Thoughts of Mary Magdalene

I recently traced Mary Magdalene’s footsteps through the four Gospels and was led to an unexpected destination.  My purpose was to complete a biographical account of her for one of my classes. Afterwards, what really left an impression on me was the fact that each of the four Gospel writers portrayed Mary Magdalene in a unique way. Sometimes with many details, sometimes few, sometimes with conflicting accounts. Why are there such varying accounts of her?

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Mary Magdalene appears by name twelve times in the Gospel accounts of the New Testament. In eight verses she is mentioned first within a group of women, showing her importance among the female followers of Christ.[1] Not much is known of her life outside of these verses and even her most basic attribute, her name, has generated debate among scholars. In Syriac versions, the translation of her name is “Mariam the Tower-ess” and not the place-name of “Mary of/from Magdala/the Tower.”[2] Named as “Maria called Magdalene” in Luke 8:2 and “the Magdalene Maria” in Luke 24.10, it is unclear whether she is given a nickname or a place-name. In either case, it appears consistent with other instances in which Jesus “called” His disciples based on a “distinctive feature.”[3]

What we do know is that Mary Magdalene was not the “sinful woman” portrayed in Luke 7:37. Chronologically, Mary appears initially in the Gospel of Luke (8:2-3). By this time, she was traveling with Jesus, the Twelve, Joanna, Susanna, and others. Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers to introduce “Mary Magdalene during Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. She is mentioned among some women who accompany Jesus on His journey from one city to another.”[4] Mary is introduced by Luke with the name Magdalene and is described as having once had seven demons. The women, together, are described as using their own means to support Jesus and the Twelve.[5] There is no scriptural record of her family, her age, or any other personal or professional details. Since she was free to follow Jesus during His ministry, this means she either left them behind as did other disciples, or “that she had no home obligations.”[6] Mary’s exorcism is not detailed, yet scholars suggest that having seven demons may indicate that she was in complete possession, as the number seven signifies “completeness.”[7]

Her journey from Galilee to the tomb is fascinating in and of itself. Seeing her through the eyes of the four Gospel writers adds perspective. Let’s see what they have to say.

Crucifixion

Jesus was considered a heretic and His male disciples would have been at great risk to attend the trial or crucifixion. At that time in history, women were assumed to be ministry benefactors and not leaders, so their attendance on the outskirts of the crowd was not as risky.[8] “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” were in attendance near the cross, according to Matthew’s Gospel (27:56). Mark’s Gospel aligns with this and adds that “many other women” followed Jesus from Jerusalem and were present at the crucifixion (15:40-41). Luke’s Gospel documents the “women who had followed him from Galilee,” but Luke does not supply proper names (23:49). In John’s account, the women were close enough to the cross to hold a conversation with Jesus. “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (19:25).

According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph, who was “a secret disciple of the Lord Jesus” received authorization from Pilate to remove Jesus’ body from the cross.[9] This is the point in time that the women from Galilee appear again in scriptural accounts. According to Luke’s account the women from Galilee followed Joseph to the tomb and then “went home and prepared spices and perfumes” and rested as commanded on the Sabbath (23:55-56). Mark’s account is more specific, naming the women who went to the tomb as “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph” (15:47). In the Gospel of Matthew, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” were seated across from the tomb as Joseph departs, having laid the body of Jesus within, and rolled a stone across the entrance (27:60-61). 

Preparation and Presence at the Tomb

The Gospel accounts of Mary at the tomb are nonidentical. John’s account does not mention any women at the tomb on the day of burial, but does state that Mary Magdalene rises early on the first day of the week and, under the cover of darkness, goes to the tomb (20:1). Matthew adds that the “other Mary” accompanies Mary Magdalene (28:1). Mark’s Gospel includes Salome in the group, and specifies their purpose is to “bring spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body” (16:1). Luke’s account refers to the “women” who take spices to the tomb, and later provides the names of “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” (24:10). Taken in their entirety, the four Gospel accounts place Mary Magdalene at the tomb on the day of the burial. She sees the stone over the tomb’s entrance, and she leaves to prepare spices and observe the Sabbath.

