Archbishop Mark continues to explore the Great Characters of the Bible.
Episode 6 – Mary Magdalene – is available here:
- Episode 6: Mary Magdalene - Transcript
Episode 6: Mary Magdalene - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Welcome back. If you are back, welcome for the first time, if this is your first time on these podcasts. Today, we in this sixth of the series, we are going to focus finally upon one of the women of Scripture. And I will reflect upon women in Scripture generally. But we are going to explore in this podcast one of the most important and most mysterious figures in the whole of the New Testament, in some ways the whole of the Bible. And that’s the woman that we know as Mary Magdalene.
Just by the way, why was she called Magdalene? Because she came from a town called Magdala, which is on the shore of Lake Galilee, the north of Tiberias, not far. So, it’s a smallish town. The name Magdala comes from the Hebrew word for Tower, Migdal. And the town sort of still exists, so there must have been some kind of tower there that gave the town its name.
So, she was Mary of Magdala, as she’s sometimes called. I prefer to use the traditional designation of Mary Magdalene. It seems to me to be more resonant and more musical. Take your pick. But not much is known of Mary, even though she is this crucial figure in the gospels. It’s extraordinary how little is known about her.
And that’s one of the reasons why there’s grown up around her, down through the centuries, this extraordinary mythology and this welter of fiction. That it’s if you’re asking questions about the historical Mary Magdalene. You have to pick your way through all kinds of fantasies and confusions. Now, one of the problems is that in the New Testament, there are so many Marys.
I mean, there were so many Marys in the New Testament someone wrote an article once claiming that Mary wasn’t so much a given name. It was the title of an office. You know, you were ordained a Mary. Well, I think that’s a bit farfetched. But Myriam in Hebrew, the name was a very, very common name. So, you have not only Mary, the mother of the Lord and Mary Magdalene. You then have Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
And to make matters even more confusing, you have the unnamed, sinful woman or the woman of bad repute in Luke Chapter 7. Who comes into Simon the Pharisees’ house with her flask of ointment and washes the feet of Jesus with her tears and pours the expensive ointment onto his feet and dries the feet with her hair. Having taken off her veil, which is rather a risky thing for a woman to have done in the presence of men.
Now, very often that woman in Luke Chapter 7 is just presumed to be Mary Magdalene. There’s nothing in the story that’s told in Luke 7 that would suggest it was Mary Magdalene.
It’s true that she is introduced in the gospel story as a woman from whom seven Demons were driven out. But what exactly that means is anybody’s guess. We’d all love to know. Again, curiosity craves an answer to the question. What does that mean? It could mean all kinds of things. I mean that she was deeply troubled and was healed by Jesus. And deeply attached to him as a result, as a disciple. That much, I think, seems clear.
But one of the assumptions, and it’s a very long bow, is that she was a prostitute who was, you know, reformed. And that has taken, you know, sort of powerful influence on our sense of who this woman actually is. But there’s no evidence, if you look at the gospels. Of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute.
I mean, even if she were, it wouldn’t have been because she had seven demons. It would have been as for many women these days, certainly in this period, it would have been out of desperate need. Because very often women were in a very vulnerable position economically, particularly if they were widowed, and particularly if they were thought to be unmarriageable for whatever reason. That there were very few options for women and prostitution would have been one.
But that’s the situation of many women in various parts of the world today. It’s not sort of evil spirits, but it’s desperate need almost survival, that would drive some women into sex work. But there’s no indication that Mary Magdalene was involved in sex work of that time. So, I think we can just set that aside.
What seems to be true is that she was single. Now what does that mean? Again, she might have been widowed. We just can’t know. But she does seem to have been single.
And it also is extraordinary that she seems to take to the road and be one of the band of those who follow Jesus around the roads of Palestine. Now, for a woman, I mean, unthinkable for a married woman, that’s the first thing. But even for a single woman or a widow to be traveling the roads of Palestine like this with a group of men, she might have been the only woman.
In fact, she seems not to have been who did that, was quite extraordinary. And this is again, where you see the Jesus movement to call it that was in some ways quite revolutionary. I’ll come back to that in a moment. It also seems likely that or almost certain, I think, that she was a woman of some means.
Now, how she came to be a woman of some means is impossible to know. Perhaps she was successful in business if she was widowed. Perhaps she had inherited money, though that’s harder to know. But we are told that she and other women provided for Jesus and the apostles from their own means. Now, that seems to, as it were, turn the world on its head. Because in the conventional understanding of what was a very patriarchal culture, men provided for women.
