Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman who traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was a witness to his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
Very little is known about her life.
Mary Magdalene’s epithet Magdalene most likely means that she came from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee that was primarily known in antiquity as a fishing town. Mary was, by far, the most common Jewish given name for females during the first century, so it was necessary for the authors of the gospels to call her Magdalene in order to distinguish her from the other women named Mary who followed Jesus. Although the Gospel of Mark, the earliest surviving gospel, does not mention Mary Magdalene until Jesus’s crucifixion.
Who was Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene was a figure in the Bible’s New Testament who was one of Jesus’s most loyal followers and is said to have been the first to witness his resurrection. While the Western Christian Church portrayed her as a repentant sinner for centuries, newer research has disputed this interpretation, and the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, including the Gospel of Mary, describes Mary as a reflective, wise spiritualist favored by Jesus.
Mary Magdalene According to the Western Christian Church
The notion of Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner became the generally accepted view in Western Christianity as a result of a homily delivered by Pope Gregory I in 591. He spoke highly of her devotion and love of Jesus, but also referred to her as the anonymous sinner with perfume in Luke’s Gospel (7:36-50) and as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The pope also cited the Gospels of Luke (8:1-3) and Mark (16:9) which make a brief reference to Christ ridding Mary of “seven demons.” Pope Gregory surmised the seven demons as the seven deadly sins, thus making Mary not only guilty of lust, but pride and greed as well.
This image is not accepted by Eastern Orthodox religion, which saw Mary Magdalene as only a devoted disciple of Christ. However, Mary as repentant sinner became solidified in Western medieval theology, with its emphasis on penitence, and flourished in Europe over the next fourteen hundred years. Western medieval and Renaissance Christian art usually depicted Mary dressed extravagantly, even suggestively, in stark contrast to the more modestly dressed women of the time. In some paintings, she is shown in the nude (most notably by the artist Titian), discretely covered by long blond hair.
This version of Mary Magdalene was challenged in 1518 by French humanist Jaques Laefevre d’Etaples, who argued against the conflation of the two Marys and the unnamed female sinner in Luke’s Gospel. This theory received some support but also much opposition, and in 1521 d’Etaples’s views were formally condemned by French theologians.
In 1969, the General Roman Calendar put the matter of the composite Mary to rest when it identified the different dates for Mary, Bethany and the unidentified sinner in Luke’s gospel.