Sunday 15 July 2018
Commemoration of Mary Magdalene, Apostle
Mary Magdalene is one the best known and most misunderstood characters in the gospels. It’s not that we don’t know stories about Mary Magdalene. It’s that some of the stories we know about Mary Magdalene aren’t true. So what can we say about her, and how can we separate the fact from the fiction? And what sources can we consult to try to sort it all out?
Well, we have the four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and all four of them tell stories about Mary. We also have several other early Christian writings that did not make it into the bible, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Pistis Sophia. We also have the later tradition of the church. And of course we have Dan Brown.
It’s been 15 years now since the release of his wildly successful novel, The Da Vinci Code. It was very popular while I was in seminary. In it, Mary is portrayed as the wife of Jesus, the mother of his secret child, the holy grail because she was the vessel for his holy bloodline, a secret that has been guarded through the centuries by a series of secret societies. The novel captivated the world and spurred all kinds of conversations about Mary, her role among the early disciples, and the sacred feminine. Of course, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that Dan Brown was rather loose with the things he portrayed as fact, preferring to tell a good story. That is, after all, what we would expect from any good novelist.
Dan Brown was wrong about a lot of things, but one thing he had right is that as the early church became more and more male-dominated, it became more and more afraid of Mary Magdalene. They didn’t like the idea of any woman being that close to Jesus, and so they portrayed her as a prostitute, a crazy person, an unstable woman who was just lucky to be hanger-on of Jesus. None of that is supported by the witness we have in the bible.
One of the most commonly held beliefs people have about Mary is that she was a reformed prostitute. That is total fiction, but it is a fiction that was actively promoted by the church for more than a millennium. In art, she is often depicted naked and as a repentant prostitute. She is the patron saint of “wayward women,” and so-called Magdalene asylums were established to help save women from prostitution. The same characterization holds true in popular culture ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus Christ Superstar to Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Judas.” None of it’s true.
We can blame it on Pope Gregory the Great and a sermon he gave around 591. He conflated Mary Magdalene with two other biblical characters. One of them was Mary of Bethany, the Mary who was the sister of Martha. The other was an unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50. She is the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipes them down with her hair. In the same story, this unnamed woman is described as being sinful. Luke never says what the sin is. But Gregory the Great takes the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus’s feet, incorrectly identifies it with Mary, and supplies the completely made up detail that her sin was prostitution. So was Mary a prostitute. No! That’s a story about an entirely different woman and it never even says that that woman was a prostitute. But the church assigned that reading on Mary’s feast day and convinced billions of people from then until today that she was. (She wasn’t a prostitute!)
Okay, so who was she? Let’s go to our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Mary is introduced along with another Mary and Salome in Mark 15:40. We are told that they were patrons of Jesus. They traveled with him everywhere, and they bankrolled his ministry. It’s a little strange that Mark waits until almost the end of the story to tell us this, but there you are. These women see Jesus being crucified. The two Marys also see where Jesus was laid after he was taken down from the cross. They come back on Sunday morning, once the Sabbath is over, and find the tomb open, the body missing, and a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The strange figure tells them to go tell disciples the good news, but the gospel abruptly ends with the disturbing words “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they didn’t say nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.”
The Gospel of Matthew gives a very similar story about Mary Magdalene. She’s a follower and patron of Jesus. She’s there at the cross. She goes to the tomb. She gets the message from an angel to go tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. But then the story changes. On their way back to tell the disciples, the women encounter the risen Jesus himself. He tells them himself: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” In Matthew, the first people to see the risen Jesus are Mary and her companions, and he gives them a mission to go and share the word.
The Gospel of Luke is not so generous. Luke is a really big fan of Peter and really doesn’t seem to like Mary at all. He can’t write her out of the story altogether, so he seems to do just about everything he can to discredit her. First of all, when Luke introduces Mary, the first thing he says about her is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. No explanation. No supporting details. No other gospel says anything about Mary being possessed by demons, but Luke puts it in there. Worse than that, though, Luke removes the story about Jesus appearing to Mary. In Luke, Jesus doesn’t appear to the women. Instead he appears to Peter. Like I said, Luke seems to be trying very hard to give more authority to Peter and to take away authority from Mary.
