Michael Hesemann, Historiker und Autor
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Mein Beitrag zur wissenschaftlichen Erstveröffentlichung der Grabungsergebnisse von Magdala durch Prof. Marcela Zapata von der Universität Anauac, Mexoco City: "El Proyecto Arqueologico Magdala. Interpretaciones preliminares bajo una perspectiva interdisciplinar" (Mexico City 2013):

Mary Magdalene in History, Tradition and Legend

by Michael Hesemann

Mary Magdalene is certainly the most controversial and misunderstood, but also, after the Mother of God, the second most important and fascinating woman in the New Testament. The few information we find on her in the gospels did not satisfy the curiosity of the early Christians, and so already at an early date, pseudo-identifications with other female figures, but also legends and even complete “gospels” (falsely) attributed to her were invented to “round up her profile”. She was described as a former prostitute, but also identified with Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who anointed Christ in Bethany. Probably she was neither one nor the other.

1.    Apostle of the Apostles
What makes her so special that St. Augustine and already Hippolyt of Rome (ca. 170-235) called her “Apostola Apostolorum”, “(female) Apostle of the Apostles”[1] is, of course, her testimony of the resurrection. All four evangelists agree that she was one of the women, followers of Jesus, who were present at Golgota:
Matthew: “And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was mary Magdalene…”[2]
Mark: “There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene … who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him and ministered unto him.”[3]
John: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.”[4]

Also, she was present during the burial of Christ:
Matthew: “And there was Mary Magdalene … sitting over against the sepulcher”[5]
Mark: “And Mary Magdalene … beheld where he was laid.”[6]
Luke: “And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulcher, and how his body was laid.”[7]

On Sunday morning, she was one of the women who returned to the tomb of Christ, to complete his burial, which, during the last hour before the beginning of the Sabbath, was done only provisorical and in great hurry. This is, when she and the other women became witnesses of the empty tomb and learned “from an angel” the message of the resurrection:
Matthew: “In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher… and they departed quickly from the sepulcher with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.”[8]
Mark: “And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him … and when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away… And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed, neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”[9]
Luke: “And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments, and rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment. Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus … and (they) returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things to the apostles.”[10]
John: “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, abnd cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them: They have taken away the Lord out of the selpulchrem and we know not where they have laid him.”[11]

Two evangelists, Mark and John, go even further. They state that Mary Magdalene was not only the principal witness of the empty tomb, but also the first person to whom the risen Christ appeared. Their testimony is of greatest importance. Mark, according to Papias of Hierapolis (as quoted by Eusebius[12]), was the interpreter of Simon Peter when he visited Rome; his gospel is therefore based on the memories of the Prince of the Apostles. John, according to the same source, was “the beloved disciple”, the youngest and closest disciple of the Lord. This means that we are dealing here with information from the most authoritative sources:
Mark: “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept. And they, when they heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.”[13]
John: “But Mary stood without at the sepulchre, weeping, and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre. And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus… Jesis saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unti him: rabbuni, which is to say: Master…mary Magdalene came and told the disciples hat she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.”[14]

But who was this woman who was chosen to deliver the most important message of Christianity? What do we know about her from history and tradition?

2.    Mary Magdalene in History

For sure we know her place of origin and how she became a disciple of Christ. Μαρία η Μαγδαληνή [15], generally translated as „Mary, the Magdalene“ or „Mary of Magdala” is with almost certainty named after a town called Magdala in Aramaic or Migdal in Hebrew, both meaning “tower” (in Aramaic also “great” and “elegant”). Two towns of this name are known in the Jewish Talmud[16], Magdala Gadar near the ancient Gadara in modern-day Jordan and Magdala Nunayya (Hebr.: Migdal Nunaya = “Fish Tower”) north of Tiberias. Since Gadara belonged to the Decapolis with its mainly pagan population, we can exclude it as home town of Mary Magdalene. Magdala Nunayya was called Al-Majdal by its Palestinian Arab population before it was depopulated in 1948. The modern Israeli municipality of Migdal was founded by Jewish settlers in 1910 above the lake, about 6 km NNW of Tiberias. Still, the biblical name does not reveal if Mary Magdalene was actually born in Magdala or just lived there for most of her life.

She is one of the four Mary’s we find in the Gospels: The Mother of Jesus, her “sister” (probably sister-in-law) “Mary, the wife of Cleophas” [17]  (identified by the other evangelists as Mother of James the lesser and Joses, the “brothers” – actually cousins - of Jesus[18]) and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. So her title as “the Magdalene” certainly served as an identifying criterium for discernment.
Indeed, the frequency of the name “Mary” in the New Testament should not surprise us; “Mary” in all its variations from “Maria” to “Mirjam”, was the second most popular women’s name in the Herodian period, as the inscriptions on Jewish ossuaries of the 1st century AD reveal.

