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Mary Magdalen

Updated – 30 April 2004


There were two women, in addition to Jesus' mother, who are mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels as being of his entourage.  The first of these is the Magdalen, or more precisely, Mary from the village of Migdal, or Magdala, in Galilee.  In the accounts of Mark and Matthew, she is not mentioned by name until at the time of the Crucifixion, where she is numbered among Jesus' followers in Judaea.*

In the Gospel of Luke, however, she appears relatively early in Jesus' ministry, while he is still preaching in Galilee.  Obviously, she accompanied him from Galilee to Judaea, or at least, she moved freely between the two provinces.   

However, in the Palestine of Jesus' time, it would have been unthinkable for an unmarried woman to travel unaccompanied -- and even more so to travel unaccompanied with a religious teacher and his entourage.  Because of this potentially embarrassing fact, numerous traditions have assumed that the Magdalen was married to one of the disciples.  Unfortunately, if this was the case, then her special relationship with Jesus and her proximity to him would have rendered both of them subject to suspicions, if not outright charges, of adultery.           

Popular tradition notwithstanding, the Magdalen is not, at any point in any of the Gospels, said to be a prostitute.  When she is first mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, she is described as a woman "out of whom went seven devils."  It is generally assumed that this phrase refers to a species of exorcism on Jesus' part, implying the Magdalen was "possessed".   

But the phrase more accurately refers to a conversion and/or ritual initiation.  The cult of Inanna (Ishtar or Astarte) -- the mother Goddess and "Queen of Heaven" -- involved, for example, a seven-stage initiation:  The Dance of the Seven Veils!!  Prior to her affiliation with Jesus the Magdalen was likely associated with such a cult.  Migdal, or Magdala, was the "Village of Doves", and there is some evidence that sacrificial doves were in fact bred there, the dove being the sacred symbol of Astarte -- the Jewish version of Inanna/Ishtar.           

In the chapter before Luke speaks of the Magdalen, he alludes to a woman who anoints Jesus.  The Gospel of Mark also mentions a similar anointment by an unnamed woman.  Neither Luke nor Mark identified this woman with the Magdalen, but Luke does mention that she was a "fallen woman".  On the basis of having seven devils cast out of her, the Magdalen is assumed by some authorities as the woman.  It is also noteworthy that if the Magdalen was associated with a pagan cult (Astarte and the environmentalists!), that would certainly have rendered her as a "fallen woman" in the eyes not only of Luke, but of later writers as well.           

If the Magdalen was a "fallen woman", she was also, quite clearly, something more than the common prostitute of popular tradition.  Quite clearly she was a woman of means.  Luke reports, for example, that her friends included the wife of a high dignitary at Herod's court -- and that both women, together with various others, supported Jesus and his disciples with their financial resources.  The woman who anointed Jesus was also a woman of means.  In Mark's Gospel great stress is laid upon the costliness of the spikenard ointment with which the ritual was performed.           

In fact, the whole episode of Jesus' anointing would seem to be an affair of considerable importance.  Why else would it be emphasized by the Gospels?  And given its prominence, it appears to be something more than an impulsive spontaneous gesture.  It appears to be a carefully premeditated rite.  One must remember that anointing was the traditional prerogative of kings -- and of the "rightful Messiah", which means "the anointed one".   

From this it follows that Jesus became an authentic Messiah by virtue of his anointing.  And the woman who consecrates him in that august role can hardly be unimportant.  This seems to explain the fact that among all his devotees, it was to the Magdalen that Jesus first chose to reveal his Resurrection.  And in the Synoptic Gospels, her name consistently heads the list of women who followed Jesus, just as Simon Peter heads the list of male disciples.           

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus treats the Magdalen in a unique and preferential manner. Such treatment may well have induced jealousy in the other disciples. It would seem fairly obvious that later tradition endeavored to blacken the Magdalen's background, if not her name.  The portrayal of her as a harlot may well have been the overcompensation of a vindictive following intent upon impugning the reputation of a woman whose association with Jesus was closer than their own and thus inspired an all too human envy.           

Whatever the status of the Magdalen in the Gospels, there is another woman who figures most prominently in the Fourth Gospel and who may be identified as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  The entire family is clearly wealthy and on very familiar terms with Jesus.  For example, the Lazarus episode reveals that his house contained a private tomb -- a somewhat flamboyant luxury in Jesus' time, not only a sign of wealth, but also a status symbol attesting to aristocratic connections.   

When in the Fourth Gospel Lazarus falls ill, Jesus has left Bethany for a few days and is staying with his disciples on the Jordan.  Hearing of what has happened, he nevertheless delays for two days -- a rather curious reaction -- and then returns to Bethany, where Lazarus lies in the tomb.  As he approaches, Martha rushes forth to meet him.  But not Mary.  Again curious.         

Interestingly, by the tenets of Judaic law at that time, a woman "sitting shivah" would have been strictly forbidden to emerge from the house except at the express bidding of her husband.  Thus Mary of Bethany conforms precisely to the traditional comportment of a Jewish husband and wife.  And in a "secret" Gospel of Mark, discovered by Morton Smith, it appears Mary does emerge from the house before Jesus instructs her to do so, whereupon she is promptly and angrily rebuked by the disciples, whom Jesus is then obliged to silence.           

All the evidence points rather strongly to one conclusion:  That the Magdalen, the woman who anoints Jesus, and Mary of Bethany are all the same woman.  The medieval Church certainly regarded them as such, and so did popular tradition.  Many biblical scholars today concur.  There is abundant evidence to support such a conclusion.  Note for example, that Mary of Bethany is not cited by any of the Gospels as being present at the Crucifixion (although Mary Magdalen is).

Of substantial importance, however, is that Mary Magdalen was the last person at the cross and the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection from the tomb. She ministered to him using her own resources; she anointed him for his ministry and his burial, and was in all likelihood on his right hand at the Last Supper [1]. While she is barely mentioned in the books of Mark and Matthew, it is nevertheless obvious that she was a constant companion of Jesus.

Of substantially more significance, however, is the fact that according to the Gospel of Holy Twelve , Jesus gave to Mary Magdalen and to her alone the commission to preach the gospel. She was even instructed to “go tell Peter” that wheresoever the gospel was to be preached, Mary's love and devotion to her Master were to be declared. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalen itself, Mary tells the disciples of certain secret mysteries which Jesus had told her alone. This doesn't fly well, but as also recounted in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Furthermore, she was his beloved, had been entrusted with more knowledge and teachings, and had a superior vision [2]. The latter is ironical in that the Papacy based its authority on a lineage from Peter as the first person to witness the risen Christ.

The difficulty is why Mary was given such precedence. Inasmuch as she was unlikely to have been a woman traveling alone with thirteen men, one must ask the question:

Who was Mary of Bethany/Magdalen married to?



[1] Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code , Doubleday Random House, New York, 2003.

[2] http://www.thenazareneway.com/the_gospel_of_mary_magdalene.htm      


[*] This very abbreviated historical perspective is taken from numerous sources, including specifically, the excellent book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln [Dell Publishing, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, 1983].   

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