A Much-Maligned Saint Among Sinners
Today (July 22) is the feast day to celebrate the life and work of St. Mary Magdalene, a woman whose existence we know of only through the four gospels, who mention her a total of twelve times. But oh! what she accomplished, just by being in the right place at the right time.
All four gospels agree that Mary was among the women who observed Jesus’ crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, in the tomb made available by Joseph of Arimathea, and then, early that following Sunday morning, was among the first to discover that the tomb was empty (John gives her the credit of being the very first):
Gospel of Mark: 15:40 There were also women, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 15:41 When he was in Galilee, they had followed him and given him support. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were there too…. 15:46 After Joseph bought a linen cloth and took down the body, he wrapped it in the linen and placed it in a tomb cut out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone across the entrance of the tomb. 15:47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was placed. 16:1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him. 16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, at sunrise, they went to the tomb.
Gospel of Matthew: 27:55 Many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and given him support were also there, watching from a distance. 27:56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee…. 27:59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 27:60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut in the rock. Then he rolled a great stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. 27:61 (Now Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there, opposite the tomb.) ... 28:1 Now after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
Gospel of Luke: 23:49 And all those who knew Jesus stood at a distance, and the women who had followed him from Galilee saw these things…. 23:53 Then [Joseph] took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and placed it in a tomb cut out of the rock, where no one had yet been buried. 23:54 It was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. 23:55 The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 23:56 Then they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. 24:1 Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. 24:2 They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, 24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 24:5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 24:6 He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 24:7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 24:8 Then the women remembered his words, 24:9 and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles.
Gospel of John: 19:25 Now standing beside Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene…. 19:38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took the body away…. 19:42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was nearby, they placed Jesus’ body there. 20:1 Now very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance. 20:2 So she went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Luke, Matthew and Mark all trace Mary Magdalene’s association with Jesus from the time that he was preaching in Galilee. Indeed, Luke alone adds this telling detail:
Gospel of Luke: 8:1 Some time afterward he went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 8:2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out ...
Good historian that he is, Luke thus provides the reader with a motive for Mary Magdalene’s devotion to Jesus, and for her following him to Jerusalem.
Now, if I asked you to name the first word that came into your mind when I said the words “Mary Magdalene”, I have little doubt that a good number of readers would respond (if they were being honest with themselves) that it was “prostitute”, “whore”, “harlot”, or some similar aspersion.
And so I have to ask further: How so? Given the above accounts from the four gospels, which are (I repeat) our only sources as to the history and motives of the Saint we honor today, what explanation can be given for her association today with such opprobrious epithets?
The simple answer, in many cases, would be that scourge of Christian scholars, the infamous novel The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. But where did he get the notion so to portray a saint whose chief mission in life was to honor the Jesus who had freed her from demons, and to give him the anointment in death which he, as a Jew, traditionally deserved?
And now we enter upon a tangled tale. Some early church fathers (also venerated as saints) conflated her with the woman Luke describes in chapter 7 of his gospel, immediately preceding the passage at the beginning of chapter 8 which specifically identifies Mary Magdalene as quoted above:
7:36 Now one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 7:37 Then when a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. 7:38 As she stood behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil. 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” 7:40 So Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 7:41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. 7:42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 7:43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 7:44 Then, turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house. You gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 7:45 You gave me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing my feet. 7:46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil. 7:47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.” 7:48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 7:49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 7:50 He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Luke, who is so precise with names, does not identify the woman who anointed Jesus with oil while he was still alive and in Galilee—but in the very next sentences (beginning with “Some time afterward”) he does identify Mary Magdalene by name, and mentions that Jesus drove from her “seven demons.” The scene of the anointment which precedes this has no description of a demon-possessed woman, and so there is no textual basis whatsoever upon which to conflate the two women. Yet St. Ephrem of Syria and Pope Gregory the Great were among the first to do so, and once their mistakes circulated among other medieval writers and scholars, the legend of “Mary Magdalene the prostitute” was established by sheer repetition.
In the 1890’s, a Coptic manuscript from the fifth century was discovered in Egypt, and taken to the Berlin Museum, where it was eventually transcribed and published. It contains, among other documents, a fragmentary transcription from the Greek of what it entitles “The Gospel of Mary”—note that the name “Magdalene” appears nowhere in the manuscript. But it entertains with some picturesque reactions to Mary’s “vision” of Christ, as expressed by the apostles Andrew and Peter:
But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, “Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.”
Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Savior. “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
And on the strength solely of the jealousies so expressed, the fragment was considered by a number of scholars to portray the post-resurrection career of St. Mary Magdalene.
So now (beginning in 1900, and accelerated after the discovery of the additional Coptic manuscripts at Nag Hammadi in 1945, in particular the “Gospel of Philip”, the “Gospel of Thomas”, and the “Pistis Sophia”) we know that the Gnostics fastened upon the character of Mary Magdalene, and portrayed her as Jesus’ most favored companion and confidante, with the ensuing jealously of Peter and the other disciples. Given the quality of the ideas and concepts conveyed in these Gnostic manuscripts, however, even the most devoted of feminist scholars has to struggle mightily to overcome the collective impression they give, which (not to be equivocal or unduly delicate, but admittedly a bit anachronistic) mostly amounts to that of a first-century soap opera.
And the defiling of Saint Mary Magdalene’s reputation continues—especially among post-modernists and those who (egged on by the apostate Bart Ehrman and his ilk) think the Gnostics were the unjustly suppressed conveyers of “true” early Christianity. Adding on to the soap opera of the manuscripts, we now have a full-fledged grand opera, duly entitled “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” (even though there is, as pointed out above, no manuscript extant with that title), which had its world premiere in San Francisco last month.
The composer and librettist, Mark Adamo, very frankly states what he set out to do with the legends that now surround the character of Mary Magdalene:
“No Gospel was written as history. But every gospel—not only those included in the New Testament—contains fragments of the history of Jesus of Nazareth and of those who followed him. In 2007 I wondered: could you develop from those fragments a credibly human original version of the story that we know only through its later, magical embellishments? In such a new New Testament, might its women characters speak as eloquently as its men? (The Gnostic Gospels suggest as much.) And might such a story gain, rather than lose, nobility, breadth, passion, nerve, if—instead of the usual saints, angels, and sinners—it centered on human beings making momentous decisions guided only by painful experience, moral intuition, and the light they have to see by? The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is my answer.”
Well, to give women their voice, and Mary Magdalene hers in particular, Mr. Adamo has had to jettison certain traditional concepts of Christianity, such as the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ celibacy (and purity), and—not least of all—the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb. Musically, the opera is beautifully scored, and all of the text, which Mr. Adamo labored for five years assembling, is heard effortlessly, pointed up dramatically (e.g., a declaration by St. Peter that is delivered wholly unaccompanied), and used for striking rhetorical effect (by having different characters express identical words in different contexts).
Thus, your Curmudgeon (who attended the performance on July 2) has no problem grading the opera musically with an “A”, but theologically it receives an “F.” With Jesus still lying dead in the tomb when Mary Magdalene enters it to anoint him, the whole point of her subsequent passion expressed to his disciples—to say nothing of those disciples who willingly went to martyrdom for their convictions that Jesus was truly risen from the dead—is robbed of meaning. It becomes just another hippie mantra of universal love, as banal as it sounds.
Instead of Jesus being “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, ... the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things,” as we heard in the Epistle for this past Sunday, the Jesus of Mark Adamo is relegated to an aphorist, spouting such paradoxical truths as “In order to find something you must lose it; and in order to hold onto something, open your hand.”
As a reader might intimate, the experience for this Christian was maddeningly frustrating—the music, set, and singing were all marvelous, but to have so much money lavished upon such twaddle sung so beautifully was ultimately extremely unsatisfying. Indeed, when the question was repeatedly asked of Jesus—by Mary Magdalene, then by Mary (Jesus’ mother), and again by Peter (an instance of the rhetorical effects mentioned earlier): “I don’t know what it is that we have to lose you [the human Jesus] for in order to find”—it was all this attendee could do to restrain himself from shouting out into the auditorium:
Ah, well. For more comment and detail on my experience of the opera, see the latest episode of Anglican Unscripted #76 (beginning at 21:08). And as for Saint Mary Magdalene, I pray to her today that she may, notwithstanding, intercede for us miserable sinners who so dishonor her holy name.
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