Drawing from exotic speculations based on heretical texts that were written long after the Gospels, many have falsely claimed throughout the ages that Mary Magdalene was a “goddess,” was married to Jesus, and was intended by Him to be the leader of the Church. But that is not the real Mary Magdalene depicted in the Gospels and celebrated by the Church.
For a true portrait of this famous but misunderstood woman, let’s start with the biblical accounts.
Seeking the Real Mary Magdalene
The four Gospels contain at least a dozen references to Mary from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is described as a woman who had suffered from demonic possession and from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons (see Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2).
She is also prominently mentioned as one of the women who accompanied Jesus in His ministry (Lk 8:2). She was a witness of the Crucifixion (Mt 27:56; Jn 19:25), of Jesus’ burial (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47), and of the empty tomb (Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:10). After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to her alone at the tomb (Mk 16:9; Jn 20:1-18).
In the Western tradition, Mary Magdalene eventually became identified with the sinful woman of Luke 7:37-50 as well as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (see Lk 10:38-42; Jn 11). However, in the Eastern tradition, the three women were identified separately, with feast days on March 21 (the unnamed sinner), March 18 (Mary of Bethany) and July 22 (Mary Magdalene).
Many feminists and critics claim that the Catholic Church, alarmed by Mary’s supposed position as Jesus’ chief apostle, slandered and “defamed” her by labeling her a prostitute. They say this was due to “the Vatican’s” desire to silence the “truth” about Mary Magdalene, including her marriage to Jesus and her position of authority in the early Church. Such a tale of conspiracy and misogyny is attractive to those questioning the role of women in the Catholic Church and the Church’s teachings about sexual mores. But is it accurate?
The Church, the Pope and the Magdalene
If the early Christians were intent upon destroying the memory of Mary Magdalene, they did a poor job of it. In Christian Scripture and Tradition she is given a prominent role as witness to the Resurrection, a remarkable fact considering that the testimony of women had little value in first-century Jewish society.
Even so, these references aren’t enough for those who are convinced that the Magdalene was deliberately denied her rightful place at the right hand of Jesus as His head apostle. And although she is mentioned more times than some of the apostles, some feminist writers speak of her being “marginalized” by a piece of “propaganda” known as the New Testament, written by “the anti-Magdalene party.”
Feminist critics often portray the early Church Fathers as villains in this matter. The prime suspect in the alleged crime against women is Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). The Pope once said in a homily: “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.”
Why did St. Gregory make this identification?
First, the passage about the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:37-50 immediately precedes the description of “Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” in Luke 8:2. He apparently harmonized the two descriptions, perhaps because the woman who anointed Jesus (see Lk 7:38) is described as a “sinner,” and Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons — an indication to some that she was that sinner.
A second reason for Pope Gregory’s identification of the two women is the Magdalene’s birthplace. By the sixth century, the biblical city of Magdala had acquired a reputation of depravity and godlessness.
Third, John 11:1-2 identifies the woman who anointed Christ and dried His feet with her hair as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. St. Gregory may have assumed that the two accounts of a woman anointing Our Lord referred to the same event and the same woman.
Probably the most important reason, however, that Pope Gregory identified Magdalene with the “sinful woman” is that his preferred way of interpreting the biblical text was to focus on its moral implications. He believed that the seven demons that had once possessed Mary Magdalene, though literal demons, also represented the seven deadly sins.
At the time of this homily, Rome was undergoing famine and the turmoil of war. So the Pope was taking this opportunity to encourage Christians to repent of their sins.
Vicious Slander or Papal Candor?
St. Gregory’s creation of a single Mary out of three different women is arguably not supported by the text. Most Catholic Scripture scholars agree with the Eastern tradition that the three women are separate individuals. The revised 1969 Roman calendar no longer classifies Mary Magdalene as a penitent, indicating that Rome no longer considers her a reformed harlot. Never-theless, even if St. Gregory’s act was factually flawed, it wasn’t outrageous and it certainly wasn’t malicious. As a pastor and a man of holiness, the great Pope held up Mary Magdalene as an exemplar of repentance, humility and devotion. She was a symbol of hope for sinners.
Though his facts may not have been accurate, he was not attempting to destroy Mary Magdalene, but to praise her. In the meantime, we should note that however great the authority of Pope Gregory, his teaching about Mary Magdalene was not infallible, nor was it issued in an encyclical or a papal bull. It was never defined as Catholic dogma nor upheld as sacred doctrine by an ecumenical council.
Contrary to feminist criticisms and the unfounded assertions to the contrary, Mary Magdalene has been openly celebrated by Catholics for many centuries. Described by some Church Fathers as the “apostle to the apostles,” she was a brave disciple of Jesus who stood at His cross; she was also a witness to the resurrected Christ.
Far from being pilloried or slandered, Mary of Magdala is rightly recognized by the Church as a model of faithfulness, devotion and loyalty to the truth of the Gospel of her Master and Lord.