Part Four: Mary Magdalene in the Gospels
When thinking about Mary Magdalene and what she means for us today, we need to try to step back from the disputes of the present and from our desire to make her represent what we ourselves believe, and see her instead as she is portrayed in the Gospels themselves.
The first thing to note is that we are not told that much! So what are we told?
1. St Luke tells us (Luke 8:1-3) that Mary was someone from whom the Lord had cast out ‘seven demons’. That she was ‘demon possessed’ does not mean that she was a bad woman, a prostitute, or any such thing. It does mean that she had been a deeply troubled person who found liberation and healing through Jesus.
2. That she is described consistently in the Gospels as Mary ‘Magdalene’ means that she most probably came from the town of Magdala on west bank of the Sea of Galilee. That she is described using the name of a place rather than a person also means, in all probability, that she was not married, which, given her former condition before meeting Jesus, is hardly surprising.
3. St Luke tells us that after her deliverance and healing, she became one of many women who accompanied Jesus as he went through the cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God and who ministered to Jesus and the twelve apostles ‘out of their resources’. We are given the names of three of these women, Mary herself; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza; and Susanna. This implies that these women had financial resources they could draw on. This may also indicate that Mary too was a person of financial means. How she came to have them we are, again, not told.
4. All the Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as having been present at the crucifixion together with other women, some of whom are named. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is Mary Magdalene and other women with her who are the first witnesses of the resurrection. St John, in his Gospel, also describes the women, including Mary Magdalene, as having been present at the crucifixion (John 19:25). In describing the discovery of the empty tomb and the events following it, however, St John only describes Mary Magdalene's visit to the tomb. After she has told the disciples about the empty tomb and they see it for themselves, St John goes on to describe Mary meeting Jesus and being told by him to take a message to his disciples in the same way as St Matthew describes the Risen Jesus telling the women to take a message to the disciples in his Gospel.
5. St John, however, records that when Mary first reports the discovery of the empty tomb to the disciples that she says, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’ (John 20:2). That Mary uses the word 'we' would seem to suggest that there were others with Mary and that St John realized that Mary was not alone in the events he is describing. However, by singling out Mary in this way, he confirms the impression that we get from the other Gospels that Mary Magdalene was prominent amongst the women who followed Jesus.
All this is simply a description of what the Gospels say about Mary. The Gospels themselves do not use the word 'disciple' or 'apostle' to describe either Mary or the other women associated with Jesus. This may or may not be significant and there are legitimate arguments to be had over the significance or otherwise of this. Many would argue that the mere fact that the women are described as following Jesus would suggest that they are regarded as ‘disciples’, but this is something that the Gospels themselves stop short of saying.
This is not to devalue the role of the women or for that matter the role of others in the Gospels, both men and women, who are not described using the word 'disciple', but who were clearly devoted to Jesus and loved by him. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany come to mind. We may want to broaden the meaning of the word today, and it may, indeed, be legitimate to do so, but for now I am simply trying to describe what the Gospels themselves actually say.
Now I realize that many want to take what is said about Mary Magdalene and draw lessons from it beyond what the Gospels say. And again, it may be legitimate to do so, but this then is about how we how we apply what the Gospels say to today. We will, however, only get our application right if we are clear about what is actually said rather than what we want to be said.
What is clear from the Gospels is that Mary was prominent amongst the women who followed Jesus, that she loved him very much, and that Jesus valued her and the other women with her highly.
In the next and final post, I will attempt to write about what I think Mary can teach all of us today.