Women of the Passion, Part 4: Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection.  This is the fourth installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. (See Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints JesusPart 2: Mary’s Heart is Pierced AgainPart 3: The Women Wait.) Happy Easter!

"Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: 
'I have seen the Lord!'"
—John 20:18

The story of how Mary Magdalene became known as a prostitute is a complicated one.

One of at least six Marys that followed Jesus as a disciple, she was distinguished from the others through identification with her hometown of Magdala, a fishing village off the coast of the Sea of Galilee. According to the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons, after which Mary became a devoted disciple, mentioned by Luke in the same context as the Twelve, who traveled with Jesus and helped finance his ministry. 

In 597 Pope Gregory the Great delivered a homily on Luke’s gospel in which he combined Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister), suggesting that this Mary was the same woman who wept at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and that one of the seven demons Jesus excised from her was sexual immorality. The idea caught on and was perpetuated in medieval art and literature, which often portrayed Mary as a weeping, penitent prostitute. In fact, the English word maudlin, meaning “weak and sentimental,” finds its derivation in this distorted image of Mary Magdalene. In 1969, the Vatican formally restated the Gospels’ distinction between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the sinful woman of Luke 7, although it seems Martin Scorsese, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Mel Gibson have yet to get the memo.

A cynic might suggest that this mistake and its subsequent popularity represent a deliberate attempt to typecast and discredit a woman whose role in the gospel story is so critical and so revolutionary that the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to Mary Magdalene as Equal to the Apostles. 

Although she appears to have been a critical part of Jesus’ early ministry, Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary faithfulness shines most brightly in the story of the Passion. 

Gospel accounts vary, but all four identify Mary Magdalene as among the first witnesses of the empty tomb.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, she and a group of women rose early that fateful morning, three days after Jesus had died, to anoint the body with spices and perfumes. When they arrived at the tomb, they were met by divine messengers guarding the entrance, who declared that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said he would. The women immediately left the tomb behind and, “with fear and great joy,” (Matthew 28:8) ran to tell the other disciples.

Luke notes that on their way, they remembered what Jesus had taught them about resurrection, confirmation of the fact that these women had been present for some of Christ’s most important and intimate revelations and that they took these teachings to heart. 

But when the breathless women arrived at the home where the disciples had gathered, the men did not believe them. Women were considered unreliable witnesses at the time (a fact that perhaps explains why the apostle Paul omitted the women from the resurrection account entirely in his letter to the Corinthian church), so their proclamation of the good news was dismissed by the men as an “idle tale,” the type of silly gossip typical of uneducated women. Perhaps the men invoked the widely held belief that, just like their sister Eve, women were easily duped. 

A few, however, were curious enough to take a look at the tomb, and so, according to John’s account, Mary returned with Peter and another disciple to the place she had encountered the messengers. The men saw for themselves an empty grave and a pile of linen wrappings folded neatly within it, and conceded to the women that the tomb was indeed empty. However, John 20:9 notes, “they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” 

The men returned to report what they had seen to the rest of the disciples, leaving Mary behind. Perhaps the disciples posited the theory that Jesus’ body had been stolen, for John wrote that Mary, once so full of breathless excitement and impassioned belief, now stood outside the tomb, crying. 

Angels appeared and asked her what was wrong. 

“They have taken my Lord away,” she told them, fully accepting the disciple’s dismissal of her “idle tale” of resurrection, “and I don’t know where they have put him”

The angels were then joined by a mysterious man, whom Mary assumed to be the gardener. He, too, asked why she was crying.

"Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him,” she pleaded. 

Only when he called her by her name did she recognize the man as Jesus. 

“Mary,” he said.

“Rabboni!” she cried. 

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus urged as she fell before his feet, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

And so again, Mary Magdalene ran to the house where the disciples were staying and told them she had seen the risen savior face-to-face.

“I have seen the Lord!” she declared.

But it was not until Jesus appeared to the men in person, allowing them to touch the wounds in his hands and side, that they finally believed.

Stephen J. Binz notes that "her announcement, 'I have seen the Lord,' is the same credential used by Paul to insist on his own authority as an apostle: 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lored?' (1 Cor. 9:1). The church's belief in the resurrection originated with the evangelical witness of this woman." 

Far from being easily deceived, women were the first to make the connection between Christ’s teachings from Scripture and his resurrection, and the first to believe these teachings when they mattered the most. For her valor in twice sharing the good news to the skeptical male disciples, the early church honored Mary Magdalene with the title of Apostle to the Apostles. 

That Christ ushered in this new era of life and liberation in the presence of women, and that he sent them out as the first witnesses of the complete gospel story, is perhaps the boldest, most overt affirmation of their equality in his kingdom that Jesus ever delivered.

And yet too many Easter services begin with a man standing before a congregation of Christians and shouting, “He is risen!” to a chorused response of “He is risen indeed!”

Were we to honor the symbolic details of the text, that honor would always belong to a woman. 

***

(Today's post is an excerpt from A Year of Biblical Womanhood, to be released in October.) Have a blessed Easter! He is risen!

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