Today is Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, following his crucifixion on the Friday. That he died for our sins and was brought back to life by God and ascended to Heaven to join him is the basis of Christianity. Christian believers in the resurrection are themselves spiritually resurrected and given a new life.
The factual accuracy of the crucifixion and resurrection is not my concern here. I’m interested in the role of Mary Magdalene in the narrative of these events, for this role refutes the widespread view of her as a ‘fallen’ woman, a repentant prostitute.
Having been resurrected, ascended to Heaven, some believe Jesus is going to return to earth (the Second Coming). According to a Pew survey, approximately half of US Christians believe Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years. Some Christian Zionists believe that a precondition of the Second Coming is the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and this lies behind their unconditional support of Israel in its occupation of Palestinian land.
So all this is much more than an issue for biblical scholars.
Leaving all this aside for now, What was Mary Magdalene role during the resurrection?
- She was the first to discover the empty tomb.
- It was to her that the risen Jesus revealed himself (in the guise of a gardener).
- Jesus appointed her as an apostle to the apostles, to bring them news of his resurrection.
- She was not only the equal of the other disciples, she became their leader, indeed of the early Christian movement.
- She teaches them about her experience of the resurrection.
Nothing there about being a penitent ex-prostitute. Quite the contrary.
From the Canonical Gospel of John (20: 11-18)
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ’Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ’They have taken away myLord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her,’Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?‘ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ’Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ’Mary!‘ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ’Rabbouni!’ (which m e a n s Teacher). Jesus said to her, ’Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”. Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
From the Apocryphal Gospel of Philip (36,59)
There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, andMagdalene,the one who was called his companion … [Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.
From the Apocryphal Gospel of Mary (5:2-3, 8-9; 9~3-4)
Then Mary stood up and greeted all of them and said to her brethren, ’Do not mourn or grieve or be irresolute, for his grace will be with you all and will defend you. Let us rather praise his greatness, for he prepared us and made us into men.’ . . . Mary began to speak to them these words:… ’I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, “Lord, I saw you to day in a vision”. He answered and said to me, “Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure”. Peter answered and … questioned them about the Saviour: ‘Did He really speak with a woman without our knowledge (and) not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?’
Mary Magdalene was a much more important figure in the early church than we have been led to believe. Certainly, she was nothing like the ‘fallen’ repentant woman depicted by the Roman Catholic church for hundreds of years. Some feminist biblical scholars are rewriting Christian theology on the basis of this Mary Magdalene-as-leader. That there is an appetite for this new reading is suggested by the hugely popular The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
This is a BBC documentary broadcast last Friday: