The Real Mary Magdalene
|by||Eric Lyons, M.Min.|
The name “Mary” appears 54 times in the New Testament. There is Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:18), Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), and Mary, the mother of James and Joses (Mark 15:40), who is likely the same as the “other” Mary (Matthew 27:56,61; 28:1) and “the wife of Clopas” (John 19:25). Also mentioned are Mary of Bethany (John 11:1), Mary, the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12), and Mary of Rome (Romans 16:6). Obviously, Mary (Greek Maria or Mariam) was a popular name in New Testament times. It still is today (see “The Most Popular...,” 2006).
No Mary has been more popular in recent days, however, than Mary Magdalene. A plethora of new books feature her, including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which is based on the false notion that she gave birth to the heir of Christ, whose descendants supposedly survive to this day. Mary Magdalene, a name likely indicating affiliation with the Galilean city of Magdala (see “Mary,” 1986), has been the focus of talk shows, movies, books, magazines, and more. Sadly, modernists have greatly misunderstood, exaggerated, and distorted her role in the life of Jesus and the early church. The prevailing idea is that Mary Magdalene has finally been released from the male-dominated, “anti-sexual” religious world (see Carroll, 2006, 37:119), and that the real Mary has finally been revealed. Is this true? Was Mary Magdalene Christ’s secret lover? Did she erotically wash His feet with her hair? Did she eventually become His wife and bear His child? Was she a former prostitute? Just who was Mary Magdalene, really?
Those who have heard only of the newly made-over Mary Magdalene might be disappointed to find that the real Mary of Magdala does not fit the modern-day, dramatized version. Mary Magdalene is mentioned a total of 12 times in the New Testament—the oldest historical record mentioning her name. All 12 occurrences appear in the gospel accounts, wherein we learn the following:
- Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9).
- She was one of many who provided for Jesus out of her own means (Luke 8:1-3).
- She witnessed the crucifixion of Christ (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).
- She was present at His burial (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47).
- She arrived at Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday following His crucifixion to find His body missing (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-7; John 20:1).
- She saw the risen Lord, spoke with Him, and later reported the encounter to the apostles (Matthew 28:9-10; Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18).
Where are the passages about her physical relationship with Christ? Where are the hints of erotic behavior? Where is the sexualized version of Mary Magdalene? In truth, the new version of Mary Magdalene is a figment of someone’s imagination.
First, the notion of Mary Magdalene being a former prostitute, apparently made popular as early as the sixth century by Pope Gregory I (see Van Biema, 2003), simply is unfounded. Luke did record an occasion during Jesus’ ministry when a woman “who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37, emp. added) and of poor reputation among the Pharisees (7:39) washed His feet with her tears and hair, and anointed them with oil (7:36-50). And, Luke did place this event in his gospel account just two verses before he introduces Mary Magdalene, “out of whom had come seven demons” (Luke 8:2). But Luke never specifically stated that the woman of disrepute was a prostitute, or that her name was Mary Magdalene. Other than the juxtaposition of the “sinner” at the close of Luke 7 and Mary at the commencement of Luke 8, no connection between the two women exists. What’s more, if one argues that the proximity of the two women is what links them together, one wonders why “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others” (Luke 8:3) could not also be considered candidates, since they are mentioned along with Mary Magdalene.
Second, Scripture never hints that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married or romantically involved in any way. Did He exercise His power over demons by casting seven of them from her? Yes (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9). Did she (along with “many others”) financially support His ministry? Yes (Luke 8:2-3). Did she cling to Him momentarily following His resurrection? Yes (John 20:17). Was she a dedicated follower of Christ? From all that we can gather in the New Testament, we must assume that she was. Still, nothing in the Bible suggests that she was Jesus’ wife or secret lover.
Even the so-called Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), which unbelievers freely admit was not written until the second century A.D. (cf. Cockburn, 2006, 209:88-89), says nothing about a sexual relationship with Christ. This non-inspired text does contend that Peter told Mary, “Sister, we know the savior loved you more than any other woman” (Meyer, 2005a, p. 38). Furthermore, in this text Levi described Jesus as loving Mary “more than us” (p. 41). Still, however, nothing sexual is mentioned. The New Testament records how Jesus “loved” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 11:5); the Jews even marveled at His love for Lazarus (John 11:36). Mark wrote of how He “loved” the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21). And John repeatedly testified of one particular unnamed disciple whom “Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). [NOTE: Proof that this beloved disciple was not Mary Magdalene is found in John 20:2 where she spoke to Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2).] When we read the uninspired statements from The Gospel of Mary in light of the fact that the New Testament specifically states that Jesus loved certain individuals, one can see more clearly the lack of sexual overtones.