In 1994, the IAA archaeologist L.Y.Rahmani published his “Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel”, listing 895 specimen of which 220 were inscribed with the name of the deceased person whose bones it contained. About 2/3rds of them bore male, about 1/3rd of them female names. Although Salome with all its variations was the most common name, used for 26 women, Maria had a strong 2nd place with 20 examples, followed by Martha (11 examples).[19] If we project this figure on the Jewish population – and we have no alternative data in conflict – it would mean that every fourth Jewish woman of the 1st century AD was called “Maria/Mirjam”. New Data arose when Tal Ilan published her “Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity”[20], for which she evaluated not only all published ossuarly inscriptions, but also papyri, legal documents and historical sources on 2nd Temple Period women. Her data were reviewed and corrected by Richard Bauckham in 2006.[21]  Of 521 female names mentioned, 70 were Maria/Mirjam, making it even the most popular name in New Testament times.[22] From the ossuary inscriptions we also learn that local men and women were usually identified by their family relationships. Men were named as “X, son of Y” or “Y, father if X”, women as “Z, daughter of Y” when they were young, unmarried girls; Jewish girls in Antiquity were usually engaged in the age of 12 and married in the age of 13. Adult women were almost generally named after their husband (“Z, wife of A”).[23] An exemption were strangers: “In Jerusalem’s tombs, the deceased’s place of origin was noted when someone from outside Jerusalem was interred in a local tomb.”[24] We find the same nomenclature in the New Testament, when Jesus was called “son of Mary”[25] - since he had no biological father - or even “Joseph’s son”[26] - legal, by adoption – in his home town Nazareth, but “Jesus of Nazareth” in Jerusalem[27]. Simon Petrus was called “Simon Barjona”[28] by Jesus, who lived with him in Capernaum and therefore was a “local”. But others like Joseph of Arimathea[29] or Simon of Cyrene[30] were called after their home towns, in this case Ramathaim-Zophim in Ephraim or Cyrene, a town of the Pentapolis in Libya. Still, Mary of Magdala’s name is unique, since we do not find a single ossuary on which a woman alone is named after her home town. We do have cases like “Sara, daughter of Simon of Ptolemais”[31], “Papias and Salomich, the Skythopolitans”[32] (obviously a couple) or even “Martha, daughter of Yehosef, son of Ya’aqov, wife of Yehosef from Hin”[33]. But we do have only one other example of a woman which is not identified by her father or husband, but just by her place of origin alone, and in this case we do not know her whereabouts: “Salome the Galilean”, an inscription found in Masada.[34]

Still, the situation in the New Testament is more complicated. We do find several women identified by her husbands or at least their children like “Mary, the mother of James and Joses”[35] = “Mary, the mother of James the less and of Joses”[36], which John identifies as “the wife of Cleophas”[37] or “the mother of Zebedee’s children”[38], (John and James), which Mark calls Salome[39]. We also find, as one of the most prominent followers of Jesus, “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward” (Lk 8:3). But we also find, only once, a certain “Susanna” among the “many others, which ministered unto him of their substance”[40], as well as “Maria and Martha”[41], without learning the name of their husband for whatever reason. It is impossible to determine the age, origin or marital status of Susanna and we just don’t know why Mary and Martha remained unmarried, but learn from John that they lived in Bethany in the house of their brother Lazarus[42], what indicates that it was also their father’s house, although their father is not mentioned. Therefore we can assume they were not married, either because they were too young (they might have been engaged) or because they have chosen this rather special status, maybe for religious reasons.[43] The question has to remain unsolved, since literally “nothing is known about the extent or even existence of unmarried status among women”[44] in the 1st century Jewish society.

Rabbinical scources all agree in the strong advice to engage a girl before the age of twelve and a half, and get it married within a year. In most cases, the father promised his daughter to a young man of his choice. To avoid marriage with a far older man, the grooms were sometimes as young as 12 years of age, too, although 18 was considered the ideal age “for canopy” and 20 the maximum.[45] Still, there was a different ideal in traditionalist circles, quoting scripture or apocryphical traditions like the “Book of Jubilees”, which states that Jacob was 63 when he married the first time or a haggadah according which the daughters of Zelophehad were all above the age 40 when they married; but these seem to be extremely rare exemptions.[46]

But Mary Magdalene? She seems to be too important to be named without any explanation, like Susanna. Obviously she did not have a male relative or husband she was identified by. Would she have been a young girl, she would have been called “the daughter of X”. Would she have been a married wife, she would have been called “the wife of”. But the fact that she was financially independent, even financially supported Jesus and his Apostles – “followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering upon him”[47]; “which ministered unto him of their substance”[48] – and was free to travel with him and the Twelve “throughout every city and village”[49] of Galilee and down to Jerusalem indicates a high degree of financial and social independence.

