mary prevailed in the West and not in the East, where she was always venerated simply as Equal to the Apostles, with no trace of a sordid past.
Even with her sordid (Western) history, Mary Magdalene simply has not been erased from church history. She continued to be highly venerated in medieval times and thereafter one of the most beloved popular saints. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge commemorate her with their former and very prestigious Magdalene Colleges. Also in the 15th century, the English translation of the highly influential Golden Legend exalts Mary as the one “to whom Jesus Christ first appeared after his resurrection, and was companion of the apostles, and made [by] Our Lord Apostle of Apostles. It hardly sounds like someone has been written out of history, or even slandered. And yes, over five hundred years ago, the English language had a feminine form of “apostle.”
Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection
But it is the resurrection stories that raise the most doubts about the Magdalen myth. A typical New Testament reader might well think that Mary played a central role in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. According to popular reconstruction, she was part of the small group present at the crucifixion and (depending on which account you read) she either met the resurrected Jesus or was the first to report the event. Later in the New Testament as it appears today, we pass to the many letters of Paul, in which his name never appears. Surely we see evidence of patriarchal cover-up here?
The problem is that the books of the New Testament do not appear in the order in which they were written. You can actually use Mary Magdalene to date the process. Any text that gives a high or special role to Mary – and especially suggesting a privileged role in the apparitions of the Resurrection – is relatively late. If he says almost nothing about her, it’s earlier, and a few decades.
The actual scripting sequence goes like this. Somewhere around 55 AD, Paul wrote about the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection, and he started with Peter (Cephas). Then we have the famous list of creeds in 1 Corinthians 15: “He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. So where is the Madeleine here?
Twenty years later, Brands The gospel ends with an angel speaking to a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, of the resurrection, but the text as it survives today says nothing about the apparitions of Christ, not Mary Magdalene, but not to anyone, man or woman. It’s a long story that I won’t go into here, but I believe that this scene would have originally prefigured the first appearance of the Resurrection, which was that of Peter in Galilee.
Twenty years after Mark, maybe in the 90s, Luke tells a similar story about women reporting what an angel told them about the resurrection, but not witnessing it. Again, Mary is only part of a group. Around this time, however, a new element appeared in the tale, that the group of women went beyond hearing about Jesus, but actually encountered him. This is the story we find in Matthew – although Mary is only one of the two witnesses, with “the other Mary”.
Last in sequence, and not much before 100, John’s the Gospel tells us the story which has become the most famous, and which is the whole basis of the myth of the Magdalen. Peter discovers the tomb empty, but it is Mary Magdalene herself (alone, not just one of a group of women) who is the first to have a personal encounter with the risen Jesus, who has a conversation of bewitching beauty with her. Glad to see him, she reaches out to touch him. No, he said, not until I got on. The story of John’s encounter is touching and memorable, and it’s no wonder it has attracted so many artists throughout the centuries. But as a historical account it is much later than the others and much less likely to reflect the views of the early Christian community.
The first references to Mary receiving a special Resurrection apparition were written about seventy years after the supposed event. If you had asked a Christian before the 70s (for example) about the resurrection, Mary Magdalene would not have figured anywhere in the story.
Mary Magdalene herself makes no appearance in the New Testament outside of the four canonical gospels, and she is rarely mentioned by the very early group of writers we call the Apostolic Fathers. Only in the third century pseudo-gospels does she become the spiritual superstar who receives special revelations from Jesus.
So we put everything together carefully. The early church spoke of a resurrection appearance to Peter and then to the whole body of disciples. Although there may have been early tales of faithful women, this element became much more important over time, until a heroine eventually took center stage as a witness. key to the resurrection, and that was Mary Magdalene. This whole myth-making process took about seventy years.
What’s wrong with this picture?
But wait a moment…
It is easy to imagine an institution reinventing its origins to hide annoying elements. But has any religion ever deliberately gone out of its way to make its debut? less rather than more plausible?
Over time, the church’s developing literature increasingly relied on women as key witnesses to a deeply improbable event. Of course, women’s testimony carried little weight in the courts of the time. Worse still, the central figure is Mary Magdalene, and as Luke tells us, seven demons had been cast out of her. In modern parlance, this language suggests a mental disorder or personality disorder.
Anti-Christian critics have had fun with this idea. Around 180, the pagan writer Celsus scoffed at any claim of Christ’s resurrection that relied on a “hysterical woman” or a madwoman (parish gyne). Or she was creating a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a dead boyfriend – maybe her pimp? – or she made up silly stories to impress the wrecks and the street people she wandered around with. Would any clever Christian author really have invented a legend of Mary Magdalene, if he had any hope of preaching Jesus’ claims to a wider world?
So where are we? It is entirely conceivable that the early church as an institution may have known of the early stories of the Magdalene’s role as a witness to the resurrection and suppressed them out of embarrassment at her past and her claims to to be a plausible witness. It’s possible, but wildly unlikely.
Instead, we must remember that virtually everything we hear about the special relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene comes from a scene from a gospel and must be understood as the literary creation of this brilliant author: call him Jeans. Perhaps the author of the Gospel of John found the scene of the Resurrection meeting so wonderful that he could not resist writing it down, even though he had to bury the other elements that ‘he had to know, including the seven demons of Mary. Sometimes an artist just has to create, and the consequences don’t matter. Over the centuries, this distant story has become the standard popular view of the Resurrection.
And this author’s creation is the foundation of what has become a whole alternative myth-history of early Christianity.