“They will listen to me”. This is how the most recent film on Mary of Magdala (2018), by Garth Davis, ends. In the movie, a splendid Rooney Mara plays a Magdalene who is finally restored, despite the inevitable deviation from fiction, to the veracity of the Gospel accounts. She is no longer a prostitute, no longer a penitent, but a disciple and apostle: “They will listen to me”. That all Christian churches owe the group of Galilean disciples led by Mary of Magdala the first transmission of the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection is attested by the synoptic gospels. John, for his part, is keen to reserve a privileged role for Mary as the first witness and first apostle, given that the Risen One entrusts to her the apostolic mandate with regard to the group of all the other disciples from which the Christian mission will commence. It remains an open question, therefore, why that woman, who in all probability came from one of the many villages bordering the Sea of Galilee, is recognised as the “apostle of the apostles”, which is true, but she is never fully proclaimed “apostle of Christ”, which is even truer. This is one of the many signs of the difficulties that have accompanied the construction of women’s history. Yet, the fourth gospel admits of no doubt: what happens for Paul happens for Mary too because it is the Risen One Himself who invests his disciple woman with the mandate of apostle of the resurrection.
What happened to the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection is something that can only be reconstructed with a certain approximation. The gospels are very sparse with information and even the Acts of the Apostles recognise only Paul as the great protagonist of the Christian mission thanks to which the gospel reached the heart of the empire and tell us almost nothing, however, about all the others, not even the group of the Twelve. It is known, however, that the space left empty by information is immediately occupied by a flowering of legends. They are never, however, totally devoid of historical foundation because they originate around nuclei of living memory, often linked to people and places, and develop into traditions that intertwine and evolve but, above all, guarantee the transmission of the identity of the communities from which they originated. Scholars call this the “history of effects”, i.e. the indelible imprints that the transmission of memory leaves on cultural processes, and it is clear that they say more about those who speak than about those who are spoken about.
If today, then, there are travel agencies that organize tours in Provence to retrace in ten stages the path of Mary Magdalene, it is because the traditions about her are very well rooted in the life of that region in the South of France. For one, there is Jacopo da Varagine’s text (1228-1298), which “had to be read” - and this is why it is called a legend - on the feast day dedicated to her, or even of Giotto’s fresco in the lower basilica of Assisi. Both of these examples recount that Magdalene, together with Martha and other disciples who had escaped Herod’s persecution, miraculously arrived in the region of Marseilles where Mary began intense evangelization activity that lasted for a good thirty years. Nor can it come as a surprise, then, that since the Middle Ages there has been an uninterrupted pilgrimage to the grotto located in the Sainte Baume mountain range in the south of France, where the relics of Jesus’ disciple are believed to be preserved. An entire European region, in short, owes its adherence to the Christian faith to this small group of disciples, among whom Mary Magdalene is prominent.
As one moves away from the Gospel texts, however, the profile of the Galilean disciple also acquired other traits, which are increasingly foreign to her story. She has identified with Mary of Bethany or even with the mother of Jesus, she has been regarded as the sensual prostitute who stands out in the iconographic tradition of the Latin West and whom not even the authority of Cardinal Ravasi, who called her “a slandered saint”, has yet managed to eradicate from the imagination of so many Catholics. Her figure has become cloaked in fascination and mystery as the wife, or even concubine, of Jesus and progenitor of the Merovingians. In addition, the two hundred million copies sold, that made Dan Brown’s thriller The Da Vinci Code one of the world’s bestsellers, speaks volumes about what women have to represent in order to be recognised as protagonists of significant history.
Pope Francis has called her an “apostle of the new and greater hope” and raised her liturgical feast, which the church celebrates on July 22, to the same rank as the feasts celebrated by the apostles. How much longer will it take, however, for even in the collective imagination of Mary of Magdala to return to her story as a woman following Jesus who announced to the disciples, ‘“I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:18)?
by Marinella Perroni
A biblical scholar