St. Mary Magdalene was a disciple, or follower, of Jesus during His public ministry. She is mentioned by name 12 times in the Gospels. We read that she was exorcized of seven demons, ministered to Christ and His disciples, stood at the foot of the Cross during Jesus’ Crucifixion, went to anoint the body of Jesus before daybreak on Easter morning, and witnessed the Risen Lord. According to long-standing tradition, she is also the woman who anointed Christ’s feet first as a repentant sinner (cf. Lk. 7:36-50), and later in anticipation of Jesus’ Passion and burial (cf. Jn. 12:1-8). Tragically, Mary Magdalene has become the center of a scandalous controversy in recent times. The media and entertainment industries have portrayed the identity of this saint as a mystery and even a conspiracy; however, 2,000 years of Christian history have consistently proclaimed Mary’s role as a disciple of Jesus.
DISCUSSION: From The Da Vinci Code to Time magazine, recent popular media have presented a version of St. Mary Magdalene that departs from the facts of history. For centuries, Catholics considered her a model for repentant sinners. Prayers, liturgy, and the arts depicted her as the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet and the Mary who listened to His words while her sister Martha served. Today, some writers are claiming that this portrayal was merely an invention of the Catholic Church.
Many contemporary scholars and conspiracy theorists have tried to reconstruct a view of St. Mary Magdalene that is radically different from the way she has been traditionally portrayed. They attempt to discredit the identity of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute (or courtesan), then look to non-biblical sources to reconstruct a “historical” Mary Magdalene. Some have developed theories about what happened to her after Jesus’ Ascension; many writers have departed from Scripture, Tradition, and history in a misguided attempt to “round out” a picture of Mary’s life.
The most popular sources for these theories are “gospels” written by Gnostics, not by followers of Christ, in the second and third centuries. Gnosticism was a school of philosophy that originated before Jesus’ birth. Some Gnostics adopted Christian characters and stories into their writings, but Gnosticism rejected tenets of Christianity (such as the Incarnation and the goodness of the created world) and was condemned as a heresy early in the Church’s history. Nevertheless, these Gnostic “gospels” are interpreted by some as evidence that Jesus had a special relationship with Mary Magdalene and made her a “central leader” in the Church. Feminist scholars have even claimed that Mary was an apostle as well as Jesus’ wife, “companion,” or “consort.”
The problem with these contemporary interpretations is that they lack any historical basis. The Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which are frequently used to defend the modern misconception of Mary’s identity, fail to establish that Mary was the “preferred” disciple or sexual companion of Jesus. These texts are simply not given the same historical credibility as the New Testament by any serious scholar. In addition, the most common passages cited by their proponents are cryptic and missing sections of text. The texts are also written in an obscure style typical of Gnosticism but irreconcilable with Christian doctrine. They are hardly reliable sources for the life of Christ or any of His disciples.
Some feminists claim that the Church deliberately misconstrued the character of Mary Magdalene, arguing that a sermon delivered by Pope St. Gregory the Great in 591 is what led to the Church’s portrayal of her as a repentant prostitute. What they fail to show is why there would be any reason for the Pope in the sixth century to purposefully and falsely tarnish Mary’s name with such an accusation. Gnosticism had been soundly defeated as a heresy by many orthodox Church Fathers and was in rapid decline by the beginning of the fourth century; there was absolutely no need for St. Gregory (or anyone in the Church, for that matter) to defame a woman the Gnostics called the “companion” of Jesus. The charge that St. Gregory, or anyone else, “made up” the connection between Mary Magdalene and prostitution to distort her image as a “leader” in the early Church is not based on historical fact. Still, many scholars, authors, and journalists continue to insist that the bureaucracy of the early Church invented a false, tainted portrait of the saint as part of an imagined first-century power struggle.
While theories abound, there is not a single credible reason to believe that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were involved in a romantic relationship of any kind, or that Mary was the intended leader of the Church. The spurious Gnostic gospels are not a reliable source of information about the life of Christ, and even they do not substantiate these theories. Radical feminists may attempt to distort Mary’s true role as part of their agenda, but no member of the Church had any reason to do the same. A more logical explanation for the connections made by St. Gregory in 591 is that Mary really was the repentant sinner who anointed Christ’s feet and came to be His disciple. This understanding is deeply rooted in the Gospels and traditions of the Church.