The Gospels don’t tell us much more about her story. We just learn from Mark, as a sidenote, that the Lord “had cast seven devils”[50] out of Mary Magdalene, a fact confirmed by Luke, who counts her among “certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils”[51]. No further details about the circumstances were given. It might have happened in Magdala, in the highly probable case that Jesus visited this town when he
“went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with diverse diseases and torments and those which were possessed with devils … and he healed them.”[52]

Indeed, several authors identify the “Magadan” of Mt 15:39 (“And he sent away the multitude, and took ship and came into the costs of Magadan”) as Magdala; a traditional reading so strong that it found its way even in the St. James-Bible, the most popular English-language translation. Indeed, the “Catholic Encyclopedia” lists well documented versions for both; the place is called “Magadan” “by many of the best authorities, Aleph, B, D, Old Lat., Old Syr., Vulg.” and written “Magdala” in other important manuscripts, such as “15 Greek uncials, the Minusculi, 1 Old Lat., Armen., Boh., Æth., Syr., Hex”[53] The parallel passage in Mk 8:10 names the place Dalmanutha instead, which was identified as “a place on the west of the Sea of Galilee, mentioned only in Mark 8:10. In the parallel passage it is said that Christ came ‘into the borders of Magdala’ (Matt. 15:39). It is plain, then, that Dalmanutha was near Magdala, which was probably the Greek name of one of the many Migdols (i.e., watchtowers) on the western side of the lake of Gennesaret. It has been identified in the ruins of a village about a mile from Magdala, in the little open valley of 'Ain-el-Barideh…”[54] Indeed Metzer, in his description of the Holy Land from 1698, calls the landscape surrounding Magdala “Dalmanutha”[55]

Mendel Nun has proposed that Dalmanutha be identified with a small anchorage north of Magdala and that it might not even be a proper name but simply the Aramaic word for “harbor”[56] Just lately, Ken Dark announced the discovery of “a very large, but previously-unrecognised, Late Hellenistic, Roman-period, and later, settlement between the modern town of Migdal (on the western side of the valley) and the coast, just south of Kibbutz Ginosar” and identified it with Dalmanutha.[57] Indeed, all these proposals indicate that Magadan might indeed refer to Magdala, making it one of the places visited by Jesus.

According to the Talmud, Magdala was a wealthy town, and was destroyed by the Romans because of the moral depravity of its inhabitants.[58] Flavius Josephus calls it by its Greek name, Taricheae[59] (from Greek “tarichos”: salted or dried fish), which is also mentioned in the books of Plinius (who falsely locates it south of Tiberias, when Josephus – correctly – locates it 30 stadia (ca. 3,5 miles) north of Tiberias), Cicero, Sueton and Strabo. Strabo commends the excellent fish from Taricheae, which was available and highly esteemed on the Roman markets.[60] This indicates the source of the fame and wealth of the former fishermen’s village, which, during the Herodian „globalization“ of Judaea, specialized in the export of fish from the Lake, brought from the local fisherman, dried and salted in Taricheae (a name which became a kind of global brand) and exported to Rome via Caesarea Maritima. Their business was so successful that they got rich soon. Magdala/Taricheae became a cosmopolitan town whose citizens enjoyed a Hellenized lifestyle to the extent that they even enjoyed a hippodrome, as Flavius Josephus[61] states. Its population is, probably exaggerated, given with 40.000 by Josephus.[62] It was newly-rich, decadent town with certainly a bad reputation, reflected in the Talmudic sources, which also cast a shadow on Mary Magdalene.

According to the Jewish Law, daughters were not allowed to become legal heirs. Even less, they were allowed to run a business. So when we ask, how Mary of Magdala came into possession of the wealth which enabled her to support Jesus and the Twelve on the same level as the wife of the King’s steward, we can only assume it was through her late (and therefore unnamed) husband – that she was a rich widow from a rich town, so to say. Maybe the death of her husband caused her psychological crisis, maybe Pope Gregory the Great was right when he identified the “seven devils” as the seven capital vices: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride[63]. But in this aspect, she probably did not differ much from the newly-rich inhabitants of Taricheae. Only Pope Gregory saw it a reason to identify her with the sinner of Luke 7:36-54, the woman with the alabastron.
3.    Exegesis: Was Mary Magdalene the “woman with the alabastron”?
On the first view, there is no reason for this identification. During his mission in Galilee, Luke reports (and he alone, none of the synoptic nor John locate this incident in Galilee) how one day Jesus was invited into the house of “one of the Pharisees”, whose name is later given as “Simon”[64], to “eat with him”[65]. During this meal,
“a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s home, brought an alabaster box of ointment and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying: This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that touched him: for she is a sinner.”[66]
Jesus replied with the parable of the two debtors.
“And he (Jesus) turned to the woman, and said unto Simon (the Pharisee): Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My hair with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore, I say unto thee: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her: Thy sins are forgiven. (…) And he said to the woman: Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace.”[67]

All we know about the “woman with the Alabastron” is that she was a “sinner”. We do not learn anything about the nature of her sin. Was it adultery? Was she, as Gregory the Great believed, a prostitute? If yes, would a Pharisee allow her to enter his house?

