Mary Magdalene is a well known woman of the New Testament. She was the scarlet woman converted by Jesus. She is the great sinner who was forgiven because “she loved much.” Her extravagant sinfulness was exceeded only by her extravagant holiness. She became the disciple who followed Jesus to the cross, and witnessed his resurrection. She loved Jesus so much some believe the two were romantically involved.
The secular version of their relationship runs something like this. Jesus and Mary hit it off, had a bunch of kids, fed ‘em all peaches and figs and lived like hippies in a tent, happily ever and ever after. Although pleasant, this version lacks historical authority, unless you consider the Da Vinci Code and the Gnostic Gospels to be credible sources.
Jesus and Saint Mary Magdalene were real people. They are compelling historical figures whose lives intertwined in the most significant historical drama ever. Each person evokes intense interest because of the way they lived their lives, and the influence they had on their times, and our times. It is not surprising there is speculation about the details of the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, as she is more properly known (and as I will refer to her from now on).
What follows is an attempt to bring Mary of Magdala to life, using the Gospels, tradition, visions of credible Christian mystics, and other sources (listed at the end of article).
Mary Growing Up
Magdala was a wealthy fishing village on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. A town of only 3,000 inhabitants, Magdala’s wealth came from the fish caught there, which were then dried, salted, and exported. Fish as food had no kosher restrictions, so it was a popular commodity. According to the Talmud, Magdala was so wealthy its tributes to Jerusalem were conveyed by wagons.
For Jews the word ‘Magdala’ denoted a woman with loosed or plaited hair - in plain words, a harlot. Magdala the town had a reputation as lurid as its name. According to the Talmud, Magdala was destroyed by the Romans for its perversity (the Jewish War may have had something to do with it too). One thousand years later medieval writers interpreted ‘Magdala’ as ‘tower’ (from the Hebrew migdal). There were towers in Magdala that were spared by the Romans when they razed the town. One of the towers was the home of Mary of Magdala (or the Magdalene, as she is more commonly known).
Mary was born in a tower of a castle owned by her parents. When they died she inherited the castle and lived there at least until her conversion to Christianity. Mary’s parents were wealthy and influential, owning large properties in Magdala, Jerusalem, and Bethany, a suburb two miles south of Jerusalem. Mary‘s siblings, Martha (the oldest) and Lazarus, inherited the Jerusalem and Bethany estates.
As for Mary’s lineage, some say her parents were Cyrus and the Jewess Eucharia. Others believe Mary’s father was Theophilus, a rich Syrian prince. Little else is known about them. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich was a visionary mystic of the Augustinian Order. She saw Eucharia as such a devout Pharisee that she converted her husband. Then they both led pious, even severe lives, against which young Mary rebelled.
According to Father Bruckberger, however, Mary’s parents were Sadducean and their devotion was to the enlightened ideas of their day: Greek Hellenism, a philosophy given to Israel by Alexander the Great.
As Mary of Magdala entered adulthood, the ideal of virtue espoused by Greek philosophers had devolved into an infatuation with sensuality and the human body as expressed in sports, dance, and (to the horror of pious Jews) naked gymnastics. It was believed Wisdom was a reflection of the beauty of the human form, and was nourished through rich food, fine clothes, and satisfying sexual appetite. Wisdom and purity were separated.
The occupying Romans proved as adept at practicing Hellenism as some Jews, like King Herod Antipas, who held decadent court in Tiberias. In addition to dances and feasts, his court contained numerous courtesans - well bred, beautiful ladies who used their bodies to secure social standing, political influence, and, it was thought, wisdom.
It is more likely that the Magdalene was a courtesan than a street prostitute. She was born into wealth, property, and influence. Given what we know about her parents and siblings, Mary was almost surely intelligent and talented. All legends about her agree on one other point - she was very beautiful. Blessed Sister Emmerich described her as:
“taller and more beautiful than the other women…robust, but yet graceful. She had very beautiful, tapering fingers, a small, delicate foot, a wealth of beautiful long hair, and there was something imposing in all her movements…”
In short, she was a young woman accustomed to privilege, who from an early age was exposed to all that was good and refined in life. It is doubtful Mary ever traveled in common circles.
She may have even adorned Herod’s court in Tiberias (named after the reigning Roman emperor), only three miles away from Magdala. Herod built the city Roman style, with a stadium, baths, temples to the gods, theaters, and aqueducts. Since Tiberias was more Roman than Jewish, and since a Jewish cemetery was desecrated during its construction, Herod had trouble populating his new city. Pious Jews considered Tiberias a monstrosity of impurity (they had a point). Herod eventually offered free land, which lured to Tiberias criminals and others for whom purity was not a preoccupation.