This was true again in our own culture until quite recently, and it still is in many parts of the world, obviously. But for women at this time, to be providing for men out of their own means, as it were, seems to turn the world on its head. And that’s what the Jesus movement or Jesus himself does in so many ways. Ways that at times, we ourselves are slow to see.
So, Mary, with her means, whatever they were and however they were derived. Accompanying this group of wandering, charismatic preachers of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Along the roads of largely rural Palestine, though she will, like Jesus, come to Jerusalem. So, she’s a Galilean with all that that entailed. Traveling with this band of charismatic preachers. And she will end up in Jerusalem.
But at this stage, if I could just expand the focus somewhat to reflect upon women in Scripture more generally, because again, I think it’s hard to understand who Mary Magdalene is and why she’s important unless you see it against a broader background. Now, there is no doubt that the Bible is in many ways the product of a patriarchal culture. And there have been many, many studies done in more or less recent times that show this undeniably. That it bears all the stamp of the patriarchy that was endemic to the cultures of the ancient Near East.
However, the Bible in all kinds of ways, most of them subtle, and many of them powerful. Subverts itself and the culture that produced it. So just to say that it’s the product of patriarchal culture is not nearly enough because the Bible has a way of subverting patriarchy. It does this on a number of fronts, not just patriarchy.
So that there’s a there is undoubtedly a patriarchy or stamp. But there is also a subversion of patriarchy going on within the Bible itself. Even if you look at the story of the fall. The decisive figure in the story of the fall, human figure. Is Eve, not Adam. She it is who engages in that fateful dialogue with the serpent.
She it is who hears from the serpent. God is a liar and an oppressor. Now, Eve has to say yes to that or no to that. And that, her yes or no will be shown by whether she reaches up for the forbidden fruit. And Eve, it is who reaches for the fruit, not Adam. And then it’s she who, having taken a bite or whatever it was from the forbidden fruit, passes it to her dumb bum husband who just says, oh, that’s a nice piece of fruit and chomps on the fruit as well. Doesn’t ask, you know, where you get that.
So, the sense of female agency is there on the first page of scripture, it’s fraught with ambivalence and ambiguities of every kind. That’s, again, the way the Bible tends to be. But female agency is undeniable at that point. But then to me, more interestingly, if you look at the matriarchs in the book of Genesis. I mean, the patriarchs are the ones who kind of strut around and seem to be at centre stage all the time.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, you name them, the boys. But in fact, if you look at their wives, the matriarchs. Sarah, Rachel and so on. The matriarchs are far stronger characters than the patriarchs. And although they may not be quite centre stage in the way their husbands are. In many ways, you can see that the matriarchs are calling the shots.
I sometimes think I’ve met Jewish women in various parts of the world over the years. And one of the things that has often struck me about Jewish women, I don’t want to stereotype or generalise, but there is often a quality of strength of character in Jewish women that somehow looks back to these figures of the matriarchs. The women are stronger than the men in the Bible.
And this, again, is a way of turning a patriarchal world on its head. I mean, the patriarchs might seem to be in charge, but in many ways, according to the Scripture, it’s the matriarchs, the women who are calling the shots. And then later on in the Old Testament, you’ll find figures again fascinating and haunting figures like Lady Wisdom. The wisdom of God is characterised as a woman.
And Zion, Jerusalem, is also characterised as a woman. And the chosen people are a bride. Again, a female characterisation of the entire people. So, there’s this constant focus or attraction to female agency in a way that would not have been true of patriarchal cultures, generally. And another intriguing fact to me is that if you look at the great hymns of liberation in the Bible, and they’re very important texts. Because the Bible is a hymn, a great hymn to the liberating power of God.
But all of the great hymns of liberation, the Bible places on the lips of women, not men. So, if you think of the song of Miriam, sister of Moses. Hannah, mother of Samson, Judith. And then climactically Mary with the Magnificat. And again, if you look at the Magnificat, which is the greatest of the biblical hymns of liberation. What Mary is articulating in that is her vision of God. That enabled her to speak her extraordinary yes to the invitation to be the mother of the Royal Messiah.
