Mary the Magdalene, apostle to the apostles.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 July

The myths (and sexism) behind the first person to see our risen Lord.

22 July is the feast day of Mary the Magdalene, whom we also call Mary of Magdala. She’s the woman who shows up in all the resurrection stories, ’cause she’s the very first person Jesus appeared to after he was raised from the dead.

John 20.10-18 KWL
10 Then the students went away again, to their people,
11 and Mary stood outside the tomb, mourning.
As she mourned, she then bent down into the tomb, 12 and saw two angels in white,
one sitting at the head, one at the feet, where Jesus’s body was placed.
13 They told her, “Ma’am, why do you mourn?”
She told them this: “They took my Master away, and I don’t know where they put him.”
14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing—and didn’t know it was Jesus.
15 Jesus told her, “Ma’am, why do you mourn? Whom are you looking for?”
Figuring he was the groundskeeper, she told him, “Master, if you took him away,
tell me where you put him, and I’ll take him away.”
16 Jesus told her, “Mary.”
She turned and told him, “Rabbani!” (i.e. “teacher”).
17 Jesus told her, “Don’t clutch me. I’ve not gone up to my Father yet.
Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and yours; to my God and yours.’ ”
18 Mary the Magdalene came and told the students she’d seen the Master,
and he’d said these things to her.

Two of Jesus’s students, Simon Peter and John, had checked out the tomb, saw nothing, and left. Jn 20.3-10 But Mary stuck around and had a Jesus-sighting. And he sent her to his students and family: “Go to my brothers and tell them…” Jn 20.17 which she did. Jn 20.18 They should’ve known Mary’s character enough to accept her testimony.

Should’ve; didn’t. Because nobody expected Jesus to rise from the dead before the End Times. The 11 apostles wouldn’t believe the women saw Jesus, Lk 24.11 and Thomas wouldn’t even believe the other 10 after they saw Jesus themselves. Jn 20.24-25 So if you think the problem was sexism, there might’ve been a little bit of that in there. More so it was just how unbelievable the idea was.

Every so often, I hear a Christian preacher say it was totally sexism. Often they’ll do it in a way which exposes their own sexism. I’ve heard preachers claim in Jesus’s day, women’s testimony was inadmissible because women get hysterical, irrational, and are inherently untrustworthy. (God help those preachers’ wives and daughters.)

It’s bunk, because these preachers don’t know the Law. In patriarchal societies, women are subject to their patriarch—their husband or father or male relative who’s in charge of them. This man was granted the right to overturn or nullify his women’s vows. Nu 30 But this made it impossible for women to testify in court. Not because women aren’t trustworthy, but because their men could cancel out their testimony.

I’m not sure whether Paul had that idea in mind when he and Sosthenes listed 500-plus folks who saw the resurrected Jesus, 1Co 15.3-8 and didn’t include the women. Mt 28.9-10 We figure this list was originally composed and recited in the middle east, where Judeans had an issue with women’s testimony. Corinthians didn’t, so there was no reason to still skip the women.

Judean courts aside, Mary was as reputable as any student, and the students should’ve believed her, if anyone. Still, this isn’t the only time Mary’s been misinterpreted due to sexism.

Who was Mary?

What do we know about Mary the Magdalene?

Well, she was called “the Magdalene” to distinguish her from all the other Marys in the New Testament. Like Jesus’s mom. Mt 1.16 Or Jesus’s aunt (the wife of Joseph’s brother Clopas, “the mother of James and Joses” Mk 15.40). Or Jesus’s other aunt, Salomé, mother of James and John, whom in some traditions is called “Mary Salomé.” Or Mark’s mom. Ac 12.12 Or Lazarus’s sister. Jn 11.1-2

Why so many Marys? If they weren’t named for other Marys in their families, they were named for Moses’s sister, the prophet Miriam. (María is the Greek equivalent.) Old Testament names were really popular in Israel, y’notice. Even Jesus had one, ’cause Yisús is Greek for Joshua. But without family names or place names, it makes it tricky to sort out which Mary was which.

