April 11, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Mary Magdalene

John F. Fink(Thirty-fifth in a series of columns)

Mary Magdalene has fascinated writers and artists for two millennia. More probably has been written about her than about any other biblical woman except the Blessed Virgin.

In recent years, she has been called Jesus’ lover and the mother of his children (or at least child).

Through the centuries, she has been identified as one or both of the public sinners I wrote about last week.

She has also been confused with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. A shrine in the village of St. Maximin la Sainte Baume in France claims that Mary Magdalene lived and died there with her brother, Lazarus, and sister, Martha.

None of this is in the New Testament. What we know from the Bible is that Mary was from Magdala, a large fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. She became the leader of the women followers of Jesus, who traveled with him and the Apostles and supported them out of their resources, just as Peter was the leader of the men.

We also know that “seven demons had gone out” of Mary, but we don’t know what that means. That phrase in Luke 8:2 is undoubtedly what prompted some people, including Pope Gregory the Great, to assume that Mary was a repentant sinner, but it’s more likely that she had suffered from an illness of some kind.

We also know from the Bible that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion, was one of the women who went to the tomb with spices and perfumed oil on the Sunday after the crucifixion, and was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his Resurrection.

That’s what we know about Mary Magdalene from the Bible, and it should be enough to realize what a special person she was. Everything else written about her is either speculation or comes from early documents written by people with specific agendas.

There’s an apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, that claims that Jesus wanted Mary, not Peter, to be head of his Church. This supposedly was suppressed by the male hierarchy. The writing shows hostility toward Mary on the part of Peter. We can speculate that perhaps Peter and Mary didn’t always get along—after all, the Gospels show that there were arguments among the Apostles—but it doesn’t seem likely that Jesus wanted Mary to head his Church.

What role did Mary play in the early Church? We can speculate all we want, but the fact is that we don’t know.

As the leader of the women who followed Jesus, and as close to him as she obviously was since he chose to appear to her first, we would expect her to have played an active role indeed.

We would assume that she was present at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on those in the Upper Room, but Luke doesn’t specifically mention her in the Acts of the Apostles.

Can’t we be satisfied in knowing that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ favorite among his women followers? †

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