Mary Magdalene

(1st Century A.D.)

Perhaps no figure in history is as controversial or mysterious as Mary Magdalene. A devout follower of Jesus, Mary followed him to the very end, and was the first to witness his resurrection. Since then, she has been labeled such things as a prostitute, Jesus' wife, apostle and writer of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Although her name has been cleared of the prostitution label, the mysterious life of Mary Magdalene is still heavily studied and strongly debated, especially in recent times.

Mary's appearances are few in the Bible, mostly during the days surrounding Easter weekend,  but her actions and the effort to identify her have made her into a major figure in Christianity. Mary is first mentioned in Luke 8:13 as one of the followers of Jesus named Mary, called Magdalene. From this passage it can be implied that she was from the Galilean town of Magdala, about one hundred miles north of Jerusalem, however  her name was not Mary. It was Miriam, which is the Hebrew equivalent of Mary. In the same passage it was said that she had seven demons cast from her by Jesus. During the time of Jesus, the demons that were cast would most likely have been a form of mental illness, rather than seven vices that many Christians longly believed and which strengthened the case for her label as a prostitute or actual demons that entered her body. After the exorcism of the "demons" she became a devout follower of Jesus. 

As a follower, Mary was one of many women that accompanied Jesus during his travels, most of whom are believed to have been wealthy. During his journey, he was visited by two women, the unnamed sinner in Luke 7 and Mary of Bethany, both of whom anoint his feet and dry them with their hair, similar to the way Magdalene anointed him shortly after his death. In 591, Pope Gregory the Great stated that all three were in fact one woman, Mary Magdalene, and this is how she became labeled as a prostitute, or the unnamed sinner. However the Second Vatican Council removed the prostitute label in 1969 after much debate and Biblical evidence that there was more than one Mary and that Mary of Magdalene and the unnamed sinner were two different figures. 

After Jesus' death, the most controversy around Mary Magdalene's life would unfold. In all four Gospels, she is the first to witness Jesus after his resurrection. Believed to be the Jesus' favorite by the apostles, Mary is asked to reveal secret teachings given to her by Jesus while consoling the apostles. After her revelation, which is found in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, she has a disagreement with Peter about the teachings. This is the beginning of strengthening Peter's role in Christianity while lessening that of Mary's. Gnosticism was not accepted into early Christianity due to its strange views, during the formation of the early church. Gnostics believe that the salvation of the soul comes from internal knowledge of the mysteries of our world, rather than purity of the soul.  

Where Mary went and what she did after she left the apostles is debatable. One of the most extreme is that Mary was pregnant with Jesus' child and went to France, where her descendants eventually founded the Merovingian line of kings, made famous recently by the Da Vinci Codes by Dan Brown. Brown's book, a highly fictitious book, depicts Mary as the Holy Grail in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," rather than the chalice that he drank with. Brown's work was highly influenced by the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, which was the basis of his writing. Some believed that Mary and Jesus were married since most Jewish men married and Jesus was closest to Mary, although no evidence supports or denies that claim.

Most western Catholics, separated from the East after the Great Schism, believe she fled to France in a boat with Mary, Lazarus and others and lived out her life in a cave for 30 years before dying at the Chapel of Saint-Maximin, located in the Aix En province, about 75 miles northeast of Marseille, in the Southeast of France. In the Eastern traditions, Mary is believed to have left Jerusalem with Mary, mother of Jesus, and traveled to Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey. Both traditions only add to the mystery that surrounds the life of Mary Magdalene. 

Although many aspects of Mary's life are debatable, we do know that she was a diligent follower of Jesus and the first to witness his resurrection. Only in the past forty years have we revealed that her identification as a prostitute was false, which means that there is still more to learn about this Biblical mystery. With the amount of research and writing being done, it is likely that the future will yield some answers that either put to rest or raise more questions about the life, death, relationships, and apostle status of Mary Magdalene. 

Annotated Bibliography

Anonymous. 'Bible Mysteries: The Real Mary Magdalene. BBC. available from 
<> (16 December 2005).

This article describes the mysteries surrounding one of Christianity's most intriguing characters, Mary Magdalene. It examined why Mary might have been perceived as a prostitute, such as no evidence of being married or widowed and how her name describes where she came from, a small town in Galilee. The article goes further by describing the importance of her in the Bible, being the first to see Jesus after his resurrection and telling the apostles that he had arisen. Lastly, the article discusses the Gospels of Mary and Phillip, and how she gave advice and received criticism after Jesus' resurrection. The article is very easy to read and I recommend to readers who want to know more about Mary Magdalene.