Stories in Scripture
Mary Magdalene is a unique figure in Scripture. Even her name is unusual; unlike many of the other women who devoted themselves to following Jesus Christ, she is not linked by name to any of her male relatives. Christ’s female disciples were often identified by their relationship to sons and husbands, such as “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (Mt. 27:56) and “Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza” (Lk. 8:3). It is unclear why the evangelists wrote that Mary was “called Magdalene.” She may have been born in Magdala, a town near Tiberius that was known for its immorality, or perhaps lived there for a time. Her name is listed among the faithful Galilean women who traveled with Christ while He proclaimed the Kingdom of God (cf. Lk. 8:1-3), and she remained with Him until His death and burial.
The most magnificent story about Mary, however, is told at the end of all four Gospels. After Jesus’ burial, Mary rested on the Sabbath according to the law and waited until early Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body, which she expected to find in the tomb. Her sorrow turned into joy when she realized that His body had not been stolen, but that Christ had risen from the dead. She eagerly went to embrace Him, but Jesus gave her a mission: She was to proclaim the good news to the other disciples. Hippolytus (early Church Father and pupil of St. Irenaeus) wrote in the third century that Mary Magdalene’s role in announcing the Resurrection to the Twelve made her an “apostle to the Apostles,” meaning she was a sent or commissioned messenger.
According to Scripture, we know with certainty that Mary Magdalene followed Christ, ministered to the needs of His Apostles during His public ministry (cf. Lk. 8:3), witnessed Jesus’ death and burial on Good Friday (cf. Mk. 15:40-41), and saw the resurrected Lord on Easter Sunday morning (cf. Jn. 20:1-18). However, Christians recognize that there is more to Mary’s identity as Jesus’ follower. The Catholic Church has traditionally taught that Mary Magdalene is the sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50, and also Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus).
In 591 A.D., St. Gregory the Great gave a homily in which he associated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the repentant sinner (presumably a prostitute) who anointed Christ’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (cf. Lk. 7:36-50). Some people claim that St. Gregory erroneously invented the connection. In the 200s, Tertullian held that the penitent woman was Mary of Bethany. St. Jerome’s writings in 393 A.D. allude to this as well. St. Augustine concluded that Mary of Bethany and the repentant sinner were the same woman in 400 A.D. The tradition associating Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany appears around 555 A.D. in a translation by Paschasius of Dumium (a monk in Spain) of the Greek Fathers’ earlier works. Even among scholars attempting to portray Mary Magdalene as the “archetype feminist,” it is understood that these three characters from Scripture were believed by some to be the same woman long before St. Gregory’s sermon.
There are also biblical reasons for the belief that associates the two anointings of Christ-by the anonymous sinner in Luke 7 and Mary of Bethany in John 12 (cf. Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9)-with Mary Magdalene. An examination of all four Gospels produces a fuller picture of Mary’s identity. Each evangelist writes about a woman who annoints Christ’s feet. St. Luke tells about a “sinner” who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints them with ointment, and dries them with her hair. Christ says that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her. This anointing happens around the time that Jesus begins His public ministry. The other three Gospels tell a different story; in Matthew, Mark, and John, a woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment just before He celebrates the Last Supper with the Apostles. John 12:3 tells us this woman is Mary of Bethany, who had sat at the Lord’s feet listening to Him while her sister Martha served (Lk. 10:38-42). Lazarus was their brother. There are similarities and differences between this anointing story and the first one, as told by St. Luke. Jesus was clearly anointed on two separate occasions, and from the early centuries, both were thought to be done by the same woman: Mary of Bethany, also known as Mary Magdalene.
