5 Myths of the Life of Mary Magdalene
St. Mary Magdalene has the distinction of being one of Jesus' most faithful disciples. She stood at the foot of the cross (Matt 27:56, John 19:25) and she was the first to see the resurrected Lord on Easter Sunday (Matt 28:5-10, Mark 16:9, John 20:14-16). In his letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, St. John Paul II reminds us of her beautiful title of “apostle of the apostles.” St. Luke has her among the first women to anoint the body of Jesus on Easter Sunday (24:10). For such an important figure in the days of the apostles, she’s a very misunderstood figure. Some misunderstandings are relatively benign and other misconceptions fall completely outside of orthodox Christianity. Aside from her fidelity to Jesus during His Passion, what we know about St. Mary is:
- Seven demons were cast out of her (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2)
- Biblical scholars generally agree she was from Magdala, a town on the Sea of Galilee (Matt 15:39)
- She was among the women who traveled with Jesus during His ministry (Luke 8:2-3)
That’s not a lot! To 21st century historical standards, this is difficult. We want citations, references, biographical information, and as little ambiguity as possible. After that short list of what we do know about St. Mary Magdalene, biblical scholars are divided on whether she is the main figure in other stories.
It's not helpful that Mary was a common name in 1st Century Palestine, and we see it a few times in the gospels. There was the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the wife of Cleopas. Of even less help is that central figures in gospel accounts aren’t always mentioned by name. Among the seemingly anonymous women in the gospels are the adulteress (John 8:3-11), the penitent woman who anoints Jesus with oil (Matthew, Mark, & John), and the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:37-50). All three have at some time been associated with St. Mary Magdalene in the Roman (Western) Church, which is reflected in the liturgical calendar. In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is July 22, and St. Martha’s feast day is a week later on July 29. St. Mary of Bethany doesn’t have her own feast day, nor does she share her sister Martha’s feast.
The Eastern Rites, on the other hand, take the adulteress, penitent woman, and anointing woman to be separate persons. And, St. Mary of Bethany is distinct from St. Mary Magdalene, as evidenced on their liturgical calendar.
With the passage of time, the lack of exact details, and the disagreement among theologians, historians, and biblical scholars we aren’t able to come to a definitive conclusion about St. Mary Magdalene’s identity in terms of these stories. Are these myths, harmless speculations, or factual?
Myth #1: Mary as the adulteress, John 8:3-11
Among the beautiful scenes in the Bible, the end of this story must be one of the most heart-warming to sinners. The Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus in order to test Him—she was caught in the act of adultery, and the Mosaic Law was clear on the consequences: death by stoning. Jesus draws in the sand and invites the sinless among the crowd to take the first throw. As the crowd departs, Jesus treats her with mercy and His great love. He sends her on her way, telling her to sin no more. Imagine the scene: her panic and fear, then relief; Jesus sees not the sin, but the soul wounded by sin. What peace must have entered her heart upon receiving His mercy!
Religious art throughout the centuries depicts St. Mary as the adulteress, due to assertions from St. Gregory the Great and Hippolytus. It’s important to note here that Pope St. Gregory’s hypothesis came from his Homilies on the Gospels, not from a doctrinal decree. Added onto that list are recent films that have St. Mary as the adulteress: The Passion of the Christ (directed by Mel Gibson) and the older miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In the text of the gospel story, however, the details are too scant to conclude that the adulteress is St. Mary. St. John could have had any number of reasons to leave out the name of the woman, and any speculation on the part of Christians is just speculation.
We are not bound to believe that the two women are the same person, and neither are we barred from believing it. Certainly, St. Mary’s exorcism experience would result in great peace and healing, similar to the adulteress.
Myth #2: Mary as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus
Mary and Martha are figures in one of the more well-known accounts in St. Luke’s gospel; they lived in Bethany, a town situated less than two miles from Jerusalem, at the base of the Mount of Olives. Here, Jesus famously raised the brother of Mary & Martha, Lazarus, from the dead (John 11:1-44). In that passage, St. John verifies St. Luke that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were siblings (v. 1-2).
Are Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany the same person? It’s conceivable that the former Mary would be incredibly thankful and devoted to Jesus after having seven demons expelled from her. From there, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see her earnestly attentive at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:38-42) while her sister Martha busied about the house. If indeed the two Marys are one person, imagine how profoundly beholden she would be to Jesus after her exorcism and the resurrection of her brother, Lazarus! That’s in character with someone willing to stand at the foot of the cross. “The very intensity with which Mary loved Jesus may well have been the result of the depths from which He rescued her.”
Textually, we don’t have too much to go on until we examine the anointing episodes in all four gospels.
Myth #3: Mary as the woman who anoints Jesus with expensive oil (John 12:1-8)
St. Matthew and St. Mark mention a woman at Bethany anointing the head of Jesus but omit the name. St. John fills in the blank, identifying the woman as Mary, pointing toward Mary of Bethany (11:2). He also changes the anointing from Jesus’ head to His feet. St. Luke has a story similar in some details, but different in larger details. For that reason, Luke’s account will be treated separately. The details in Matthew, Mark, and John differ slightly as well. St. Matthew and St. Mark place the event at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany; John notes the location as Bethany, and only mentions that Martha prepared the meal.
The reference in John 11 comes across a bit unusual since the evangelist alludes to the anointing story before telling it in the following chapter (12:1-8). Msgr. Ronald Knox, an English priest & translator of St. Jerome’s Vulgate into English, suggested that these verses imply an assumption on St. John’s part, that his readers would be familiar with the three siblings from Bethany.