When in ancient Greece or Rome prostitution was legal, it was officially forbidden in the Jewish society, where prostitutes were marginalized by the Mosaic Law, which clearly states: “No Israelite woman shall be a prostitute”[68]. Still there is no doubt that it existed: Since Jewish culture came into contact with other cultures and prostitution was part of the reality in antiquity, “the rabbis had to explain and somehow encompass (prostitution) within their moral framework”[69]. Although Jewish leaders were forced to accept their existence, prostitutes “were on the lowliest social rung”[70]: “They were at least viewed as foreign, outsiders, as is indicated by a few stories referring to the prostitutes residing in towns by the sea, that is on the outskirts of the country.”[71] “Woman who became prostitutes were certainly not the respectable and accepted members of society but in most cases were slaves or freed women without other means of supporting themselves”[72]. Still, there were also Jewish prostitutes, as the rabbinical writings (although of the 2nd century) reveal and a Talmudic tale, or aggadot, even mentions a repentative prostitute. After the student of a famous Rabbi came to her and made her to regret her wrongdoings,
“she came to the Beit Midrash (house of study = Synagogue) of Rabbi Chiya. She said: ‘Rabbi, command me and make me a convert.’”
In the story, the Rabbi even allowed the former prostitute to marry the student who caused her to convert, concluding with the words: “Then, the sheets which she had spread for him in prohibition, she now spread for him lawfully.”[73] In the light of the Jewish belief “in the power of repentance, it seems appropriate that the rabbis included redemptive stories with ‘hope for the harlot’ in their literature”.[74] For conclusion, Leila Leah Bronner states, that the rabbinic literature shows “a surprising degree of tolerance, not toward the institution but toward the women themselves and their potential rehabilitation,”[75]
Luke’s narration would perfectly fit into this pattern, but still remains problematic: We just don’t know if the “woman with the alabastron” indeed was a prostitute. With the Jewish tolerance towards converted prostitutes and the Greek and Roman tolerance towards prostitution in general, Luke, who wrote for a Greek readership, would have no reason to “cover-up” the nature of her sin. In opposite, stressing that “the sinner” who came to Jesus was a repentant prostitute would even enforce his message. So why did Luke use a more general term? We do not know. But we certainly can’t be sure that “the woman” was a prostitute at all. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t. We just do not know.

For sure the text indicates she was not Mary Magdalene. Only in the next chapter, the woman from Magdala is introduced by Luke with a completely different story of how she found to Jesus: she was possessed by “seven devils” which he cast out.[76] He did not cast any devil out of the “woman with the alabastron”, who already was repentant when she came to him. Also, we have no indication that the “woman with the Alabastron” followed him. She was saved by her faith, she went in peace. That’s all Luke tells us about her.
Indeed we find a woman with an alabastron in Mark, Matthew and John, too, but in a completely different context. Still, the name of the host, “Simon”, reveals that we are dealing with different versions of the very same event. In Mark, Matthew and John, the incident did not take place during the Lord’s mission in Galilee, but in Bethany, east of Jerusalem, only a few days before the Passion. The first sentence reveals that we are indeed dealing with the same or at least a very similar situation:
“And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.”[77]  

The parallels are obvious: a dinner invitation, a host with the same name (Simon), this time not identified by his religious affiliation (“Pharisee”) but by his physical situation (“the leper” might refer to an overcome disease or to a skin disease looking similar to leper). But in this case, the controversy arose not because the still anonymous woman was a “sinner” (or even a prostitute) but was caused by the price of the precious oil:
“And there were some that had indignations within themselves, and said: Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.”[78]

John gives us even more details. He does not mention Simon, but “Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him”[79], a relevant details, since he describes a chapter earlier how Jesus had risen Lazarus from the dead. Still, he was certainly not the host and lord of the house, he just “sat at the table with them”. And because his sisters Mary and Martha were introduced a chapter before, we finally learn the name of the “woman with the alabastron”: it was Mary of Bethany![80]

We can only assume that Luke, who certainly was not an eyewitness, mixed up two events he learned about, one happening in Galilee, the other in Bethany. But we have no reason to identify Mary of Magdala in Galilee with Mary of Bethany in Judaea. John, in the beginning of chapter 11, makes the difference very clear when calling Bethany “the town of (that) Mary and her sister Martha”, adding: “It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with her ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.”[81] They can’t be one and the same: Mary and Martha of Bethany had remained in their village, had called after Jesus, when he was still outside of the country[82], when Mary Magdalene, together with other women and the Twelve, followed Jesus “throughout every city and village”[83]

Therefore, the Greek fathers “as a whole” distinguished between three different persons: The orthodox theology always defended this position. Mary of Bethany had her own feast on June 4th, when Mary Magdalene was commemorated on July 22nd, clearly identifying them as two distinct persons with two separate feasts[85]. Most Eastern theologians never considered Mary Magdalene a converted sinner or penitent, but insist that she was a virtuous woman all her life, even before her conversion. This view finds expression in the orthodox litany and iconography. Only some authors and even the new Russian Orthodox Menaion (Feast calendar) acknowledge the possibility of a change in her life:
“In her youth she was beautiful and had a sinful, lascivious way of life; seven devils have entered into her. The Merciful Saviour has driven these devils out of her, and Mary became another being, she was risen to a new life in Christ.”[86]
The main title given to her is “myrrh-bearer”, because she brought ointments to the tomb of Jesus; also, she is considered and entitled “equal to the Apostles”.
For example, the Orthodox “Troparion” (hymn) on Mary Magdalene states:
“In keeping His commandments and laws, O holy Mary Magdalene,
You followed Christ, who for our sake was born of a virgin,
And in celebrating your most holy memory today,
We receive forgiveness of sins by your prayers!”
Similarly, the Kontakion (thematic hymn) of her Feast states; 
“When God, who is transcendent in essence,
Came with flesh into the world, O Myrrhbearer,
He received you as a true disciple, for you turned all your love toward Him;
Henceforth you would yourself work many healings.
Now that you have passed into heaven, never cease to intercede for the world!”[87]