Given her social standing, her beauty, and her proximity to Tiberius, Mary of Magdala may well have been invited there by Herod himself. The power, pomp, and brazen decadence would have been difficult to resist. Some theorize Mary was at Herod’s palace when the head of John the Baptist was brought in on a platter, and that the saint’s blood played a role in Mary of Magdala’s conversion to Christianity.
Sister Emmerich saw Mary Magdalene being persuaded to hear the preaching of the young rabbi from Nazareth, who at the time was traveling around the shores of Galilee. More curious than serious, she attended in all her haughty finery; perhaps an entourage trailed in her provocative wake. As Jesus passed Mary he looked at her “with a glance that pierced her soul.” The proud, powerful woman was thrown into confusion and fled.
Mary of Magdala was used to being fawned over, courted, and seduced at great expense. She was used to the scorn of the Pharisees. Everyone she ever met was either attracted to her or repulsed by her. She had never met anyone who could look her straight in the eye as if he knew every secret of her heart. No desire, no scorn – just a frank knowing and a gentle acceptance of the girl behind the persona. What else could Mary do? Her soul, and then her body followed the young rabbi – at a safe distance.
It was awkward for someone as notorious as Mary to secretly shadow the charismatic Master. Gradually she realized that the waves Jesus had stirred in the ocean of love in her heart could not be calmed. Mary experienced violent, shattering conversions as if in a series of waves. Each wave created a backlash, relapse after relapse into her old way of life.
The biblical account has seven demons entering Mary to prevent her conversion. Sister Emmerich saw the Magdalene have a number of sincere conversions followed by devastating relapses into her old ways, as if the demons were preventing her from changing. The result was in doubt. Mary’s fate hung in the balance.
The once proud woman was now half mad with agony and despair. The Pharisees laughed her to scorn. In shame and desperation she came to the Lord, her last and only hope. She expected to be driven away as a lost cause. Instead, in the course of an entire day, the Master expelled the demons one by one. By the end, according to Sister Emmerich, “Magdalen was no longer like a human being, but like a shadow tottering from weakness. She was, however, calm, though still weeping silent tears that exhausted her.”
The New Disciple
While we will never know with certainty the exact details of St. Mary Magdalene’s conversion, St. Luke recounts a dramatic change in Mary’s behavior after her conversion. It happened in southern Galilee. The Lord had been invited to a dinner by Simon the Pharisee, who was curious to see the controversial rabbi of Nazareth face to face.
As they dined Mary quietly entered the room holding an alabaster vessel of perfumed oil: probably spikenard, a precious aromatic ointment from the roots of the nard plant (the ointment’s essence was thought be best preserved in alabaster).
As the story goes, Jesus was reclined on a couch. Mary of Magdala stood silently behind Him. As she listened to him speak, perhaps a revelation came upon her: there was really no contradiction between wisdom and purity, and Jesus was living proof. Her sinful life flooded her mind and her heart broke. She wept hot tears that fell on his dusty feet.
Simon watched with thinly veiled disgust. It was not customary for women to dine with men, much less to interrupt their conversation with weeping. Mary’s fine clothes did not disguise her. Simon knew exactly who Mary of Magdala was - not merely an uninvited guest, but, as St. Luke confirms, a notorious public sinner.
One might have expected Mary to flee the awkward silence in complete mortification. Instead, she upped the ante: she loosed her long, beautiful hair and used it to wipe her tears from Christ’s feet. Not her hands, or her long sleeves, but her hair. Another wave of emotion shuddered through her. Crouching on the floor she anointed his feet with oil, and kissed his feet over and over.
To onlookers this was an embarrassing display of utter abasement. For Mary of Magdala it was gratitude to the Lord for freeing her from her demons and from her sinful life, for loving her even when she felt totally unlovable.
In cleaning Jesus’ dusty feet with her tears and her hair she was wiping away her soiled life. In anointing his feet she rendered to Christ the reverence he deserved, for Simon the host had neglected a common courtesy: providing water for guests to wash the dust and dirt off their feet.
Simon concluded Jesus could not be a prophet, otherwise he would have known the Magdalene was a sinner and not allowed her to touch Him, as this rendered him impure (according to the Pharisees). In fact, Jesus knew Mary far better than Simon did; that was why he allowed her actions.
Jesus knew Simon pretty well too, judging by the parable he then told about the two debtors. Which debtor, he asked Simon, was more grateful when the creditor forgave his debt? One can see Simon shrugging at the simple question and answering: the debtor who owed more money.
