Jesus' faithful companion is often cast as reformed sinner, but she may have been anything but.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned 14 times in the Gospels – the accounts that describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and often leads the list of Jesus' female followers, who defied the idea that philosophical disciples were typically male. She is also mentioned five times in the Passion story, which includes some of her finest moments marked by sorrow. She supports Jesus when he is crucified by the Romans and mourns his death afterwards. He appears to her first after he rises again.
Seven demons to be precise. But what was Mary possessed with? Some believe that her demons were an illness, such as epilepsy, or, perhaps a type of mental illness. She wasn’t the only woman with a similar stigma; she is listed alongside Joanna and Susanna with similar issues in Luke 8:1-3.
It seems possible that due to their physical condition these women may have been social outcasts, which could explain why they followed Jesus after some kind of healing experience, embracing his message of hope, and acceptance.
Luke, one of the Gospel writers, tells a story about a sex worker. She – or her reputation – was known to a certain Pharisee who had Jesus over for a dinner. The woman enters, and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, kisses his feet, and anoints them with expensive perfume. We aren’t told anything else of her story, but the incident becomes a spiritual metaphor for forgiveness, as Jesus said “… I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little”. And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke, 7.47-48).
Despite a lack of evidence identifying this woman with Mary of Magdala, the story has undermined her character, particularly since the 6th century when Pope Gregory the Great declared that she, along with Mary, sister of Martha from Bethany (John 11,12), and the repentant sinner of Luke 7 were the same person. In both stories, Jesus responds to criticisms about the anointing; in Luke it is a Pharisee who complains, in John its Judas.
Whatever the reason behind the confusion, the idea of a penitent Magdalene has captivated preachers and artists alike.
Many scholars think that Mary’s title has nothing to do with the brothels of Magdala noted in Jewish texts, but could refer instead to her stature and role as a “watchtower” over the flock of disciples, echoing the prophecy of Micah 4:8-11. This could echo similar honorary titles given to other biblical characters in the same way that Jesus called Simon Peter a Rock (John 1.42).
But is there any evidence of Mary “towering” over other disciples? Yes, she was after all faithfully at the cross, when Jesus' male followers deserted him, and was the first witness of the resurrection.
While biblical stories go no further, non-canonical early Christian literature suggests that she had a leading position, and often demonstrated spiritual insight greater than that of the apostles. When asked “why do you love her more than all of us?” by his disciples, Jesus replies, “why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
The fragmented Gospel of Mary, from the 5th century, seems to address our concerns about her role, and revelation after Jesus' death. Both Andrew and Peter doubt Mary’s revelation “that the Saviour had spoken to her”. Andrew says, “… for indeed these teachings are strange ideas,” while Peter asks, “Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it … Did he choose her over us?”
After Mary weeps and pleads with them, Levi says to Peter: “For if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Saviour’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.”
While some dismiss non-canonical texts, it’s not impossible that Jesus may have had a partner or lover, and that his closest companion would be a significant witness to his legacy.
Girls and women are typically mentioned with a father or husband’s surname, so the use of the title Magdalene suggests that she was unmarried, or the title is honorary. Unlike previous scholars, we have more manuscript evidence to look at, such as the Gospel of Philip, dated around the 3rd century and which was rediscovered in the 1940s:
There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.
Jesus is reported to kiss her often, on her … – but then there is a tantalising gap of missing text.
So what happens in the biblical text when Mary Magdalene and Jesus are finally together, alone? This actually happens in John 20 as Jesus appears to Mary weeping beside the empty tomb: “Woman, why are you crying?” Crucially, the Greek word gunē (woman) of the original text could also mean “wife”. Jesus speaks a gentle word, “Mary”, she replies, “Rabboni” (teacher) and – the details are not described, but he tells her not to hold on to him now.
Theological tradition aside, the text allows for the possibility that here we find a man and his wife, a pair of lovers. In antiquity, gods, and divine beings, were anthropomorphic, and considered to have human traits, including sexuality. This is, however, not how Jesus' story has been interpreted. Instead he is portrayed as both asexual and a spiritual teacher: in stories when women touch and kiss him, the gospel writers turn our attention to spiritual things, his sacrificial death, and forgiveness of our sins. Mary, however, will continue to haunt the story.