Patronage: contemplative life; contemplatives; glove makers; hairdressers; penitent sinners; penitent women; people ridiculed for their piety; perfumers; reformed prostitutes; against sexual temptation; sinners; tanners
Also known as: Mary Magdalene, the Penitent, Apostle to the Apostles
Little is known of the life of Mary Magdalen beyond the brief mention in the Gospels of her role in the Crucifixion and its aftermath. “Magdalen” refers to the city of Magdala near Tiberius on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, presumably Mary’s home. Latin Church tradition merged the stories of Mary Magdalen with those of the woman sinner who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and the accounts of Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, turning “Mary Magdalen” into the epitome of the penitent sinner who renounced sin for a life in Christ, thereby becoming the symbol of hope for all sinners. Eastern tradition and St. Ambrose of Milan taught that these three women were not the same person at all, and there is no Gospel evidence that they were. Although the depictions of Mary Magdalen as a saint encompass these three personalities in one, the Church officially adopted the Eastern position in 1969.
All four Gospels mention Mary Magdalen. The first three Matthew, Mark and Luke tell nearly the same story. In fact, the accounts in these three Gospels (called the Synoptics after the Greek synopikos, meaning “from the same point of view”) are so similar that scholars believe the oldest of them, Mark, tells the story of Mary Magdalen as it was passed down orally to the earliest Christians and then repeated in Matthew and Luke. In all three, Mary Magdalen is one of Jesus’ women followers who observes the Crucifixion from afar and who watches Joseph of Arimathea place the body in the tomb.
On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalen and one or more of the other women come to the sepulchre to anoint the body, but instead are met by an angel (two in Luke) who reveals that Christ has risen and that they must run and tell the disciples the good news. In both Mark and Luke the disciples do not believe Mary Magdalen (Mark 15:40–41, 16:1–11; Matthew 27:55–56, 28:1–8; Luke 23:49, 24:1–12). Both Mark and Luke identify Mary Magdalen as one from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:1–3). Luke also describes Mary Magdalen as one of the women who supported Jesus. The account in John differs in several respects. Instead of placing the women away from the Crucifixion, John states that Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister Mary and Mary Magdalen stood by the cross (19:25). On Sunday, Mary Magdalen went alone to the tomb and, finding the stone rolled away and the body gone, ran for Peter and another disciple (probably John) to report this distressing news. The men returned with her and saw the burial linen left inside, but then returned home (20:1–10). Mary Magdalen, however, remained behind, weeping, eventually seeing two angels in white sitting in the tomb.
When they asked why she wept, she replied that someone had taken her Lord’s body, and she did not know where. Turning around, she saw another man who asked her why she wept. Thinking he might be a gardener, Mary Magdalen asked if he knew where the body had been laid so she could take it. The man said only one word, Mary, then she knew she was in her Lord’s presence and replied, Rabboni (which means “teacher” in Hebrew). Jesus asked her not to embrace him, for he had not yet ascended to the Father, but to tell the disciples what she had seen. She told them she had seen the Lord, and no mention is made of any disbelief on their part (20:11–18). So although the three earlier Gospels report that Mary Magdalen learned of the Resurrection along with other women, John is the only one to assert that Mary Magdalen was the first to see the risen Christ and tell of the miracle the great gift that distinguished her as the “apostle to the apostles” (apostola apostolorum).
It is in this guise that Mary Magdalen is portrayed in the Gnostic manuscript The Gospel of Mary, discovered in an Egyptian archaeological dig and published at the end of the 19th century. Mary Magdalen also appears in another Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, owned by the British Museum and published about the same time. Her position as the imparter of gnosis the secret knowledge of redemption to those capable of salvation also appears in the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas. She was called “Mariam, the woman who knew the All,” the “inheritor of the Light,” the bringer of Sophia or the Wisdom of God, the chief disciple, witness and herald of the New Life. In the Gospel of Mary, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and exhorts them to evangelize throughout the world.
