The Holy Bible (as a collective library chronicling the human experience of certain Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Neolithic people up to roughly the 2nd Century CE) is rich in characters, myths, and some verifiable historic events.
The men in the biblical record are well-known and revered. The women, however, tend to be secondary characters, and sometimes are written out of the record completely.
In the case of a woman who eagerly embraced the early Christian movement and its charismatic leader, however, subversion occurred.
Mary of Magdala, better known as Mary Magdalene, was reduced over time from Apostle to prostitute.Credit: examiner.com; Diana Wallis Taylor
Religion possesses the ability to re-write its history, sometimes whimsically, as the tenets of its dogma require. Modifications to liturgical literature are made based on many decisions.
Some early decisions about what was important enough to include in the library of books collectively known as The Holy Bible were based on contemporary politics, personal prejudices of the anthologists, and popularity of certain stories.
Sometimes, though, selection was based on malicious censorship. Censorship (usually affecting stories or philosophies that do not firmly support the status quo) relegates many interesting and otherwise valuable sacred texts to the cutting-room floor of history.
Some of these texts, described oftentimes as “forbidden”, perhaps do not support the religious dogma of a given faith, and are not included in any sacred compilations. Other texts, such as The Apocrypha (ancient Jewish books not canonically part of Hebrew liturgy), may be accepted by one faith (Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) and rejected by others (Hebrews and Protestants). Sometimes these texts may directly contradict what is popularly espoused and are suppressed to avoid theological dissension.
But malice has its place as well, particularly when it comes to many of the women who feature in the biblical record. The women of the Bible are, from the beginning (with a few notable exceptions), treated many times almost as caricatures.
These include Eve, the moral temptress, causing Man’s downfall; Jezebel, the real temptress; the conniving Salome; the unfortunate Bathsheba. No soap opera today has such intriguing characters.
Just as important, however, are the women who are not included in the final version of the Bible. Worse, though, than mere omission among the literary offenses committed, is the intentional subversion of certain women from what they really were in life into something far removed.
The first example is, of course, Adam’s first wife, Lilith. She was created at the same time as Adam, but believed he was subjugating her. In light of her dilemma (believing she was truly equal to Adam but not treated as equal), she ran away. Eve was created from Adam’s rib to replace the runaway Lilith.
Lilith’s story was once very familiar. However, because of the ancient Hebrew’s dominant patriarchal norms (there was no place for female equality in such a society) Lilith was not only removed from biblical texts her character was subverted into that of a witch, a succubus who stole into one’s home at night, seduced the husband in his sleep, and snatched children. She became a female bogey in Jewish culture. Her name is mentioned in the Bible only one time and in that context as a symbol for evil.
Women’s roles in biblical history have traditionally been downplayed or even ignored. The mythical woman Lilith was written out of the record. The mythical Eve, apparently having fulfilled her post-Garden duties as child-bearer, similarly disappears from the landscape, having contributed nothing more than children to the world.
In Numbers (the Old Testament’s census on the Israelites in the desert exodus from Egypt), the count of humans noted does not even include females. The only people counted were men and boys past a certain age. Daughters and wives didn’t matter enough when reckoning the number of people in one’s tribe—a greater value was placed upon the goats and sheep one owned.
So, too, to keep the idea of male supremacy (when in fact it seems early teachings of the evangelical protege of John the Baptist, Jesus, espoused equality between the sexes) one of the greatest women of the Bible has had her character assassinated, degraded, her contributions ignored and purposefully excised from the Biblical record, and her status in history reduced to that of a prostitute.
Salome was real, as was Jezebel, Bathsheba, and Delilah. Unlike some of the women in the Old Testament, the women annotated in the New Testament were very much flesh-and-blood and not myths. And the New Testament’s commitment to paper has created a starting point for learning about some of these fascinating women.
The campaign of malicious discredit regarding some historic women went on for centuries. More direct archaeological, parole, and contemporary documentary evidence comes to light to support the existence of many women of the Bible and to breathe life into them.
It is only in recent years that the fascinating woman, Mary of Magdala (more popularly known as Mary Magdalene), has been brought to life more as a living, vibrant woman of faith, and as a religious teacher, instead of as a soiled dove.
The Fish Wife
Mary of Magdala was a typical Jewish woman of her day. She was born in the earliest years of the 1st Century CE. Her home, Magdala, was a fishing village on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (now named Lake Tiberias).The village became a key city in the Hellenistic period. Its place on an ancient trade road made it strategically important. The water springs nearby, fertile land, and fishing all made it the center city of one of the three Galilee regions in the Jewish Kingdom prior to the Romans. It lies just about a mile and half southwest (a bit over 2 km) of the modern village of Migdal in Israel.
