The Truth about Mary Magdalene

From the lecture series: Great Figures of the New Testament

By Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D.,  Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Although famed in Western culture as a repentant prostitute, and sometimes in popular imagination considered Jesus’ lover or even his wife, Mary Magdalene, as she appears in the New Testament, is none of these.

Painting of "Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena" by 	
Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov1835
Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (Image: By Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov/Public domain)

Prior to the cross, Mary Magdalene is found only once in the Gospel narrative: Luke’s notice that she was possessed by seven demons and that she provided support for Jesus. In all four Gospels, she’s either present at or watching Jesus’ Crucifixion, and she is the sole consistent witness to the Resurrection.

Portrait of Mary Magdalene by Piero di Cosimo
Mary of Magdala (Image: By Piero di Cosimo/Public domain)

In order to understand Mary, as she’s come to be known, I think it’s helpful if we begin with the Gospel portrait and try to determine, at least at the beginning, what we can know of this historical woman, Mary of Magdala. We’ve already talked about the meaning of the name Mary in our discussion about the Virgin Mary: the idea that Mary might be associated with Moses’ sister Miriam (a leader of the people) or associated with Herod the Great’s Hasmonean wife, Mariamne. Perhaps like the Virgin Mary, perhaps like Mary of Mary and Martha, Mary of Magdala was also anticipating the return of Jewish rule, a Hasmonean kingdom, or even the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In terms of her second name, Magdalene, or Magdala, we actually do know a little bit. We know from several sources about the location of the city of Magdala. It’s on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Figures of the New Testament. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Skecth of Magdala, Holy Land  between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900
The birthplace of Mary Magdalene, Magdala, Holy Land. Sea of Galilee is seen in the background (Image: By Unknown author/Library of Congress)

Actually, the Sea of Galilee is more like a lake than a sea. It was a major site of the fishing industry, and fish was a major source of protein in antiquity. In Greek, the city is called Tarichaea, meaning “salted fish,” so what we have in Mary’s home city is a place not only where fish are brought in, but where fish are prepared and then sent out to the rest of the Empire.
Interestingly enough, along with Judas Iscariot, Mary is the only follower of Jesus identified by location. Iscariot probably means “of the village of Cariot.” The other followers of Jesus are identified by nicknames or by “son of.” The women followers are usually identified either simply on their own (Luke mentions a woman named Susanna; we know nothing about her otherwise) or by their sons (“the mother of the sons of Zebedee”), or by a husband (Luke mentions Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza), but of course, all these women are not accompanied by their husbands.

Location Identifies Mary Magdalene

Because Mary is identified only by location, scholars have speculated about her social background, her personal history. Was she unmarried—perhaps unmarriageable—because she had been demon possessed? Was she divorced? Was she widowed? We don’t know. Indeed, perhaps she had even abandoned her family, because we see Jesus saying, “You must leave your home and indeed your family, and come follow me.” Since Peter leaves everyone to follow Jesus, perhaps Mary did, as well.
I also wonder if, early on, Mary Magdalene had contact with people like James and John and Peter and Andrew. They’re all located more or less in that same area around the Sea of Galilee. They’ve got connections with fishing. Magdala is about six miles from Capernaum, which is where Peter lived. Perhaps Mary’s contact with Peter could explain how she joined the movement. Indeed, perhaps Mary’s contacts with Peter could explain how he joined the movement. We don’t actually know how Mary Magdalene came to follow Jesus, in terms of the time that she did so. If Mary is connected with Peter and Andrew and James, and John, this makes it unlikely that she’s a pauper or economically distressed. She may well, in fact, have been an independent businesswoman, like Lydia, whom Paul converts in the Book of Acts.

