The Truth about Mary Magdalene

I wish the movie, The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s novel, motivated people to search their Bibles or even read some good sources on church history. Instead, many readers and viewers will uncritically accept the unreal historical background of the movie. As far as mystery and drama goes, The Da Vinci Code is a “good” movie: it is fast-paced, exciting, and suspenseful; nevertheless, nearly every historical “truth” that underlies the movie’s plot is fiction—the book is a work of fiction. The biggest fantasy of the movie (and book on which it rests) is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant with his child at the time of the crucifixion. Later, according to Brown’s fanciful reconstruction, Mary and daughter Sarah find refuge on the shores of Gaul (modern day France) and thus the bloodline of Jesus lived on through the Merovingian kings and survives even today. In the world of The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail, the vessel containing the blood(line) of Jesus. Since The Da Vinci Code makes much of Mary Magdalene, it may be useful for us to separate fact from fiction regarding this female disciple of Jesus.

As important as Mary Magdalene is to Brown’s novel, she gets very little space in the canonical gospels but a bit more in the non-canonical gospels from the second and third century. Her name shows up 13 times in the canonical gospels (while Peter’s name occurs over 90 times). Several of the 13 occurrences are parallel passages or reveals different aspects of the same occasion, reducing the actual appearances to about four. Given this paucity of information on Mary, what is it we actually know?

We know that Mary came from Magdala, a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the south end of the Plain of Gennesaret. This is important for several reasons. First, the designation Mary Magdalene distinguishes her from other Marys in the gospel story. She is certainly not to be identified with Mary of Bethany, as Bethany was near Jerusalem while Magdala was in Galilee. The designation also supports that Mary was probably single; since were she married, she would have been called Mary, the wife of X, as is Joanna in Luke 8.3. Secondly, the city from which Mary came had a bad reputation among the Jews and later rabbis, thus, supporting the myth of that Mary was a woman of ill repute. Rabbis attributed the fall of the city to its licentiousness.

We know that seven demons had once tormented her and that Jesus exorcised them (Luke 8.2; see also Mark 16.9). The exact nature of the demonization is left undisclosed, but there is nothing to connect this torment with her supposed life of prostitution. Moreover, there is, I repeat, no evidence of any kind that Mary was ever a prostitute. Yet contrary to The Da Vinci Code, the belief that she was a prostitute was not an intentional attempt on the part of the institutional church to smear Mary’s reputation lest her true secret—that she carried the child of Jesus—become public. Mary became a prostitute inadvertently when Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman in Luke 7.36-50. The “sinful” woman in Luke’s story cannot be Mary Magdalene as she is introduced for the first time in the very next story (Luke 8.2) as one of the women who traveled with Jesus and supported him and his disciples. Interestingly, the confused identity between Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman gained currency in the Latin-speaking West but not in the Greek-speaking East.

Each of the gospel writers speak of Mary more or less depending on how she plays into the story that particular writer is telling. For example, Mark speaks of Mary being at the crucifixion (Mark 15.40), the tomb (15.47), and the empty tomb (16.1). Thus Mary becomes a continual witness of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Mary is accompanied by other women, but seems to be the leader or, at least, the one Mark wished to highlight the most. Mary along with the other women encounter the “young man” at the tomb in Mark’s narrative who tells them to tell Peter and the other about what they have witnessed. Matthew closely follows the details we find in Mark.

Luke tells us that Mary is among a large group of women who supported Jesus financially. Among this group are those like Mary who have been healed by the touch of Jesus. Luke specifically points out that Mary was one of those who told the apostles about the resurrection event, which they were unwilling to accept (Luke 24.10-11, as in Mark 16.9-11).

John introduces Mary Magdalene rather abruptly in 19.25. She is at the cross along with the mother of Jesus and Mary, the wife of Clopas. John does not tell us that Mary observed the burial of Jesus but does have a significant role for her in the resurrection account. In this account (20.11-18), the only account in the NT to refer to her merely as “Mary,” she encounters the risen Lord whom she confuses for the gardener. When she recognizes Jesus, she calls out “Rabboni.” To which Jesus responds, “Don’t cling to me since I have yet to ascend to my Father.” Jesus instructs her to go tell his disciples to whom she announces, “I have seen the Lord.” So for all of the gospels Mary becomes the first “evangelist” to share the good news of the resurrection; the third century church leader Hippolytus will calls her the “apostle to the apostles.”

This, then, is all that we know about Mary Magdalene from the biblical record. Embellishing the biblical record regarding Mary Magdalene began to happen very early in the history of the church. What follows is a quick catalogue of where Mary Magdalene is mentioned among the non-canonical witnesses. These works will generally be unfamiliar to most Christians which creates a real danger of The Da Vinci Code. Since most Christians will not have read these works (nor know how to access them for that matter), they will be lost as to how to answer their neighbors regarding the claims made by Dan Brown’s characters. (Many of the text mentioned below are accessible in English translation at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com).

