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Mary Magdalene

· ​In the New Testament ·

On tiptoe and taking small steps: in recent years Mary Magdalene has gained a little ground in the Western Church too. It was John Paul ii who, in his homily on a Sunday of Easter, cried out to the world that she was the first witness of the Risen One. And finally the press echoed him, this became news, it seemed the discovery of the century. Few wondered why it had taken centuries and centuries for something that for almost 2,000 years has been narrated in John’s Gospel to be accepted as it was written. But no matter, the breach had now been opened. Pope Francis then decreed that the celebration of Mary Magdalene should be raised from an obligatory commemoration to a liturgical feast and for the past two years the Proper of the Apostles has been used in Mass on the 22 July. A witness, an Apostle. At last all those “snapshots” seem to have been relegated to the archives, those images which the impressive iconography produced in the West – as well as much literature and more recently many films too – has contributed to fixing her in the imagination of generations of Christians, making them fantasize about her sensuality as a prostitute, a lover and a wife.

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, “Mary Magdalene” (detail, 1535-1540)

After so many legends Mary Magdalene has finally been restored to the sobriety of the Gospel accounts. Indeed for some time scholars had been endeavouring to do this but the authority of two Pontiffs was required in order to begin to purify the memory of the Latin Church. This is not so for the Eastern Churches which on the third Sunday after Easter have always celebrated the feast of the Myrophorae [the Myrrh-bearers], namely that small group of women headed by Mary Magdalene who, bringing myrrh to anoint the body of the dead Teacher, go to the tomb and are the first to receive the announcement of the Resurrection. For the Western Church, in contrast, it was necessary to prevail over a misunderstanding which had profoundly marked the history of spirituality for 1,500 years, especially that of women.It is a misunderstanding that dates back to very distant times, to the success of a homily given by St Gregory the Great in which he makes three women of the Gospel into a single “Mary”. For this great Pope the anonymous sinful woman of Luke’s Gospel who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (7:36-50), Mary of Bethany, who, according to John prophetically anoints the head of the Teacher on the night of the betrayal (Jn 12:1-8) and that Mary whose embrace is shunned by the Teacher on Easter morning (Jn 20:11-18) are one and the same person. In this way they create the prototype of the woman following Christ, the penitent prostitute, the daughter of Eve redeemed at last from the sin which every woman, by the sole fact of being a woman, introduces into the world and into history. Moreover the double name “Eve-Magdalene” has very ancient roots since it is also present in ancient Christian writers, such as Hippolytus, in Fathers of the Greek tradition, such as Gregory of Nyssa, and later in those of the Latin tradition, such as Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau “The Holy Women at the Tomb” [or “The Three Marys at the Tomb”] (detail, 1890)

From the earliest centuries all the great Fathers wondered about this figure above all because it was hard for them indeed to accept that the Risen One would have wished to restrict an individual appearance specifically to her: no Evangelist in fact refers to an appearance to Peter, even though there is an echo of it at the end of the account of the two disciples of Emmaus (Lk 24:34).However, Mary Magdalene’s experience of the Resurrection is spoken of differently in each of the four Gospels. In Mark’s account, which contains the oldest account of the Passion, and in the other two Synoptic Gospels, Mary Magdalene is beneath the Cross (Mk 14:40-41; Mt 27:55-56; Lk 23:49), at the burial (Mk 15:47; Mt 27:61; Lk 23:55-56) and on Easter morning, at the empty tomb where the Galilean women disciples receive the first announcement of the Resurrection (Mk 16:1-8; Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:1-11). In the most recent of the Gospels, the Gospel according to John, Mary Magdalene is standing by the Cross (19:25) and above all it is she who is the recipient of the only individual appearance of the Risen Christ (20:1-2, 11-18). Nor should we forget that Luke mentions her beside the Twelve as the leader of the small group of women disciples who follow Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (8:1-3).

By contrast, although for Paul the Galilean episode was focused entirely on the events of Easter, he seems to know nothing about this witness to the Resurrection. Indeed, Paul precisely serves as a sounding board for an ancient formula of faith in which Mary Magdalene and the other Galilean women disciples are expunged from the list of witnesses of the Resurrection: at the origin of the paschal kerygma, according to Paul,there would have been only an increasing number of disciples to whom the Risen One appeared, all strictly male (i Cor 15:3-7). In short, the distortion of memory began very soon; unfortunately the recovery of the ancient narrative traditions concerning the events of Easter which in the accounts of all four Evangelists insist on the central role that women disciples play were to be of very little use.

However, the recovery of this memory must start precisely from the Gospel accounts.For Jesus of Nazareth cannot be reduced to one of the umpteen soteriological myths that accompanied the last moments of a crumbling empire, nor to a powerful ideology which permits that empire to be recomposed into a new unity. Jesus is “born of a woman”, and as a basis of every Christological reflection his fellow countrymen’s question must be asked: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (Jn 6:42). The same thing holds true for his disciples, and for his women disciples; they are not all literary figures, fictional characters who inhabit little mythical stories about a charismatic prophet, but rather they are men and women who believed in him while he was calling together the whole of Israel since the Kingdom was then so close that it was already present. They chose to follow Christ, and after his death believed that the Father had raised him from the dead.

In short, both the men and women disciples, lived in practice the difficult passage from the discipleship of the Nazarene to the following of the Risen One, and it is precisely here, in this passage, that Mary Magdalene plays a crucial role. The testimony of the Evangelists in this regard is unequivocal. Thus it is only on the basis of these texts that it is possible to reconstruct the authentic image – namely, free from centuries of misunderstandings and manipulations – of Mary Magdalene, disciple, witness and apostle.