Obviously this Mary’s from Magdala, although we can’t pin down that town on a map: Migdála is Aramaic for “tower,” and there were various towers round the Galilee—assuming Mary is Galilean like Jesus and most of his followers.

Luke introduces her like so.

Luke 8.1-3 KWL
1 This happened during his circuit: Jesus was traveling by town and village
to preach and announce the good news of God’s kingdom.
The 12 apostles went with him, 2 plus certain women
who’d been cured of evil spirits and illnesses:
Mary, called “the Magdalene,” from whom seven demons had come out.
3 Joanna, wife of Antipas Herod’s steward Huzá. Susanna.
And many others who were serving them with their resources.

Mary was either one of Jesus’s financial backers, or otherwise did odd jobs for him out of gratitude. The gospels point out she, unlike most of Jesus’s followers, stuck with him the whole time he was crucified and killed.

I already discussed how demons might get into a person; it has more to do with witch doctoring than any evil lifestyle a person might be into. This is why early Christians assumed Mary was a very virtuous woman. Both St. Ambrose of Milan and St. John Chrysostom believed Mary took an oath to remain a lifelong virgin and follow Jesus. Eastern Christians still largely teach this about her.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of unhealthy speculation about how Mary was devoted to Jesus. Popular culture wasn’t really aware of this till Dan Brown’s conspiracy-theory novel The Da Vinci Code, which introduced ’em to the theory Mary was Jesus’s wife. But let’s be clear about two things:

  • If she was his wife, what’s the problem? Ain’t no sin in that. Yeah, some Christians get bothered by the idea ’cause New Jerusalem is meant to be Christ’s bride, Rv 21.2 but you do realize that’s just a metaphor, right? He’s not literally marrying a whole city of women and men.
  • There’s no evidence in the gospels, nor contemporary accounts, for any such thing. Any apocryphal gospels which float the theory, are untrustworthy for all sorts of reasons.

Other Christian myths include a story that Mary brought a basket of eggs with her to the cross, and Jesus’s blood got on them and turned ’em red; hence Easter eggs. I don’t buy it, ’cause bodily fluids turn food ritually unclean. Lv 3.17 There’s an alternate story where Mary was preaching the gospel, happened to be holding an egg, the egg miraculously turned red, and there’s where Easter eggs came from—and I’m still not buying it.

Another myth is Mary was betrothed to the apostle John, went to Ephesus to live with him and Jesus’s mother, and died there. Another is she moved into a cave and lived there with angels for 30 years. For the most part, these myths get so strange and ridiculous, we can’t say with any certainty any of ’em happened.

Hopefully the rest of Mary’s life was good. But then again, Jesus’s other apostles didn‘t fare so well.

The whore myth.

Pope Gregorius 1 of Rome, or “Gregory the Great,” preached a series of messages we call Homiliae in Evangelia/“Homilies on the Gospels.” In September 591, he preached about the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume. Lk 7.36-50 Luke never identifies her, but John has a very similar story where Lazarus’s sister, Mary the Bethanite, does the deed. Jn 12.1-8

We don’t know that Luke and John told the same story. I’m pretty sure they’re not, ’cause of some telling differences. Namely how the woman in Luke anointed Jesus’s feet in repentance, but Mary anointed Jesus’s feet in gratitude.

But Gregory believed they were the same story, which therefore meant Mary the Bethanite was some sort of sinner whom Jesus had to forgive. And since Mary the Magdalene had seven devils in her for some reason, Gregory also concluded both Marys were the same woman.

The sinful woman in Luke: John calls her Mary. We believe her to be the Mary from whom Mark says seven demons were thrown out. Mk 16.9 So what is meant by “seven demons”? All the vices. The week is understood as “seven days,” so the number seven rightly means “everything.” And since the seven demons had Mary, she was full of every vice. Homily 33.1

Y’might notice Gregory liked to play connect-the-dots with his bible. The practice is popular among morons who think this is how you study a bible, and extract deep secrets from it. (Or conspiracy theorists who think it’s how we’re to interpret our culture.) But it creates a whole lot of messed-up, out-of-context interpretations.

