She was Mary of Magdala, one of the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the Bible, she traveled with him, witnessed his Crucifixion and was one of the first people to learn of his Resurrection.
Over the centuries, everyone from early church leaders and scholars to novelists and filmmakers have revised and elaborated on the story of Mary Magdalene. On one hand, they downplayed her importance by claiming she was a prostitute, a ruined woman who repented and was saved by Christ’s teachings. On the other, some early Christian texts depicted Mary Magdalene as not just a mere follower, but Jesus’s trusted companion—which some interpreted to mean his wife.
But is there any truth to either of these stories? What do we really know about the Bible’s most mysterious woman, Mary Magdalene?
What the Bible Says About Mary Magdalene
All four canonical gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) noted Mary Magdalene’s presence at Jesus’s Crucifixion, but only the Gospel of Luke discussed her role in Jesus’s life and ministry, listing her among “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” (Luke 8:1–3).
According to Luke, after Jesus cast out seven demons from her, Mary became part of a group of women who traveled with him and his 12 disciples/apostles, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” Magdalene is not a surname, but identified the place Mary came from: Magdala, a city in Galilee, located in the northernmost region of ancient Palestine (now northern Israel).
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“Mary Magdalene is among Jesus’s early followers,” says Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. “She was named in the Gospels, so she obviously was important. There were apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of followers of Jesus, but we don't know most of their names. So the fact that she's named is a big deal.”
After Jesus’s crucifixion—which she witnessed along with several other women from the foot of the cross—and after all his male disciples had fled, Mary Magdalene also played a key role in the story of the Resurrection. According to the gospels, she visited Jesus’s tomb on Easter Sunday, either alone (according to the Gospel of John) or with other women, and found the tomb empty.
“The women are the ones who go and tell the disciples,” Cargill points out. “They are the ones that discovered that he had risen, and that’s significant.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus actually appears to Mary Magdalene alone after his Resurrection, and instructs her to tell his disciples of his return (John 20:1-13).
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Mary Magdalene as sinner
Despite—or perhaps because of—Mary Magdalene’s clear importance in the Bible, some early Western church leaders sought to downplay her influence by portraying her as a sinner, specifically a prostitute.
“There are many scholars who argue that because Jesus empowered women to such an extent early in his ministry, it made some of the men who would lead the early church later on uncomfortable,” Cargill explains. “And so there were two responses to this. One was to turn her into a prostitute.”
To cast Mary as the original repentant whore, early church leaders conflated her with other women mentioned in the Bible, including an unnamed woman, identified in the Gospel of Luke as a sinner, who bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, dries them and puts ointment on them (Luke 7:37-38), as well as another Mary, Mary of Bethany, who also appears in Luke. In 591 A.D., Pope Gregory the Great solidified this misunderstanding in a sermon: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark."
“By turning [Mary Magdalene] into a prostitute, then she is not as important. It diminishes her in some way. She couldn't have been a leader, because look at what she did for a living,” Cargill says. “Of course, the other response was actually to elevate Mary. Some argued she was actually Jesus’ wife, or companion. She had a special status.”
Mary Magdalene as Jesus's wife
While some early Christians sought to downplay Mary’s influence, others sought to accentuate it. The Gospel of Mary, a text dating from the second century A.D. that surfaced in Egypt in 1896, placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, a group of texts believed to have been written by early Christians as far back as the second century A.D., but not discovered until 1945, near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
One of these texts, known as the Gospel of Philip, referred to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable, though some scholars have filled in the missing word as “mouth.”
Since 2003, tens of millions of readers have devoured Dan Brown’s massively bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code, the plot of which centered around the longstanding theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children together. This idea was also central to The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1955 novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, and the later film version of that book, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Then in 2012, the Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King unveiled a previously unknown papyrus fragment she believed to be a copy of a second-century gospel, in which Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as “my wife.” After defending the document’s authenticity against a barrage of criticism, King eventually changed her stance, concluding that the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was probably a forgery.
Mary Magdalene as trusted disciple
For its part, the Bible gave no hint that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. None of the four canonical gospels suggests that sort of relationship, even though they list the women who travel with Jesus and in some cases include their husbands’ names.
The version of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute held on for centuries after Pope Gregory the Great made it official in his sixth-century sermon, though neither Orthodoxy nor Protestantism adopted it when those faiths later split from the Catholic Church. Finally, in 1969, the Church admitted that the text of the Bible does not support that interpretation. Today, Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches, with a feast day celebrated on July 22.
“Mary appears to have been a disciple of Jesus,” Cargill concludes. “What's important is that Jesus had both male and female disciples in his ministry, which was not necessarily common at the time.” The prostitute and the wife theories may have been around for centuries, but they are legends and traditions that grew up long after the fact, he emphasizes: “Neither of them [is] rooted in the Bible itself.”
Watch a preview of the four-week special event Jesus: His Life, premiering Monday, March 25 at 8/7c.