Mary Magdalene was the most important woman disciple in the movement of Jesus. Who was Mary Magdalene? Tradition has labeled her a prostitute, but there is nothing in the Bible to support this view and much to dispute it.
Many ideas about Magdalene persist today, whether or not the biblical text and historical resources confirm them. For example, early church fathers incorrectly identified her with the sinful woman who anointed Christ's feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Others believed she was Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus.
One of the more fantastic ideas links her to myths about the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar. Secular books with names such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Woman With the Alabaster Jar expand on traditions that she committed sexual sins. They claim that Jesus married her and fathered one or more children. These books are based on fiction, not fact.
Who really was Mary Magdalene? Apparently her status in early Christianity was as high, if not higher, as Peter's. The Bible gives us clues about her importance. After his resurrection, Jesus first appeared Mary Magdalene not Peter, according to the Gospel of John. Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord." In other scriptures, her name is first in the list of witnesses (Mk. 16:1-11; Mt. 28:1; Lk. 24:10; Jn. 20:11-18; 1 Cor. 15:5-8).
The Gnostic Gospel of Mary adds evidence that Mary was a strong Christian leader. This nonbiblical manuscript was discovered in Egypt the middle of the twentieth century. It suggests that Peter was jealous of Mary.
Clearly Jesus and Mary had a special relationship. A familiar scene in art and music is her encounter with Christ that first Easter morning. She does not recognize the man to whom she speaks until he calls her by her name.
Artists have often recreated the scene when Jesus says, "Do not hold on to me" (Noli Me Tangere) in the Gospel of John. Two examples are on this page. The popular hymn, "I Come to the Garden," was also inspired by the story of Jesus' appearance to Mary that first Easter morning.
Recently some scholars have suggested that Mary was the one whom Jesus loved and that she wrote the Gospel of John. For centuries, Christians have wondered about the identity this person beloved by Jesus. Tradition says it was the disciple John; parts of John itself support this opinion. Others, using scholarly analysis, ask, What if the beloved disciple were Mary? These views are both provocative and controversial.
Probably we will never know many details about Mary Magadalene. We can be sure, however, that Mary was a significant leader early Christianity.
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Annotated Bibliography: Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Courageous Women Resource
Choral Reading of Gospels: Women of the Anointing, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (The Four Marys)
The Moving Word: Liturgical Dance and Biblical Interpretation
A workshop outline, online video and transcript
Top: Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) Noli Me Tangere, 1895-96, oil on board, Musée du Prieure, Saint Germain-en-Laye, France. Bottom: Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, Italian, 1495-1576), Noli Me Tangere, 1511-12, National Gallery, London. From Carol Gerten-Jackson's CJFA fine arts web site.
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