By Amy-Jill Levine, PhD, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
Although famed in Western culture as a repentant prostitute, and sometimes in popular imagination considered Jesus’ lover or even his wife, Mary Magdalene, as she appears in the New Testament, is none of these.
Before the cross, Mary Magdalene is found only once in the Gospel narrative: Luke’s notice that she was possessed by seven demons and that she provided support for Jesus. In all four Gospels, she’s either present at or watching Jesus’ Crucifixion, and she is the sole consistent witness to the Resurrection.
To understand Mary, as she’s come to be known, it’s helpful if we begin with the Gospel portrait and try to determine, from the beginning, what we can know of this historical woman, Mary of Magdala. The name Mary itself as related to the Virgin Mary has ties associated with Moses’ sister Miriam (a leader of the people) or may be associated with Herod the Great’s Hasmonean wife, Mariamne. Perhaps like the Virgin Mary, perhaps like the Mary of Mary and Martha, Mary of Magdala was also anticipating the return of Jewish rule, a Hasmonean kingdom, or even the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In terms of her second name, Magdalene, or Magdala, we actually know a little bit. We know from several sources the location of the city of Magdala—located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Figures of the New Testament. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
The Sea of Galilee is more like a lake than a sea. It was a major site of the fishing industry, and fish was a major source of protein in antiquity. In Greek, the city is called Tarichaea, meaning “salted fish,” so what we have in Mary’s home city is a place not only where fish are brought in, but where fish are prepared and then sent out to the rest of the Empire.
Interestingly enough, along with Judas Iscariot, Mary is the only follower of Jesus identified by location. Iscariot probably means “of the village of Cariot.” The other followers of Jesus are identified by nicknames or by “son of.” The female followers are usually identified either simply on their own (Luke mentions a woman named Susanna; we know nothing about her otherwise) or by their sons (“the mother of the sons of Zebedee”), or by a husband (Luke mentions Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza), but of course, all these women are not accompanied by their husbands.
Location Identifies Mary Magdalene
Because Mary is identified only by location, scholars have speculated about her social background, her personal history. Was she unmarried—perhaps unmarriageable—because she had been demon-possessed? Was she divorced? Was she widowed? We don’t know. Indeed, perhaps she had even abandoned her family, because we see Jesus saying, “You must leave your home and indeed your family, and come follow me.” Since Peter leaves everyone to follow Jesus, perhaps Mary did, as well.
We must also wonder if, early on, Mary Magdalene had contact with people like James, John, Peter, and Andrew. They’re all located more or less in that same area around the Sea of Galilee. They’ve got connections with fishing. Magdala is about six miles from Capernaum, which is where Peter lived. Perhaps Mary’s contact with Peter could explain how she joined the movement. Indeed, perhaps Mary’s contact with Peter could explain how he joined the movement. We don’t know how Mary Magdalene came to follow Jesus, in terms of the time that she did so. If Mary is connected with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, this makes it unlikely that she’s a pauper or economically distressed. She may well, in fact, have been an independent businesswoman, like Lydia, whom Paul converts in the Book of Acts.
Learn more about the non-canonical Gospel According to Mary
Our first meeting of Mary Magdalene is recorded in Luke, chapter 8. Luke introduces several women whom Jesus cured of evil spirits and infirmities, who then followed him, and as Luke puts it, “provided for him,” or more literally, “served him out of their means.” Among them, Luke says, is Mary Magdalene, “from whom seven demons had gone forth.” We do need to be cautious about the nature of Mary Magdalene’s possession because we don’t see it portrayed. By the time we meet her, she has already been cured. First-century culture ascribed many different symptoms to demon possession: Not simply inappropriate behavior, but blindness, deafness, paralysis, symptoms resembling epilepsy, violence, or even claims of miraculous powers. Although we might think of Mary in that stereotypical Hollywood sense of foaming at the mouth or spitting out pea soup, there’s no reason to assume that.
We also don’t know what Mary’s symptoms were, nor why she was possessed by a demon. We can only speculate. And speculate, of course, the later church did. Possessed by seven demons: “Ah,” said the later church, “these must be the seven deadly sins: Pride, avarice, gluttony, lust, jealousy, laziness, and anger.”
Regarding the other material in Luke, chapter 8, here’s where the historian can dig in a bit more. Luke tells us that the women provided for Jesus, and there’s a variant that says “provided for them,” which would mean Jesus and others who accompanied him, “out of their means.” This is not, contrary to popular opinion, an indication that the women were wealthy. We don’t know how much money they had. It is, however, an indication that they had independent means.
Learn more about the beauty of the cathedral of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay
Mary, the Provider?
Cautiously, we might take this notice one step further. The word for “provided for,” better, “ministered,” is our old friend diakonein, where we get the term deacon. It means “serve.” It’s the term that was used of Peter’s mother-in-law. It was the term that was enjoined upon James and John. As we know, it does become a technical office in the church, the office of deacon. Was Mary, in effect, a deacon? We don’t know. Unfortunately, neither Luke nor any of the other Gospels record what Mary did following Easter morning. We don’t know her role in the church. Did she hold a church office? Did she evangelize? We have to wait for post-canonical legend to tell us.
The next time we see Mary at all is at the cross. According to the Gospel of Mark, she and the other women “were looking on from afar,” which is more than the disciples were doing, because they had already forsaken Jesus and fled. According to the Gospel of John—and as we see over and over again, John tells a different story than the Synoptic gospels—Mary is right at the foot of the cross, along with the mother of Jesus and Mary of Clopas.
Finally, according to all the Gospels, she’s present at the empty tomb. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, she’s accompanied by others. In John, she comes alone. In all four cases, she is among those commissioned to proclaim the good news of the Resurrection. However, the Gospels differ in terms of whether she was successful at this or not.
Learn more about the Knights Templars as guardians for a holy bloodline reaching back to Jesus and Mary Magdalene
Common Questions About Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene is known for many things symbolically in the New Testament. She was allegedly a prostitute who repented at Jesus’s feet, she attended Jesus’s burial, and she heard the first words spoken by him after he rose from the dead.
Very little is known about the specifics of Mary Magdalene’s age. According to some Biblical scholars, she would have been in her early 50’s when she died.
According to an ancient manuscript called the “Lost Gospel,” Mary Magdalene married Jesus and they had children together.
Mary Magdalene used her hair and an expensive perfume called nard to anoint Jesus’s feet.