Mary as an apostle posed a threat to the early Church patriarchs who denied women all authority in the Church. In addition, by early in the first century C.E., Mary Magdalene had become associated with Christian thought identified as heretical by the Church. The easiest way to eliminate Mary’s importance was to cast aspersions on her moral character.
In 597 C.E. Pope Gregory, while preaching to a congregation of brothers, conflated the figures of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of Luke 7:37, cementing her role in the Western Church as that of prostitute.
Yet in the Eastern church Mary Magdalene is and was honored as a witness to the resurrection – called “apostle to the apostles” as she was the first to see the risen Jesus. On Jesus’ instructions, she goes to the others and tells them what she has seen and heard (John 20:1, 11-19). Later Jesus appears to the disciples and confirms Mary’s message as true.
The Gospels were written in Greek (which was not the language of Jesus) from oral stories 20+ years after the death of Jesus by writers who may not have known him. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written between 50 and 90 AD. Today’s Bible was compiled 400 years after Jesus’s time, leaving out many Gospels (including the so-called Gnostic Gospels).
The Gospels, as we know them today, tell of Mary Magdalene’s constant presence as a disciple, at the crucifixion, her journey to the tomb and her vigil there while waiting to anoint his lifeless body. She was the first to witness the resurrection. Jesus spoke her name first, telling her to share the news with the others.
In the 19th century a portion of the Gospel of Mary (assumed to be Magdalene) was discovered. The original two fragments in Greek were written during the 3rd century, while the longest version in Coptic was composed during the 5th. This Gospel reflects the thoughts of an early Christian community which honored her memory and presented a strong view of the positive role played by Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John.
In this Gospel Jesus expressed the idea that God is within each of us. The risen Jesus said “Acquire my peace within yourselves… For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.” Here Jesus did not describe humans as sinful.
Much of what Mary recounts as the teaching she received in a vision of Jesus is lost but Peter and his brother, Andrew, accuse Mary of lying. They called these ideas strange and expressed their jealousy of her.
Over time legends have grown up around Mary Magdalene which continue today – inspiring books and movies that have no basis in the facts as laid out by the New Testament.
Many of the Gnostic texts portray Mary Magdalene as Christ’s Most Beloved Disciple, reporting that Jesus often kissed her on the mouth and called her “Woman Who Knows All.” Perhaps it is these discarded Gnostic texts which have generated these legends, in particular the belief that Mary was the wife of Jesus and that they had a child together.
Others believe that they participated in the Sacred Marriage and were re-enacting the Egyptian Osiris’ resurrection story. The tradition of the dying and reborn God has ancient roots in the Near East. The Redeemer/King was called upon to sacrifice himself for the good of the people. When Mary anointed Jesus’ head with oil, his words prophesied his own death: “She has come beforehand to anoint my body for burial. . . What this woman has done will be told as a memorial to her” (Mark 14:8-9). Perhaps it is this belief which has led to the concept of Mary Magdalene as a Priestess of Isis.
In France a legend grew up around Mary Magdalene during the 4th century CE. It recounts that after the crucifixion three Marys landed at Saintes Maries-de-la-Mere. This legend says that each settled in a different area of France. Mary Magdalene started a church and lived out her life in a grotto on the hill of Saint Baume, named after the holy balm for which she is known.
Additionally this legend says that they carried with them “the earthen vessel that held the blood of Christ.” Many believe that Mary Magdalen herself was the earthen vessel bearing Christ’s child. The Cathars, a Christian sect in the South of France at odds with the Church in the 12th and 13th centuries continued these beliefs until they were finally wiped out in the Albigensian Crusades led by the Roman Catholic church.
Perhaps the legends surrounding Mary Magdalene are nothing more than the human longing for the Sacred Feminine. In a time when the rule of men was strong and unmarried women were powerless – even suspect – it’s not surprising that in order for people to feel Mary Magdalene as powerful the collective imagination would make her Jesus’ wife.
But what we know from the New Testament, the Gnostic Gospels and the newly discovered Gospel of Mary is that Mary Magdalene was a strong woman who spoke her beliefs in a patriarchal world, a well-known follower of Jesus, a leader of Jesus’ disciples, a visionary with the ability to understand new concepts, and an intimate companion of Jesus. We also know that she was in conflict with some of the male disciples and that Jesus defended her in her leadership role.
Who was Mary Magdalene? Perhaps we are now ready to reclaim Mary Magdalene as a strong, visionary woman…a teacher, a leader, a woman who could turn men’s hearts toward good…the first Apostle.
Sources:http://www.biblicalheritage.org/people/marymag.htm, http://www.sacredmysterytours.com/mary-magdalene/, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/was-mary-magdalene-wife-of-jesus-was-mary-magdalene-a-prostitute/, http://www.brigidsplace.org/uploads/3/7/5/3/37537169/for_your_inspiration_%E2%80%93_more_about_mary_magdalene.pdf
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Divine Feminine in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints and teaches part-time. She is currently hard at work on a deck of Goddess cards. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website.