By Simon Cuff
The epitome of discipleship represented by Mary Magdalene is all the more startling both because it contradicts the picture presented by popular culture thanks to Dan Brown, and the traditional Christian idea of her as the reformed prostitute and sinner, and because of what it tells us about ourselves.
The Gospels are our earliest source of information regarding the life and ministry of Jesus and those around him. On the question of whether the reformed prostitute picture of Mary can be maintained, a look at the Gospels shows us that events often ascribed to Mary Magdalene are actually ascribed to other, often unnamed women: the woman or ‘sinner’ who anoints Jesus for example (Mark 14.3-9; Matt 26.6-13; Luke 7.36-50; John 12.1-18); and the prostitute brought before him, connected to the Biblical lesson, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8.3f). In early Christian history, there was a marked desire to put names to these women, and Mary Magdalene became the obvious choice. If we want to develop an account of ‘Mary Magdalene’, then it is to the gospels we must turn.
For those unfamiliar with Biblical scholarship, the relationship between the canonical Gospels is hotly debated. They can broadly be divided in to the Synoptics: Matthew, Mark and Luke (so-called because they can be placed side by side and contain much the same material) and John. It is almost universally agreed that Mark wrote first (c. 70CE) and possible that he, or a lost document used by all three, formed the basis for the Matthean and Lukan accounts. It is, however, surprisingly rare for all four gospels to agree, but the role of Mary Magdalene (individual details aside) is found in all four strands of the tradition. In all four, she is named as one of the women who follow and provide for Jesus in Galilee (Mt 27.55 cf. 27.56; Mk 15.41; Lk 8.2; 23.49); witness the crucifixion (Mt 27.55 cf. 27.56; Mk 15.40; Lk 23.49; Jn 19.25); go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body following his death (Mt 28.1; Mk 16.1; Lk 24.1; Jn 20.1); and thus form the vehicles by which the (male) disciples are informed of his resurrection (Mt 28.7; cf. Mk 16.7; Lk 24.5-9; Jn 20.2). Mary’s role within the narrative really only comes into its own with the events surrounding Jesus’ death, and this is the key in understanding her place in discipleship.
The lack of reference to Mary Magdalene before the events of Jesus’ death (NB except for the account of her exorcism and the removal of seven spirits (Lk 8.2)seems to have entered the tradition through Mark, and thus can be understood most clearly in relation to his theological narrative. The role of the women within Jesus’ ministry as providers and servants (Mt 27.55 cf. 27.56; Mk 15.41; Lk 8.2; 23.49) reflects not only the female condition within society of the time but also women’s role as superior disciples when examined using Jesus’ requirements of discipleship as told in Mark: ‘If any would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’ (Mk 9.35). The ‘best’ disciple is the one which puts him or herself in the lowest position, and serves. A second requirement is that of ‘faith’. Mark places repeated emphasis on its importance (2.5, 4.40, 5.34, 10.52, 11.22), and it is ‘faith’ that is rewarded by miracles, which themselves serve to provide deeper understanding (10.52).
In Mark’s critical portrayal of the male disciples we see both a lack of faith and a hesitancy to put themselves last. Two episodes underline this point. On hearing for the first time of the necessity of Christ’s suffering, Peter rebukes Jesus (8.31); persisting with an understanding of glory as greatness, not the ultimate humility and suffering discipleship requires. The request of James and John to be placed in positions of glory on the right and left hand of Christ (10.37) also demonstrates the desire to be first. Christ responds by asking if they are able to drink from the cup from which he drinks. In his Passion we see Christ petitioning God for this ‘cup’ to pass from him (14.36), so we must understand the cup from which Christ drinks as the necessity of his suffering. This is borne out in Jesus’ rebuttal to the other disciples who themselves become jealous of James and John’s request: ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’ (10.43-44). The failure of the male disciples is underlined in their desertion when Christ is arrested and Peter’s three-fold denial (14.50, 14.72).
It is significant that the women, including Mary Magdalene, are among those who remain with him until the end. (Note that John is also present at the crucifixion (John 19:26-27)) They are present at the crucifixion at ‘some distance’ (15.40), this distance emphasising the danger they place themselves in by attending. Throughout the gospel, women are portrayed in a positive light as possessors of real faith: faith provides the basis of the haemorrhaging women’s cure (5.34); the Syrophoenician women’s faith allows her to challenge Jesus on the question of mission to the gentiles (7.28-9) and leads to the healing of her daughter; the unnamed woman anoints Jesus before his death (14.3). This last woman is the most important for our purposes, as her anointing demonstrates an understanding that anointing Christ after burial will be pointless, showing her faith in the resurrection.
Ultimately, however, Mary Magdalene and the other female disciples suffer the same fate as the male: their humanity prevents them from fulfilling the necessary demands of discipleship. The women’s failure is a lack of faith in the resurrection – they go to anoint the body(16.1). Thus it comes as no surprise that Christ is not there (16.7). Their failure is cemented by their flight from the tomb and failure to spread the ‘good news’; they said nothing to anyone. If we are to widen our source material on Mary Magdalene to the Gospel of John, we find the same picture. Mary’s weeping is testament to a lack of faith in the resurrection, but no lack of love for Christ, as shown by the tenderness of her weeping (Jn 20.11).
So, in what sense is Mary Magdalene an epitome of discipleship? Women in Mark’s gospel possess real faith, often more so than the male characters. Ultimately, however, in the end, even they are bound to fail, and either suffer from a lack of faith or give in, like Peter (8.33), to human things, such as a desire to be marked with excellence rather than humility and servitude. The role which Mary Magdalene, and other ordinary women of this time, represent is in accord with the maxim ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant’ (10.43); these women are already one step closer to the kingdom of God. Even ordinary women are extraordinary.
The Gospel of Mark
The Sermon of Pope Gregory in Patrologia Latina, 76:1238-1246 (First conflation of Mary Magdalene as reformed prostitute and sinner)
Miller. S, Women in Mark’s Gospel (London, 2004)
Hooker. M, The Gospel According to Mark (London, 1991)
Stanton. G, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford, 1989)