Mary Magdalene: Her Life, Significance and Relationship with Jesus

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Mary Magdalene by Correggio
Mary Magdalene stands out as the one individual who loved Jesus deeply while he was alive, supported him, stood with him to the end and was embarrassed to express her love for him. She became one of Jesus's most devout followers after hearing him speak. She traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was present at the two most important moments in the story of Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Some think Mary Magdalene may have been a close adviser of Jesus with perhaps the same status as an apostle. The word maudlin is derived from her reputation as teary-eyed penitent. He name comes from the village of Magdala on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine,“The New Testament often lists her first among the women who followed and “provided for” Jesus. When the other disciples flee Christ on the cross, Magdalene stays by his side. She is at his burial and, in the Gospel of John, is the first person Jesus appears to after rising from the tomb. Thus she is the first to proclaim the “good news” of his resurrection—a role that later earns her the title “apostle to the apostles.”“[Source: Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012]

According to the BBC: Mary Magdalene's story is intimately linked with Jesus. She plays a starring role in one of the most powerful and important scenes in the Gospels. When Jesus is crucified by the Romans, Mary Magdalene was there supporting him in his final terrifying moments and mourning his death. She also discovers the empty tomb, and she's a witness to the resurrection. She was there at the beginning of a movement that was going to transform the West. [Source: July 20, 2011BBC |::|]

Websites and Resources: Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints: ; Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library;

Mary Magdalene and the Gospels

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Mary Magdalene at the
Crucifixion by Signorelli
In the New Testament Mary Magdalene is mentioned 14 times but is not a major figure while Jesus is alive. Her importance is based on the fact that when Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene was the first person he appeared to and the fact he told her to tell the others which effectively made here “the apostle to the apostles.”

The Bible says that Mary Magdalene was present at the two most important moments in the story of Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Mary Magdalene was a prominent figure at both these events. We're told that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who kept vigil at Jesus' tomb. It was customary at this time for Jewish women to prepare bodies for burial. Corpses were considered unclean, and so it was always a woman's task to handle them. [Source: Susan Haskins and Belinda Sykes, July 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

Luke and Mark described Mary Magdalene as the subject of one of Jesus’s exorcisms — seven devils are cast from her — and one of several women who followed him. She is also assumed to be unnamed “sinner” in Luke who bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears dries them with her hair and, kisses them and anoints them. “Her many sins have been forgiven, for she loved much,” Jesus says.

In Matthew’s telling of the same story, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at a table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant, “Why this waste?” They said. “This could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Jesus noticed this. “Why are you upsetting this woman?” he said to them...”When she poured the ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you solemnly, whoever in all this world this Good News is proclaimed what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.”

Mary Magdalene as a Character

Andrew Todhunter wrote in National Geographic: “Mary Magdalene epitomizes the mystical saint, closely associated with grace and divine intercession. Other saints, including Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, play a similar role among Catholics, but none has exerted a stronger pull on the imagination, or created more controversy, than Mary Magdalene. Once maligned as a reformed courtesan, venerated today by millions worldwide, she was a significant presence in Christ's inner circle. [Source: Andrew Todhunter, National Geographic, March 2012]

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Mary Magdalene is certainly one of the characters who crops up a lot in the gospels and then is very much discussed in Christian literature the fourth and fifth century particularly. It's interesting to see what happens with her character. We know practically nothing about her, but quite early on she gets conflated with the sinful woman who is said to come in to a dinner party where Jesus is being entertained at the home of a Jewish leader and who washes Jesus' feet and dries the feet with her hair and she is called a sinner. Now it doesn't say what kind of sinner she is, but this story gets conflated with the Mary Magdalene story. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Mary Magdalene's probably a good example of a character who appears a number of times in the biblical text itself who then gets raised up and developed and elaborated upon. This is probably fairly typical of what happens to a lot of characters. Their lives get embroidered upon in ways that we wouldn't really know from the biblical text itself. So Mary Magdalene is thought of as this sinner who repents. This gets elaborated into repentent prostitute particularly when Christianity takes a very ascetic turn in the fourth and fifth centuries; to repent from being a prostitute would certainly be a very wonderful thing for a woman to do if she were a Christian....

Mary of Magdala’s Life

Mary Magdalene by Titian

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: If European artists are to be believed, Mary Magdalene was a beautiful young white woman, with long flowing hair, a sensual attitude, and an odd inability to keep both breasts covered by her dress at the same time. There are a number of things wrong with these portraits (most notably that she is unlikely to have had the kind of alabaster colored skin reminiscent of anaemia), but for now let’s focus on her age. We don’t know anything about Mary’s age, profession, or appearance. The only reason she is depicted in Christian artwork as an attractive young woman is because she has been erroneously associated with sex work. For all we know, Mary was a middle-aged widow. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 14, 2018]

If the iconoclastic rumor is that Jesus and Mary were married, the pious myth is that Mary was a prostitute. The identification of Mary Magdalene with the penitent woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and dries them with her hair is cemented in Sunday school tradition, but it isn’t in the Bible. The misidentification of the two figures was cemented in Christian tradition by Pope Gregory the Great in a homily he delivered in Rome in September 591. Though he was not the first to impugn Mary Magdalene’s reputation, the confusion of several stories from the New Testament has led to lasting impression that Mary of Magdalene was a former prostitute.

