Mary Magdalene

Ronald L. Ecker

Among Jesus Christ's followers, "ministering unto him," were "certain women" who "had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities" (Matt. 27:55; Luke 8:2). One of these women was "Mary called Magdalene" (that is, Mary of Magdala, a town in Galilee), out of whom Jesus "had cast seven devils" (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). Mary and "many other women" looked on from afar when Jesus was crucified (Matt . 27:55; Mark 15:40), she and "Mary the mother of James and Joses" sat by the sepulcher in which Jesus was entombed (Matt. 27:61), and the two Marys later brought spices to the sepulcher with the intention of anointing the body. It was to Mary Magdalene that Christ first appeared following his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-18). Exclaiming "Rabboni!" ("Teacher!"), Mary embraced him, or tried to, prompting the risen Lord to tell her (in the original Greek of John's gospel), "me mou uptou" ("Do not cling to me" or "Do not hold on to me"), translated in Latin as "Noli me tangere" ("Do not touch me") (John 20:17).

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

It seems, based on the biblical text, that Mary Magdalene was an affectionate lady with some physical or psychological problems. But what did she do to get a bad reputation? The traditional view of her as a reformed prostitute and penitent seems to be literally a case of mistaken identity. There is no reason why Mary Magdalene should be identified with Luke's "woman in the city, which was a sinner"(7:37-50), John's "woman taken in adultery" (8:3-11), or anyone else. Nor should Mary be faulted for coming from Magdala, a reputedly wicked town, which may be why she left it. As for the "seven devils," demon possession was associated with sickness, not sin.

Mary Magdalene Repentant
Gustave Doré

The fact is that demonizing as a sinner this woman who had been a leader among Jesus' disciples (at least after the top twelve males) fit the patriarchal agenda of the church in the late first century and afterward. Put in her place by a celibate male hierarchy, the penitent Mary, to quote Susan Haskins (Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor), "can stand as a metaphor for the historically subordinate position of women in Christianity."

There is virtually nothing in the Bible to suggest that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' lover or wife (trying to embrace her "Teacher" hardly counts). But the concept of something special between them is found not just in fringe works such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (summarized in Haskins), Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and James Cameron's 2007 TV production "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" (arguing that the Talpiyot tomb unearthed in 1980 contained the bones of Jesus, Mary, and a son). The Jesus Seminar, an international group of biblical scholars formed in 1985, has expressed the view that Jesus and the Magdalene probably had "a special relationship" (see Funk et al). Such a relationship is reflected in two extrabiblical Gnostic works. According to the third-century Gospel of Philip, Jesus loved "his companion" Mary more than all the other disciples, and often kissed her on the mouth, to the annoyance of the other disciples. And in the second-century Gospel of Mary, the disciple Levi defends Mary against Peter (who asks, "Did [the Savior] 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?") by saying, "But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us."

According to one tradition, Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus to live with Jesus' mother Mary, and died there. According to another, she went to France, where her head is purportedly enshrined in the church of La Sainte-Baume. Mary Magdalene is a saint whose feast day is July 22.


Ecker, Ronald L. "Mary, Called Magdalene" in And Adam Knew Eve: A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock, 1995, pp. 115-116.

Funk, Robert W., et al. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1993.

Isenberg, Wesley W., tr. "The Gospel of Philip" in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 131-151.

MacRae, George W., and Wilson, R.Mcl., tr. "The Gospel of Mary" in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 471-474.

Copyright 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

And Adam Knew Eve

hobrad at outlook dot com

Top of Page | And Adam Knew Eve (Online Edition)
Ecker's Biblical Web Pages | Ron Ecker Home Page