The message of the Resurrection was first entrusted to Mary of Magdala according to John. She stayed with him during his crucifixion and was a primary witness of his resurrection. But images of her throughout the ages and still today portray inaccurately. Nowhere in scripture is Mary of Magdala identified as a public sinner or a prostitute. Yet, even in productions such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” she is misrepresented.
Instead, scripture shows her as the primary witness to the most central events of Christian faith, named in exactly the same way (Maria e Magdalena) in each of four gospels written for diverse communities throughout the Mediterranean world. It was impossible to relate the story of the Resurrection without including “Mary, the one from Magdala.” Luke 8:1-3 tells us that Mary travelled with Jesus in the Galilean discipleship and, with Joanna and Susanna, supported his mission from her own financial resources. In the synoptic gospels, Mary leads the group of women who witness Jesus’ death, burial, the empty tomb, and his Resurrection. The synoptics contrast Jesus’ abandonment by the male disciples with the faithful strength of the women disciples who, led by Mary, accompany him to his death. John’s gospel names the faithful strength of the women disciples who, led by Mary, accompany him to his death. John’s gospel names Mary of Magdala as the first to discover the empty tomb and shows the Risen Christ sending her to announce the Good News of his Resurrection to the other disciples. This prompted early church Fathers to name her “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
In 312, when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire, the Christian community was caught in a cultural conflict as it moved from worship in house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to worship in public places where women’s leadership violated Roman social codes of honour and shame. In the fourth century, male church leaders at the Council of Laodicea suppressed women leaders because of the belief that women were created subordinate to men. During this same time period, we see the memory of Mary of Magdala changing from that of a strong female disciple and proclaimer of the Resurrection to a repentant prostitute and public sinner. Scholars such as Dr. Jane Schaberg believe this was done deliberately to discourage female leadership in the church.
As knowledge of Jesus’ many women disciples faded from historical memory, their stories merged and blurred. The tender anointing of Mary of Bethany prior to Jesus’ passion was linked to the woman “known to be a sinner” whose tears washed and anointed Jesus’ feet at Simon’s house. The anointing texts combined all of these women into one generic public sinner, “Magdalen.” Misidentification of Mary as reformed public sinner achieved official standing with a powerful homily by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604). Henceforth, Mary of Magdala became known in the west, not as the strong woman leader who accompanied Jesus through a tortuous death, first witnessed his Resurrection, and proclaimed the Risen Saviour to the early church, but as a wanton woman in need of repentance and a life of hidden penitence. Interestingly, the eastern church never identified her as a prostitute, but honoured her throughout history as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
Contemporary scholarship has rightfully restored our understanding of Mary of Magdala as an important early Christian leader. Now she becomes the same inspiring role model for twenty-first century disciples. Mary of Magdala was the first to discover the empty tomb and shows the Risen Christ sending her to announce the Good News of his Resurrection to the other disciples. This prompted early church Fathers to name her “the Apostle to the Apostles.” That the message of the Resurrection was first entrusted to women is regarded by scripture scholars as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection been fabricated, women would never have been chosen as witnesses, since Jewish law did not acknowledge the testimony of women.
In 2016 Pope Francis has established that from now on the celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene should be inscribed in the General Roman Calendar with the rank of Feast, and on 22 of July, Saint Mary Magdalene is legitimately celebrated.
To find resources in order to restore Mary of Magdala to her true role as primary witness to the Resurrection and Apostle to correct the record about the true image and role of Mary Magdalene for today, see the non-profit network Reclaim Magdalene http://reclaimmagdalene.org/