But most of the Latin fathers, probably due to their lack of geographical knowledge on the Holy Land or confusion about “too many Marys” in the gospels (the reason is explained above), held that these three women were one of the same. Still Wescott, in his comment on John 11:1, states "that the identity of Mary with Mary Magdalene is a mere conjecture supported by no direct evidence, and opposed to the general tenour of the gospels."[88]

We find the first notion of Mary Magdalene being a repentive prostitute in the writings of Ephraim the Syrian (4th century), but more influential was the homily of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), when he stated:  
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”[89]

Since this time, many exegets and artists followed the lead. Just as the 12th century Abbot Hugh of Semur (died 1109), Peter Abelard (died 1142), and Geoffrey of Vendome (died 1132) who all referred to Mary Magdalene as “the sinner who merited the title apostolarum apostola”,  which became commonplace during the 12th and 13th centuries.[90] The repentant prostitute became the dominant persona in St. Mary Magdalene's reputation, a popular motive, commonly and frequently depicted in Western art and religious literature. In art, she is often semi-naked, or an isolated hermit repenting for her sins in the wilderness - an outcast. Even her alleged relics were labeled with the unique title “penitent”.

Only in 1969, rather silently, Pope Paul VI rehabilitated Mary Magdalene. In the new “Missale Romanum”, her identification with the “woman with the alabastron” was abandoned; for the first time, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany were commemorated seperately.

4.    Mary Magdalene in the Gnostical Apocrypha
The limited information on Mary Magdalene from the gospels caused early sectarian groups to “fill the gaps” with ficticious information, when they claimed to know “the true story”. The importance of her role and testimony seemed in contrast to the little we know about her and left an open void for creative writers. In the syncretistic movement, generally knows as “Gnostic Christianity”, which arose in parts of Syria and Egypt during the 2nd Century and produced several dozens of forged, “noncanonical” “gospels”, Mary Magdalene became one of the main protagonists of their heterodox interpretation of the Christian faith.

In the “Gospel of Mary”, of which only three fragments survived in Egypt, ranging from the 3rd to the 5th century[91], Mary Magdalene is exalted even over the male disciples of Jesus. At some point after the resurrection, St. Peter addressed her with the words:
“Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you. And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision.”[92]
Unfortunately nearly all of her vision is lost. Only at the end, a conflict with the “hot-tempered” Peter is mentioned, when Levi defends Mary Magdalene with the words: “But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well.“[93]

The “Gospel of Philip”, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century, survived as one of the manuscripts found in Nag Hammadi/Egypt in 1945.  It names Mary Magdalene as the Lord’s “koinonos” (companion). In a rather heavily damaged sequence, it states:
“As for the Wisdom who is called ‘the barren’, she is the mother [of the] angels. And the companion of the [ ... Mary Magdalene. [... loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her … The rest of [the disciples ... ]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.’”[94]
This quote became famous by being misused as “evidence” for the absurd idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, as promoted by unscrupulous fiction writers like the notorious Dan Brown. But if we read it in its context, it is far away from such a notion.

The Jesus of the “Gospel of Philip” is not of ordinary flesh and blood at all. He is a manifested divine principle:
“Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which [they would] be able to see him. He appeared to them all. He appeared to the great as great. He [appeared] to the small as small. He [appeared to the] angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking that they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mount he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciples great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness.”[95]
In the Gnostic context of this text, his kiss is in no way the kiss of a loving partner. Instead it is an initiation, “a nourishment with divine wisdom”, as “Philip” explains: 
“It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man [receives] nourishment. [ ... him from the mouth. [And had] the word gone out from that place it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.”[96]

Jesus and Maria Magdalene, in this text, became representatives of the divine principles of “Logos” and “Sophia”, “Word” and “Wisdom” (or “Spirit”). According to the Gnostic belief, Sophia was the companion of the Logos – they had to unite, not in a physical, but in a spiritual way. Sexuality, called “marriage of defilement“ by the author of this text, was considered sinful by the Gnostics. They believed in the “undefiled marriage” of the spirit. So the true “secret of the Gnostics” was not that they believed in a “married Jesus”; but that they considered Mary Magdalene a divine principle, too, a human manifestation of the Holy Spirit and a female counterpart to the Son of God.
In a similar role we find Mary Magdalene in the “Gospel of Thomas”, an apocryphon of the early 2nd century, consisting solely of 114 alleged and often rather cryptic sayings of the Lord. A complete manuscript was discovered in Nag Hammadi/Egypt in 1945. In its last saying,
“(114) Simon Peter said to him: ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
Once again, a conflict between Peter and Mary is claimed (for which we find no indication in the canonical gospels), solved by Jesus in a rather unexpected way.

