A Rattling Good Yarn
Thanks to the success of The Da Vinci Code, and its recent film version, Mary Magdalen is currently one of the most talked about people in Christian history. She is also one of the most remarkable, and what we know about her from the New Testament is as surprising as anything which has been speculated since.
The Da Vinci Code is, of course, a story, and doesn't claim to be a history book. The feminine looking figure, in Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper, which the book claims to be Mary is in fact St John, the beloved disciple, who is frequently presented with the youthful looks and flowing blond locks of a Renaissance man (visitors to Cambridge will notice a similar statue over the entrance to St John's College). There is no evidence whatsoever that Mary Magdalen had any relationship with Jesus beyond that of follower and friend, and we know nothing of her tomb or mortal remains. Still, all these details make up a rattling good yarn, which is no bad thing.
There is an ancient text called the "Gospel of Mary" in which she is given a prominent role explaining the path to salvation. This text is a hundred years later than the gospels, which remain the only early sources for details of Mary's life. So what do we know about Mary Magdalen? First and foremost, she was a follower of Jesus. Introducing her, St Luke tells us that she had had 'seven devils' cast out from her (Luke 8:2). Crucially, we are told that she stood as a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus, and most important of all, that she was the first witness to the resurrection on the very first Easter morning.
Each of the gospels tells, slightly differently, the story of a woman who anoints Jesus' feet with expensive perfume, wiping them with her hair. In Mark, Matthew and Luke (written probably in that order) this woman is not named. The earliest account, in Mark 14, has Jesus say that what this woman has done will be told and retold in memory of her. And yet we do not know her name. The fourth gospel, St John, identifies her with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but since the other three sources - at least two of which are earlier - make no such identification, it is at least highly questionable. Whatever our conclusions on that front, Mary of Bethany is someone else, and no gospel source says that the woman who anointed Jesus was Mary Magdalen. In fact, it is probably as late as the sixth century that the harmonization of all three of these women was suggested.