And what is the vision of God found in the Magnificat? He has cast the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly. He has scattered the proud of heart. He has filled the starving with good things, send the rich away empty. In other words, it’s a God who overturns every status quo, including the status quo represented by patriarchy. And the supreme overturning of the seemingly non-negotiable of all status quos, death. That’s the ultimate overturning, to which the Magnificat looks. God overturns even that status quo. That death rules.
So, look, interestingly too, to me, no woman in the Gospels ever opposes or takes action against Jesus. Those who opposed Jesus in the Gospels and take action against him are all male, even Pilate’s wife.
In the passion narrative, says to Pius, you know, don’t do it. So, is that accidental? I’m not sure. But it does fit a pattern, as I say, of overturning or at least subverting the logic of patriarchy. Now, Mary Magdalene fits within that same logic and its pattern. She’s a most unconventional figure. She’s a subversive figure. Who comes into her own, really whatever about her origins and her past or the role she played in the public ministry of Jesus.
She really does come into her own in the story of the passion and death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. So, let’s focus on this for a bit. First of all, she is shown as one of those who didn’t desert Jesus. Because on Calvary, there she is. And she’s with Mary, we’re told, the mother of the Lord and John, that’s the traditional three.
Other accounts have other women on Calvary, but Mary is there in all the accounts. So, there’s no reason whatsoever to doubt the fact that far from running away. Because she might be, if she’s seen to be associated with Jesus, she could get the chop or because of the sheer horror of crucifixion. None of that puts her off, she’s there. She doesn’t flee.
So having seen Jesus die and having seen him taken down from the cross. We’re then told Mary is one of those who watching from a distance, sees the burial of Jesus. So, she’s seen it all. So having seen the burial of Jesus, where they buried him and how. She goes home on the Friday evening, we’re told.
And then very early on the next day, even before dawn. She and others, women, come to the tomb. And their big question is, well, how are we going to roll back that stone? Because if you’ve seen images of these rock hewn tombs and the stone that covered the entrance. They are massive circular stones. And there is no way a woman or women could move it.
It really was to seal the tomb. So here they are asking, well, how are we going to do it? And then they get there, we’re told, and they see that it’s been moved already. So, again, Mary’s overtaken by all kinds of strange things from now on. Up until now, it’s all been so depressingly predictable. But not now.
She then goes and she sees the tomb is empty. And she makes the very, very reasonable conclusion and that they’ve stolen the body. They’ve taken him away. So, at this stage, she panics. Completely conventional and predictable reaction. What she does is she runs back to the disciples who are huddled behind closed doors because of fear and bewilderment.
And she tells the disciples that she’s seen the empty tomb. Now they think this is nonsense, oh you know, silly woman. So, what do they do? Two of them at least decide to sprint to the tomb. Distance, not a huge distance. To see if what this woman is saying is true. Because you see in a legal context, in this culture, this time, women were not accepted as witnesses, reliable witnesses.
And here is Mary, witnessing to the fact initially that the tomb was empty. I saw it. I don’t know why I think they’ve stolen the body. But they’re not sure about the reliability of that, no we’ve got to see for ourselves. So, they run to the tomb. They see that what she reports is true. The tomb was empty.
For whatever reason, it was empty. They see that image. Now, we are then told that Mary herself returns to the tomb. And she’s peering into the tomb, and she hears a voice behind her. And she turns around and she sees a figure whom she thinks is the gardener.
And this is a lovely touch. And there are some beautiful paintings of this moment which have Jesus wearing a big gardening hat and having a hoe over his shoulder.
She thinks, she doesn’t recognise Jesus, the risen Christ immediately. This is a common pattern in these encounter stories. They don’t recognise him. First up, it’s hard to know why, but they don’t. She doesn’t. She says to thinking he’s the gardener. You’ve taken him away. Tell me so that I can go and claim the body. Again, this is a completely conventional sort of thing to say.
And it’s at that point where Jesus says to her, Mary, speaks her name, Mary. And that’s when she recognises him. This is a crucial moment in the Easter story. She’s the first one to see him and recognise him. Now, again, a woman.
She then says, Rabboni, a word of recognition, a master, teacher. And then she must have come to grasp his feet. And Jesus speaks those famous words, Mary, don’t cling to me because I have not yet ascended to my father. In other words, I’ve entered into another dimension of existence. So, this will affect the relationship, even the business of physical touching.
