“Jesus was the original feminist. He intended for the future of His Church to be in the hands of Mary Magdalene.” Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code
Patriarchy literally means “rule of fathers.” In the patriarchal Hebrew society during biblical times, women were considered inferior. Young girls were subjects of their father until a marriage was arranged and subsequently her husband became her master. A man could take more than one wife and could easily divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The primary role of women was bearing children. Since women could not inherit property, widows were dependent on their sons.
Adultery by a woman was punishable by death – either by stoning or burning – but there was no punishment for unfaithful husbands. Any sexual transgression by a woman was a crime, because the husband’s property rights had been violated.
Jesus evidently did not believe in patriarchy because women were prominent in his ministry.
Women in Jesus’ Ministry
Contrary to the custom of the period, Jesus accepted women among his followers. Although none of the women are ever identified as “disciples,” certain gospels passages indicate that some of them may have been equal to the disciples, particularly Mary Magdalene. Mark writes that women followed Jesus in Galilee and ministered to him (Mark 15:40-41). Like Mark, Matthew 17:55 refers to women who “followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.” Luke 8:1-3 mentions that Jesus and the disciples were accompanied by women and he specifically mentions Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others, “who provided for them out of their own resources” (meaning that they must have had considerable wealth). Jesus’ death and the events accompanying it mention the presence of women and some of those women witnessed the crucifixion, Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. Pope Benedict XVI considered it an obvious fact that “many women were also chosen to number among the disciples.”
Even though society forbade women from sitting with the men in the synagogue, walking beside their husbands, or defending themselves in court, Jesus appears to have considered them equal to men. He also opposed the moral standards of the time that demanded more from women than men and he was completely opposed to the practice of stoning women for their sins.
Considering the patriarchal society of first century Galilee, it is amazing that so many women are mentioned in the gospels. The one we are particularly interested in is Mary Magdalene, the woman who was incorrectly identified as an adulteress and repentant prostitute.
Most New Testament women are identified by their relationship to men, like Mary the wife of Clopas, for example. But Mary Magdalene is never identified as married, but a free woman who never married would have been exceedingly rare during this era. Women were considered untrustworthy in the Roman world, and the gospels, eager to make new converts, probably did not want to highlight the fact that a woman was a key witness to the resurrection. It also may be that Mary Magdalene provided financial support for Jesus’ ministry.
Mary Magdalene in the Gospels
In the earliest gospel, Mark, Mary Magdalene first appears in a group of women who were witnessing the crucifixion from a distance. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James the younger, Joses and Salome (most likely Jesus’ mother) are the only ones who are named (Mark 15:40). Then Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (presumably the same person from the previous verse) followed to determine where Jesus was buried (Mark 15:47) and later she and the same Mary (the mother of James and Salome) bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). According to Mark 16:9, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection.
In Matthew, Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion with a slightly different group of women: Mary the mother of James and Joseph (is this Jesus’ mother too; did Matthew change Mark’s Joses to Joseph?), plus the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56). He reports that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (since Mark said Mary, the mother of James, Joseph, Joses and Salome, and Mary Magdalene witnessed the crucifixion together, it seems likely the same two women were still together) watching near the grave when the stone was rolled to seal the tomb (Matthew 27:61). After the Sabbath had been celebrated, at dawn the next morning Mary Magdalene and the same “other Mary” went to the grave site to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices that Mark said they had purchased (Matthew 28:1).
According to Luke, a woman from the city heard that Jesus was eating at a Pharisee’s house. She went to the residence, bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and kissed his feet. Then she anointed them with an ointment that she had brought in an alabaster jar. The host, a Pharisee named Simon, questioned why Jesus, if he was a prophet, would allow such “a sinner” to touch him. In response, Jesus shared the parable of two debtors. At the end of the story, Jesus tells Simon that the woman’s many sins have been forgiven because of her great love (Luke 7:36-50). Many scholars agree that this woman was Mary Magdalene.