Learn more about the non-canonical Gospel According to Mary

Saint Luke the Evangelist. Russian Eastern Orthodox icon from Russia. 18th century.
Luke the Evangelist is the first to identify Mary Magdalene by name (Image: By Unknown Russian Orthodox painter/Public domain)

Our first meeting of Mary Magdalene is recorded in Luke. This is Luke, chapter 8. Luke introduces several women whom Jesus cured of evil spirits and infirmities, who then followed him, and as Luke puts it, “provided for him,” or more literally, “served him out of their means.” Among them, Luke says, is Mary Magdalene, “from whom seven demons had gone forth.” We do need to be cautious about the nature of Mary Magdalene’s possession, because we don’t actually see it portrayed. By the time we meet her, she has already been cured. First-century culture ascribed a number of different symptoms to demon possession: not simply inappropriate behavior, but blindness, deafness, paralysis, symptoms resembling epilepsy, violence, or even claims of miraculous powers. So although we might think of Mary in that stereotypical Hollywood sense of foaming at the mouth or spitting out pea soup, there’s no reason to assume that.
So we don’t know what Mary’s symptoms were, and we don’t actually know why she was possessed by a demon. We can only speculate. And speculate, of course, the later church did. Possessed by seven demons: “Ah,” said the later church, “these must be the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, gluttony, lust, jealousy, laziness, and anger.”

Possessed by seven demons: “Ah,” said the later church, “these must be the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, gluttony, lust, jealousy, laziness, and anger.”

Regarding the other material in Luke, chapter 8, here’s where the historian can actually dig in a bit more. Luke tells us that the women provided for Jesus, and there’s a variant that says “provided for them,” which would mean Jesus and others who accompanied him, “out of their means.” This is not, contrary to popular opinion, an indication that the women were wealthy. We don’t know how much money they had. It is, however, an indication that they had independent means.

Learn more about the beauty of the cathedral of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay

Mary, the Provider?

Cautiously, we might take this notice one step further. The word for “provided for,” better, “ministered,” is our old friend diakonein, where we get that term deacon. It really means “serve.” It’s the term that was used of Peter’s mother-in-law. It was the term that was enjoined upon James and John. As we know, it does become a technical office in the church, the office of deacon. Was Mary, in effect, a deacon? We don’t know. Unfortunately, neither Luke nor any of the other Gospels records what Mary did following Easter morning. We don’t know her role in the church. Did she hold a church office? Did she evangelize? We have to wait for postcanonical legend to tell us.

Painting of the Crucifixion  by Master of Citta Di Castello, circa 1320
Mary Magdalene (in red) gestures at the cross (Image: By master of Citta Di Castello/Public domain)

The next time we see Mary at all is at the cross. According to the Gospel of Mark, she and the other women “were looking on from afar,” which is more than the disciples were doing, because they had already forsaken Jesus and fled. According to the Gospel of John—and as we see over and over again, John tells a different story than the synoptics—Mary is right at the foot of the cross, along with the mother of Jesus and Mary of Clopas.

Finally, according to all the Gospels, she’s present at the empty tomb. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, she’s accompanied by others. In John, she comes alone. In all four cases, she is among those commissioned to proclaim the good news of the Resurrection. However, the Gospels differ in terms of whether she was successful at this or not.

Learn more about the Knights Templars as guardians for a holy bloodline reaching back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Common Questions About Mary Magdalene

Q: Why do we know of Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is known for many things symbolically in the New Testament. She was allegedly a prostitute who repented at Jesus’ feet, she attended Jesus’ burial, and she heard the first words spoken by him after he rose from the dead.

Q: At what age did Mary Magdalene die?

Very little is known about the specifics of Mary Magdalene’s age. According to some Biblical scholars, she would have been in her early 50’s when she died.

Q: Did Mary Magdalene marry?

According to an ancient manuscript called the “Lost Gospel,” Mary Magdalene married Jesus and they had children together.

Q: How did Mary Magdalene anoint Jesus?

Mary Magdalene used her hair and an expensive perfume called nard to anoint Jesus’ feet.

This article was updated on 11/29/2019

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