26 July 2019
Mary the Magdalene is considered an early Christian saint in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. This past Monday, July 22nd, was her feast day, I thought about the irony of it all. Four U.S. congresswomen, labeled “the squad,” by misogynist politicians were being denigrated in the press and political gatherings, while I was working on an article about women in ministry, the Catholic reluctance to ordain women, and the great apostolic woman leader: Mary the Magdalene.
Over the centuries, the Magdalene has been greatly maligned and misrepresented by misogynist churchmen. The man who launched this false and derogatory understanding was Pope Gregory called “the great.” On September 14, 591, Gregory gave a homily in Rome that proclaimed that: (1) Mary the Magdalene, (2) Luke’s unnamed prostitute, and (3) Mary of Bethany were all the same person. From that time on, Mary the Magdalene was Mary the reformed prostitute. Fake news from the papal throne. It lasted until 1969 when the Vatican cleared her name. (Some, nevertheless, still think Mary had been a prostitute. Fake news hangs on for a long time.)
Gregory the Great was an extreme authoritarian, who turned the papacy into a strong international power. His father had been a senator and for a time the Prefect of the City of Rome. His great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory had served as the governor of Rome when he was 30 years old; and he brought a strongly male-dominant imperial Roman administrative structure to the papacy.
Back to Mary….John’s Gospel clearly portrays Mary the Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles. Mark and Matthew place her first on the list of women at the cross. Luke names her first in his list of women disciples from Galilee. In the Synoptic Gospels the Magdalene appears first among the women at the tomb and the first person at the tomb in the Fourth Gospel. John elevates her above everyone else in his or any Gospel. She is the person to whom the resurrected Jesus appears.
Curiously, due to an error in biblical translation, just about every English language version of the New Testament gives the name of this great woman incorrectly. In all four Greek versions of the Gospels, the authors always use the definitive Greek article in her name. In Greek, definitive articles are used to emphasize a name. In English we would say “THE” as in “Mary THE Magdalene.” The English translators missed that significant point. (I do a lot of translating and understand the problem. Here it is a bad translation error nonetheless.)
Many religious writers — and even Wikipedia — still use the titles “Mary Magdalene” or “Mary of Magdala.” Some authors suggest this is because the historical Mary came from a town named Magdala. This is an unfortunate mistake. In Mary the Magdalene’s time, there was NO TOWN called Magdala. Mary the Magdalene did not come from a town called Magdala. In the days of Greek and Roman power in Galilee, the town known today as “Magdala” was called “Taricheae.” According to the first-century Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, the town of Taricheae was totally destroyed by the Romans in 67 CE. Much later a new town was built over the ruins of Taricheae, and this town was called “Magdala Nunnayah. During the lifetime of Mary, however, the town on that location was Taricheae.
What then does “Mary the Magdalene” mean? “Magdalene” in Aramaic means “tower or pillar.” Mary the Magdalene was a tower or pillar of strength for Jesus and the early Christians: a companion and source of care and loving support. She was the preeminent ministerial woman: compassionate, hard-working, helpful, and courageous.
There are a couple other questions about Mary the Magdalen that we need to clarify. The first is that she had seven devils cast out of her. Reading the opening lines of chapter eight in Luke, we find: “Soon afterwards he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out………”
Over the centuries, Christian misogynists have used this demon theme to paint a very negative image of the Magdalene and many other women with their “demons.” Just a few examples: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.” – Saint Clement of Alexandria, Christian theologian (c150-215) ——- “Woman, you are the gate to hell.” –Tertullian, “the father of Latin Christianity” (c160-225) ——- “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” – Saint Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian, 13th century.
Now back to Luke chapter eight. Clearly Luke held the women accompanying Jesus in high esteem. Contemporary biblical scholars, when considering Mary the Magdalene’s “demons,” tend to agree that her seven demons represent illness, which, as a biblical researcher friend said recently, “could have been anything from epilepsy to psoriasis.” The important point here, nevertheless, is that some of the disciples who journeyed with Jesus were women; and prominent among them was Mary the Magdalene.
One more point to briefly consider….Were Jesus and the Magdalene a couple? In his 2003 fantasy novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown suggests that Mary the Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Periodically, over the years, writers and some biblical scholars have suggested in fact that Jesus was married and Mary was his wife. To date there is really no solid evidence for this. I suppose it is possible. Some writers also suggest that Jesus was actually gay. To date there is no solid evidence for this either; although I suppose it is possible.
Gay or straight, married or single, Jesus remains the Christ. He remains for all of us, and for all time, “the way and the truth and the life.” Frankly, I really don’t care about his marital state or sexuality and don’t get into those discussions.
I am grateful, however, for Mary the Magdalene and her example and ministry. Let us celebrate, support, and be grateful for her and all those women who are successors of Mary the Magdalene: tower and pillar of strength and apostle to the apostles. And let us support and promote all those women today who are in pastoral ministry or feel called to it.