Also the “Pistis Sophia”, another Gnostic text, which claims that Jesus, in a spiritual form, taught his disciples for eleven years after his resurrection, mentions Mary Magdalene frequently. In chapter 96, a special status is granted to her and John, the beloved disciple:
“But Mary Magdalene and John, the virgin, will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries in the Ineffable. And they will be on my right and on my left. And I am they, and they are I.“[97]

In spite of the great popularity the “Gnostic Gospels” received in popular books, they do not deliver any additional historical information and certainly don’t help us to understand the life and personality of the historical Mary Magdalene. They might be relevant as documents of a heterodox, syncretistic, “alternative” Christianity, but do not deserve the sensationalist stir caused by those who used them to “prove” the weirdest of all claims on the life of Christ and the origins of Christianity.

5.    Mary Magdalene in Legends and Traditions
The New Testament writings don’t tell us what happened to Mary Magdalene after Pentecost; she just “disappears” from scripture.
According to the Greek tradition, she left the Holy Land soon and went, either alone or together with St. John and the Holy Virgin, to Ephesus, where she died. This tradition was originally believed in the West, too, as testified by Gregory of Tours (538-594).[98] According to a local tradition, she was buried in the same cave as where the Seven Youths of Ephesus were put to sleep for hundreds of years, according to the legend. In 886 her relics were brought to Constantinople by Emperor Leo VI. Today, her alleged uncorrupt right hand is venerated in the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos.[99]

Also the Orthodox custom to present red easter eggs on Easter Morning an declare “Christos anesti!” (“Christ is risen”; Russian: Christos voskres) is attributed to Mary Magdalene:
“St. Mary Magdalene was the first in the world who pronounced: ‘Christ has risen!’ After the Descending of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, St. Mary Magdalene also went on the Apostolic journey; that is why she is called the Equal to the Apostles. She preached most of all in Italy, where she visited the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37); she brought him a red egg with the news about the resurrection of Christ. From that time, this pious habit – to present red eggs (the colour of the Lord’s blood) during the Holy Easter was accepted by Christians. St. Mary died in the city of Ephesus (Asia Minor) where she lived in the house of the Evangelist John the Theologian, her relics now rest under the altar of the Lateran cathedral in Rome, one portion of them … near Marseille in France.”[100]

According to the French tradition, which strongly follows the Gregorian identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, she left the Holy Land just after the martyrdom of Stephanus. “The Maddeleine” came, together with her “brother” Lazarus, her “sister” Martha, a certain Maximus, claimed to be one of the 70 disciples of the Lord[101], and some companions came to Marseilles by boat and converted the whole of Provence. Then, Mary Magdalena retired to a nearby hill, La Sainte-Baume, where she spent the next thirty years with a life of penance in a local cave. When the time of her death arrived, angels carried her to Aix, where St. Maximin spent her the last rites and eventually buried her. History is silent about her tomb until 745, when, fearing the invasion of the Saracenes, her relics were allegedly transferred to Vézelay, according to the chronicler Sigebert of Gembloux (1030-1112). Once again, a long period of silence followed until 1279, when king Carlos II of Naples erected a Dominican convent at La Sainte Baume with its impressive basilica. It soon claimed the possession of the “True relics” of Mary Magdalene, allegedly found in an intact shrine together with a detailed description. The competition between the Benedictines in Vézelay and the Dominicans in La Sainte Baume, both claiming to have the relics of St. Mary Magdalene in their possession, is reflected by dozens of stories about the miracles worked by them, proving their authenticity.

In 1600, on order of Pope Clement VIII, her relics at La Sainte Baume were placed in a shrine donated by the Pontiff; just her skull was placed in a different reliquary. This, in a certain way, “canonized” the Dominican claim, but did not cause the Vezelay Benedictines to change their position. 

The most popular version of the legends surrounding Mary Magdalene was published by Bishop Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298) in his “Legenda aurea”, the most-read collection of legendary lives in the middle ages, compiled around 1260. Here, he quotes Odo of Cluny’s (around 900) claim that described Mary’s family as nobility, although the concept of nobility was unknown in 2nd Temple Period Judaism:
“Mary Magdalene is named after the castle of Magdalum. She was of noble birth, being from royal descent; her father was Syrus and her mother Eucharia. Together with her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha she owned the castle Magdalum, two miles away from Lake Gennesaret, and the village Bethany, which is close to Jerusalem, as well as a great part of the city of Jerusalem. They divided it in a way that Mary owned Magdalum, after which she was called; Lazarus a part of Jerusalem; and Martha got Bethany. Since Magdalena fully dedicated herself to her carnal lust, and Lazarus to knighthood, Martha took over the property of her siblings and governed it with great wisdom and cared for her soldiers and servants and the poor.”[102]