On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene departs before daybreak for the tomb. What happens next also differs according to the Gospel writers. Luke indicates she arrives to find the stone rolled away from the entrance, revealing an empty tomb. In this account, the women enter and are surprised by two angels (24:1-8). In Matthew, the tomb is not open when Mary arrives, and one angel appears who rolls away the stone and scares away the guards (28:1-6). Mark writes that upon their arrival the women find the tomb open, and one angel inside the tomb. John’s account is very different. Mary arrives at the tomb and sees the stone has been removed. She runs to two disciples and tells them that the Lord’s body is missing. The disciples run to the tomb, confirm Mary’s story, and leave. Mary stays at the tomb and is soon joined by two angels.

Each Gospel account reports the interactions between Mary and the angels differently. Matthew and Mark both report that one angel appears, reports the news of Jesus’ resurrection, and tells her to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7). In Luke’s account, two angels appear and tell Mary of the resurrection of Christ without further instruction (24:5-7). John documents the presence of two angels but they do not confirm Jesus’ resurrection (20:12-13). The differences in the details, according to scholars, contribute to the truth of the Gospel accounts. “The variety of details points to the opinions of several eyewitnesses and shows us that the Gospel writers made no effort to present a unified report. This fact provides a firmer basis for believing the truthfulness of the report.”[10]

First Witness to the Resurrection

Mary Magdalene is the first to see the risen Christ according to the Gospel of Mark (16:9), which differs from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the group of women (28:9-10). Matthew gives no voice to the women in his account; they do not verbally respond to Jesus. The women leave Jesus to tell the disciples all they had heard and seen. In later verses, Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee, which confirms that the women relayed Jesus’ message (28:16-18).[11]

Luke’s account does not reflect that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. Instead, he writes that it was the angels who announced the resurrection, commanding the women to notify the disciples of the good news (24:2-10). “They returned hurriedly to the city and told the news to the eleven disciples. Among those first heralds of the resurrection were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.”[12]

The Gospel of John presents a detailed perspective of Mary Magdalene’s witness of Jesus, from her own perspective. After looking into the empty tomb and seeing the angels, Mary turns to see Jesus, yet does not recognize him (20:11-14). He asks who she is looking for, and she replies that she is willing to go get Jesus’ body if he would tell her where the body is (20:15). In John’s account, Mary believes the man to be the gardener until she hears him speak her name. “’Mary.’ She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’” (20:16). Jesus instructs her to give His message to the male disciples. “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (20:17). In this passage, Jesus urges her not to touch him, but to go and declare His resurrection. “Mary needed to learn that her relationship to Jesus did not depend on his physical presence.”[13] This new reality of the resurrected Christ is the message she ran to tell the others. This is the final reference to her by name. “The last we know of Jesus’ devoted disciple from Galilee is that ‘Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had spoken these things unto her’ (John 20:1-18).”[14]

 

Why the Differences?

But why did the writers present such different perspectives of Mary Magdalene and her interactions with the Resurrected Jesus? In summary:

Matthew acknowledges Mary Magdalene by name, reporting her presence at the tomb with the other Mary. The angels and Jesus appeared to both women. They worshipped at Jesus’ feet, and He asked them to tell the disciples of His resurrection. We do not see the interaction between the women and the disciples, but it is clear the men follow their instructions because they go to Galilee as Jesus instructed.

Mark also acknowledges Mary Magdalene by name. She went to the tomb with other women and found it empty. They were greeted by an angel who told them to instruct the disciples to meet Jesus at Galilee. The text says the women ran away, scared, and said nothing to anyone. Then Jesus showed Himself to Mary Magdalene, and she told the disciples, but was not believed. Jesus appeared to two other disciples, and they also told the group, but were not believed.  Finally, Jesus Himself appeared to the disciples and rebuked them for not believing the accounts of Mary Magdalene and the two others.