Then Christ pointed to Mary of Magdala and rammed his point home:
“Dost thou see this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head, with oil, thou didst not anoint: but she, with ointment, hath anointed my feet.
“Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less. (Luke 7: 44-47)”
Simon now realized he had badly underestimated the rabbi from Nazareth. Being likened to an insolvent debtor seems to have silenced Simon for the rest of the story. But Jesus was not condemning Simon, who in fact had transgressed against the Law far less than Mary. He sought rather to defend Mary of Magdala, still huddled at his feet, kissing them, and cleaning them again and again with the blood of her heart: her tears.
She who was once so proud and independent now clutched Christ’s feet as an anchor against Simon and the world. He leaned towards her. and with gentle authority reassured her: “Thy sins are forgiven thee. Thy faith hath saved thee. Go in peace.” Thus was born the love between Jesus and Mary of Magdala.
An Alabaster Vessel
It is a beautiful story, or rather, the beginning of a beautiful story. In Chapter 8 of his Gospel St. Luke describes her as “Mary called Magdalene, out of whom seven devils were gone forth.” Positive proof that the sinful woman is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, comes from St. John, who, writing after St. Luke, declares,
“Now there was a certain man sick, named Lazarus, of Bethania, of the town of Mary, and of Martha, her sister. And Mary was she that anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair: whose brother, Lazarus, was sick. (John 11:1-2)”
Who else besides the sinful woman sits at the Lord‘s feet? Two chapters later Luke describes Mary of Bethany “sitting at the Lord’s feet.” Her older sister Martha is trying to serve all the guests herself. Rather than address her sister directly (perhaps Martha knew this would be a waste of time), Martha admonishes Jesus: “Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? Speak to her, that she may help me.”
With Mary still at His feet, Christ gently answers, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled by many things. But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” As in the previous episode, the Lord is not criticizing Martha as much as he is defending Mary, who in both tales remains at the feet of the Lord.
Last, we have the alabaster vessel of precious ointment used by the sinful woman to anoint the Lord’s feet. In the last week of Christ’s life Matthew (26:7) and Mark (14:3) both mention a woman with “an alabaster box of precious ointment” who anointed the Lord with the oil. John mentions this episode too, and gives the location: the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. He also names the woman who anointed Christ: “Mary, therefore, took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair…(John 12:3).”
Should we be astonished that once more Mary is rebuked, and that once more Jesus defends her? This time the critic is Judas Iscariot, who complains that the ointment could have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor. The Lord answers:
“Let her alone, that she may keep it against the day of my burial. For the poor you have always with you: but me you have not always (John 12:7,8).”
Alabaster is a gypsum rock favored by artists for its flexibility. Although it can have many hues, its common color is white streaked with dark marks - like purity stained by sin. It is believed that Mary of Magdala never forgot or totally forgave herself for the dark streaks of her past life. This was not the only mark of her personality that made her a penitent, however, because penance flows from love as well as guilt. Mary’s love for her Savior freed her heart from its attachment to her past life of sin, and for the rest of her days she lived only for him.
The original alabaster vessel resides in a Church in France. Mary of Magdala may be likened to an alabaster vessel that was opened by Jesus to reveal the fragrant aroma of devotion, rising like incense from the love he had hidden away in her. Only the Lord Himself could have wrought such a change in a human being, transforming a worldly courtesan into a precious pearl of compunction: that rare blend of love and contrition revealed in Mary of Magdala by the Genius of Love who was her Master.
So yes, the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a love story. As Jesus promised his followers a peace that passes all understanding, his relationship with Mary of Magdala demonstrates a love that passes all understanding, a love that found a sympathetic echo in the ocean of love in the heart of Mary of Magdala.
Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., Mary Magdalene, Annotated Edition, Translated by H.L. Binsse, published by Pantheon, New York, 1953.
Helen Meredith Garth, Saint Mary Magdalene In Mediaeval Literature, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1950.
Mary of Agreda, Mystical City of God, translated by Fiscar Marison, 1902, published in 1912.
Dr. Peter Ketter, The Magdalene Question, Translated by Rev. Hugo C. Koehler, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1935.
Alfred O’Rahilly, President of UniversityCollege, Cork, The Family at Bethany,CorkUniversity Press, 1949.
Mary Magdalen in the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, 1774-1824, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2005.
The Life of Saint Mary Magdalene and of her Sister Saint Martha, A Medieval Biography translated and annotated by David Mycoff, Cistercian Publications, 1989.
"Talmud." In A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by W.R.F. Browning, Oxford Biblical Studies online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.