Christian feast of Mary Magdalene: But who was she?

Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection as envisioned in the 15th Century by Titian.SUNDAY, JULY 22: Even before “The DaVinci Code,” there was no lack of controversy surrounding today’s featured saint: It’s the feast day of Mary Magdalene.

What Dan Did to Mary: Fans of Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller know that he shoved an avalanche of new Magdalene mysteries over millions of readers—most of the new “clues” dug up from largely forgotten esoteric back alleyways of world religion. If you want a terrific page turner—grab a copy of the novel—but religious leaders and serious historians alike dismiss Brown’s globe-hopping tale as further obscuring the truth about one of the religious world’s great mystery women. (Before we leave Dan Brown—you might have fun checking out his website, clicking on the DaVinci Code and looking through Dan’s photo gallery. Don’t miss the Little Mermaid and Mary Magdalene. No, we’re not kidding about that.)

What’s the Real Mystery? What’s the Truth? The answer depends on where you turn for an answer. Setting aside Dan Brown’s book as pulp fiction—you’ll still find the centuries-old controversy over her life and legacy. Look online this weekend during her feast and you might find Mary Magdalene downplayed as a “prostitute”—or perhaps highly praised as “the world’s first Christian preacher.” The Bible says that she certainly was demon-possessed early in her life—although the nature of that possession is also in dispute. Overall, it depends on your branch of Christianity how your tradition tells Mary Magdalene’s story and how your church describes her legacy to this day.

Mary Magdalene envisioned as a hermit, devoting her life to prayerful isolation after the resurrection, painted by El Greco in the 16th century.Most Gospels cite Mary Magdalene as a treasured disciple of Jesus, one to whom Jesus revealed his deepest secrets. International scholar Karen King even attests that Magdalene “understood Jesus’ teachings better than the other disciples, and was able to preach them.”

The description of Mary Magdalene as the world’s first preacher comes from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John. Mary was taking care of Jesus’ tomb, so she was the one who discovered the shocking sight of an empty tomb and angels—and then actually saw the risen Christ. John writes: “Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’ and she told them that he had said these things to her.” (Mark 16 also credits Mary with a first visit by Jesus.)

Especially if your church is a branch of the Christian family tree that ordains women—the “first preacher” claim for Mary Magdalene is particularly important. However, the Catholic story of Mary Magdalene places the emphasis elsewhere.

Many Christian leaders interpret the demons that Jesus cast out of Mary as evidence that she was a prostitute. Down through the centuries, she often was described as a tragically fallen woman at the time Jesus met her. But those details don’t appear in the Bible. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory the Great’s homily in September of 591 that a link was made between Mary Magdalene’s demons and prostitution—and somehow, the female disciple has never escaped this lingering association. (Magdalene’s reputation carries into various films and stage adaption, including “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which will debut in London this September and star former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Magdalene.)

From the beginning, Mary Magdalene had to fight for her place among the disciples. (Read more from the Smithsonian Magazine.) Gnostic writings describe tension and jealousy between the 12 disciples and Magdalene—with Peter particularly jealous over her relationship with Jesus. (Wikipedia has details.) Although the Gospels do not describe the two as having any type of romantic relationship, we do have descriptions of Jesus kissing Mary and his close relationship with her was enough to fuel centuries of salacious art, music and literature.

Mary Magdalene is recognized officially as a saint in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and she is recognized in Baha’ism as a heroine of faith. Ironically, no one knows what happened to Magdalene after she reported her Resurrection vision. Magdalene all but drops out of the New Testament.

Later writers added their own Epilogue—often casting her as an austerely isolated Christian hermit. This neatly removed her from early church leadership and allowed centuries of artists to envision a scantily clad Mary Magdalene in various wilderness settings. To this day, she is the most frequently painted subject from the New Testament after Jesus, his mother Mary and John the Baptist.

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