Archaeological excavations in the area have unearthed several structures and a port area confirming this was a thriving commercial community.Mary grew into womanhood, which for a Jewish woman was technically at the age of first menarche, thus her “womanhood” probably began around the same time as Mary of Nazareth’s, the age of 13 or 14.
Historians over time have formed a minimal picture of her early life. It is believed she married at the proper marriageable age, but that her husband died. She then came into possession of his holdings (which were substantial), and was self-sufficient financially in an age when most women were solely dependent upon men for survival and comfort.
There is a tantalizing indicator that Mary of Magdala may have been actually well-off rather than merely self-supporting:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another—The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. [Luke 8:1-3]
As indicated in the text, Mary came into contact with Jesus and his Apostles as he wandered and preached. She, apparently, was afflicted with some sort of condition of which Jesus healed her. Whether it was demonic possession or mere illness can never be known – she may have merely had a high fever with convulsions and the superstitious people of that age would have attributed her symptoms to demonic possession.
The cause of her meeting Jesus is not germane—what is important is that she met Jesus and joined his group as a follower, bringing her material wealth along with her. Her contribution materially cannot be overstated. Jesus and his group (and he was not the only evangelical, either in this time period or his geographic area, preaching a similar message) were not generally welcomed in staunchly Hebrew communities. After all, Jesus was railing against the existing Hebraic order. This ragged group of wanderers would have to be largely self-supporting. Mary’s material wealth would have been most welcome.
Regardless, Mary joined Jesus’ commune. His “ministry”, for want of a better word, only lasted about two years before his death by crucifixion. During this time, his message of internalized piety and faith was not a welcome one to the Hebrew Order.
The Jewish faith was a highly hierarchical, organized bureaucracy, and politically very powerful. Jesus’ message, in summary, was a very simple one: faith is in oneself. When he said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my Church,” it is almost certain, in the context of his teachings, he literally meant that rock, or any rock for that matter. [This may also be a pun, as well. The word “Peter” translates into something akin to “stone”; it was a nickname used in the same way someone today might call a man “Rocky”.]
In short, Jesus taught that wherever the believer happened to be that is the Church, and one does not need a morass of clergy or an established hierarchy of clerical interpreters to bring the believer in touch with his god. [This concept is the fundamental basis for Islam, by the way—churches are not needed. One carries al-Lah with him or her always, and anywhere one is can be a “church”; mosques are nothing more than convenient gathering places.]
For all his rebellion, Jesus was a devout Jew. He observed Jewish laws and customs. His anti-establishment stance is what fomented his demise. This of course, was Hebraic heresy, and the established order actively sought to remove this agitator (and Jesus was an agitator, make no doubt about it).
He was arrested by the Romans at the direction of rabbinical leaders, and was put to death on their recommendation. [This is not an indictment against the Jewish people; it is a statement of historic fact. The Jewish élite were allowed to merely have Jesus scourged and released – they insisted upon his execution. The Roman colonial governor, Pilate (per Roman colonial policy) had no choice but to comply.]
Mary of Magdala’s importance to Jesus and the early Christian movement is apparently significant as she is among the few who attended his crucifixion (most of the men purposefully stayed away for fear of meeting a similar fate, not cowardly necessarily, just prudent). Titus Flavius Josephus (37 CE – 100 CE), a disinterested contemporary Roman-Jewish chronicler, documented three women present at the crucifixion but mentioned only two by name.
First was Mary of Magdala; the other he names as “the mother of James”. [Jesus’ brother, James; thus, this is Mary of Nazareth, his mother.] The Magdalene saw Jesus' entombment, and later was the first to go to into his tomb and find him gone. She is the first person to whom he presents his resurrected self and with whom he speaks; thus, one can infer she was extremely important to both him and his ministry.
And her foremost place is noted in the Four Canonical Gospels, as well. It is clearly recorded that, in any list of women in which Mary of Magdala is part, her name is always the first in the list. This is not accidental. [The same literary technique applies to the men: Peter is always listed first as he was Jesus’ favored male Apostle.]
Thus, it seems clear, the fish wife of Magdala held a place of honor in the early days of Christian history.
Best evidence indicates Mary lived out the rest of her life in Judea and died about 63 CE (probably in her mid- to late-50s, contrary to any theories set forth in recent popular culture that she migrated to France).
What’s In a Name?
So, knowing how close Mary was to Jesus and the other Apostles, how she was welcomed into the group, how she was an active participant in spreading the Word, how did she become relegated to being no more than a footnote, and worse, consigned to the historic role of prostitute?
That is a construct of the Catholic Church combined with honest, human error.
