Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?

A fresco of Mary Magdalene in the Döbling Carmelite Monastery, Vienna.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

Many people will have an experience which changes the direction of their life and/or career. Sometimes this can significantly change how others regard them and their significance. For Mary Magdalene, one of these occurred in the year 591. This was particularly surprising since, by this date, she had been dead for over five hundred years ...

The significance of 591 for Mary Magdalene

In 591, Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he said that three women who appear in the gospels were, in fact, one person. These three women were: the unnamed woman "who lived a sinful life," who poured expensive perfume on Jesus as an expression of her devotion to him (Luke 7:37-38); Mary of Bethany, who poured perfume on Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-8); and Mary Magdalene, who was known as a member of the travelling company of Jesus' followers and witness of the resurrection.

It is perhaps understandable why Gregory made this connection, as the story in Luke is immediately followed by the first explicit reference to Mary Magdalene. So, some have believed this story, in Luke 7:36-50, to be the first (unnamed) introduction to Mary Magdalene and an explanation of why she then goes on to travel with Jesus, and why she is then explicitly mentioned as one of the companions of Jesus in Luke 8:2.

However, Luke leaves the first woman unnamed, so it must be assumed that, as he did know of Mary Magdalene, then if earlier it was her also, he would have named her. Arguably this unnamed "sinful" woman is simply another example in Luke of an ostracised person being accepted and forgiven by Jesus.

If that identification with the anonymous Galilean woman is understandable – if unsupported by the evidence – the bringing in of Mary of Bethany is clearly without any foundation whatsoever. While the two accounts of the women with perfume are so similar in content that the events/women have often been merged, this is clearly incorrect. Bethany is near Jerusalem, but the other event took place in Galilee. And, while Mary of Bethany has an impeccable moral status, the other women certainly did not. The description of her as "sinful" almost certainly refers to sexual immorality, and we can safely assume this meant either prostitution or fornication.

Then, this totally unjustified combination of Mary of Bethany with the woman "who lived a sinful life" was compounded by assuming that this composite woman was, in fact, Mary Magdalene. All those nagging doubts about what made Mary Magdalene unusual and disturbing (a woman "from whom seven demons had come out" Luke 8:2) were, it seemed, finally laid to rest. And sex had found a prominent place on her CV.

The matter was compounded – it seemed – by her origins. The later Jewish Talmud states how the town of Magdala was condemned and destroyed by God because of the sexual sin (extra- and pre-marital) that was taking place there. Mary's association with Magdala encouraged the view in western Christianity that she was a prostitute or promiscuous, before she met Jesus; her sexual activities were caused by (or led to) demonic possession, but her gratitude to Jesus caused her to pour perfume on him as an extravagant display of love.

The problem is that there is nothing to substantiate this in any of the gospel accounts. Mary Magdalene is never referred to as a prostitute by any of the gospel writers.

Building on false foundations

It seems that Gregory the Great was not the first person to make a link between Mary Magdalene and sex. A discovery made in southern Egypt has led to a profound misconception regarding Mary Magdalene, this time about her relationship with Jesus rather than concerning her character. The Nag Hammadi texts are a collection of early Christian and gnostic documents discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. The so-called, gnostic gospels found there (despite what is sometimes claimed to the contrary) come from a later time and a different social setting to the writings that the church had already largely accepted as authentic gospels (the four canonical gospels). They represent a very different genre indeed, rooted in heretical sects.

Found at Nag Hammadi, in the (so-called) Gospel of Philip, the disciples ask Jesus "Why do you love her (Mary Magdalene) more than all of us?" And it is claimed that Jesus kissed Mary often. The text actually reads:

And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her

more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [...].

The text, as it survives, is notable for gaps at key points and none more striking than the gap at the reference to the kisses. What a point for ants or termites to target. And one can imagine how this gap has excited some fairly lurid attempts to rectify what the insects consumed.

Also found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Thomas, presents the apostle Peter as rejecting Mary Magdalene because she is a woman but concludes with the rather opaque claim that Jesus is capable of making a female "a male" and, therefore, becoming a living spirit like the male disciples. The meaning is unclear, but it suggests something of a fixation on Mary Magdalene among the gnostic sects.

Shockingly, The Gospel of Jesus' Wife, a Coptic papyrus fragment unveiled in 2012 and purportedly dating from between the sixth and ninth centuries, presents Jesus as speaking of a "wife" as an initiated disciple. The name of this "wife" is not revealed but it is reminiscent of the gnostic references to Mary Magdalene. Many experts, though, regard it as a modern forgery.

Another controversial gnostic text is the Gospel of Mary, a papyrus book, bound in leather, written in Coptic, and found in 1896 in a Cairo bazaar. This claims to describe events after the resurrection of Jesus, where Mary is presented as the guide and teacher to the bemused and fearful male disciples. In this text Peter sees Mary as a rival for the leadership of the group.

Yet another gnostic text is known as Pistis Sophia (Faith Wisdom). Discovered in 1773, it was probably written between the third and fourth centuries. It continues the usual gnostic claim to contain higher knowledge known only to an inner circle of initiates and, thus, denied to others. And in this, Mary Magdalene is described as the "blessed one" who possessed such mysterious knowledge above others.

This gnostic obsession with Mary Magdalene, also underlies the idea of a "holy bloodline" of Jesus through Mary Magdalene, which though without any credible historical evidence whatsoever, has made a great impact on popular imagination through a number of high profile books, novels and Hollywood films.

This claim rests largely on later medieval legends of Mary Magdalene travelling to southern France, which when combined with the completely different and earlier gnostic texts, produces a hypothesis that she carried Jesus' child. From this bloodline, it is claimed, were derived the Merovingian kings of Dark Age France. Mary Magdalene was, in this construction, the real "Holy Grail", carrying the blood of Jesus. The gaps, errors, and inconsistencies in this construction are too many and varied to be listed here.

Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?

When Pope Gregory preached his sermon in 591, he did not, of course, subscribe to the gnostic heresies. Nor to the fantastic conspiracy theories that underpin many modern claims about Mary Magdalene. However, he did unintentionally provide more of the oxygen of publicity to the sexualised concept of Mary Magdalene. And from there it ran and ran.

When the Catholic Church established its first shelter for the rescue and maintenance of "fallen women", in Naples in 1324, it was named as the first of many "Magdalene Houses". Later artists focused on her with highly sexualised representations.

However, not everyone was convinced by this view of her. The 'composite Magdalene' was never accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Churches, who simply described Mary as a disciple, and believed that after the resurrection she lived as a companion with the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholics were not convinced either. The Benedictine monastic order always celebrated Mary of Bethany (together with Martha and Lazarus) on July 29, while Mary Magdalene was celebrated on July 22, as a quite separate person. But for most people it was Gregory the Great's mistaken equation that held sway and continues to do so.

In 1969, the Catholic Church finally refuted this assumption. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Mary Magdalene as "a disciple of the Lord who plays a lead role in the Gospels"; and challenged the previous moral assumptions about her. However, coming almost 1,500 years after Gregory the Great, it is understandable why, for many people, this sixth-century misunderstanding continues.

Today we need to rediscover the real woman: transformed by Jesus, a member of his travelling companions, faithful at the cross, and key witness to the resurrection. It is time we cleared away the guesswork and the fantasies, and let the real Mary Magdalene stand up.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-five books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. Recently, he has been interviewed on several news platforms concerning the war in Ukraine.

His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has recently completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which explores the connection between end-times beliefs and radicalized politics across religions, time, and cultures. The history of how Mary Magdalene's character has been misrepresented over the centuries is explored in Daughters of Eve (2021) co-written with his daughter Esther.