Bad Women; Good Stories: Mary of Magdala

February 2, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Feb. 2, 2014

Bad Women; Good Stories: Mary of Magdala”



I imagine

How you must have loved Mary Magdalene,

who was beautiful,

and smelled of flowers.

When you put your arms round her,

her surrender

was as great

as a divine love

Ernst Eggimann


Although Mary of Magdala is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches, the layers of what has been attributed to her over the millennium include:

  • Harlot                                          * Jesus’ wife
  • Prostitute                                   * One of the disciples and a patron of

Jesus’ ministry

  • Sinner                                          * Leader
  • Demon possessed                    * 1st century church leader & missionary
  • Secret Lover                              * Gospel writer

Much has been written about her.  Scholars divide the Magdalene profile into historical eras.  The Biblical Mary of Magdala is drastically different than the Mary of later centuries.  So, let’s start with what we know about her from the Bible:

  1.  All 4 gospels name her as a follower of Jesus.  This gives credibility to her as an historical person.  In fact, she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the disciples.
  2. Mary was a common name and it is not always clear which Mary is being referenced in the Biblical story.
  3. Our Mary was present at two of the most important moments in the Biblical story: the crucifixion and the resurrection.  In fact, the gospel versions vary as to which women stood by the cross and went to the tomb, but all agree that Mary Magdalene was there.
  4. All four gospels mention her name first when they speak of a group of women.  We can glean from that that she played a leading role and had an integral part, including her financial gifts to sustain the ministry.
  5. The risen Jesus appeared to her and gave her the task of reporting his appearance to the group of disciples.


Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza explains it in this manner:  “Just as in the beginning of the Gospel Mark presents four leading male disciples who hear Jesus’ call to discipleship, so at the end the (gospel writer) presents four leading women disciples and mentions them by name.  The four women disciples – Mary of Magdala, Mary, the daughter or wife of James, the mother of Joses, and Salome – are preeminent among the women disciples who have followed Jesus… though the twelve men have forsaken Jesus, betrayed and denied him, the women disciples, by contrast, are found under the cross, risking their own lives and safety.”


Because her name was common, other Mary stories in the Bible have been attributed to her, although the stories simply report that a woman named Mary was involved.  We cannot know if this was the one and the same Mary.  For example, Luke 7 tells the story of a well-known prostitute who bursts into tears at Jesus’ feet and then anoints them.  There are other gospel stories about a woman anointing Jesus that have been bundled with this one.  And so, for many centuries, the titillating, moving, and dangerous stories were combined: Mary Magdalene, the friend of Jesus, who had been a prostitute, and the sister of Martha, was a repentant sinner who anointed Jesus.


So, the New Testament presents Mary Magdalene as a respectable woman of some means and a leader among the disciples, but later Christian imagination merged her with other New Testament women named Mary, and she became scandalous.


And then, there is a pile of historical and artistic layers heaped onto this interesting woman.  In the fourth century, for example, Pope Gregory I delivered a famous series of sermons on Mary Magdalene, combining all the stories of Marys – portraying Magdalene as the anonymous sinner with the perfume in Luke, and the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and then added his own twist – that the seven demons removed by Jesus were representative of the seven deadly sins!  Now Mary of Magdala was sin personified.  We do this today-polarize people (especially politicians) by attributing more to them layers of good or bad.


One could ask why Peter was not given this same persona based on his denial of Jesus.  Why didn’t Peter become the example for Christendom as an example of the denial of Christ?  And why didn’t Zacchaeus become known as the persona for corruption?


Later, legends of Mary spoke of her living as a hermit in a cave for thirty years, communicating with and being fed by the angels.


In the Middle Ages, Mary became the patron saint of the cosmetic industry.  Even fashionable accessories like handbags, combs and gloves, and jewelry were part of the Magdalene persona.


In the 13th century, stained-glass windows of French cathedrals depict Mary Magdalene as a preacher.  In the 16th century, Mary is shown baptizing another.  But her brief depiction as a church leader and priest ended with the Reformation.


For me, the most intriguing stories of Mary come from the Gnostic Gospels.  These are other non-canonical writings discovered since the 18th centuries.  Karen King, a member of the Jesus Seminar, wrote a book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, and tells of the discovery of some of the Gnostic books:  “Notable among them was a find of enormous significance near the village of Nag Hammadi in middle Egypt.  In 1945, a peasant serendipitously uncovered a clay jar containing fourth century papyrus books, including several which develop the early portrait of Mary as a prominent disciple of Jesus.”


