Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is probably one of the most versatile and controversial people in the Bible.
She’s been seen as the sorrowful sinner, the Apostle to the Apostles, Jesus’s wife/girlfriend, a guardian of secret knowledge, a chaste saint, a feminist icon, and a scandalous woman who is healed and repents. In many ways, how she is interpreted says more about the viewer than
about her.
So, what do we really know about Mary Magdalene? Surprisingly little. Here’s a list:
1) She was likely from the village of Magdala, located on the western shore of the Sea of
2) She is mentioned by name 13 times in the four canonical gospels:

 Matthew 27: 55 – 56, 61
 Matthew 28:1 – 8
 Mark 15: 40 – 47
 Mark 16:1 – 9
 Luke 8: 1 – 3
 John 19:25 – 26
 John 20 :1 – 2 and 11 – 18

3) She was present at Jesus’s Crucifixion and burial, and was the first to see Him after the
4) She and various other women followed Jesus and supported him, presumably through
money or other material means.

What We Know About Mary Magdalene Outside of Biblical Writings:
1) She appears to be the only woman to have a gospel named after her: The Gospel of
Mary. (So named because it seems to be about her and her understanding of Jesus’s
teachings.) This is one of the Gnostic Gospels, all of which were developed in the early
years of Christianity and declared heretical in the second century. This gospel contains
“secret knowledge” known only to certain disciples. The Gnostic Gospels are an entire
field of study on their own, so I’m just mentioning this one here.
2) Up until the last twenty years or so, the Roman Catholic Church presented Mary
Magdalene as a repentant prostitute. There is no evidence to support this claim, and
most Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches have ignored it.

3) Pope Gregory chose to interpret the phrase about “seven demons” (that Jesus drove out
of her) as the Seven Deadly Sins (greed, lust, pride, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth).
However, the number seven is often a metaphorical number, sometimes merely
meaning “many,” or presenting a situation as dire or extraordinary. The “seven
demons” statement may just mean that Mary Magdalene had a serious illness of mind
or body, and Jesus cured her.

4) Originally the Roman Catholic Church celebrated July 22nd as the “Memorial” of Mary
Magdalene. Finally, in 2016, Pope Francis declared it a Feast Day.

Legends of Mary Magdalene:
1) One of the best-known legends of Mary Magdalene was her meeting with Tiberius
Caesar. When she proclaimed to him that Jesus had risen from the dead, he declared
that was as unlikely as the egg that Mary held turning red. The egg immediately turned
2) She and several other apostles or friends of Jesus are said to have landed in Provence,
France, fleeing persecution back home. Mary joined Lazarus (yes, that Lazarus) in
converting the people of Marseille to Christianity, then moved north into a grotto and
spent most of the rest of her life in prayer and penance. Toward the end of her life, she
journeyed to Aix-en-Provence to receive communion. It is believed that she died and
was buried there.
It’s unsurprising that Mary Magdalene remains one of the most controversial people of the
Bible right up to the present. Most recently, the book/movie The Da Vinci Code revived the
idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. Again, no Biblical evidence exists for this idea, but
it has cropped up several times over the centuries. This idea was also posited in a comic book
series called The Magdalena, which follows several female descendants of Mary and Jesus, all
of whom can allow people to relive their sins, allowing them to redeem themselves if they
choose. (There’s also a whole lot of demon fighting in those pages….)
On a more humorous note, Mary Magdalene won the Golden Halo in the 2012 Lent Madness
competition. Each year, Lent Madness presents 32 saints in one-on-one competition, with
readers voting for their favorite. It’s a fun way to learn a little about a variety of saints through
a little friendly competition. (Check out Lentmadness.org for more information.)

For those interesting in further exploring Mary Magdalene’s story, some suggested reading:

Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, by Bart D. Ehrman.
The Secret Teachings of Mary Magdalene: Including the Lost Gospel of Mary, by Claire Nahmad.
“Who Was Mary Magdalene?” by James Carroll, Smithsonian Magazine. (Article found online
at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/)
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault.

From guest blogger Maryse Quinn

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