Who Do You Say That She Was?

The Legends of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is, I believe, the most misunderstood and historically distorted of Jesus’s followers recorded in the New Testament. Consider this.

Mary is only mentioned by name in the New Testament twelve times (by all four Gospel authors). Eleven out of those twelve mentions are the accounts of her witnessing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The one time she’s referenced elsewhere, we find the only biographical tidbits the Scripture provides: she had been delivered from seven demons (by Jesus, we assume, given the context) and, along with some other women, was accompanying Jesus’s itinerant cohort, and perhaps contributing financially to its support (Luke 8:2–3). That’s it.

And yet Mary Magdalene’s Wikipedia page offers more content than that of the apostle Peter, the apostle Paul, or the Virgin Mary. Wikipedia is by no means the measure of a biblical character’s significance, but given her sparse coverage in the Bible, it is reflective of the strange historical phenomenon that is Mary Magdalene — or rather, the legends of Mary Magdalene.

Sexually Scandalous Past?

Many in Western church traditions have somehow gathered the impression that Mary was either a former prostitute or had some kind of sexually immoral past (the Eastern traditions never bought in). Since this is not in Scripture, where did that impression come from?

Though it probably originated earlier, this idea likely gained the most traction after Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) gave a homily in AD 591, in which he claimed that the anonymous sinful woman in Luke 7:36–50 (he assumed the sin was sexual) and Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus’s feet in John 12:3–7, both referred to Mary Magdalene. Though there is no textual ground for this conclusion, it became a dominant interpretation for many centuries, creating a narrative about Mary that took hold in the popular imagination.

“Mary Magdalene is the most misunderstood and historically distorted of Jesus’s followers in the New Testament.”

Then, in the Middle Ages, this imagination fueled the writing of increasingly fantastic, detailed, and completely fictional biographies of Mary. And they varied widely. Most described her as engaging in some kind of sexual immorality before her conversion. After Jesus ascended, some say she retreated to the desert to live as a holy, celibate ascetic; some have her marrying the apostle John (even asserting that the water-to-wine wedding in Cana was theirs); and some say she lived with Jesus’s mother in Ephesus.

All of this — speculative scriptural exegesis and baseless biographies — was reflected in paintings and sculptures of Mary by great artists from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and even modern eras. This only reinforced in the popular imagination the idea that Mary Magdalene was a woman with a sexually scandalous past.

Married to the Messiah?

In 2003, author Dan Brown caused a stir with his work of “historical” fiction, The Da Vinci Code. The mystery-thriller’s plot is crafted around an alleged devastating secret that the Roman Catholic Church supposedly has been guarding for many centuries: that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, was pregnant with Jesus’s child during the crucifixion, gave birth to a daughter named Sarah, and moved to what is now southern France, where Sarah ended up marrying into an ancient line of French kings and her bloodline (and therefore Jesus’s) continues to this day. According to this story, the “holy grail” of legend was not the chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper, but rather Mary herself. Brown asserted that he had built his fictional story on historical facts, but most scholars, both religious and nonreligious, have roundly discredited his claims.

The question is, Where in the world did such an idea about Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene come from? If we follow the thread of bizarre and sordid Magdalene legends back far enough, they lead us to apocryphal, Gnostic Christian documents written long after the New Testament documents (and Mary’s lifetime), between the second and fifth centuries. And while these don’t provide us accurate information about Mary Magdalene (or Jesus or the apostles), they do give us a glimpse of the legends being circulated at that time.

“We have no historical reason to believe anything about Mary Magdalene besides what Scripture says about her.”

Of the Gnostic writings that have been found, Mary is featured in varying prominence in five: Dialogue of the Savior, Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, and The Gospel of Mary (most scholars believe this to refer to Magdalene). All of these portray Mary as having an honored place among the apostles, and some cast her as Jesus’s favorite. The Gospel of Philip refers to her special status as Jesus’s “companion” (koinônos), an ambiguous term that could indicate either an erotic or platonic relationship, and mentions Jesus kissing her often, possibly on the mouth.

Mix these Gnostic accounts with the far-fetched biographies of the Middle Ages, add the fallen human propensity to deception, lasciviousness, and fascination with scandal, and it’s not surprising you get the holy Magdalene grail of Dan Brown’s novel (and its tens of millions sold), which made a deeply distorted picture of Mary Magdalene a prurient talking point in twenty-first century pop culture.

What We Do Know

The truth is that we have no historical reason to believe anything about Mary Magdalene besides the very limited, yet very significant, amount the Scripture says about her. And here is what it tells us.

We know Mary was from the town of Magdala, on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. It was known for its fishing industry, though some scholars believe it also had a reputation for prostitution. We know Mary certainly did have a troubled past, for seven demons had been cast out of her (Luke 8:2). Why she had the seven demons, we don’t know. Could it have come from something like prostitution or some other sexual involvement? Or abuse? It’s possible. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The Spirit has veiled Mary’s past in obscurity, and too much speculation would miss the point.

What the Spirit tells us clearly about her in all four Gospels (a rare honor) is that she was present at Jesus’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25–27) and at his burial (Matthew 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47). And then she was the first of Jesus’s followers to see the tomb empty, the first to see and speak to the risen Jesus, and the first to witness to others of his resurrection (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:10–12; John 20:1–18).

This is one of the important truths I believe the Spirit wants us to see: a woman with a troubled past, perhaps the kind of past that we might have, was granted the gracious honor of being first.

Who Do You Say That She Is?

In first-century Palestine, a woman with a troubled past would be the last person anyone would expect to be chosen for these “firsts.” I’m sure Mary was as surprised as anyone. But Jesus had said that, in the kingdom of heaven, “the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16), and he wasted no time beginning to make good on that prophecy on the very first day of the new creation.

“Mary is a beautiful picture of the overwhelming grace of God being extended to unworthy people, like us, in Jesus.”

Mary had a shameful pedigree, but she loved and trusted Jesus. And through her faith she was given overwhelming gifts she didn’t deserve (the firsts of Easter Sunday being some of the least of them). Mary received something infinitely better than being married to the earthly Jesus; she was granted the unfathomable privilege of becoming part of his Bride, the church (Revelation 21:9). Mary received something infinitely better than bearing Jesus’s earthly daughter; she was granted the unfathomable privilege of becoming a daughter of God through Jesus (Ephesians 1:5).

There are far more wonderful things to see in the little that Scripture says of Mary Magdalene than in all the volumes of distorting speculation and ridiculous folly that have been produced over the centuries. She is mainly a beautiful picture of the overwhelming grace of God, in Jesus, being extended to unworthy people, like us.