Even though all four of the canonical Evangelists agree in recognizing Mary Magdalene’s leading role in the genesis of the paschal faith, it is also true that the Synoptic Gospels and John modulate this historical fact, making use of different theological registers; in this way they demonstrate the creativity with which this woman disciple’s memory has been preserved and handed down, and hence the foundational value she had for the constitution of the various proto-Christian Churches.

The Synoptic tradition, although with different nuances, attributes to the figure of Mary Magdalene and to the other Galilean women disciples a clear kerygmatic character: these women are closely linked to the Christian proclamation and to its dissemination, first as witnesses of Christ’s death, of his burial and of the Resurrection that has taken place, then as the first to receive the paschal announcement and later, in turn, as messengers of the Good News. It cannot surprise us that in two patriarchal cultures, such as the Judaic and the Greco-Roman, their leading role is cautiously attenuated because of the disciples’ incredulity (Mk 16:11; Lk 24:11). On the contrary, in reality it is strengthened. Indeed, the fact that no apologetic concern has been able to expunge it from the paschal narratives is another proof of its being rooted in the most ancient historical traditions: so soon after the events, who could have glossed over details which must of course have been in the public domain? Rather, if, in the second conclusion of Mark’s Gospel added subsequently, the motif of the appearance of the Risen One to Mary Magdalene is taken up again, this only confirms how important it was for the newborn Churches to preserve the memory of this woman disciple as the leader of the group of women who followed and served Jesus.

Yet it is above all John’s Gospel that delineates the apostolic role of Mary Magdalene with great force. As a matter of fact, in the Johannine narrative it is the female figures themselves – the Samaritan woman, Martha, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene and indeed the Mother of Jesus twice – who play a crucial role. This narrative strategy which causes female figures to intervene in critical moments for the revelation of God by Jesus cannot be accidental. Thus it is permissible to think that the women believers in the Johannine community were also particularly important for all that concerns the elaboration of the Christological faith. Absolutely in line with the rest of the Gospel, Mary Magdalene’s leading paschal role cannot therefore come as a surprise.

Greater emphasis should be given to the presence, standing by the Cross beside Mary of Nazareth and the beloved disciple, of Mary Magdalene, a witness of the “entrustment” with which the life of the community of those who believe in the Risen One begins. By the Cross, the Galilean woman disciple is a silent witness to Jesus’ last desire for the new community of disciples: the community of the beloved disciple must accept Mary into it, in other words it must stay faithful to the Incarnation, accepting the one who was exalted and who was born of a woman (19:25-27). For John therefore, her presence at Jesus’ death does not have the value of an eye-witness’s testimony, as it does for the Synoptic Gospels, but rather is propaedeutic for the apostolic investiture that he will receive on “the first day of the week” in the garden where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had buried Jesus’ body (19:38-42).

Indeed, shortly afterwards, in that garden of the burial, Mary Magdalene was to be the first who had to accept not to remain anchored in the memory of the dead Teacher but to make herself the disciple of the One who had now ascended to the Father. For Mary Magdalene the experience of the Risen One will involve passing from the one knowledge to the other, from knowledge of the Teacher to knowledge of the Risen Christ, and she will be invested by the Risen One himself with the role of announcing to the disciples the completely new quality of the relationship which Jesus’ exaltation has established both between the Risen One and his followers and between the disciples among themselves (20:17-18).In short, Mary Magdalene contains in herself the synthesis of Johannine Christology, so strongly characterized by the polarity of the Incarnation-Exaltation.

Thus the question is imposed: to what do we owe the amnesia which led the subsequent tradition to let Mary Magdalene slip from the history of Jesus and of the community of his disciples before and after Easter to give rise to an infinite number of legends which, while preserving her memory, altered it and in any case rendered it insignificant in the history of the great Church?Even a mere glance at the so-called “apocryphal” traditions enables us to understand that in a few marginal communities this woman’s role was by contrast recognized and respected.Indeed, in the tradition of the great Church too every now and then some voice has been raised which sheds light on Mary Magdalene’s importance. It suffices to remember Rabanus Maurus’ words when he said that Christ chose Mary Magdalene as “the Apostle of his Ascension, rewarding with the worthy prize of grace and glory and the privilege of honour the one who for her merits was a worthy guide of all the women who worked with her, and whom a little earlier he had established as the Evangelist of the Resurrection”.

The voice of this Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mainz at the beginning of the ninth century has nevertheless remained, like the voices of many others, only marginal. We cannot but hope that the same thing does not happen to the voices of two Popes, namely John Paul ii and Francis, who have restored to the Latin Church the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, a disciple of Jesus, a witness of the Resurrection and therefore, as Pope Francis described her in his catechesis on 17 May 2017, the “Apostle of the new and greatest hope”.

Marinella Perroni

The author

Marinella Perroni teaches New Testament studies at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St Anselm in Rome. She is also guest professor at the Theological Faculty of the Marianum. Having founded Coordinamento teologhe italiane (2003), she was its President from 2004 to 2013. Since 2013 she has been Vice President of Biblia and a member of its Scientific Committee. Her recent publications include: Le donne di Galilea. Presenze femminili nella prima comunità cristiana (Edb, 2015), Maria di Magdala. Una genealogia apostolica (with Cristina Simonelli, Aracne, 2016) e Dio nessuno l’ha mai visto. Una guida al vangelo di Giovanni , (with Pius-Ramon Tragan, San Paolo, 2017).




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019