The recently released movie, ‘Mary Magdalene’, challenges the popular view of this iconic woman. It was Pope Gregory 1 in 591, who declared that she was a repentant prostitute who became a disciple of Jesus. This myth has gripped the imaginations of millions ever since. A look at the Wikipedia entry about Mary Magdalene, shows how many legends about her sprang up, including the suggestion developed by Dan Brown, in ‘The Da Vinci Code’, that she had a close physical relationship with Jesus.
It seems that the 2018 film escapes from many of these fanciful religious and artistic depictions, to present her as a woman with great spiritual perception. She understands more than many what the kingdom of God is about – the message at the heart of the gospel taught by Jesus.
So what does the Bible actually tell us? After all, any respectable historian must go to the primary source of information about her to get to the truth.
From the gospel records we learn she was called ‘Magdalene’ – because she came from Magdala, a town by the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. This is how Luke’s gospel introduces her:
‘Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means’ (Luke 8:1-3).
‘Demons’ in the New Testament is a kind of catch-all way of describing mental or physical illnesses. The notion that it means she was a very bad sinner – and hence a prostitute – is completely unfounded.
At the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary Magdalene is named as a witness, along with other women. Luke refers to them as ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ (Luke 23:49). So although she is not referred to by name, we can assume she was among the disciples who accompanied Jesus and supported his ministry. She is named as a witness to his burial and as a companion of Mary the mother of Jesus and Salome, who brought spices to ‘anoint’ the dead body of Jesus.
Matthew, Mark and John record that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. An angel told her and the other women to go and inform Jesus’ disciples that he was risen from the dead. John provides a detailed and touching narrative of her encounter with her risen Lord in the Garden
It seems that at some point she returned and lingered in the area of the tomb and encountered the risen Jesus, mistaking him at first for a gardener. Jesus gives her reassurance and commissions her to inform the disciples that he is ‘ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17).
Mary Magdalene is not mentioned in the New Testament outside the gospels, so all else that is told about her is legendary. The Western Church has her living as a hermit for 30 years and communicating with angels, finally dying in the South of France. The Eastern Orthodox Church believe that she retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there.
The fact that she is often mentioned first in the list of women associated with the ministry of Jesus may indicate her importance in his close circle. What we can conclude is that we know nothing of her other than that she was a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus. Her love shines through as she ministers to his dead body and as she weeps in the garden over the loss of her Master. But the risen Lord reached out to her, calling her by name. Her response is an example to us all:” ‘Rabboni’, (which is to say, ‘Teacher’)” (John 20:16).
The risen Lord can be Teacher to every one of us. When we recognise his authority and look for him in the word of God, his words and person can change our lives.
Follow the link for a more detailed Biblical examination of Mary Magdalene.