But the disciples fear for their lives and do not see how they can follow the Lord’s command. Mary Magdalen then becomes the leader, consoling the disciples and assuring them that the Lord is with them, making them “men.” Peter acknowledges that Jesus loved Mary Magdalen more than the other women and begs to hear whatever wisdom he imparted to her alone. She tells of a vision in which Christ deems her blessed because she did not waver at the sight of him at the tomb. By stressing perception by the mind, Mary Magdalen represented the Gnostic ideal of individual experienceinner vision which the established Church considered threatening and heretical.
Peter, who had asked for her wisdom, refuses to believe her and cannot accept that Jesus would have given his knowledge to a woman rather than to the male disciples. Matthew reproves him, noting that the Savior found her worthy and loved her more than the others man or woman. In the Gospel of Philip Mary Magdalen is described as one of the “three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother, her sister and Magdalen . . . his companion.” The Greek word for “companion,” koinonos, translates more accurately as “partner” or “consort,” a woman with whom a man has had sexual intercourse. In the same text the disciples complain jealously because Christ often kisses Mary Magdalen on the mouth, and they resent her special relationship to him. Unfortunately there is no way to prove either whether Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalen or whether the text’s author relied on erotic imagery to vividly explain the love of Christ and the Church.
There is no supporting evidence for Mary’s favored position in the New Testament. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Mary Magdalen’s role as the “apostle to the apostles” had changed into her more popular persona as the penitent whore. Although no Gospel identifies the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:37–39), dried them with her long hair and then anointed them with nard (a very expensive ointment from the Himalayas) as Mary Magdalen, the faithful associated the two. According to some Church authorities she might be the adulterous woman about to be stoned (John 8:3–11) or the Samaritan woman at the well who was living with a man not her husband (John 4:7–26). If Jesus had cast out seven demons from her she could certainly be a sinner although demonically inspired sin in the New Testament was not necessarily equated with carnality. Mary Magdalen might also be Mary of Bethany, another Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet.
Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) officially declared Mary Magdalen, Mary of Bethany and the unnamed sinner one and the same in the sixth century. From the “herald of the New Life” Mary had become the redeemed prostitute, a model of repentance, the embodiment of Eve and the evils of female, predatory sexuality. In an age and Church environment where celibacy and abstention were celebrated, her rejection of fornication served as encouragement for all sinners to return to God. According to St. Gregory of Tours, after Christ’s death and Ascension Mary Magdalen accompanied Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John to Ephesus. Christ had reportedly commended Mary Magdalen to John’s keeping; some accounts even say that Mary and John were affianced before John answered Jesus’ call.
She allegedly died a martyr there, and St. Willibald saw her tomb in the eighth century. Her relics were transferred to Constantinople in 896. Another tradition says that the Jews put Mary Magdalen, her sister St. Martha and brother St. Lazarus, her maid, SS. Maximin and Sidonius, and the body of St. Anne into a boat without sails or oars and set it adrift. After many days the ship landed at Marseilles, where the holy passengers converted all of Provence. No longer able to cope with life, Mary Magdalen retired to the desert and lived in a cave known as Sainte-Baume for 30 years. Eschewing clothing and food, she covered herself with only her long hair and subsisted on the Eucharist, administered by angels.
When she was near death, at age 72, the angels transported her to the Church of St. Maximinus at Aix, thereafter known as St. Maximin, where she received the last rites. Her relics were supposedly moved to Vézelay in 745 to escape the Saracens, then moved back to La Sainte- Baume. Mary Magdalen’s head supposedly lies in the grotto of the restored church. England converted to Christianity under the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory the Great, and there were many churches and convents dedicated to Mary “Mawdleyn” in that country. Mary’s common depiction in art as weeping or red-eyed from crying along with the Old English spelling and pronunciation led to the word “maudlin,” meaning “effusively or tearfully sentimental.” Both Magdalen College at Oxford and Magdalene College at Cambridge are pronounced “maudlin.”