Anonymous. Mary Magdalene: FAQ. 
Available from <> (16 December 2005).

The website provides answers to frequently asked questions about Mary Magdalene, such as who she was, if Jesus and Mary were married, and where she was born and died. The answers to these questions and others listed on the site are answered objectively and will provide the reader with some clarification about frequent questions commonly asked about Mary Magdalene. The site also provides many pictures associated with Mary as well as a list of books that are written about her. The goal of the site is to provide information about Mary Magdalene in a non-secular way. The site was founded by Lesa Bellevie in July 1998, who has written a book on Mary called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mary Magdalene as part of her ongoing research that she started in 1997. She is an amateur historian, but the information is very well gathered and put forward.

Anonymous. Saints of July 22 available from <> (16 December ).
The website gives a listing of saints that are remembered on July 22. There is a biography of Mary Magdalene that describes the common misconception of her as a prostitute that stayed with her for nearly 2000 years. The site also provides two possibilities of where she traveled to after the Resurrection of Jesus. The site is very helpful and has a vast number of other saints listed as well, which may be useful. I recommend the site to all readers. 

Brock, Ann Graham. Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. 
Brock's book looks at the struggle for power between Mary and Peter after Jesus' death and immediate resurrection. She uses early Christian writings, such as the Gospels of the New Testament as well as Gnostic Gospels to show how Peter in his quest for authority subjugated the status of women that set the standard for the male hierarchy for years to come. The purpose of her book is to regain Mary's status as the first apostle so that other Christians can look to her example, regardless of gender, and take a more active role in the church. The book is extremely well written and I recommend it to those who are examining Mary's role in the beginning of Christianity as well as those who are trying to understand how she became better recognized as a sinner than an apostle. Ann Graham Brock is a professor at Harvard University. 

Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
The purpose of Ehrman's book is to separate fact from fiction in Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code. He begins the book by listing ten factual errors that are found in the book, followed by a brief summary of the Brown's work. The rest of the book analyzes early Christianity and such figures as Jesus, Mary and Constantine that are included in the Da Vinci Code. In doing so, he uses primary documents to separate the errors and facts that are contained in the book. The book is well written and the list of errors that he provides will be helpful to those examining The Da Vinci Codes authenticity, or lack thereof. Bart Ehrman is a professor of history at the University of California Riverside. 

Higgs, Liz. Mad Mary. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001. 
Liz Higgs' book can be broken down into two parts, Mad Mary: The Story and Mad Mary: The Study. In the first part, Higgs transforms the story of Mary Magdalene into the present day by telling the story of Mary Margaret Delaney, a fictional equivalent to Mary Magdalene, and Jake Stauros, a fiction preacher who is to be Jesus' equal. The story unfolds in a similar manner with Jake dying and resurrecting, although differently on Easter Sunday and Mary following him devotedly to the very end. In the second part of her book, she examines the real Mary Magdalene and how Christianity has recorded her since the death of Jesus. Her intent is to transform Mary Magdalene from the sinner into devout follower that she was by clearing up common misconceptions given to her by providing historical fact and avoiding bias and skepticism. She is an accomplished aouthor with over twenty books in print and has appeared on major network stations for religious and family programs such as PBS, BBC, A&E and NPR.

Lampman, Jane. 'Who Was Mary Magdalene? The Buzz Goes Mainstream.' Christian Science Monitor 14 Nov 2003.
Lampman's article discusses how Mary Magdalene has become center of attention in the Christian world after the release of The Da Vinci Code and offers commentary on the book by Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, who has his own citation further in the bibliography.. Her article examines the legend that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a royal bloodline is due to some scholars belief that most Jewish men married. Since Jesus was Jewish, they believe that he was married and to Mary. She also discusses the Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic book that was seen as heretical in early Christianity. She looks at a recent book by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School, The Gospel of Mary Magdala and discusses how King believes Mary was an important apostle after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The article is well written and I recommend to those who are unfamiliar with what the Gnostic books contain and how they are separate from those found in the Bible. Lampman is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor.

PBS. 'From Jesus to Christ: The Gospel of Mary.' Available from 
<> (16 December  2005).