Taking St. Matthew’s, St. Mark’s, and St. John’s accounts together, it appears they speak of one person. Despite the details not lining up exactly, the stories share enough common elements to reasonably conclude they chronicle the same event. Although we can draw that the “anointing woman” could likely be Mary of Bethany, she isn’t necessarily St. Mary Magdalene.
Myth #4: Mary as the penitent woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment (Luke 7:36-50)
Luke has his version of this story occur in the house of Simon the Pharisee, as opposed to Simon the leper. Simon cringes when the woman comes in, and inwardly reproaches Jesus for not rebuffing her. From his strong reaction, this woman was guilty of some sort of public sin. The reaction occasioned by a public sin such as adultery is a possible reading, potentially connecting the adulteress and the woman in this story. If those two women are the same, is it possible that Simon was among the crowd, with a stone in his hand?
This story differs from St. Matthew’s, St. Mark’s, and St. John’s accounts primarily in the presence of a public sin. Mary of Bethany was never credited with a public sin in other gospel passages. The presence of seven demons in Mary Magdalene easily point to the possibility of a public sin, but demons affected biblical characters in ways that didn’t necessarily include public sin—sicknesses, for example (Matt 12:22). It’s possible that St. Mary Magdalene was St. Luke’s anointing woman.
Reasons pointing away from St. Mary Magdalene being the anointing woman in Luke? If they were the same person, it seems strange that St. Luke would feature St. Mary in a story at the end of ch. 7, and wait to introduce her until the beginning of ch. 8. This could fall under the same reasoning as St. John’s out of order ordering; perhaps St. Luke presumes familiarity on the part of his audience.
Myth #5: Mary Magdalene, spouse of Jesus
Perhaps one of the most damaging of these 5 Myths of the life of Mary Magdalene are the myths that confuse the nature of her relationship with Christ. Dan Brown’s bestselling fiction novel, The DaVinci Code, renewed great interest in Mary Magdalene (here the fictionalized person is distinguished from the real St. Mary Magdalene). In the novel, a symbologist unravels a secret conspiracy: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife, had a daughter, and their lineage continued through the millennia to the present day. Here the absence of evidence is taken as evidence of a conspiracy, and the ultimate villain in the novel is the Catholic Church. The Church suppressed the secret at all costs, employing lies and murder down through the centuries.
Although the success of The DaVinci Code made it feel like a fresh, new theory, the “Jesus bloodline” theory is very old. A 13th century Cistercian monk makes note of it; the Merovingian kings were said to be descended from the bloodline; a 19th century French politician also wrote a book on it. Books in the 1980s and 1990s also explored the same hypothesis, most notably The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, on which Dan Brown based many elements from The DaVinci Code.
Nor has it slowed down! Mary Magdalene’s supposed mummified remains were claimed to have been found, and investigated in a 2008 documentary; four years later, the amateur archaeologist admitted the entire project to be a hoax. Not long after The DaVinci Code came out, another novelist claimed to be the actual descendent of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, having received visions/visitations from the latter. A fragment of papyrus was rediscovered in 2012 with the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’...” It was initially deemed to be a fake, but then proved to be ancient in origin. I would add that the orthodoxy of the fragment hasn’t been proved yet. An internet search unearths a trove of stories, claims, artifacts, and theories.
Let’s return to the devoted disciple, St. Mary Magdalene. Could she have been the wife of Jesus? There’s a compelling argument that no such marriage ever took place in the deafening silence on the matter—in canonical and orthodox writings. Mark Brumley points out not just the lack of scriptural evidence, but also the silence in the writings of the earliest of the Church Fathers. Even though this theory comes up in the non-canonical, heterodox “gospels,” none have ever been added to the Bible. No major Christian denomination takes the theory seriously enough to include it in their doctrines of faith. And, in my opinion, the more numerous the hoaxes, the higher the burden of proof.
Outside of empirical arguments, there are also spiritual concerns. Questioning Jesus’ marital status raises problems with other tenets of our faith: primarily, the Church described as the bride of Christ. St. Paul uses a mystical, matrimonial union of Christ and the Church as a teaching point for the Ephesians, in chapter 5. Why would St. Paul teach about Jesus’ mystical union with His Church, if Jesus already had a bride? Also spiritually troubling is the argument of “enjoying a harmless novel.” Would the “pillar and foundation of truth” lie about Our Lord, Whom she loves most dearly? And if we believe St. Paul’s description of the Church as the pillar of truth, how could we, at the same time, speculate that the Church has lied or could lie for millennia about the relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalene? Is a novel that promotes that actually harmless?
The women in the biblical stories have much in common with St. Mary Magdalene, regardless of their exact identities. St. Mary was healed by the mercy of God, just as the adulteress was, as was the penitent woman. We have much to learn from St. Mary in her response to her healing: she followed Jesus to the end, to His very last breath. Jesus worked in her heart in a powerful way to engender such love on St. Mary’s part! In that great love for Our Lord, St. Mary is the spiritual kinswoman of the woman/women who anointed Jesus at Bethany. In the ancient world, it was common to use a few drops of perfume when anointing. The act of emptying the jar of ointment was an extravagant gesture, love, and honor. Let us accompany St. Mary Magdalene as she follows Jesus, loves Him, and adheres her heart to Him.