Mary Magdalene and the Role of Women in Christianity

Mary Magdalene is, by far, the most enigmatic person in the NT.  And through the ages, her image has been constantly reinvented, most recently by popular novelist Dan Brown.  But the question still remains, has she and all the Christian daughters who have followed been treated unfairly by a largely male-dominated society?

From the NT, we learn that Mary Magdalene was a leading figure among those who followed Christ.  When the men abandoned Christ, Mary stayed with Him, even during the Crucifixion.  She was also present at the tomb, the first person to see and converse with the resurrected Christ.  This eventually earned her the title of “apostle to the Apostles.”  She was obviously a very significant figure in Christ’s inner circle.

In the Gnostic Gospels (not included in the canonized NT), her image gets further enhanced.  The so-called Gospel of Mary, a story of early Christianity, features Mary Magdalene as one of early Christianity’s most powerful leaders.  The Gospel of Philip tells of a rivalry between the male disciples and Mary Magdalene:

. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene.  [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth].  The rest of the [disciples were offended by it . . .].  They said to Him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”  The Savior answer and said to them, “Why do I not love you as [I love] her?”

There is much to ponder when it comes to Mary’s portrayal in both the NT and Gnostic Gospels. 

It should be noted that the NT Gospels were written well after the fact.  The books in the NT were not canonized until the fifth century.  Thus there was plenty of opportunities for social and political messages to be inserted into the holy book, or awkward verses to be deleted.  To add further confusion, there are several Marys and unidentified women in the NT.  Thus, it is hard to paint a consistent image of Mary Magdalene.  But one thing we know for sure, that Christ was more of an egalitarian than most give Him credit for and that Mary Magdalene was an important part of His life.

For contemporary Christians, many of the beliefs and practices of the early Gnostics are difficult to understand, and Gnosticism was declared heretical by the early orthodox church.  Thus, their literature is not taken seriously by today’s mainstream Christianity.  But the fact that the Gnostic Gospels hint of a strong physical bond between Christ and Mary gives one pause to wonder.

So what do we know about Mary’s life after the death of Christ?  Nothing really.  Legend has it that, after she preached for a while in Palestine, the local authorities had enough of her and her Christian friends, and cast them off into the Mediterranean in a small boat without a sail or paddles.  (This being more of an intended execution than an exportation.)  After many days of being driven by the wind and currents, the small group miraclously reached the shores of southern France.  In France, she preached for a while and then sequestered herself in a cave.

Her image as a prostitute was first suggested by Pope Gregory the Great.  In a 591 A.D. homily he stated:  “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be Mary. . .  It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”  In 1969, the Vatican declared that there was little evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

However, the image of Mary as a wayward woman lives on.  It is graphically reflected in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, and is also a major plot component of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Jesus Christ: Superstar.”  In the latter, there is a very sexual Mary singing to Jesus:  “I don’t know how to love him.  What to do, how to move him.”  To this day, Mary Magdalene is the patroness of “wayward women”, and “Magdalene houses” are established to help save women from prostitution.

Mary Magdalene’s image took a turn for the better with the publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  This novel proposes that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a daughter.  While this hypothesis was largely discounted by theologists, historians and the like, it does make for interesting speculation.

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6 Responses to Mary Magdalene and the Role of Women in Christianity

  1. Allen says:

    The idea that Jesus and Mary were married and had children has been proposed by others who have studied early manuscripts. As far as I know, the LDS church hasn’t taken a position on this matter, although some LDS have agreed with the idea of Jesus and Mary being married.

    I don’t think there is anything in LDS theology that would conflict with Jesus being married, but I think there are serious theological conflicts with LDS theology and Jesus having a child. I understand LDS doctrine to say that Jesus was the only begotten in the flesh of Heavenly Father and that Jesus inherited from his father the seeds of immortality, allowing him to complete his Atonement and provide the resurrection. Jesus wasn’t killed on the cross — he voluntary gave up his life. It seems to me that if Jesus and Mary had a child, Jesus’ seeds of immortality would be passed on to his child and he/she would also be immortal and could only die if he/she voluntarily gave up his/her life.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Both Apostle Orson Hyde and Apostle Orson Pratt mentioned the possibility that Christ was married. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in my Mormon past this idea has been discussed. While it is not a formal Mormon teaching, it is certainly a subject of interest to many Mormons.

      • Allen says:

        Thanks, Roger, for putting names to my statement “some LDS have agreed with the idea of Jesus and Mary being married”. Here is one point of speculation. When Christ was resurrected, we assume he was exalted. The D&C states that eternal marriage is necessary for exaltation. Thus, the implication that Christ was married at the time of his resurrection. Someday we’ll know for sure and, as you said, it is “certainly a subject of interest to many Mormons.” But, as you said in your comment to your previous post, “let religion concentrate on how we should live our lives, how we should relate to our neighbor, and how we should connect with God.”

  2. S.L. Schmitz says:

    I am always fascinated with the image of the Magdalene being the wife of Jesus Christ. Gnosticism specifically proposes that there is a difference between the Jesus and the Christ – one is the human and one is the holy spirit. In ancient times, it would have been deemed very strange for a man not to have a wife; therefore it is tantalizing when we find scraps of evidence in the Lost Gospels that detail that Jesus and Mary were married.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      Just after “The Da Vinci Code” was published, I attended a lecture at BYU where the book was discussed. There was an overflow crowd in attendance. I think that much of the interest had to do with speculations concerning the possibility of Christ being married. When Jesus came to Earth, I assume he had all the biological functions of a “normal” human being. So I assume that He had a desire for physical love (as well as spiritual). I personally would not be surprised if he acted on that need. If he did, that certainly doesn’t diminish Him in my eyes.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    When I wrote this blog entry, I intended it as a polemic on how Christianity has mistreated women, with Mary Magdalene being the poster woman for the cause. It seems highly probable that Mary’s role in early Christianity was not covered as it should have been in the NT canons. For example, after Christ died, what was her role? We just don’t know.

    Luckily, modern-day feminists and others have started to question long-held male-centric beliefs about Christian leadership. And this has fueled some of the current interest in Mary Magdalene and how she has been misinterpreted over the last 2,000 years. In seems likely that in the early Christian Church women had a more important role in leadership than they do in some churches today. So using history as a justification for this discrimination may not be appropriate.

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