Who was Mary Magdalene?

The Penitent Magdalene (c. 1598) by Domenico Tintoretto

Mary Magdalene is one of the New Testament’s most famous characters. She is mentioned in all four canonical gospels, and was present at some of the most important episodes in the life of Jesus Christ.

Origin of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is believed to have come from the area around the Sea of Galilee and a clue to this lies in the name Magdalene. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee there is a town called Magdala which is mentioned in the New Testament itself and in various Jewish texts. In the way Leonardo of Vinci becomes Leonardo da Vinci, Mary of Magdala becomes Mary Magdalene, a person who’s home town becomes part of their name. Another clue to Mary’s origin is found in the New Testament which says that Jesus was active in the region of the Sea of Galilee.

The reputation of Mary Magdalene

Her reputation as a sinner and prostitute comes not from the gospels themselves, but from a misinterpretation of the stories they contained. It was believed that she was the same Mary who was the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke (7:35-50). This was confirmed by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century and the label stuck. it was not until 1969 that the Catholic Church stated she was not the same person as Martha’s sister or the repentant sinner. For 1400 years Mary Magdalene was branded a prostitute in Western art and culture.

Mary joins Jesus

The gospel of Luke says that Mary was possessed (Luke 8:2), and it was Jesus who cast out seven demons from her. Demon possession was a widespread belief at this time, and was blamed for people going astray from God’s message. It is believed that this was the incident which prompted Mary to become one of Jesus’ followers.

Mary and the Crucifixion

Mary Magdalene played a prominent role at the end of Jesus’ life and in some of the most important passages in the story of Christianity. She attended his crucifixion along with other women. A corpse was considered unclean and the task of handling dead bodies was given to women as was the Jewish custom at the time.

Mary at the tomb of Jesus

The gospel of John tells us that Mary kept a vigil at Jesus’ tomb: She enters the tomb to find his body is missing. In a state of panic, she reports to the other disciples what she has seen. Two disciples go back to the tomb with her and find just the linen burial cloth in the cave where Jesus was laid to rest.

These are two of the most pivotal moments in the story of Christianity, and Mary Magdalene was present at both. As a witness to the crucifixion and the missing body in the tomb, her role in the story is significant.

The gospel of Mary

In 1896 a German scholar was visiting a bazaar in Cairo when he discovered a book that turned out to be the gospel of Mary. The story in the book begins after the resurrection and just after the disciples have had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. It portrays Mary Magdalene as the leader of the group of disciples. This runs contrary to the accepted belief that it was Peter who was the leader of the movement and not Mary.

Jesus and Mary

A lot of speculation has surrounded the relationship between Jesus and Mary. The best-selling Dan Brown novel the Da Vinci Code says that Jesus and Mary were man and wife and had a child. None of the gospels in the New Testament confirm this, and so this is pure speculation in the face of no concrete evidence. Other sources, such as the gospel of Philip, which is a non-canonical gospel, hint at their closeness, but does not provide clear witness testimony as to the extent of their relationship.

What happened to Mary Magdalene?

Legend says that Mary Magdalene left the Holy Land after the crucifixion, but no one really knows for sure. She disappears and begins a journey into myth and legend. Much Western art has covered various interpretations of her, which has added to the aura. Mary was portrayed for centuries as a penitent sinner who was redeemed and became a symbol for redemption. As has been seen, the label as a sinner which was attributed to her was falsely applied and stayed with her throughout the centuries. It took a long time for the Church to forgive her for something she did not do.

We do not know what became of Mary Magdalene, but we do know that she became one of the most fascinating characters and powerful symbols in Christianity.