by Maureen McKew
“Apostle to the Apostles.” That title is unique. It belongs to only one person, someone who for many centuries was mischaracterized as a prostitute by the Western Church. Mary of Magdala was no fallen woman and, interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox Church never portrayed her as such. She was not Jesus’ wife either.
Popular theories and speculation about Mary of Magdala have no evidence to support them. Sorry, Dan Brown and all those painters, lyricists and screenplay writers. But who was she? Let’s look to the Gospels.
In all four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, she is recorded as having gone to the tomb, either alone or with other women, who are identified variously as Mary the mother of James, Salome (another follower not to be confused with the infamous Salome, daughter of King Herod’s wife, Herodias), and Joanna, who was also cured of demons and infirmities. In all four accounts, Mary – either alone or with her women companions – carried the resurrection news to the surviving apostles.
Bible scholars have determined that she must have been a woman of some standing, a leader. Whenever the woman followers of Jesus are named, she comes first. What became of her is unknown. Sorry to disappoint anyone who thinks she is under I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre.
Now what about those demons that Jesus drove out of Mary and Joanna, too. In ancient times, any unexplained disability – physical, developmental or emotional – was believed to be a sign of demonic possession or bad character. Mary of Magdala and Joanna must have had some form of disability or illness but there is no clue as to what this could have been. However, there is absolutely no evidence in the Bible that Mary and Joanna were anything less than upstanding women. The early church fathers had no understanding of this, of course. Moreover, somebody inadvertantly conflated Mary of Magdala with the prostitute who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair. Even Mary of Bethany got caught up in this mistake.
Actually, the Catholic Church acknowledged in 1969 that Mary of Magdala was distinct from these other women and in the 50 years since, efforts have been made on many fronts to restore her reputation as leader among the followers of Jesus. In 2016, the Church raised her celebration on July 22 to the level of a feast. You might like to read the Vatican decree .
Happy Feast Day, St. Mary of Magdala, from all your sisters, especially those millions of us who share your name.