In his 591 CE Homily 33, Pope Gregory used flimsy evidence to claim that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? …It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”
Also in Luke, Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who followed Jesus and the disciples as the good news of the kingdom of God was proclaimed in several cities and villages (Luke 8:1-3).
Mary Magdalene is assumed to be one of the “they” in Luke who brought spices to the tomb at daybreak on Sunday. When the women found the stone no longer in front of the door to the tomb, they entered and found Jesus’ body was not there. They were perplexed, but two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appeared and said, “He has been raised.” The men reminded the women that back in Galilee Jesus had said that “the Son of Man” had to be handed over, crucified, but would rise on the third day. The women remembered and left the tomb area to tell the eleven (minus Judas; Luke also calls them “the apostles”) and others what had happened, but they did not believe them. Luke then names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James (why isn’t she called Jesus’ mother?), but there were others who were not named (Luke 24:1-12).
According to John 11:1-2, it is Mary who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Then later, it is Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard (spikenard) and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:3). John does not identify this Mary as Mary Magdalene, but Margaret Starbird and Saint Bernard were convinced that it is extremely likely.
John 19:25 lists the women at the crucifixion as Jesus’ mother, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. He also claims it was Mary Magdalene alone who came to the tomb at dawn and saw that the stone no longer covered the entrance (John 20:1). And it was Mary Magdalene alone who reported to the disciples that she had seen the risen Jesus and he had talked to her (John 20:18).
That ends the evidence in Christian scriptures that we have concerning Mary Magdalene. Such a critical figure in Jesus’ earthly ministry, crucifixion, death and resurrection is never heard from again.
Are Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany the Same Person?
According to Margaret Starbird in The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mary Magdalene is the same as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus who is mentioned in the gospels of Luke and John. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux repeatedly claimed in his sermons that Mary of Bethany is the same as Mary Magdalene.
Luke says Jesus entered the house of Mary and Martha where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching while her sister, Martha, worked, most likely preparing a meal. Martha objected to Jesus that Mary was not helping her, but Jesus told her that Mary had chosen to do the right and better thing (Luke 10:38-42).
It is a fair conclusion that the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany (Luke 7:36-50) and the woman who anointed his dead body (Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:1) are the same person – Mary Magdalene.
The Early Church Needed a Feminine Influence
The early Christian movement was decidedly masculine, but somewhere along the way, there was a need for the feminine, so the early church chose to deify Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the Blessed Virgin Mother.
Isn’t it rather strange that Jesus’ mother is so honored when he reportedly spoke to her twice and on both occasions addresses her as “woman”? Yet the early Church desperately needed to include a touch of goddess worship to placate the masses, so they chose as her new representative a woman who was not likely to cause dissension, rather than the more dangerous woman who Jesus apparently adored, Mary Magdalene.
The Apostle of the Apostles
As Jesus was hanging on the cross, she was there. Before dawn on the day after the Sabbath, she went to the tomb to anoint his body. Finding the tomb empty, confused and afraid, she goes back to tell the others (in one of the gospels the women are so frightened they run away and tell no one; in others the disciples have already gone back to Galilee, so who did she tell?). Then, in John, she hears a voice questioning her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Thinking it was the gardener, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then, when he says her name, she recognized him. Jesus would not allow her to touch him, but told her to go tell the disciples that he was “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Notice: he didn’t say, I am ascending to myself). She tells them, “I have seen the Lord.”
In 1969, the Catholic Church officially admitted that Pope Gregory’s depiction of her as a prostitute was false, but, for many Christians, her reputation had already been damaged. In 1988 Pope John Paul II said, this “woman proved stronger than the Apostles” and called Mary Magdalene the “apostle of the apostles.”
Gnostic Gospels and the Golden Legend
In the rather recently uncovered Gnostic Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is depicted as one of the primary leaders of the disciples, perhaps even the most important disciple, in the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the Gospel of Mary, she and Jesus consider gender irrelevant. There is evidence that some of the disciples, specifically Peter, did not like the attention and preferential treatment that Mary received from Jesus. Mary feels threatened and tells Jesus of the threats and that Peter “hates our race” (meaning women). Of course, it was Peter who won, so it is his version of Christianity that has survived. It was Peter’s church that labeled Mary Magdalene a prostitute, so isn’t it possible that they, as much as possible, also expunged her from canonical scripture?