Certainly this anachronistic legend contains no information of historical value. Instead, it projects medieaval concepts of society in general and the estate of noble families into the time of Christ.
6.    Local Veneration
More  relevant are the local traditions in Palestine. The earliest Christian pilgrims probably ignored Magdala, since it was not associated with a miracle performed by the Lord. The earliest reference comes from Theodosius, who, in his Itinerary of early 6th century (ca. 518), mentions:
“From Tiberias it is two miles to Magdala, where my Lady Mary was born.”[103]
The next source is Epiphanius the Monk, (ca. 675), who also places Magdala just on the road from Heptapegon (Tabgha) to Tiberias:
“And again two miles away is a church containing the house of the Magdalene at the place called Magdala. There the Lord healed her.”[104]
An anonymous “Life of Constantine”, probably written between the 8th and the 10th century, attributes the church built in Magdala above the house of Mary to St. Helena:
“Then, with devotion, she (the Empress) left that place (Heptapegon=Tabgha) and went on her way in gladness and joy for a further two miles, where she found the House of Mary Magdalene and there too she erected a Church.”[105]

According to the usually well-informed Melkite patriarch of Alexandria, Eutychius, the brother of St Basil, Peter of Sebaste, knew of a church at Magdala in the second half of the fourth century, which was dedicated to the memory of Mary Magdalene “that Christ cast out seven devils from”.[106] [107]If we believe the last two sources, it was already during the visit of St. Helena to the Holy Land in 325/6, that a Church was built above the house venerated as both, the home of Mary Magdalene and the site where the Lord cast out the “seven devils” from her. Indeed on other sites in Galilee like Nazareth or Capernaum, evidence indicates an unbroken tradition of the veneration of holy places like the Grottoe and House of the Annunciation or the House of St. Peter, where the lame was healed by Christ. Similarly the veneration of the House of St. Mary might go back to apostolic times; only archaeology will tell. At least these pilgrim reports indicate that in the early byzantine period, the Magdala of Mary was clearly located at the coastal road between Tiberias and Tabgha, leaving no doubt for the identification with Al-Majdal.


Behind so many veils of misinterpretation, legend and phantasy, we can still discover the “real Mary Magdalene”: a wealthy woman, probably the widow of one of the newly-rich fish manufacturers who made Taricheae, the Greek name for Magdala, an early “global brand”. Maybe she tried to compensate the loss of her husband with a rather irresponsible, hedonistic lifestyle, living all the seven vices, until she met Christ the Lord. This encounter literally changed her life. He cast out all those devils from her, and she became a pious, dedicated woman who used her wealth and status to support Him and the Twelve, when following them on their mission to spread the gospel. Eventually, she went with Jesus and the Twelve up to Jerusalem for the Passover of 30 AD, where she became a witness of His crucifixion and burial. But here the story did not end. On the morning of the first day of the week, she, together with other women, found the empty tomb – and had the first encounter with the risen Christ. This indeed made her the “Apostola apostolorum”, the first witness of the Resurrection. We do not know her end, but the Greek version of a life in Ephesus is the earlier and sounds like the more realistic one, compared to the French tradition.

Archaeological work in Magdala will help us to gain a deeper understanding of Mary Magdalene in the context of the environment and social situation in which she was called by Christ. It might also eventually lead to traces of an early veneration of a place associated with her. In this case, we would finally learn to understand the most misunderstood woman of the New Testament.