Luke‘s account is very similar to Mark’s. He names Mary Magdalene. She, and other women,  are greeted at the tomb by angels who tell them of the Resurrection. The women do not see Jesus in this account, but they followed the angels’ directive to tell the disciples, who did not believe them.

It is John‘s Gospel that most extensively details Jesus’ personal interaction with Mary Magdalene.  After finding the tomb empty, she ran and notified the disciples, and two returned to the tomb with her to see for themselves. According to John’s account, Mary Magdalene stayed behind at the empty tomb, and was surprised by a man she thought was a gardener. She had a close enough relationship to Jesus that she recognized His voice when He called her by name, and she responded to Him by calling him Rabboni, or Teacher (20:16). She then was obedient to carry His message as He instructed.

Conclusion

Scriptural accounts, though few, are the foundation and truth of the woman known to Jesus as Magdalene. At the most basic level, the name she is given identifies her “as an independent woman with no connection to a man.”[15] She is an individual, who, like the disciples and other female followers of Jesus, left behind their lives to follow Him. Within the four Gospels the patchwork of Mary Magdalene’s identity begins to reflect more of her story and personality. Jesus freed her from demonic oppression. She chose to follow and support Him, traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem. She witnessed His crucifixion, and stood at the cross as Jesus “commends His mother to John (19:25-27).”[16] She watched the tomb in mourning, prepared spices for His body, saw and interacted with angels, witnessed the risen Christ, and delivered the good news of the resurrection. “Thus she was doubly blessed: not only was she first to witness one of the central tenets of the Christian faith—the resurrection—she also received the paschal privilege of announcing it.”[17]After completing my assignment I am left with some questions that are probably not easily answered on this side of heaven. I am simply struck by the depth of emotion built into John’s account of the conversation between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. I wonder why it is missing from the other accounts? And it is fascinating that there are varying levels of details about her between the Gospel accounts. Did some of the writers value her more than others? I wonder if their accounts help us understand their view, as men in a patriarchal society, of women in Jesus’ ministry?

When taken in their entirety, it is clear to me that Mary Magdalene’s identity was rooted in her relationship with Jesus Christ. She received freedom from demonic oppression, and she chose a new life within His ministry as a supporter and follower. Even at the most difficult time, His execution, Mary Magdalene stayed near to Jesus. She faithfully followed her teacher to His final resting place at the tomb. Knowing Mary Magdalene’s scriptural biography far surpasses any legends, myths or movie scripts. The patchwork of just twelve verses forms a beautiful tapestry of obedience, commitment, bravery, and love.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 21.

[2] Joan E. Taylor, “Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene,’” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 146, no. 3 (September 2014): 208.

[3] Ibid., 206-207.

[4] Reimund Bieringer and Isabelle Vanden Hove, “Mary Magdalene in the Four Gospels,” Louvain Studies 32, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 212.

[5] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

[6] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,1988), 100.

[7]John A. Martin, “Luke,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 224.

[8] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove, IL:IVP Academic, 2014), 122-123.

[9] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1409.

[10] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd Ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003), 271.

[11] Bieringer and Hove, Louvain Studies, 210.

 [12] MacDonald, Believer’s Bible, 1410.

[13] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003), 272.

[14] Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen, 23.

[15] Taylor, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 206.

[16] MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, 1534.

[17] Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen, 23.

 

Bibliography

Bieringer, Reimund and Isabelle Vanden Hove. “Mary Magdalene in the Four Gospels.” Louvain Studies 32, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 186–254.

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003.

Lockyer, Herbert. All the Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988.

MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Martin, John A. “Luke.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Edited by John Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 199-265. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983.

Taylor, Joan E. “Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene.’” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 146, no. 3 (September 2014): 205–223.

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