A second century work Epistula Apostolorum mentions Mary Magdalene in much the same way as the canonical gospels. In this document, the apostles refuse to accept her testimony about the resurrection; they will only believe when they see Jesus himself. The Epistula Apostolorum is an anti-Gnostic document. Gnosticism was an early form of heretical Christianity that pitted the “bad” God of the Old Testament against the “good” God of Jesus and the New Testament. This dualism was central to the Gnostic who saw all physical reality as evil while accepting that only the spiritual can be good. Christians today could learn a great deal from the Gnostics as New Age impulses are simply recycled Gnosticism. Anyway, the Gnostics found Mary Magdalene useful in their critique of what would become known as orthodox Christianity.

Among the Gnostic texts, the important references to Mary Magdalene occurs in the Gospel of Peter (2nd cent.); the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 200); Secret Gospel of Mark (2nd cent.); Pistis Sophia (3rd cent.); the Sophia of Jesus Christ; The Dialogue of the Savior; Gospel of Philip (late 3rd cent.).

The composite of Mary that develops in the Gnostic tradition looks like this: The Gospel of Peter reports that Mary came to the tomb but she did not weep at the burial of Jesus for fear of the Jews. Determined to mourn, she came to the empty tomb where she heard the resurrection news from a young man in shining robes, but she and the other women with her fled in fear.

The Gospel of Thomas, however, moves far beyond the biblical record regarding a suppose competition between Mary Magdalene and Peter. In the final saying, Peter says, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of the Life.” To which Jesus responds, “I myself shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males” (Gos. Thom. 114). Readers of The Da Vinci Code will note that this actually works against Brown’s attempt to recover the “sacred feminine” in religion. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary shares a secret revelation she has received from the Lord in a vision. Both Andrew and Peter reject the vision but a certain Levi defends Mary as one made worthy by the Lord as Jesus loved her more than he did the other disciples.

Mary becomes a primary questioner of Jesus in the Pistis Sophia. Thirty-nine of the sixty-four questions to Jesus come from her. Mary confesses her persistence, “I will not tire of asking you. Do not be angry with me for questioning everything.” To which Jesus replies, “Question whatever you wish” (Pistis Sophia 139). Mary is given a high profile in the Pistis Sophia as “blessed, she whose heart is more directed to the kingdom of heaven than all her brothers, excellent, blessed beyond all women, beautiful in speech, the pleroma (fullness) of all pleromas,” etc. Besides attesting to her now traditional role at the resurrection, the Pistis Sophia also develops a competition between her and Peter. The Dialogue of the Savior notes that Mary is one of three disciples specially chosen to receive special teaching but she is more significant than either Matthew or Thomas since “she spoke as a woman who knew the All.”

In the late 3rd century Gospel of Peter, Mary is the “companion” of the Lord and described as one who walked with him. Again Christ is said to have loved her more than all the rest which is demonstrated by Jesus often kissing Mary. The other disciples were offended by the lavish attention Jesus gave to Mary. For this, the Lord rebuked them with a parable (Gos. Phil. 63-64). The 4th cent. Acts of Philip features a woman by the name of Mariamne that seems to be the same character as the developing Mary legend. She is with Jesus when he divides the world into missionary zones and then travels with Philip.

In summary, the extra-canonical sources paint a picture of Mary Magdalene that begins with the canonical gospels. From here, however, the Mary legend grows: Jesus loves her more than the other disciples and so she became a fit recipient of special revelation. However, what is missing from this more fanciful literature is that Jesus ever intended to build the church around Mary, though the conflict between Mary and Peter in the Gnostic materials may speak of the tension within the early church between orthodoxy and heresy. Again, there is absolutely no evidence in any source, canonical or otherwise, that would even faintly suggest that it had been Jesus’ intent to entrust the mission of the church to her—not even in the Gospel of Mary!

What is also missing is that Jesus was ever married to Mary. Brown’s contention that the word companion meant wife in the Aramaic original of the Gospel of Philip is wrong on two counts. The Gospel of Philip is in Coptic, not Aramaic, and the word “companion” is a Greek loanword, koinonos, “to hold or have in common.” The word certainly means companion, not spouse. In the end, there is simply NO EVIDENCE from any source, canonical or extra-biblical that any such relationship ever existed. Nada. Nil. Zero.

My purpose has been to set before the readers both the canonical and non-canonical source materials related to Mary Magdalene with the hopes that we, believers in Jesus, can talk more intelligently with our friends about issues The Da Vinci Code might raise.

A form of this article was originally published in the Gospel Herald.

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