The seven devils were the seven vices, i.e. the seven deadly sins. So Gregory concluded she sinned in all these particular ways, and that’s what led to the seven demons. Like most Christians, he figured you couldn’t become a demoniac unless you deserved it. You must’ve sinned. In so doing, you let a devil take you over.

Now yes, sometimes that’s how it happens. And sometimes not. Mary might’ve been a sinner; we all sin. But Mary might just as easily have gone to a pagan “physician” for help, the pagan called upon his gods for help, and Mary wound up infested.

Knowing human nature, it wasn’t long before the first of the deadly sins—lust—was the dominant one in people’s minds. After all, pick the worst sin someone could commit, yet not get jailed nor executed for it: Till the 1800s, that was usually prostitution.

And preachers really liked the idea of a repentant whore who became a saint. Medieval artists really liked the subject matter, ’cause now they had a valid religious excuse to paint acres of whores, in various stages of nudity.

That’s why the myth spread: It’s provocative. Titillating. Lets you imagine all sorts of messed-up scenarios between Jesus the Nazarene and Mary the Magdalene, wherein she tempts him with nooky and he valiantly resists his flesh and leads her to God.

Then there’s how Mary got mixed up with the adulterer. Jn 8.1-11 Again, she’s not identified, but Christians love to leap to the conclusion she was a whore, ’cause isn’t whoredom a form of adultery? And if Mary was a whore, maybe this was how she met Jesus. Some folks pulled her off a guy, dragged her into temple for stoning (even though it’d be a serious violation of the Law to bring an unclean person to temple), and Jesus wouldn’t let ’em. So… at what point in this story does Jesus throw seven devils out of her? ’Cause that’s not in this story.

Is there any truth to the stories about Mary’s sexual past? Well, plenty of devout people have had a not-so-devout past. Lots of pagans are promiscuous. Some of ’em even dabbled in whoring. But there’s simply no evidence Mary the Magdalene falls into this category. We have no business saying it’s who she used to be: We don’t know what she used to be, other than possessed, and Jesus freed her. Anything more is slander against a fellow Christian.

The apostle Mary.

Jesus sent Mary the Magdalene to tell his brothers he’s alive. And when Jesus sends you on a mission, by definition you’re an apostle. True, Mary wasn’t one of the 12 apostles, whose mission was to start the church. Still an apostle. To this day Christians refer to her as “the apostle to the apostles.”

Problem is, a lot of Christians don’t wanna call her an apostle. Or give her any recognition, any position of honor, anything. They treat her like some groupie who couldn’t get over Jesus’s death; like the only reason Jesus appeared to her first was because she simply wouldn’t leave his tomb. They’re rather fond of the whore myth too, y’notice.

Some of it comes from sexism. They took Paul’s critique of the women who interrupted first-century church services, 1Co 14.34-35, 1Ti 2.11-15 and interpret them to mean women shouldn’t be ministers in the church at all. Can’t be teachers, prophets, apostles, deacons, pastors, or fill any Christian vocation where they might teach men. (Boys maybe; but for some sexists, not even boys.) So they insist Mary was never an apostle; that those women in the New Testament who had the job Ac 18.18-26 or the title Ro 16.7 were aberrations or typos.

Yeah, obviously I believe they’re wrong. Mary the Magdalene is a good example of why. Jesus personally sent her, with specific instructions and info, with good news, to the 11 apostles and his family. He gave her a mission. She tried to fulfill it. Good for her.

And ever since, the Holy Spirit has empowered and equipped women to minister to Christians and pagans alike, to serve Jesus, and to proclaim the good news. If your sexism gets in God’s way of spreading his kingdom through his daughters, you’re really not in a safe zone.

Among eastern Christians, Mary is recognized as an apostle, equal to the other apostles. If Jesus sent her, that should be enough qualification for anyone. Still.