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.