Anyone who has read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is aware that his entire novel revolves around the alleged historical fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child together (2003, pp. 244-245). Brown bases his claim on the following brief statements from the non-inspired, gnostic Gospel of Philip, which apparently was penned during the second or third century (cf. Meyer, 2005b, p. 63; Isenberg, n.d.). [NOTE: Brackets indicate missing words.]
Three women always walked with the master: Mary his mother,  sister, and Mary of Magdala, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother and his companion (Meyer, 2005b, p. 57).The companion of the  is Mary of Magdala. The  her more than  the disciples,  kissed her often on her . The other ...said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” (Meyer, 2005b, p. 63).
Brown alleges that “any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (p. 246, emp. added). Thus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus must have been married, right? Wrong! The Gospel of Philip was not even written in Aramaic, but in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. What’s more, the Coptic word for “companion” is synonymous with neither “wife” nor “spouse.” Ben Witherington III, writing in Biblical Archaeological Review, addressed this very point:
The word here for companion (koinonos) is actually a loan word from Greek and is neither a technical term nor a synonym for wife or spouse. It is true the term could be used to refer to a wife, since koinonos, like “companion,” is an umbrella term, but it does not specify this fact. There was another Greek word, gune, which would have made this clear. It is much more likely that koinonos here means “sister” in the spiritual sense since that is how it is used elsewhere in this sort of literature. In any case, this text does not clearly say or even suggest that Jesus was married, much less married to Mary Magdalene (2004, 30:60).
How sad to think that millions of people have been deceived about the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus because The Da Vinci Code’s fiction is consumed as historical fact.
One might assume that The Gospel of Philip hints at a sexual relationship between Mary and Jesus, since Brown alleges that it states Jesus “used to kiss her often on her mouth” (p. 248, emp. added). The word “mouth,” however, is not in the text. Several words are missing from the Coptic manuscript, including those that would designate where He allegedly kissed her. Perhaps the missing word is hand, head, cheek, or nose. When the woman of Luke 7 kissed Jesus’ feet, He responded by telling Simon, “You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in” (7:45). Jesus’ statement implied that even though the woman wept at His feet, washed them with her hair, anointed them with fragrant oil, and kissed them repeatedly (7:36-39), she did not act erotically. On the contrary, she honored Jesus with humble service and adoration, unlike Simon and the others.
Finally, if Jesus did kiss Mary Magdalene, as The Gospel of Philip alleges, it hardly would justify a case for marriage. This so-called “gospel” mentions elsewhere that the followers of Christ “also kiss each other” (Meyer, 2005b, p. 57). And, according to Scripture, Christians were in the habit of greeting “one another with a holy kiss” since the church began (Romans 16:16, emp. added; cf. 1 Corinthians 16:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; see Miller, 2003). In short, kissing is not equivalent to marrying and having children.
Mary Magdalene apparently was a devout, faithful follower of Christ. Not a shred of solid biblical or extrabiblical evidence suggests she played the role of harlot, wife, mother, or secret lover. The New Testament, as the oldest, most reliable (and only inspired!) witness to her identity, testifies loudly and clearly about her genuine faithfulness to the Lord, and keeps silent about those things which twenty-first-century sensationalists allege. As in so many instances, we must learn to respect the Bible’s silence! And, there is a deafening silence concerning Mary Magdalene as our Lord’s wife or the mother of His child.
Brown, Dan (2003), The Da Vinci Code (New York, NY: Doubleday).
Carroll, James (2006), “Who Was Mary Magdalene?,” Smithsonian, 37:108-119, June.
Cockburn, Andrew (2006), “The Gospel of Judas,” National Geographic, 209:78-95, May.
Isenberg, Wesley W. (no date), The Gospel of Philip, [On-line], URL: http://www.theologywebsite.com/etext/naghammadi/philip.shtml.
“Mary” (1986), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Meyer, Marvin, ed. (2005a), The Gospel of Mary, in The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco).
Meyer, Marvin, ed. (2005b), The Gospel of Philip, in The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Veils, Footwashing, and the Holy Kiss,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2322.
“The Most Popular Names Chosen for Baby Boys and Girls over the Past 120 Years” (2006), [On-line], URL: http://www.thenewparentsguide.com/most-popular-baby-names.htm.
Van Biema, David (2003), “Mary Magdalene: Saint or Sinner,” Time, 162: August 11, [On-line], URL: http://www.danbrown.com/media/morenews/time.html.
Witherington, Ben (2004), “Reviews,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 30:58-61, May/June.