What the Bible does tell us about Mary is that she was comparatively wealthy. Along with Joanna, Suzanna, and other women she traveled with Jesus. And it is these women who are specifically mentioned as having “provided for” the group out of their financial resources. In ancient terms, therefore, Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ patrons. Where did her money come from? We aren’t entirely sure, but Magdala was a fishing town so it is possible that she owned some kind of fishing business. The fact that she did support Jesus financially adds further weight to the argument that she wasn’t a prostitute; as classicist Kyle Harper has written, your average prostitute earned about the price of a loaf of bread per customer. A prostitute would not have been in a position to sponsor a messiah. All of this makes Mary’s fate that much more tragic. Imagine devoting your time and money to supporting a fledgling religious movement only to have history remember you as one of its greatest whores?

Mary Magdalene’s Exorcism of Seven Demons

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary: “and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; . (Luke 8:2): [Source: Bible Gateway]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The one clear biographical detail provided about to us about Mary Magdalene is that she was once possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2). This might seem like a straightforward spiritual flaw, but demonic possession in the ancient world was more ambiguous than it is today. Women, by virtue of the heightened porosity of their body, were considered more susceptible to demonic possession than men. For the ancient Greeks, this is one of the things that made women such excellent prophets. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 14, 2018]

Some modern interpreters want to diagnose Mary with mental illness, often with the commendable goal of providing comfort to those who struggle with mental illness today. But it is worth recognizing that, to an ancient reader, her condition, while negative, was suggestive of heightened supernatural receptivity and sensitivity. After all, in the Gospel of Mark it’s those who were possessed with demons that could recognize who Jesus was.

According to the BBC: “Jesus was known as an exorcist. In all of the gospels, one of the principal things he is doing in his campaign for a renewal of Israel is exorcism. The exorcisms and healings probably go together with the teaching and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand. At that time, people believed that the demons possessed people who had done something wrong, and deserved to be possessed, whereas good, virtuous people were protected from demon possession. “Whatever the cause of her possession, Mary's exorcism is the catalyst which makes her sign up with the Jesus movement. The message that Jesus is said to have preached seems to have particular appeal for people who are in the margins of society. Luke chapter 8, tells us that Mary was one of Jesus' followers and travelled with him. |[Source: Susan Haskins and Belinda Sykes, July 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

Mary Magdalene and the Resurrection

Mary Magdalene, according to Matthew, was the first to see that Jesus’s tomb was empty and the first to see his resurrected body. After Jesus died, she and other women refused to leave Jesus’s tomb and remained there long after the men had left. On the third after his death she returned to the tomb (either by herself or with some other women depending on the Gospel account) ready to embalm the body with spices. Even though Jesus said while he was alive that he would resurrected his disciples clearly did not believe him. In Luke and Mark, Magdalene and other women try to alert the men but “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb by Fra Angelico

According to Matthew 28: 1-6: "After the Sabbath, and towards dawn of the first day of the week, Mary of Magdalene and the other Mary went to visit the sepulcher. And suddenly there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it...The angel said to the women, “There is no need for you to be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus...He is not here, for he has risen.”"

Andrew Todhunter wrote in National Geographic: “The significance of this moment in the New Testament when she first witnessed the risen Christ has been debated for centuries. In the Gospel of John, three days after Christ's burial Mary Magdalene went first to the sepulchre, "while it was still dark," and found that the stone covering it had been moved. She ran to find the disciples, who returned with her and saw that the tomb was empty. "Then the disciples went away again to their own homes," reads the scripture. "But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." She stayed, as she had remained at the foot of the cross. When she peered again into the sepulchre, she saw two angels where the body of Christ had rested. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they asked her. "Because they have taken away my Lord," she said, "and I do not know where they have laid him." And then, the Gospel says, the risen Christ appeared to her. [Source: Andrew Todhunter, National Geographic, March 2012]

Jesus' resurrection was the turning point for Christianity. This was when it changed from a small movement to a whole new religion. And Mary Magdalene was a key figure in this event. You might think, then, that at the very least Mary would be recognised as an apostle - one of the early missionaries who founded the religion - as she seems to meet all the criteria set out in the Bible. |::|

Mary Magdalene at Jesus's Tomb

According to the BBC: “When Mary goes to the tomb, Jesus' body is no longer there. The fullest account of Mary's role after discovering the empty tomb is in the Gospel of John. She is in a state of shock and runs to where the disciples are gathered to tell them the news. She tells Peter and an unmamed disciple. Only the latter seem to comprehended the significance of the find and then they leave.

“When they enter, Peter reacts to the sight of the discarded linen burial cloth with anger and dismay. But the other disciple understands what has happened and concludes that Jesus must have risen from the dead. The two of them leave without a backward glance at Mary. Then, something even more extraordinary happens. It is Mary Magdalene's biggest moment. Mary is alone.

According to John, while Mary Magdalene was weeping and looking for the body of Jesus in a garden near the tomb, Jesus said to her, “Why are you weeping?” She looked at him and mistook him for a gardener, and said, “Sir, if you have taken him away tell me where have put him.” Jesus then said, “Mary,” and suddenly she realized she was talking to the risen Lord. She was overwhelmed and said "Master!" and went forward to reach out to him and touch him but Jesus told her not to. He said he had not yet ascended to heaven and to tell the disciples that he was going to the Father.”

We cannot say if Jesus really stood before her resurrected, or if Mary simply believed she had seen him. But either way, in this one moment, Mary's experience took the movement in an important new direction. A new concept developed, which had nothing to with what Jesus himself was preaching, and this is the concept that Jesus didn't die - or he did but he was raised from the dead. The movement is not a failure. It is in fact a great success. The person who declares this is Mary Magdalene. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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