This leads to the question of why Mary Magdalene would sometimes be called Mary of Bethany. She may have lived in both Magdala and Bethany at some point, which is why she had two different names. However, to modern readers it seems strange that Luke’s Gospel would describe an anonymous sinner anointing Christ in chapter 7, and then introduce Mary Magdalene by name in chapter 8. Why wouldn’t St. Luke make it clear that the repentant sinner was the same woman who followed Christ during His ministry?
One possible answer has to do with the way authors through much of history portrayed other people in their writings. For centuries, it was considered unacceptable to damage the name or reputation of a living person in writing. When describing the scandalous behavior and erroneous theories or beliefs of their contemporaries, authors were careful not to attach a name to such information. If Mary Magdalene was living at the time St. Luke wrote his Gospel, which she likely was, he never would have explicitly stated that she had been a prostitute or “sinned greatly.” Therefore, St. Luke probably withheld the identity of the sinner.
St. John’s Gospel presents another side of the story. He writes about Mary of Bethany as one whom “Jesus loved” (Jn. 11:5). John introduces her as Mary, “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (Jn. 11:2). In fact, St. John uses the same verb, aleiphô, for “anoint” that St. Luke used for the sinner (cf. Lk. 7:38). St. John uses the verb again in the next chapter to describe Mary’s anointing of Jesus in preparation for His burial (cf. Jn. 12:3). The similarities between the anointings described by Luke and John suggest that Mary performed them both, first as a sinner and then as a disciple. This is the same Mary who became a model for contemplative religious when she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching (cf. Lk. 10:38-42).
It seems reasonable that Mary of Bethany, who had followed Jesus faithfully since the moment of her conversion, should be with Him during His Passion. Christ said that this woman had “chosen the better part” (Lk. 10:42) and would be remembered as long as the Gospel is proclaimed (cf. Mt. 26:13; Mk. 14:9). Why wouldn’t this disciple be present at Jesus’ Crucifixion and burial? The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia outlines her journey of faith: Mary “‘the sinner’ comes early in the ministry to seek pardon; she is described immediately afterward as Mary Magdalene . . . shortly after, we find her ‘sitting at the Lord’s feet and hearing His words’ . . . [then, Jesus raises Martha and Mary's] brother Lazarus; a short time afterward they make Him a supper and Mary once more repeats the act she had performed when a penitent.” This same Mary, called Magdalene, follows Jesus all the way to His Cross and the tomb, where she expects to anoint His body for the third time, only to find He has risen from the dead. On Easter morning, Christ chose to appear to this special disciple who had followed Him so closely. The depth of the relationship between Mary Magdalene and her Rabboni, or Master, as St. John describes in chapter 20, makes more sense in the light of her association with Mary of Bethany. The story of Jesus and the “apostle to the Apostles” is woven throughout Scripture and leads up to the climax of the Resurrection.
This understanding of Mary Magdalene has been developed throughout Church history by many writers and saints. For example, a prayer to St. Mary Magdalene written by St. Anselm says that she “came with springing tears to the spring of mercy, Christ; from him [her] burning thirst was abundantly refreshed; through him [her] sins were forgiven; by him [her] bitter sorrow was consoled.” Anselm also calls her a “dear friend of God, to whom were many sins forgiven, because she loved much.” Anselm highlights the connection between Mary Magdalene, present at the tomb, with the sinner who anoints Christ’s feet. Likewise, St. Bonaventure wrote a homily beautifully describing the great love Mary Magdalene, the repentant sinner, had for Jesus. Another tradition holds that Mary was also the woman caught in adultery (cf. Jn. 8:2-11), but this is not as well supported in the writings of the Church Fathers.
In 1969, the Church revised her calendar and changed the readings used on July 22, St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day. Traditionally, the Gospel read for this celebration was Luke 7:36-50. The prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours also described Mary Magdalene as a penitent, whose sins were washed away by Christ and who loved Him greatly. Today, the Gospel for her Mass is John 20:1-2, 11-18, which tells of her witness to the Resurrection. The antiphons and responses for her feast day in the Divine Office now also only refer to her presence at the tomb on Easter. Still, these changes in the liturgy in no way refute the interpretation set forth by long-standing tradition. Furthermore, there is no feast day commemorating “St. Mary of Bethany,” whom Christ promised would always be remembered. This would be strange considering that the feast of her sister, St. Martha, is celebrated on July 29, one week after St. Mary Magdalene. While the readings may have changed, it seems the understanding of Mary’s identity has not. Either way, although ancient, thistradition is not to be confused with an essential aspect of the Catholic faith. There are many reasons to accept this tradition, but it is not a doctrine of the Church.
