Who is St Mary Magdalen?

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.

Ancient Evidence

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.

Tradition, however, is a powerful thing, and a great deal of iconography featuring Mary Magdalen portrays her washing Jesus' feet. She is also forever to be associated with spices for anointing, but this is not a problem since we are sure, from the gospel accounts, that she and her companions went to Jesus' tomb early on the first day of the week to anoint his body. [They were, you might say, the original 'spice girls'.] Every year around 22nd July, the Feast of St Mary Magdalen, we decorate our church with spices in her honour. There is no ancient evidence for the idea that she was a reformed prostitute, an idea which seems to result from identifying her with the "sinner" in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus's feet.

Apostle to the Apostles

What makes Mary Magdalen one of Christianity's most venerated saints is her fidelity to Jesus Christ on the cross, and her being chosen to witness and spread the news of his resurrection. The male disciples tend not to do very well in the gospel accounts. Look closely at Mark's gospel (the earliest) in particular, and you will find that when Jesus is arrested all of his followers forsake him and flee. A chapter later, however, Mark goes out of his way to tell us that Mary Magdalen and a number of Jesus other female companions, remained with him even to the point of watching his agonizing death.

Any death is difficult to bear. It is hard to imagine the feelings of those women who, two days later visited Jesus' tomb. Yet they were met not with grief, but with astonishment, for they saw the tomb empty and were told to pass on to Jesus' male disciples the news that he had risen. The gospels differ slightly as to exactly who these women were, but all four agree that first among them was Mary Magdalen. In all four accounts, she receives the news of the triumph of life over death, and she is charged with bearing that news to Peter and to the others. They, the apostles, are so called because they were 'sent' by Christ (as later, for example, was Paul, who uses the same title - apostolos, one who is sent). Our patron saint was sent as the first to bear this, the greatest news of all. So it is that we give Mary Magdalen her traditional title: the Apostle to the Apostles.

St Mary Magdalen, Apostle to the Apostles, pray for us...