Mary Magdalene was one of the Bible’s most mysterious characters even though her name was mentioned around twelve times in the canonical gospels (more than some of Jesus’ male disciples). The name “Mary” seemed popular at that time with several Marys mentioned in the canonical books (the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such as:
* Mary, Jesus’ mother
* Mary, mother of James
* Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha
* Mary Salome
* Mary of Clopas
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This particular Mary was distinguished by her toponym “Magdalene or Magdala” which was a town located on the northwest shore of Galilee in the region of Tiberias. The date and place of her birth were unknown. It was also uncertain that Magdala, the place which she was associated with, was the place of her birth or where she was raised. Readers of the Gospel of Luke first see her early in the eighth chapter when Jesus healed her from demon possession (Luke 8:1-3). This event was later echoed in the last chapter of Mark (16:9).
These were the only two gospels that mentioned this particular event in Mary Magdalene’s life and both writers did not even give out more detail on the event. Her freedom from demon possession would be Mary Magdalene’s chief narrative, but somehow over the years, she would be associated with the woman who poured the costly perfume from the alabaster jar (thus, the identification with prostitution) or with mental illness—beliefs that became popular during the Medieval Period. There were no direct passages in the four canonical books to associate her with either prostitution or insanity, but the idea that stained her reputation started with Pope Gregory I’s Homily 33 in 591 AD wherein he stated that:
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify if not all the vices?… It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”
The rumors that she was a prostitute or afflicted with insanity before she was healed by Jesus stuck to her for many centuries until it was finally cleared up by the Catholic Church in 1969.
The Steadfast Disciple
Most of Jesus’ disciples left him out of fear during the most difficult and last moments of his life on earth, but Mary Magdalene was one of the few followers who stayed near him during his death, burial, and resurrection. She stayed near the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion along with Mary, the mother of James and Joses and Mary Salome (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). She was also one of the two Marys who were present during Jesus’ burial (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47). Her loyalty stood out when she and Jesus’ other female followers (the number of other women who went with her vary in the canonical books) visited his tomb after the Sabbath, but it turned out he was already resurrected from death. She held a special place in the last chapter of Mark who asserted that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene after Jesus’ resurrection (Mark 16), as well as in John when he wrote that Mary Magdalene went alone to the empty tomb (John 20).
The events of Mary Magdalene’s life after Jesus’ ascension to heaven were virtually unknown, but tradition stated that she accompanied Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Ephesus, while others assert that she left Palestine and fled to Southern France with other early Christians. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is held on July 22.
Picture By Domenico Tintoretto – Google Art Project: Home – pic Maximum resolution., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20105581
Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.
“Mary Magdalene.” Accessed August 10, 2016. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/marymagda.html.
“St. Mary Magdalene – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online.” Catholic Online. Accessed August 10, 2016. http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=83.