In these other gospels, Mary is portrayed as a spiritual companion of Jesus, the only follower who truly understood the mysteries and profundities of the faith, which she interpreted for the male disciples.  In the Gospel of Philip (written in the 3rd -4th century), Mary was venerated as the companion of Jesus, the one whom Jesus “love more than all the disciples, and he used to kiss her on her ___________.”  It is at this point that the text is unclear and no one knows for certain where Jesus kissed her!  In the Gospel of Philip, Mary is presented as a metaphor for spiritual illumination.


You may not know that there is an ancient gospel called the Gospel of Mary!  It was written in the 2nd century, but disappeared for over fifteen hundred years until a fragment copy was discovered in the late 19th century.  Now, we have two additional fragments.  But fewer than 9 pages of the ancient papyrus text survive.  That means that about half of the Gospel of Mary is lost to us.


In this gospel:

  • Jesus’ teachings are identified as a path to inner spiritual knowledge.
  • His suffering and death are rejected as a path to eternal life.
  • Mary Magdalene’s past as a prostitute is refuted.
  • Women’s leadership is legitimized.

In fact, in the Gospel of Mary, “salvation is achieved  by discovering within oneself he true spiritual nature of humanity and overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions of the world.”   (Karen King)


All of these works contain extensive dialogues between Jesus and his disciples, and Mary is an active and vocal participant, according to Karen King.  The disciple Peter (you remember him – he is the rock upon which Jesus said he would build the church), is portrayed in the Pistis Sophia as a zealous rival to Mary Magdalene.  He whines to Jesus, “My Lord, we cannot bear this woman any longer.  She deprives us of any opportunity to say anything.  She keeps on talking.’  And in the Gospel of Mary, Peter says, “Would the Redeemer, then, have spoken secretly with a woman without letting us know?  Should we perhaps repent and all listen to her?”


And from Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:  “According to the experiences of the early church, she is actually superior to men.  She cheers up the helpless disciples, who do not know how they are to go about their work.  Scenes of this kind can be found in painting of the 11th and 12th centuries: a crowd of ignorant disciples, at their wits’ end, are on one occasion provided with a speech bubble: ‘Tell us, Mary, what you saw on the way.’  They are faced with a clearly superior Mary Magdalene who proclaims to them: ‘I have seen the Lord.’”


It is obvious in the Gospel of John and the Gnostic gospels that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a particularly intimate relationship.  In their conversations, as recorded in these gospels, there seems to be a delight, a happiness, and even an eroticism which transcend the teacher-pupil relationship.  Particularly since Dan Brown’s provocative book The DaVinci Code, Mary Magdalene’s sexual relationship to Jesus has been rehashed (and not for the first time in history).


Martin Luther seems to assume that there was a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary.  Luther said that she loved him “warmly and passionately” and that she had a “hot and burning heart” towards him.  But Luther works diligently to show that their love was not simply an earthly thing, but a spiritual bond.  But we do not do Mary Magdalene justice if we associate her only with great love and passion, or with prostitution.  By doing this, she becomes one-dimensional.


I think we can learn from her passion and her sensuality, because those appear to be part of her persona.  But we must also realize that the historical Mary of Magdala was a prominent Jewish follower of Jesus, a visionary, and a leading apostle.  The calling of Mary Magdalene is the calling of us all.  As Joyce Hollyday wrote, “She is all of us at our passionate best, when we refuse to live in the broken present and dare to dream of a future full of promise.  We commune in intimacy with Jesus, as Mary Magdalene did, when we accept the gift of abundant life and live as joyful witnesses to the resurrection.”




Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, “In Memory of Her”.  Crossroad Publishing, 1983.


Hollyday, Joyce.  “Clothed with the Sun; Biblical Women Social Justice & Us”.  Westminster Press, 1994.


King, Karen.  “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala; Jesus and the first Woman Apostle”.   Polebridge Press, 2003.


Moltmann-Wendel, Elisabeth.  “The Women Around Jesus.”  Crossroad Publishing, 1988.


Smith, Dennis E. & Williams, Michael E., editors.  “The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible”.  Abingdon Press, 1999.