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[1] Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Freiburg 2009, vol. 6, p. 1340
[2] Mt 27:55-56
[3] Mk 15: 40-41
[4] Joh 19: 25
[5] Mt 27:27:61
[6] Mk 15:47
[7] Lk 23:55
[8] Mt 28:1, 8
[9] Mk 16:1-8
[10] Lk 23:56-24:10
[11] Joh 20:1-2
[12] Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, III:39
[13] Mk 16:9-11
[14] Joh 20:11-18
[15]  Μαρία η Μαγδαληνή in Matt 27:5627:6128:1Mark 15:4015:4716:116:9Luke 8:1 says "Μαρία ... η Μαγδαληνή" and 24:10 says "η Μαγδαληνή Μαρία". John 19:2520:1 and 20:18 all say "Μαρία η Μαγδαληνή".
[16] Merk, August. "Magdala." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 31 Oct. 2009 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09523a.htm
[17] John 19:25
[18] As mentioned in Mark 6:3
[19] Rahmani, L.Y.: A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, Jerusalem 1994, p.14
[20] Ilan, Tal: Lexicon of Jewish names in late Antiquity, Tübingen 2002
[21] Bauckham, Richard: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, grand Rapids/MI 2006, p. 67-91
[22] Ibid., p.89
[23]Rahmani, L.Y.: A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, Jerusalem 1994, p. 15
[24] Ibid., p. 17
[25] Mk 6:3
[26] Lk 4:22
[27] Mt 26:71; Joh 19:19
[28] Mg 16:17
[29] Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50-56; Joh 19:38)
[30] Mt 27:32; Mk 15:21; Lk 23:26
[31] Rahmani 1994, p.102
[32] Ibid., p. 112
[33] Ibid., p. 145
[34] Yadin and J. Naveh (eds.)): Masada I, 22. Number 404; quoted by Bauckham 2006, p. 82
[35] Mt 27:56
[36] Mk 15:40
[37] Joh 19:25
[38] Mt 27:56
[39] Mk 15:40
[40] Lk 8:3
[41] Lk 10:38-39
[42] Joh 11,1 ff.
[43] Brian Capper identified the two Bethanies (beth anya, „House of the Poor“) “beyond the Jordan” and east of Jerusalem as parts of a chain of poorhouses, run by the Essene community, which practiced celibacy; this could explain the status of Mary and Martha; see. Capper, Brian J.: Essene Community Houses and Jesus’ Early Community, in: Charlesworth, James H. (Ed.): Jesus and Archaeology, Cambridge 2006, p. 472-502  
[44] Ilan, Tal: Jewish Women in Graeco-Roman Palestine: An Inquiry into Image and Status, Tübingen 2006 p. 65
[45] Ibid, p.66
[46] Ibid.
[47] Mt 27:55; Mk 15:41
[48] Lk 8:3
[49] Lk 8,1
[50] Mk 16:9
[51] Lk 8:2
[52] Mt 4:23-24
[53] Merk, A. (1910). Magdala. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 22, 2013 from New Advent:http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09523a.htm
[54] Dalmanutha. (n.d.). Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary. Retrieved June 21, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dalmanutha
[55] Anon.: Palästina nach historisch-geographisch-statistischen Umrissen nach ältern und neuern Reisebeschreibungen gezeichnet, Karlsruhe und Freiburg 1830, p. 124
[58] Merk, A. (1910). Magdala. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 22, 2013 from New Advent:http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09523a.htm
[59] Flavius Josephus, Life 142-144; War II, 606-609; 635; War III, 462-542
[60] “At the place called Taricheae the lake supplies excellent fish for pickling”; Strabo, Geography, Book XVI, Chap. 2, 764:45
[61] Flavius Josephus, Life, 132
[62] Flavius Jospehus., War II, 608
[63] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII
[64] Lk 7:40; 7:44
[65] Lk 7:36
[66] Lk 7:37-39
[67] Lk 7: 44-50
[68] Deuteronomy 23:18
[69] Bronner, Leila Leah: From Eve to Esther: Rabbinic Reconstructions of Biblical Women, Kentucky 1984, p. 142
[70] Bar-Ilkan, Meir: Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, St. Providence 1998, p.132
[71] Goldman, Talia: Prostitution in Classical and Jewish Antiquity, https://sites.google.com/site/hashtaumd/contents-1/prost, p. 2
[72] McGinn, Thomas A.J.: The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World, Ann Arbor 2004, p. 60
[73] Tractate Menachot, 44a
[74] Bronner 1994, p 142
[75] Ibid., p. 157
[76] Lk 8:2
[77] Mk 14:3; see also Mt 26:6-7
[78] Mk 14: 4-5; see also Mt 26:8-9
[79] Joh 12:2
[80] Joh 12:3: „Then took Mary a pound of ointment…“
[81] Joh 11:1-2
[82] Jesus had to tell his disciples: „Let us go into Judaea again“, when he learned that Lazarus was sick, see:  Joh 11:7
[83] Lk 8:1
[84] Pope, H. (1910). St. Mary Magdalen. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 22, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09761a.htm
[85] In the Russian Orthodox Church, „Righteous Martha and Mary“ (of Bethany) are venerated on June 17th (June 4th of the Julian Calender) and “The ointment-bearer Mary Magdalene, equal to the Apostles” on August 4th (July 22nd of the Julian Calender)
[86] Medjedew, Borislav A. (ed.): 1995 – The Orthodox Year, Moskau 1994,entry 4th of August
[87] Lambertsen, Isaac E. (Ed.): Holy Myrrh-Bearer Mary Magdalene: Equal of the Apostles: Life, Liturgical Service, & Akathist Hymn, Liberty, TN 1999
[88] Pope, H. (1910). St. Mary Magdalen. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 22, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09761a.htm
[89] Gregory the Great, Homily XXXIII
[90]  Schaberg, Jane: The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha and The Christian Testament, New York 2002, p. 88
[91] Codices P. Rylands 463 and P. Oxyrhynchus 3525 (both 3rd century) and Berolinensis Gnosticus 8052,1 (5th century)
[93] Ibid.
[95] Ibid.
[96] Ibid.
[98] Gregory of Tours, De miraculis, I, xxx.
[100] [100] Medjedew, Borislav A. (ed.): 1995 – The Orthodox Year, Moskau 1994, entry 4th of August
[101] Lk 10:1
[102] Wetzel. Christoph (Ed.):  Legenda aurea – Aus der Goldenen Legende des Jacobus de Voragine, Freiburg 2007, p.142
[103] Wilkinson, John: Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, Warminster 1977, p. 63
[104] Ibid., p. 120
[105] Ibid., p. 203
[106] Merk, A. (1910). Magdala. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 23, 2013 from New Advent:http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09523a.htm
[107] Cit. Bagatti, Bellarmino: Ancient Christian Villages of Galilee, Jerusalem 2001, p. 69