One of the most maligned women in the Bible is actually a very interesting example of someone who dramatically overcame her past and pioneered a new direction for others to follow as she followed Jesus. I am talking about Mary of Magdala — Mary from a little town not far from Capernaum called Magdala, the Magdalene.
I approve of the new interpretation of Mary Magdalene seen in the picture on the left. I am happy for her to get reformed from all the nonsense that has been pasted on her over the years. Long about the 600s, the church in Europe went into a new phase of reinterpreting the Bible and women got a raw deal. This can especially be seen in the way two most famous Marys in the New Testament were developed. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene end up on the opposite ends of the stereotype of women: Mary as an untouchable, perpetually virgin saint and Mary Magdalene as the all-too-touched, perpetually repentant sinner. Instead of the saved people Jesus and Paul so obviously saw women to be, they end up stereotyped and back in oppression. I find that painful.
Mary Magdalene even ends up with a derogatory word attached to her stereotype: maudlin. You may have never used that word, but if you read English novels, you may have run into it. It means affectionate or sentimental in an effusive, tearful or foolish manner (especially when you’re drunk and self-pitying). It is a very British word. The ways Brits pronounce Magdalene is “maudlin.” So her name means weepy.
In church art, Mary has almost always been pictured as a loose women who is weeping, since her main scene in the Bible is one in which she is weeping: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (John 20:11). For some reason the church kept her weeping, even though in just a few more lines of John she is going to recognize the risen Jesus and become the apostle to the apostles.
We know just a little from the Bible about Mary Magdalene, although she is mentioned much more than most of the twelve disciples. Here is one of the places we get some details: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3).
Seven demons is having an extreme problem! But nobody knows what kind of life Mary Magdalene had been living before she met Jesus. When Luke says women followed along with Jesus who “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” he could be talking about a variety of things we regularly see: a person who is sick physically, relationally, mentally, or certainly spiritually. Later in church history, the legend of Mary Magdalene was used to discredit sex in general and to disempower women, so her “demons” were characterized as the torments that accompany someone who is promiscuous. She was tagged as a prostitute, for which there is no shred of evidence in the Bible or even in the extra-Biblical books from the early years in which she is mentioned. Regardless, she had been consumed by something horrible and Jesus freed her. His grace made her thankful and devoted. That we know. Just last week one of us told me they felt a spirit leave them when they gave up a sin. So we understand what Mary felt like and why she was so tied to Jesus.
She was not only tied to Jesus, she was important to Jesus. During the time of her life recorded in the Bible, Mary Magdalene’s name is one of the most frequently found. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the women who were with Jesus are listed. Each time, Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. In Luke the three main disciples are listed and Peter is listed first. I argue, with many, that Mary Magdalene must have held a very central position among the followers of Jesus. She could have been the lead woman like Peter was the lead man.
At the time of the crucifixion and resurrection Mary Magdalene comes to the fore. Uniquely among the followers of Jesus, she is specified by name as a witness to three key events: Jesus’ crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery that his tomb was empty. In Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is first witness to the resurrection. She is the one to tell the disciples about the resurrection and to give them a message from the Lord. So Mary Magdalene was the “Apostle to the Apostles.” After her first report to the other disciples that Jesus was risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. She is not mentioned by name in the Acts of the Apostles, although she may be one of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14. Her next acts are undocumented.
In the time of Jesus himself, there is every reason to believe that, according to his teaching and who was in his circle, women were unusually empowered as fully equal. In the early church, when the norms and assumptions of the Jesus community were being written down, the equality of women is reflected in the letters of St. Paul (c. 50-60), who names women as full partners—his partners—in the Christian movement. In the Gospel accounts that were written later, evidence of Jesus’ own attitudes can be seen and women are highlighted as people who had courage and fidelity that stood in marked contrast to the men’s cowardice.
As the church was co-opted into the state and then when the church of Rome became the state after the Roman empire fell apart, Jesus’ rejection of the prevailing male dominance was eroded in the Christian community. In the books of the New Testament, the argument among Christians over the place of women in the community is already a regular feature. Mary Magdalene became the poster child for the argument as time went on. I say she was a leader, an apostle to the apostles. She became a weepy prostitute repenting of her sins.
Here’s an example of how her deformation happened. In the late 500s Pope Pelagius the II died of plague and one of the most influential popes ever succeeded him, Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604). When the disciplined and brilliant Gregory was elected pope he at once emphasized penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off plague, among other things. His reign was marked by the codification of spiritual disciplines and thought; it was a time of reform and invention. But it all occurred against the backdrop of the plague, a doom-laden circumstance in which the abjectly repentant Mary Magdalene, warding off the spiritual plague of damnation, was created. With Gregory’s help, she was transformed from leader among women to maudlin prostitute.
In about 591 Pope Gregory I gave a series of sermons that rewrote Mary’s history. He took a few of those Marys in the Bible, squashed them together and made them into a composite Mary Magdalene. He said that Mary’s seven demons were the seven deadly sins, heavy on the lust. He said that she was the same woman who poured ointment on Jesus — repurposed ointment that used to make her a nice-smelling sex partner. She was the one who washed Jesus’s feet with tears and dried them with her wantonly uncovered hair. He said,”She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side became the redeemed prostitute and Christianity’s model of repentance — a manageable, controllable figure, and an effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own gender. What most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. In the Roman Catholic Church, as elsewhere, that need is still being met.
The church did her wrong. It may have done you wrong and may do you wrong again. But I pray that you maintain your own sense of how Jesus freed you and let you touch him and made you his messenger, even if someone tries to steal that from you. Mary Magdalene is a cautionary tale about how the story of redemption can be warped. But she is also an example of how the truth retold has a remarkable capacity to shake off the corrosion of the misguided. People overcome what loads them down and stride into their fullness when they follow Jesus.