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Mary Magdalene: A Leader and Her Ally

by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe

A relief from a church in Columbus, Ohio, showing Mary Magdalene and two other apostles.

“Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles” a relief in Saint Mary Magdalene Church (Columbus, Ohio), photo by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Gospel of Mary offers a unique portrait of leadership amongst the earliest followers of Jesus. Mary is a great teacher and guide. She takes charge of her community in a time of crisis, sharing her visions of the Savior and the teachings he passed down just to her, his most loved of all followers. But Mary does not do this work alone. She has an ally.

Another model of leadership in the Gospel of Mary is the role of the ally. This writing presents Levi as a great ally. Allyship is an essential form of human relationship in our contemporary world, and through the Gospel of Mary, Levi provides us with an embodiment of what this relationship should look like. Allyship involves supporting and upholding of others. As allies, we shine the light on the brilliant humanity of others.

The Gospel of Mary is all about this brilliant humanity: what it means to be human and how we must all work towards realizing our full human potential. Mary teaches that the Savior “has made us Humans,” and that our human nature is a fundamentally good thing. We all have the potential to find and not just accept, but truly embrace our Humanhood.

We cannot embrace our Humanhood on our own, however. We are not fully human just in and of ourselves. A big part of being human is embracing the humanity of others. We must constantly work to improve our human relationships. One of the most important of these relationships, the Gospel of Mary teaches us, is allyship.

Are we to listen to her?

Mary sets the standard for realizing full humanity. She is an outstanding leader in her community. She is open and compassionate; she is both vulnerable and strong; she is full of integrity and courage. She teaches both with authority and with great generosity.

In setting this standard, Mary stands not alone, but in relationship to others. Mary shows us that we can only embody the Savior’s message when we support and strengthen one another.

Mary shows us the importance of strengthening others through her relationship with Levi. After she finishes teaching the community, there is disagreement amongst several male members. Andrew states that he does not believe Mary. The strange ideas she has taught them, he claims, could not be from the Savior. Peter takes things a step further by arguing that the Savior would not have taught a woman: “Are we to turn around and all listen to her?” he asks incredulously. “Did he choose her over us?” Such privileged teachings would have been given only to a man, Peter declares.

Mary stands up for herself. “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking?” she asks him. “Do you think that I have thought this up myself?”

The Gospel of Mary tells us that Levi then speaks up. “Peter, you have always been an angry person,” Levi says. “If the Savior made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her?” Levi declares that the community should be ashamed of their treatment of Mary. They should remember the Savior’s central teaching, which was “to clothe ourselves with the perfect Human,” and to share the good news of humanity. When they hear Levi’s words, the community goes out into the world “to teach and proclaim.”

Just the same old story?

On first reading, this section of the Gospel of Mary seems to repeat a common social script. A woman speaks. She is not believed. A man stands up and says the same thing. He is believed. A man is required to make a woman’s ideas acceptable.

In the Gospel of Mary, Mary speaks, and her teaching is not believed. Two of the most prominent (male) members of the community state outright that she should not be believed. Andrew and Peter do not think that she, a woman, could know what she knows or have had such a powerful relationship with the Savior.

Then Levi, another male leader, speaks, and he is believed. It is after Levi speaks that the community goes out to proclaim this good news about humanity. The community seems to follow Levi’s advice and teaching rather than Mary’s.

Why would a writing like the Gospel of Mary – Mary’s good news, Mary’s instruction about the Savior – end not in Mary’s words, but in Levi’s?

Becoming a Perfect Human means Becoming an Ally

Mary is not the one speaking at the end of the Gospel, but her words are active. The ending of the Gospel of Mary allows us to see what Mary’s teaching looks like in practice. Levi, in response to Mary’s teaching, seeks to put her words into action.

The Gospel of Mary ends in Levi’s words in order to demonstrate what one essential element of perfecting our humanity involves: allyship. When Andrew and Peter put Mary down, Mary stands up for herself. She stands up, and she is not left alone. Levi stands alongside her. He speaks out.

Levi states flat-out that the disrespect shown to Mary is unacceptable and that the community should be ashamed. He reminds the community that they should educate themselves and remember the Savior’s teaching – a teaching passed down to them through Mary, the leader the Savior loved and trusted the most. Levi uses his place of privilege in the community to uphold Mary and Mary’s leadership, to call out bad behavior, and to encourage communal reflection and learning.

Being an ally can be challenging. It requires learning how to listen. It requires learning how to recognize our different forms of privilege and how we can use our privilege to uphold the voices of those who have been silenced, put down or marginalized. Being an ally is an ongoing and lifelong commitment.

We are not alone in this commitment, however. Turning to the Gospel of Mary – a remarkable writing about what it means to be truly and fully human – is a great first step towards finding the capacity for allyship in all of us.