So don’t cling to me. I mean many things could be said about those words to Mary Magdalene, but, go and tell the disciples, he says, she’s commissioned. So, Mary goes to the disciples and tells them now not just that she’d seen the empty tomb, that she’d actually seen Jesus risen from the dead. At that point, Mary becomes the first witness of the resurrection.
Now, again, if you need further evidence of the Bible’s subversion, of the logic of patriarchy, this is it. And she becomes what they call in Latin the apostola apostolorum. She becomes the apostle of the apostles. She’s sent by Jesus, which is what apostle means apóstolos the Greek word to send. She sent by Jesus to the other disciples to tell them that she has seen the Lord.
And this is the most ancient, the simplest and the most fundamental of all Christian creeds. We have seen the Lord. And down through the ages, faced with all the flack that Christianity has gotten and is still copping. Our only defence in one sense, certainly our only claim against those who ridicule our claims is we have seen the Lord. And that’s the heart of Christianity, the encounter with the risen Christ. So, Mary is the first to profess that fundamental Easter faith of the whole church. And that’s why she is the apostola apostolorum.
Pope Francis, just by the way, and interestingly in recent times has upgraded Mary Magdalene, her liturgical feast on the 22nd of July. Because this role that she has is so crucial. So decisive and in a sense so subversive in the most creative way, that we now give greater profile and greater fanfare, as it were, to the first witness of the resurrection. Because that’s what the Saints, all of them, that’s what they are, witnesses to the resurrection. If they’re not that, they’re not saints.
They don’t have be perfect human beings. None of them is. But they have to be witnesses to the resurrection. They have to be able to say, we have seen the Lord and be convincing in the way they live out of that experience of encountering Christ, seeing the Lord.
Mary Magdalene then disappears in the most mysterious way. She’s not heard of again. She never features in the acts of the Apostles. So, what happened to her? We don’t know. But she features hugely in the apocryphal texts. Which are not in the Bible. Even more extraordinarily in what are called the Gnostic Gospels. Again, Gnosticism was a kind of an early heresy, that wrote gospels of its own. That are weird and sort of wonderful texts. They’re full of fantasy and fiction.
What they actually seek to do is to answer all those questions about Mary Magdalene, that curiosity prompts. Which is exactly what the gospel doesn’t give us. The gospel gives us what we need for faith, but doesn’t satisfy curiosity. The Gnostic Gospels, by contrast, they’re more like tabloid newspapers. They peak our curiosity and then answer the questions that curiosity prompts.
So, there are extraordinary stories about Mary Magdalene. She becomes huge news. Also, in more recent fiction, I mean, people are almost obsessed with this question. And, you know, one of the most ancient sort of myths surrounding Mary Magdalene is that Jesus didn’t really die. He swooned. They say. And then he was put in the tomb, and he revived. Marvellous.
And then having revived, he walked out of the tomb, met Mary Magdalene and ran off with Mary Magdalene and lived with her as husband and wife in the south of France. And there are all kinds of legends about Mary Magdalene in the south of France. I won’t bore you with the detail, but you can Google those if you wish. So, there’s a whole, an industry surrounding this mysterious and crucial woman.
She even passes into the language because we have in English the word maudlin, which refers to being tearful. Because, again, she’s been confused with the weeping woman, the sinful woman in Luke chapter 7. That’s the only time that, no other instance in the Scriptures give us Mary Magdalene weeping. But there we are in the language, maudlin.
Maudlin, by the way, is the pronunciation of Magdalene in Oxford. It’s a Magdalen (Maudlin) College and Magdalen (Maudlin) Bridge in Oxford. But in Cambridge, of course, it’s not the same. It’s Magdalene College. And when I was briefly over a summer in Oxford, I used to enjoy provoking some of the locals, particularly the Dons. By speaking of Magdalene College or Magdalene Bridge. And invariably there’d be the kneejerk reaction, oh no, no, no it’s Magdalen (Maudlin). So, I thank them for that.
No heroes in the Bible, I have said in an earlier podcast, Well, she’s no heroine. She is a human being of flesh and blood. And it’s not so much what Mary Magdalene makes of herself or what the gospel writers make of her as a character, as in a novel. What she comes to us as is the triumph of a kind of grace. Where the God of Easter takes a most unlikely candidate, the woman from the shores of the lake. And makes her the first witness of the resurrection. Who may never be known in vivid detail but will never be forgotten.