Tomorrow, July 22, celebrates St. Mary Magdalene, a figure who in modern times has become the center of a powerful myth about Christian origins. If that standard mythology can be dismantled pretty easily (which it can), finding the truth is a much tougher project. Mary’s story contains some real mysteries that we are a long way from solving. And no, I’m not referring to the world of Dan Brown.
The Myth of Mary Magdalene
Modern accounts of Mary Magdalene usually tell a sinister story of systematic misconduct by male church authorities, and such stories usually abound around her July feast day. Mary, we are told, was the primary witness of the Resurrection, and must have exercised real authority in the early Christian community. Widely circulated alternative gospels recorded her mystical dialogues with Jesus. Over time, though, she dropped from the picture. Those “Other” gospels were banned, and vanished from sight for centuries. This looks like a prime example of the silencing of women’s voices. If true, this is a powerful argument for modern-day Christian feminists. If Mary Magdalene herself was such a critical figure in the early church, even an apostle, how dare any modern institution fail to recognize women’s spiritual gifts? The Magdalene has become a powerful symbol in the quest for women’s ordination to priesthood.
Worse, church leaders decided to identify her with other women reported in the gospels, and not to her advantage. By the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great identified her as the penitent prostitute who humbled herself before Jesus, and this stigma has lingered until modern times. Modern writers see the Western/Papal transformation not as an innocent error of interpretation, but as a cynical attempt by a patriarchal church to smear an embarrassingly powerful woman. This is for instance a major theme in a current book by Joan Taylor and Helen Bond, Women Remembered: Jesus’ Female Disciples (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022), which builds on a popular British TV documentary series. In later centuries, Magdalene Homes catered to saving women fallen into sexual sin. That’s quite a comedown for someone who was allegedly one of Jesus’s closest companions.
Actually, we can exaggerate the degree of malice suggested by that familiar Magdalene myth. The alternative gospels that starred Mary were much later than the canonical accounts — by a century or two — and they relied on those canonical texts entirely for any historical information about Jesus’s life and times. However much we may enjoy the stories they tell, they are historically worthless, and those historical concerns fully account for these texts’ exclusion from the church’s canon. It should also be said that the Mary-as-reformed prostitute identification prevailed in the West not the East, where she has always been venerated simply as Equal to the Apostles, with no trace of a sordid past.
Even with her sketchy (Western) back-story, Mary Magdalene simply was not airbrushed out of the church’s history. She continued to be highly venerated in medieval times and afterwards, one of the most beloved popular saints. Both Oxford and Cambridge universities commemorate her with their ancient and very prestigious (and rich!) Magdalene Colleges. Still in the fifteenth century, the English translation of the vastly influential Golden Legend exalts Mary as she “to whom Jesus Christ appeared first after his resurrection, and was fellow to the apostles, and made [by] our Lord apostolesse of the apostles.” That hardly sounds like someone being written out of history, or indeed 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 most doubts about the Magdalene Myth. A typical reader of the New Testament may well think that Mary was pivotal to the story of Jesus’s death and Resurrection. According to the popular reconstruction, she was one of the small band present at the crucifixion, and (depending on which account you read) she either met the risen Jesus, or was the first to report the event. Later on in the New Testament as it appears today, we move to Paul’s extensive letters, in which her name never features. Surely here we see evidence of the patriarchal cover-up?
The problem is that the New Testament books 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 above all suggesting any privileged role in Resurrection appearances – is relatively late. If it says next to nothing about her, it’s earlier, and by some decades.
The true sequence of writings goes like this. Somewhere around 55 AD, Paul wrote about Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances, and he began with Peter (Cephas). We then have the famous credal list in 1 Corinthians 15: “he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” So where is the Magdalene here?
Twenty years after that, Mark’s gospel ends with an angel telling a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, about the Resurrection, but the text as it survives today says nothing about appearances by Christ, not to Mary Magdalene, but nor to anyone, male or female. It’s a long story that I won’t go into here, but I believe that scene would originally have foreshadowed the actual first Resurrection appearance, which was to Peter in Galilee.
Twenty years after Mark, perhaps in the 90s, Luke tells a similar story about the women reporting what an angel told them about the Resurrection, but not witnessing it. Again, Mary is just one of a group. About this time, though, a new element emerged in the tale, namely that the group of women went beyond hearing about Jesus, but actually met him. This is the story we find in Matthew — although Mary is only one of a pair of witnesses, with “the other Mary.”
Last in the sequence, and not much before 100, John’s gospel tells us the story that has become most famous, and which is the whole basis of the Magdalene Myth. Peter discovers the empty tomb, but it is Mary Magdalene herself (solo, not just one of a group of women) who is the first to have a personal meeting with the risen Jesus, who has a hauntingly beautiful conversation with her. Overjoyed to see Him, she reaches to touch Him. No, He says, not until I have ascended. John’s tale of the encounter is touching and memorable, and it is not surprising that it has attracted so many artists through the centuries. But as a historical account, it is much later than the others, and much less likely to reflect the views of the earliest Christian community.
The first references to Mary receiving a special Resurrection appearance were written seventy years or so after the supposed event. If you had asked a Christian before the 70s (say) about the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene would have featured nowhere in the story.
Mary Magdalene herself makes no appearances in the New Testament outside the four canonical gospels, and she is rarely mentioned by the group of very early writers we call the Apostolic Fathers. Only in the third century pseudo-gospels does she become the spiritual superstar who receives Jesus’s special revelations.
So we have everything neatly tied up. The early church told of a Resurrection appearance to Peter and then the whole body of disciples. Although there might have been early tales concerning the faithful women, this element became much more prominent over time, until eventually one heroine took center stage as key witness to resurrection, and that was Mary Magdalene. That whole process of myth-making took about seventy years.
What is Wrong With This Picture?
But wait a moment…
We can easily imagine an institution reinventing its origins to cover up embarrassing elements. But has any religion ever deliberately gone out of its way to make its beginnings less rather than more plausible?
Over time, the church’s developing literature placed ever-greater reliance on women as key witnesses for a profoundly improbable event. Of course, women’s testimony carried little weight in the courts of the time. Even worse, the central figure is Mary Magdalene, and as Luke tells us, seven demons had been cast out of her. In modern parlance, that language suggests mental disturbance or personality disorder.
Anti-Christian critics had a merry time with this idea. Around 180, the pagan writer Celsus mocked any claims of Christ’s Resurrection that relied on a “hysterical woman,” or crazy lady (gyne paroistros). Either she was creating a wish-fulfillment fantasy about a dead boyfriend — perhaps her pimp? — or else she was inventing silly stories to impress the derelicts and street people she wandered around with. Would an intelligent Christian author really have invented a legend of Mary Magdalene, if he or she had any hope of preaching Jesus’s claims to a wider world?
So where does that leave us? Just conceivably, the early church as an institution might have known early stories about the Magdalene’s role as a Resurrection witness, and suppressed them out of embarrassment at her past, and her claims to be a plausible witness. It’s possible, but wildly unlikely.
Instead, we have to remember that virtually everything we hear about the special relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene comes from one scene in one gospel, and should be understood as the literary creation of that one brilliant author: call him John. Perhaps the author of John’s Gospel just found the Resurrection meeting scene so wonderful that he could not resist writing it, even if he had to bury the other material he must have known, including Mary’s seven demons. Sometimes, an artist just has to create, and never mind the consequences. Over many centuries, that outlying story became the standard popular vision of the Resurrection.
And that author’s creation is the foundation of what has become a whole alternative myth-history of early Christianity.