Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene is a well-known figure in the New Testament whose life has been the subject of speculation and storytelling for much of Christian History. One of the more recent instances of this is The Chosen. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, Bruce Chilton discussed Mary Magdalene, offering insight into who she was, who she isn’t, and how she has been portrayed over time. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

In the interview, Bruce Chilton discussed some of what made Mary significant. He singled out three main points in which she played a leading role in the gospels. They were exorcism, anointing, and vision (as the first person to see the resurrected Christ). Because of her role in these areas, he noted that “of them all [women in the New Testament] Mary Magdalene played the most pivotal role in his movement. … Owing to Mary Magdalene’s association with all of them [the three points], she was a figure of undeniable power and influence, and became a precedent for the prominent role of women in Christian leadership.” Mary Magdalene played an important role in early Christianity.

As the early proto-Orthodox church developed, however, leadership became much more male-centric, which would have an impact on portrayals of Mary Magdalene. Chilton explained that:

Over time, Constantine’s policy changes in the fourth century made Christianity legal—and eventually resulted in unique privileges. That change brought relief from persecution, but also produced unintended results. Among the most fateful was that, because priests of the Church also functioned as Roman magistrates and judges, only males could serve in that newly combined function. The hierarchy of Rome was absorbed within the structure of Christianity.

Mary Magdalene was reduced to a subservient position in various ways as a consequence of her symbolizing women.

At the end of the sixth century, a faulty exegesis was passed on which is still influential. In a sermon he preached to a congregation of all-male monks, Pope Gregory the Great taught that Mary was the same person as the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50.

Because that woman is described as a sinner (Luke 7:37), she is also made out to be a prostitute in the sermon. That is especially convenient for Gregory, since he also identifies the sinful woman Mary Magdalene with the female lover of the Song of Songs. There is beauty and wisdom in Gregory’s sermon, but it works as an appeal to analogy—not exegesis.

Luke clearly identifies Mary in Luke 8:2 without any reference whatever to the previous story of the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet. They are clearly different people.

He added that:

Women were denied determinative roles in the hierarchy of the Romanized Church. In Syria, however, it is interesting that women continued to function prominently in the role of deacons—an ancillary but important role within ordained ministry. That shows us that the place of female disciples was downgraded over time, but also that they could not be written off entirely.

As the most influential of Jesus’ female followers, Mary Magdalene took the brunt of the demotion of women generally. Even within the New Testament, Luke’s Gospel actually omits the scene of Jesus’ anointing before his Crucifixion. And John’s Gospel, although referring to Mary in the scene of Jesus’ Resurrection, literally depicts Peter and “the beloved” disciple running ahead of her to investigate the tomb (John 20:1-10).

As a result of the early Christian church developing with a more male-centric structure, Mary’s image and influence were downplayed. (For more information on the history of women’s roles in the early Christian church, I highly recommend “Church Organization: Priesthood Offices and Women’s Leadership Roles” by Ariel Bybee Laughton in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints.)

The androcentric developments also came to impact Mary’s relationship with Jesus (at least in the story telling about her, such as in the DaVinci Code). Chilton write that:

The process of putting Mary and Jesus into a prolonged, intimate relationship, and then having them produce progeny, literally required millennia.

By the sixth century, Mary was portrayed as a prostitute. This thought prompted the claims during the thirteenth century that she was Jesus’ concubine, or perhaps the nameless woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-11 in certain witnesses). By a combination of such associations, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century asserted that Jesus and Mary had an adulterous relationship. The twentieth century portrayed their union as more or less official, and some legends and a few authors speculated about their having children.

What is notable about all of these steps is how late they were taken—and how far removed they are from any statement in the earliest sources. In the end, Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as himself the result of an irregular birth, which made establishing his paternity impossible. In the Judaic law of his time, that made him a mamzer (an Israelite without an established genealogy), and therefore prohibited from marrying those whose ancestry was clear. Mary Magdalene, for her part, had come to Jesus in need of exorcism. In differing ways, both were outcasts, and each was unattached. While their intimacy cannot be disproved, neither can it be established.

Thus, claims that Jesus was married to Mary aren’t based on a sure footing.

Given the popularity of The Chosen, Chilton was asked what he thought about the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the series. He explained that:

I have just watched the opening episode, and of course appreciate the focus on exorcism. At the same time, the presentation of Mary Magdalene is still in terms of prostitution, and she is made to embody evil with the name of “Lilith,” a traditional designation of a female demon.

Agency is not attributed to her in the film, in that Jesus seeks her out without an apparent previous connection. The production values are high, but there are a whole series of anachronisms that could easily have been avoided.

So, it’s a good production, but still not very accurate to Chilton’s research.

For more on Mary Magdalene, including thoughts on her life after Jesus’s death and more, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

2 comments for “Who was Mary Magdalene?

  1. > By a combination of such associations, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century asserted that Jesus and Mary had an adulterous relationship.

    Chilton is badly misreading the documents in this case. We have lots of evidence of Luther’s thoughts about Christ and his sinlessness. Against this, we have one entry in the Table Talks from 1532 – recorded in 1567, 35 years after the fact, and 20 years after Luther’s death. Also, a couple of key words are difficult to read. (See the manuscript page here. A PDF of the Weimar edition is here; the text in question is number 1472 on p. 107.)

    Here’s my best effort at a translation:

    Christ, adulterer.
    Christ first became an adulterer (John 4) with the woman at the well, since they said…
    [Here’s the obscure part: Is it numero stat, or nemo significat? And what would either of those mean? It could be something like “according to number he stands, according to frequency he stands, I reckon he stands, he stands quickly, he stands too soon,” or “nobody indicates.”]
    …what is he doing with her? And then with Magdalena, and then with the adulteress (John 8) who he let go so leniently. In such a way did righteous Christ have to become an adulterer before he died.

    I think it’s 100% certain that Martin Luther did not think that Jesus had adulterous relationships with three women in the Gospels. I think the far more likely interpretation is that Luther (assuming the text is halfway accurate) was talking about rumor and baseless allegations: people would accuse even Jesus of being an adulterer if they saw him talking to a woman.

  2. It would be great if we knew more about Mary Magdalene. It would be important if she was one of Christ’s apostles. Didn’t BY speculate that perhaps Christ and Mary were married. While on earth, wouldn’t He have wanted to experience all aspects of being human. Sexuality is certainly an important part of life. I assume by now that the image of Mary as a prostitute has been dropped. Mary was an important figure in the early organization of Christ’s church. Too bad we don’t know more.

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