In the Gospel of Thomas, another Gnostic gospel, Mary Magdalene and another woman, (Salome, Jesus’ sister, perhaps?), are two of the six true disciples (not twelve).
In 1275, Jacobus de Voragine, the Archbishop of Genoa, authored The Golden Legend, which claimed Mary Magdalene had fled Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and settled in southern France. There, she preached the gospel before retiring to a cave. The tale was widely read during the Middle Ages and the legend persists today.
Were Mary Magdalene and Jesus Married?
Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, suspects that Jesus had a secret dynastic marriage with Mary of Bethany. And she believes that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene to be the same person.
John Shelby Spong admits there is a strong case that Jesus and Magdalene were husband and wife. All Jewish males, but particularly priests and rabbis, were supposed to marry and it was an insult to God to abstain from procreation. If Jesus had not been married, surely his Pharisee enemies would have pointed out this outrageous behavior or would have at least questioned Jesus about it.
According to John’s gospel, Jesus’ mother was in charge of the servants at the marriage in Cana (John 2:1-11). According to Jewish tradition, it is the mother of the groom who is in charge of the preparation and serving of the food and beverages. Therefore it is plausible, although merely speculation, that the wedding in Cana was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene.
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code present evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, however there is nothing in scripture that proves it, nor is there anything in the New Testament that says Jesus was unmarried, that he made a vow of celibacy or avoided sexual intercourse. If Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, why wasn’t it mentioned in the New Testament? There are several potential answers, but two are: the Catholic Church edited it out before the biblical canon was closed and there was a physical threat to Mary after the crucifixion, which was enough to exclude her name from all written records. The two books mentioned above speculate that Mary was pregnant with Jesus’ child, which was widely believed during the Middle Ages. Her life would have been in danger because she bore his heir, the heir to the Davidic throne. Accordingly, she fled the country immediately after the crucifixion for fear of reprisal against herself and her unborn child.
What is it about the idea of Jesus being married and having fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” that upsets people? When people react negatively to this idea it is as if Jesus was being accused of committing fornication or adultery.
According to Gnostic tradition, Mary Magdalene was 27 years old when she married Jesus. She gave birth to three of his children: a girl named Tamar, a son named Jesus, and a son named Joseph. The Gnostics claim that Mary died in Southern France in 63 CE at the age of 60. Another source claims Mary gave birth to a daughter named Sarah.
Whether Jesus perished on the cross or was incapacitated as a result, he never gained political power, so Mary Magdalene left the country, perhaps eventually arriving in Southern France. It seems very possible that, without Jesus as her protector, Mary felt threatened by her old nemesis, Peter.
In Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s The Templar Revelation, they admit that many of the details about Mary Magdalene’s flight to France are legend, but they think that there are enough reasons to suspect that the story is based on fact. According to legend, soon after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene left the Holy Land, crossed the Mediterranean and ended up in Southern France. She reportedly traveled the region, preaching the gospel that had been directly transmitted to her by Jesus. French religious literature from the Middle Ages is filled with legends and stories of the life of Mary Magdalene. In southern France, particularly the Languedoc region, Mary Magdalene takes the place normally associated with Jesus’ mother, Mary.
The Primary Woman in the Christian Story
According to John Shelby Spong, the primary female figure in the Christian story should be Mary Magdalene, not the “Virgin Mary.” Placed beside Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother is a pale, shadowy figure in the gospels. However, history was rewritten and the woman who was at Jesus’ side during his earthly life had her character assassinated by the church and the sexless virgin became the primary woman in the Christian story.
Although the real Mary Magdalene is still shrouded in mystery, it just might be that she best represents the feminine side of Christianity.