The Bible as it is known today was gathered from extant oral histories, Aramaic texts, Hebrew texts, Greek translations of these texts, and in some cases documents of Egyptian origin. The sources are disparate as are their interpretations. The Bible’s oldest books were assembled beginning as early as the 4th-3rd Centuries BCE (fixing the first five books of the Jewish bible). The final choice of material that comprises the Old Testament was not completed until around 100 CE (meaning that within Jesus’ own lifetime the Hebrew liturgy itself was not completely codified).
As early as the 2nd Century CE, the materials that make up the New Testament coalesced into a canonical body. This process continued into the 4th Century when more concrete contents were established. Many scattered writings were known, and it was necessary to collate these into a coherent narrative. Agreement upon what to include or not include was not always reached without vigorous debate. However, what is certain is the texts could be confusing.
The name “Mary” is a variant on the Hebrew name for Moses’ sister, Miriam. It was a very popular name in Jesus’ time as it was connected to the ruling Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. [This is the same sort of popularizing done today—the newest British “royal bride”, Kate, will probably inspire any number of British women in the very near future to name their daughters “Kate”).
The name “Mary” occurs many times in the New Testament, and there are several distinct women named Mary recorded in The Gospels alone. There also are several other unnamed women who seem to share character traits with Mary Magdalene. At different times in history, Mary of Magdala has been confused or misidentified with almost every woman in the Four Gospels, except Mary of Nazareth (Jesus’ mother). Patient reading can suss this out and will net the information that the concept of Mary Magdalene as a woman of great sin, or that she was somehow unchaste, is without merit.
It is this “Mary” name profusion and confusion that has led to cases of misidentifying Mary of Magdala with lesser women of the same name or even to make her out as the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (the woman anointing with tears was actually Mary of Bethany, and she was not a prostitute, merely a “sinner”—she was the sister of Lazarus and Martha).
The “Forbidden” Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels were known to the early compilers of The Holy Bible. In brief, these Gnostic documents (which, in short, carry on the message of one’s Self being a temple, and knowledge is the key to reaching spiritual enlightenment) reaffirm Jesus’ simple message. By the time of collection, the Church (the Roman Catholic Church; there was no other having any authority either politically or religiously in the matter) suppressed these books.
Part of the reason for censoring these books is, like Jesus himself, the Gnostics taught that one doesn’t need a whole, complex Church hierarchy to worship one’s god. This thinking, of course, was not in line with the established Church’s thinking, so the documents were quashed, and later proscribed.
But known, too, was the fact that within the bodies of these “forbidden” texts, Mary of Magdala emerges as less of a mere follower but more of an equal and a woman of authority during the Church’s formative years. The extant patriarchy could not have a mere woman being on an equal footing with their Lord Jesus.
A quick examination of but two of the earliest Gnostic Gospels presents part of the dilemma facing the patriarchal Church when organizing the books of the New Testament.
The first is called the Pistis Sophia. It is believed to date from about the 2nd Century CE. This document chronicles a dialog between Jesus and his Apostles, sort of an Aristotelian discursive session. It records Jesus’ answers to theological questions put to him by his followers. Of the 64 questions asked, 39 of them (slightly more than 60%) were posed by Mary Magdalene. This indicates her inquisitive nature and her major participation in teaching. Jesus commented afterward:
"Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren."
This means Jesus respected her inquisitive mind and was also sufficiently impressed to praise her in front of his other students. Furthermore, in the last sentence, he said her heart is raised “more than all thy brethren”. This tantalizing tidbit tends toward leading one to believe Jesus thought more of Mary’s religious progress than that of all the others in his care.
The Gnostic Gospel of Philip is the more damaging to the Church patriarchy, and it is probably what began the campaign of anti-Mary sentiment. At this time it seems clear Mary was a follower of Jesus. Philip’s Gospel, however, raises the stakes, placing Mary firmly in the pantheon of Apostles. But the Church could not have her be a peer as it would upset the order of things and the continued subordination of women, who were considered inferior in every respect at the time.
This text dates from about the 2nd-3rd Century. Philip casually mentions Mary Magdalene as part of Jesus' female entourage. He refers to her with a Greek word, dependent upon context, meaning “partner”, “associate”, “comrade”, or “companion”. Again, this brings Mary closer to Jesus ideologically.
Philip also noted Mary’s seeming omnipresence. Anywhere Jesus went, Mary went. He writes:
“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary (his mother) and her sister, and Magdalene (the one who was called his companion) . . . [they] were each a Mary.”
Jesus’ preference for Mary as a student annoyed the other Apostles. A fragmented text from Philip has been controversially interpreted as follows:
And the companion of [the Savior was Mar]y Ma[gda]lene. [Christ loved] M[ary] more than [all] the disci[ples, and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval]. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered, and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her?”
