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No church conspiracy against Mary Magdalene


In recent years there has been a great reclaiming of the figure of Mary Magdalene as a patron of women’s preaching and ministry. The new popularity of this New Testament figure has come about through the recognition that Mary Magdalene has been the victim of a historical defamation of character. She has been identified in the historical tradition as a repentant prostitute, her image fixed as weeping sinner, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. New Testament scholarship has shown that this picture of Mary Magdalene is false. There are four stories of the anointing of Jesus by a woman in the New Testament, none identified with Mary Magdalene. In the earliest versions (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26: 6-13) an unnamed woman, not called a sinner, anoints Jesus’ head as a sign of his impending death and burial.

John (12:3) names the woman as Mary of Bethany and has her anoint Jesus’ feet, but the story is about his impending death, not forgiveness of sin. It is Luke (7:36-50) who changes the story and places it early in Jesus’ life, naming the woman as a repentant sinner who weeps, dries Jesus’ feet with her hair, anoints them with perfumed oil and is forgiven. Again the woman is unnamed.

Mary Magdalene appears in the New Testament as one of the followers of Jesus throughout his ministry who is cured of “seven devils” (Luke 8:1-3), a concept associated with healing from illness, not forgiveness of sin in the New Testament. She is the leader of a group of women disciples who are present at the cross, when the male disciples have fled, and at his burial. They arrive later to anoint the body and find that he has risen from the dead. They are commissioned by Jesus or an angel to tell the disciples he has risen.

John’s Gospel depicts Mary Magdalene in a personal encounter with the risen Christ, followed by her testimony to the other disciples. Thus Mary Magdalene stands in the New Testament as first witness of the resurrection, the one who testifies of the risen Lord to the male disciples.

Catholic and other Christian women have seen these roles as making Mary Magdalene a unique apostle, the apostle to the apostles. They have assumed that a patriarchal hierarchy, shortly after the death of Jesus, falsified her identity in order to remove her as a “role model” for women’s ministry. This conspiratorial view of church tradition makes a sharp contrast between a positive view of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, and a deliberate defaming of her in church tradition. This juxtaposition of “good” New Testament and “bad” church tradition loses the actual complexity and richness of church tradition about Mary Magdalene.

For the first five centuries of the church no writer misinterpreted Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Rather she was seen as a leading disciple and image of the church. Several Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, written in the early second century, see Mary as the special disciple of Jesus who has a deeper understanding of his teachings and is asked to impart this to the other disciples. Some contemporary Christian women have assumed that the defaming of Mary Magdalene came about as an Orthodox effort to counteract the high role played by Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic communities. But there is no evidence that the Orthodox church leaders knew these gospels. Although several church fathers have some notion that Gnostics claimed Mary Magdalene as a leader, that does not cause them to disregard her. Rather they, too, share a view of Mary Magdalene as a leading disciple.

The second century church father, Hippolytus, for example, sees Mary and the other women disciples as symbolizing the New Eve, the faithful women who reverse the sin of Eve. They represent the Bride of Christ, the church, a role given by other church fathers to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Hippolytus, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, is the first church father to give Mary Magdalene the title of “apostle to the apostles.” He sees Christ as making a special appearance to the male disciples to tell them they are to accept and revere the women’s witness to the resurrection: “Truly it is I who appeared to the women and who desired to send them to you as apostles.”

This high regard for Mary Magdalene continues in the fourth- and fifth-century Latin fathers of the church. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, associated Mary Magdalene with the New Eve who clings to Christ as the new Tree of Life, thereby reversing the unfaithfulness of the first Eve. Augustine maintains this view, pairing Mary Magdalene with Christ as symbol of the New Eve and the church in relation to Christ as the New Adam. Her faithfulness reversed the sin of the first Eve.

It is only at the end of the sixth century that Pope Gregory I confuses the sinful woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 and identifies her as a repentant prostitute, whose former sinfulness is contrasted with that of the Virgin Mary. But there is no evidence that he makes this mistake in order to remove her as a “role model” for women’s ministry. Such an idea is unknown to him. The misinterpretation seems to come about primarily from a rhetorical tendency to reduce the complexity of “Marys” in the New Testament to a simple dualism: the ever virgin mother and the repentant sinner.

This view was never followed by the Eastern Christian church tradition, which continued to see all these women disciples as representatives of the New Eve, the church. While Pope Gregory’s misinterpretation was passed down in the medieval church tradition as normative, this did not cause Mary Magdalene to become less popular. Rather new legends of sanctity were associated with her. In the Eastern tradition it is believed that she joined with Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John in Ephesus to become martyrs. Other legends see her going into the desert as a hermit, role model of women’s hermetic life.

Western Christians give Mary Magdalene further adventures. French medieval tradition believed that Mary Magdalene (conflated with Mary of Bethany) fled Palestine with her brother and sister, Lazarus and Martha, and arrived by boat in Aix, in what is now France. Lazarus became the first bishop of Marseilles, while Martha overcame a dragon that was ravaging the region. Mary Magdalene converted the king and queen of Southern Gaul and thereby became the apostle to the Franks. A widespread cult of Mary Magdalene arose in medieval France, and relics of her body were claimed at various churches. Although the medieval church assumed that she was a former prostitute, the focus was on her converted sanctity. Preachers even exalted her as a preacher whose evangelizing career was foundational to the faith of the Western church.

Medieval images of Mary Magdalene do not picture her as the disheveled, weeping sinner. Rather they imagine her primarily in the context of her witness to the risen lord, bringing the glad tidings back to male disciples. It is in the Renaissance that this image changed. Renaissance art delighted in picturing the erotic, half nude female body. Images of Mary Magdalene weeping, with long hair partly covering her naked breasts, was a way of exploiting this artistic type. This is the image of Mary Magdalene that has come down in our own cultural imagination.

Already in the late 19th century scholars of the New Testament began to realize that there was no scriptural basis for the identification of Mary Magdalene with the repentant sinner of Luke 7. But this scholarship was popularized only recently, and Mary Magdalene claimed as a role model for women preachers and ministers. In this process of reinterpreting Mary Magdalene for today, church tradition should not be reduced to a hostile conspiracy against her. It has a richer tradition to offer.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. Her e-mail address is Rosemary.Ruether@nwu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001