The PBS website provides an excerpt from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary where she speaks to the apostles following Jesus' death. In the Gospel of Mary, she tells the apostles about teachings that Jesus privately gave to her in a vision. Following her statements, two apostles, Peter and Andrew, don't believe that what she said came from Jesus and that the teachings are strange. Levi defends Mary and states that Jesus loved her more than the fellow apostles and calls Peter 'hot-tempered.' The excerpt is a valuable primary source that the reader can look at and see how it differs from the accepted books that are in the Bible. The intent of the site is to authenticate Biblical writings with historical evidence and data. 

Ricci, Carla. Mary Magdalene and Many Others: Women who Followed Jesus. Trans. from Italian by Paul Burns. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
Ricci begins her book by hypothesizing on why women were not heard in the time of Jesus due to a number of social and religious factors that ultimately lead to the establishment of male-dominated texts. She then discusses how Mary became labeled as a prostitute and the further described the conditions that women faced in Galilee during the time of Jesus. The book then examines many of the women who followed Jesus, with prime concentration on Mary Magdalene. This is the best source I found concerning women and the social conditions in Galilee at the time of Jesus and will aid those studying not only Mary Magdalene, but other women followers of Jesus and women in Galilee at that time. Ricci received her doctorate from the University of Bologna. 

Schaberg, Jane. The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene. New York: Continuum Publishing, 2002.
Jane Schaberg's book takes an in-depth look at the life of Mary Magdalene by analyzing and evaluating her presence in early Christian texts and legends. She then looks at Gnostic texts and other sources that were termed heretical and believes that the Gnostic writings were seen this way due to the power struggle between Mary and Peter. She tries to restore Magdalene's image as a women who was faithful to her teacher to the end and that her labeling over time was due to the threat that a women was too close to Jesus and knew to much. She ends her book with excerpts from John 20 that link Mary as the possible successor to Jesus and the movement that he started. She received her Ph. D. in Biblical studies from Union Theological Seminary. 

Schlumpf, Heidi. 'Who Framed Mary Magdalene?' U.S. Catholic Apr 2000. available from Academic Search Premier (accessed 8 Nov 2005).
Heidi Schlumpf's article looks at how women today are trying to examine Mary Magdalene's role in the early church, the one that saw her as a prostitute and now as an advisor to the apostles, as a way of strengthening women's role in the church today. The breadth of the article examines the 4 Gospel accounts of Mary seeing Jesus after the Resurrection as well as how Pope Gregory the Great labeled her as a prostitute. It then discusses how Mary and Peter were at the center of the early church and Peter, being a male, became the leader and Mary's role became limited. I recommend the article to all readers who are doing research on Mary due to the quality of the work and the way the author breaks the article down into sections focusing on certain topics. 

Van Biema, David. 'Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner?' originally in Time 11 Aug 2003. available from <> (16 December 2005). 
This article examines the way Magdalene was wrongfully depicted as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great when he combined three Biblical Mary's into one person and the seven demons that were exorcised out of Mary were the seven vices. It then goes on to examine some of the thinking that Mary was pregnant with Jesus' child and started the Merovingian line of kings in France. Lastly, the article discusses the jealousy that Peter had in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary when Peter became enraged when Mary states that she has received private instruction from Jesus without the knowing of the Apostles. I recommend the article to all readers seeking to see how Mary was transformed from witness to prostitute and back again. David Van Biema is a writer for Time. The article is located at Dan Brown's website to provide background material on Mary Magdalene, who is a focal point of his book, The Da Vinci Code.

Witherington, Ben. 'Mary, Mary, Extraordinary.' Beliefnet.  Available from 
<> (16 December 2005).

The purpose of Witherington's article is prove that there is no historical evidence that Mary Magdalene's relationship was nothing more than student to teacher. He provides a background on who Mary Magdalene was, gives examples of where she appears in the New Testament, and defends that she was a devout follower of Jesus after he cast seven demons from her. He defends that Mary Magdalene was not a sinner, it was an assumption that occurred in the early Middle Ages. The article is well written and I recommend it to others who wish to know more about Mary and her appearances in the Bible. Witherington is a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. Witherington is also mentioned in an earlier citation focusing on an article by Jane Lampman.



Written by Mike Galli, 2005 November
last revision 2018

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