The Gospel of John is perhaps the most favorable to Mary. In John, all of the other women are cut out of the story. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb all by herself. She finds the tomb empty, so she runs back and tells Peter and another disciple. They run to the tomb and also find it empty, except for Jesus’s grave clothes that had been left behind. The men leave, but Mary sticks around. It’s the story we read a few minutes ago. She’s as the tomb weeping when she sees two angels. They ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she explains that the body is missing and she doesn’t know where it is. Just then, Jesus appears himself and asks the same question. For some reason, Mary doesn’t recognize him, but when he speaks her name, she does. Jesus sends her to go tell the other disciples, and she does: “I have seen the Lord!”
So those are the four canonical gospels. About the only thing they agree on is that Mary is the first to see the empty tomb. Three gospels tell us that she was with Jesus throughout his ministry and provided for him monetarily. Two say that she was the first to see the risen Jesus. They all say that she was sent to tell the other disciples the good news that Jesus is alive.
There’s good reason to believe that all four canonical gospels understate Mary’s role among Jesus’s disciples. I know it’s a shocker, but they were all written by men, men who had a vested interest in suppressing the voices and authority of women. That’s just a given.
But we can see some hints of the controversy in some other early Christian writings. One of the earliest of these is the Gospel of Thomas, which may well be as old as our four canonical gospels. It’s not a narrative, it’s sayings of Jesus with occasional interruptions from other speakers. Many of the sayings are the same or similar to the sayings we have recorded in other gospels. Whether or not Jesus actually said these things, the Gospel of Thomas does give us a clue into what some early Christians thought about Jesus.
Mary gets a speaking line in verse 21. It reads “Mary said to Jesus, ‘What are your disciples like?’” Which sets up Jesus’s response.
But more interesting for us is verse 114. It says, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’” There it is, right there. That is the attitude we know must have been very common in early Christianity.
For the most part, the ancients didn’t believe that women were fully human. I should say, the ancients who did most of the writing—well-to-do ancient men—they didn’t believe that women were fully human. The prevailing theory was that women were underdeveloped men. They were imperfect men. Because if they were perfect, they would obviously be men, right? Which helps to explain Jesus’s response to Peter in this verse of the Gospel of Thomas.
Listen to this: “Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of heaven.’” Okay, that’s pretty messed up. But for the first century, it’s downright feminist. Don’t worry, ladies, Jesus can make you male so that you’ll be fit for heaven. Isn’t that good news?
So why am I bothering you with the Gospel of Thomas? Well there are lots of early Christian texts that have stories about Mary; Thomas is just one of them. I’m not going to go through them all here—if you want to know more, there is an excellent book by Ann Graham Brock—but here are some of the highlights. They often portray Mary as one of Jesus’s closest disciples, often his very closest disciple. She’s often the only one who really understands what he’s talking about. Sometimes she has to explain Jesus’s sayings to the men because they don’t get it. And in almost every one of them, guess who is upset that Mary has authority. It’s Peter. Mary and Peter have rival claims to authority.
We have evidence that different groups of early Christians disagreed about who had more authority in the wake of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And part of the way that disagreement played out was in who was credited with seeing the risen Jesus first. We can see evidence of the disagreement right in the bible. Most of the gospels say that Mary was the first to see. One of them, takes that distinction away from Mary and gives it to Peter. And that was just the first of many actions that the church took to minimize Mary. Make her a prostitute. Make her crazy. Anything that makes it so that she doesn’t have authority or honor. That’s the part Dan Brown got right. There has been a 2000-year campaign to discredit Mary and her role in the Jesus Movement.
Okay, let’s put away all that other stuff and go back to the bible. What can we say about Mary Magdalene based on the bible? 1) She was a close disciple of Jesus who was with him throughout his earthly ministry. 2) She provided for his ministry financially. 3) She was with him at the cross, when all of the male disciples had run away in fear. 4) She was first there at the tomb on Easter morning. 5) She was the first to see the risen Jesus. And finally, 6) she was the first apostle. And let me close by explaining that last one.
Apostle isn’t just a fancy name for Jesus’s twelve closest disciples; it has a specific meaning. It’s from the Greek verb αποστελλω, I send. An apostle is someone who is sent out. And that’s precisely what Mary is. She sees the risen Jesus, and he sends her out. “Go, tell the others what you’ve seen.” And that’s what she does. She goes and tells Peter and the others. She is the apostola apostolorum, the Apostle to the Apostles. Generations of insecure men can try to discredit her and write her out of the story, but they can’t take that away. Mary Magdalene is the first apostle. She is the first one ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen. Let me say that again. The first person ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen is Mary Magdalene. And that is why we remember her today: the Apostle Mary Magdalene. And perhaps her story can be a warning to us. When we fail to listen to the voices of women, we fail to hear the voice of God.