Friday, July 22, 2011

The Mystery of Mary Magdalen

Ah, Mary Magdalen! I grew up in a parish by that name in suburban New Orleans, where she was represented in a statue near the huge crucifix on the wall behind the altar. There she stood, mournful, and at her feet her "attributes": a jar of ointment and a skull of repentance. After all, wasn't she the great penitent, a "woman known as a sinner" (of the most recognizable kind) who had washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, the one "from whom Jesus had cast seven demons," the former black sheep of the family of Martha and Lazarus?
Well, yes and no.
For better or for worse, this image of Mary Magdalen is a composite of three women, two of whom were named Mary. There's the unnamed "woman known as a sinner" who swept through the doors at Simon the Pharisee's dinner and cried all over Jesus' feet (in Luke's account). But the way Mark tells it, Simon's house was in Bethany, and the woman poured outrageously expensive "nard" all over Jesus' head, provoking some to anger--and leading Jesus to take it as a harbinger of his funeral rites. John adds to the confusion by saying it was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who came to a dinner party and positioned herself at Jesus' feet with precious ointment whose fragrance filled the house and irritated Judas Iscariot no end. Adding to the confusion, the real Mary Magdalen would have had her own jar of ointment when she came to the tomb on Easter morning to give Jesus' body the proper treatment it had not been given during the hasty burial on Good Friday (the scene for today's Gospel).
Feminist theologians suspect that the Magdalen, who was clearly the kind of woman who could command attention, was the subject of an early smear campaign; that having a woman of that stature in the Gospels undermined male clerical authority, and the only way to subdue her was to discredit her influence. It seems to me, though, that the assortment of women who cried over or anointed Jesus at dinner parties (in texts written well before the blanket establishment of male clerical authority!) could render the clerics blameless in that regard--especially when you remember that only in the last fifty years have we begun to sort out the Gospels, following the trajectory of each one, rather than weaving them all together as if they were simply sources of facts about Jesus.
In fact, why don't we take this "composite" Mary as the Fathers of the Church did: an image of the Christian soul who won't be deterred in seeking God, and making him known once he is "found"?


Kristen said...

I don't know, I generally don't follow feminist theology all that far, but it seems to me that the feminists have the upper hand in this particular argument.

And John gives Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus (and therefore Mary of BETHANY, not Mary of Magdala) a perfectly reasonable motive for her actions -- she was overcome with gratitude (and I am sure no small amount of awe) at the raising of Lazarus.

There is also the idea that Jesus cast seven devils out of Mary of Magdala. Though I am not looking this up right now but I think that's from the "long ending" of Mark that just about everyone says is not part of the original. (Which might be why you didn't touch that one!) And if you look at all the other times Jesus casts devils out of people, the manifestations of the demon look like epilepsy or schizophrenia. With Mary of Magdala we assume it refers to sin, and particularly sexual sin?

But maybe I am wrong.

Sr Anne said...

I didn't try to be comprehensive; just to look at all the reports of women whose gesture came to be identified with Mary Magdalen. You're right about Mark's longer ending, but the same info about Mary is also in Luke 8, where Jesus was traveling from village to village, accompanied by the Twelve and by "women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out." If you think of the significance of "seven" as "fullness, completeness," you get the picture of someone whose life was in total disarray. That's all you can really say from the Scriptures. I think the association of Mary with the world's oldest profession really comes from conflating all those banquet stories.
Interestingly, in today's homily the priest suggested something I had never heard: that Mary of Magdala was a Gentile.

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...


I think that Gregory the Great may have been the first known writer to blend Mary Magdalene and the woman who was a sinner into one composite person.

In related news: regarding Mark 16:9-20, you can read a defense of the authenticity of this disputed passage at .

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.