As Catholics, it is important to remember that the Bible isn’t like any other ancient manuscript. The Scriptures are entrusted to the Catholic Church, which infallibly interprets them through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a great temptation to apply modern methods of research to texts written many centuries ago, but the Word of God cannot be analyzed solely according to contemporary principles of scholarship. Modern readers may not understand why St. Luke did not explicitly link Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman, but the Gospels were not written in the same style as novels or history books are today. The identification of Mary Magdalene as the repentant sinner who anointed Jesus is based on Sacred Scripture and traditions handed on from the early Church.
Mary Magdalene:Faithful Disciple
Mary Magdalene has long been the subject of prayers, devotions, and popular literature. She is the patron saint of apothecaries, contemplatives, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, reformed prostitutes, and people ridiculed for their piety (as Simon the leper was indignant toward her when she anointed Christ’s feet). There are also many prayers, poems, and plays written in her honor as a devout penitent. To this day, St. Mary Magdalene remains a popular name for parish churches and a popular saint of devotion.
Like all saints, Mary Magdalene’s experience of Christ is a great example for all to imitate. Her role as a disciple and witness to Jesus makes her a powerful intercessor on our behalf. A model of repentance, conversion, obedience, and faithfulness, she is a fitting patroness for those who have strayed and come back to the Church-sinful and sorrowful, longing for the love of Christ.
Along Comes Mary
o Marvelous Mercy
Luke 7:36-50 Now there was a sinful woman in the city who . . . stood behind [Jesus] at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment . . . He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
o Where My Servant Is
Luke 8:1-3 Accompanying [Jesus] were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.
o Tales from Bethany
Luke 10:38-42 He entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
John 11:1-45 Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair.
o Preparing for Burial
John 12:1-8 (cf. Mt. 26:6-13, Mk. 14:3-9) Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair.
o At the Cross Their Station Keeping
John 19:25 (cf. Mt. 27:55-56, Mk. 15:40-41) Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.
o To the Grave
Mark 15:46-47 (cf. Mt. 27:61) Mary Magdalene . . . watched where he was laid.
o The Resurrection
John 20:1-18 (cf. Mt. 28:1-10, Mk. 6:1-11, Lk. 23:54-24:10) On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning. . . . She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus . . . Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni,” which means Teacher.
 Tertullian, On Modesty. Chapter XI (208 A.D. or later).
 St. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Bk. II, no. 29 (393 A.D.) and Letter XII, To Antony, footnote 5 (374 A.D.).
 St. Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels. Chapter LXXIX.
 Paschius of Dumium, Questions and Answers of the Greek Fathers. Chapter 44, no. 4.
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Subsequent history of St. Mary Magdalen
According to an ancient tradition, Mary, Lazarus, and some companions came to Marseilles and converted the whole of Provence. Magdalen is said to have retired to a hill, La Sainte-Baume, near by, where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived she received the viaticum; her body was then laid in an oratory constructed by St. Maximinus at Villa Lata, afterwards called St. Maximin.
History is silent about these relics till 745, when according to the chronicler Sigebert, they were removed to Vézelay through fear of the Saracens. No record is preserved of their return, but in 1279, when Charles II, King of Naples, erected a convent at La Sainte-Baume for the Dominicans, the shrine was found intact, with an inscription stating why they were hidden. In 1600 the relics were placed in a sarcophagus sent by Clement VIII, the head being placed in a separate vessel. In 1814 the church of La Sainte-Baume, wrecked during the Revolution, was restored, and in 1822 the grotto was consecrated afresh. The head of the saint now lies there, where it has lain so long, and where it has been the centre of so many pilgrimages.