Tradition holds men kissing other men as a form of greeting in those days, and even today some Middle Eastern men still keep up the practice. Jesus’ kissing Mary isn’t important; in fact, the text interpretation may not even be correct (even if it were, it is insignificant). More important is the agitation by the men in the group that Jesus had raised Mary to a status greater than theirs. This cannot be—she is, after all, only a woman.
The need to perpetuate the Church’s patriarchy, combined with the confusion about names, is how Mary of Magdala went from being Jesus’ best and brightest convert and confidante to assuming the role of a prostitute.
Credit: TitianArtistic license has given Mary imagery ranging from the romantic damsel in distress awaiting her grail knight, to Titian’s almost super-heroic Mary (of Valkyrie proportions). She is routinely depicted at the foot of the Cross of Calvary.
She is also associated with the Easter story: Mary presented a simple egg at a banquet, which transformed in her hand to the red color associated with the blood of Christ after her humble gift was mocked by her host. This is one of the legends purportedly explaining the tradition of coloring Easter eggs; many depictions of Mary show her holding a colored egg thanks to this legend.Credit: Angelo Bronzino
In many images her hair is very long or also long and red. The village of her birth, Magdala (which is Aramaic for “tower”), in the language of her day also carried the entendre meaning of “medgaddlela” (hairdresser), a euphemism for “prostitute”. Prostitutes then actually wore their hair longer than “respectable” women, and often hennaed it.
One painting is downright unsettling: Mary Magdalene by Leonardo da Vinci is quite an interpretation, and it borders on the bizarre. In keeping with tradition, Mary’s hair is longish and has a slight auburn tint. She holds a thin “veil” over her reproductive area and a red cloth in her left hand.
Credit: Leonardo da VinciShe was the “bleeding woman” whose bleeding stopped when “power went out from” Jesus (a metaphor: a woman's “bleeding” stops when she becomes pregnant). The diaphanous veil is also an allusion to the cobwebs and spider webs used to stanch bleeding from child-birth in Mary’s time.
Leonardo was a master of symbolism and allegory, and the real meaning behind this image of Mary may never be known. It is possible he was conveying that perhaps Mary of Magdala was the wife of Jesus (and the later bearer of his child or children). [There is absolutely no evidence supporting anyone’s fanciful theories that Mary was ever the wife or consort of Jesus; if she had been it is absolutely certain one of the many biblical chroniclers would have referred to her as Jesus’ wife at some point in their narratives. For sure, the historian Josephus would have called her something along the lines of “the crucified man’s wife” rather than by just her name, Mary.]
The reality, however, is that Mary of Magdala was a typical Jewish woman living in a typical Jewish fishing village in the Israeli desert. In all likelihood she would probably have looked very much like this woman (on the right) except perhaps more swarthy from the Middle Eastern sun.
Regardless of one’s beliefs, the most powerful religion in the world is still the Catholic Church. It has the greatest number of adherents (about 1 billion globally). Although Islam is gaining in membership it does not carry the political or economic clout the Catholic Church wields.
It is the Church that creates saints. Any saints worshipped and accepted by the masses were sanctified, venerated, beatified, and canonized by the Catholic Church. Other religions may recognize saints or prophets within their own ranks, but until the Catholic Church proclaims that person a saint or prophet, he or she truly is not. Two prime examples are the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. Each religion respectively reveres these people as true prophets—the rest of the world does not, and will not, unless the Catholic Church made a move to validate them.
So, too, the Church influenced science, the arts, politics, and economics in a way no other religion has to date. It has been pervasive. To its credit, however, it can admit mistakes, and will even extend apologies for misguided or misanthropic behavior occasionally.
Mary was canonized as St. Mary long ago. She has been identified in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church as an adulteress and repentant prostitute since the mid 6th Century, however.
Pope Gregory the Great made a speech in 591 where he confusedly merged the activities of three New Testament “Marys”, and in this same speech he also identified an unnamed woman as Mary Magdalene. The Vatican, in 1969, without commenting on Pope Gregory’s faulty reasoning, rejected his slander of Mary by canonically separating Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s “sinful” woman.
More recently (after only a few centuries) the Church apologized for its persecution of Galileo (who said Earth was not the center of the universe but part of a system revolving around the Sun). Apologies were extended for wrongdoings under the Inquisition. The Church, however, has yet to discuss its knowing, and doing nothing to raise the alarm, about the Holocaust as it was happening at a time when few world powers were privy to such information.
The Church’s historic suppression of women, however, manifested itself by relegating its Founding Mothers to second-class citizenry. Keeping with this tradition, women are still not allowed to be ordained as priests within the Church.
Mary of Magdala, Jesus’ right hand, confidante, and Apostle probably would not have understood.
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