The following is a transcript of the video above.
Mary Magdalene is one of those topics that I find interesting mainly because there are so many ways you can take the topic. You can ask all kinds of questions about Mary Magdalene. You just have to watch out that there may not be as many answers as you think.
She’s a very important figure in the history of the early Jesus movements, but she’s also kind of elusive. It’s really hard to pin down where she goes. That sounds bad, but it’s really the same situation we have with all these people. We know about as much about the historical Mary Magdalene, as we know about the historical Peter, that is, not very much. It’s really fairly minimal, but there are some things to kind of take into consideration here.
And I want to begin with pictures. I’m a great collector of early Christian and pagan art.
This is the earliest representation we have of Mary Magdalene, and it’s dated at 240 and it comes from a house church in Dura Europa, Eastern Syria, right on the border with Iraq. It’s a desert town, and in the wall of this town, there was a synagogue, and a small house church, and they got buried around 250. And so it’s a kind of a marvelously preserved little example of what a synagogue looked like and what a house church looked like. There’s not much left in the house church, but we do have this image, which is of two or maybe three women coming to a tomb. You can see the sun up there, the supposedly rising sun on the edge of the tomb and the women are carrying torches.
And if you look in their hands, there’s the spice jars. So this is either two women or three women. If it’s Matthew’s story, it’s two women. If it’s Mark’s story, it’s three women. And you would think one of them, the lead woman, is Mary Magdalene, since she’s the lead character, the first one named in those stories. So this is very likely, possibly, almost for sure, the earliest image we have of Mary Magdalene. And she’s just presented as an ordinary woman, nothing extraordinary about her at all.
This is Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Its date is about 500, give or take 50 years, either side of that. And what’s interesting about this image, this is exactly 250 years after the one in Dura Europa. This is the second earliest image we have of Mary Magdalene. Saint Apollinare Nuovo is an imperial church. It was built by an Empress who was a resident in Ravenna. Ravenna is the Western capital of the Roman Empire in this period. Constantinople is the Eastern capital and the head of the whole empire.
These two women are pictured as noble Roman women. There’s nothing about her… you can’t tell which one’s Mary Magdalene, which one’s the other one. There’re just two noble women coming to the tomb. And so she’s an ordinary woman. There’s nothing extraordinary about her.
Notice in Mark and in Matthew—Mark’s the earliest gospel, Matthew is copying Mark—here’s no indication that there’s anything problematic about Mary Magdalene’s background. In fact, you’re not told anything about Mary Magdalene’s background. She just appears in the gospel at the foot of the cross, notices where the burial is, and is there to see the young man in the tomb. That’s it. You know nothing of her background from her first appearance. In John, John’s very different. I think John probably knows Mark, and John does what John likes to do, he tends to take a story and concentrate it.
Now we’re going to look at these two stories. The Luke story in Luke 7:36-39 is parallel to the story in Mark 14:3. Now remember Mark is the earliest gospel. Luke knows the Markan story, and he takes this story, which is in chapter 14 of Mark, and moves it up to the end of chapter 7 in his gospel; moves it way up.
Let’s look first at the Markan story.
“When he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, he was just reclining there, and a woman came in carrying an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment made from pure and expensive nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head.”
Okay? In the Mark story, the disciples argue about why she is wasting all of this, but there’s no indication there’s anything problematic about the woman. Judas is just concerned about the spending of money. Jesus rewards her.
In Mark, Jesus is anointed Messiah before his death by a woman! “Messiah” means to be anointed. And it’s the woman who anoints him on the head exactly in the way David would be anointed as a Messiah. So this is a critical story for Mark. It’s a woman. This is a very scandalous story in Mark, and it’s meant to be scandalous that Jesus is anointed Messiah in his death by a woman.
Luke takes the same story, moves it up to chapter 7, and eliminates the overtones that Mark has put into the story.
“One of the Pharisees invited him to dinner; he entered the Pharisee’s house, and reclined. A local woman, who was sinner…”
Now notice this is not an anonymous woman. This is a woman who’s a sinner. And this is a euphemism for prostitute. That’s what this word means.
“… found out he was having dinner at the Pharisee’s house. She suddenly showed up with an alabaster jar of aromatic ointment and stood there behind him, weeping at his feet. Not his head, his feet! Her tears wet his feet, and she wiped them dry with her hair. She kissed his feet.”
This is a symbol of abasement, you know.
“The Pharisee who had invited him saw this and said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching him, since she is a sinner.’”
Now in this story, Luke has changed the woman from an anonymous woman who does something of virtue and anoints Jesus as Messiah on his head, to making her a prostitute who’s prostrate at the feet of Jesus, engaging in an act that’s really hard to understand.
It’s after this story that Luke introduces Mary Magdalene. So not at the foot of the cross, but after this story of the woman.
“And it came to pass soon afterward that he traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of the empire of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases; Mary, from one of Magdala, from whom seven demons had departed, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many other women who had provided for them out of their resources.”
Notice Mary Magdalene is singled out and it said she had seven demons have been thrown out of her. Nothing like that’s in Mark. So she now has this kind of problematic past as being someone who is demon-possessed.
At the crucifixion, if you look at the Markan story and the Lukan story, Luke knows Mark. Notice what he does. Luke eliminates the names of the women. Their names just disappear. They become erased. Unlike the Markan story, which he knows and which he’s copying. He’s deliberately erasing their names. Likewise, at the burial, the women are not named as they are in Mark. He eliminates their names. At the tomb, the same thing happens. Their names get eliminated and they disappear.
The story of the resurrection is very different in Luke than it is in Mark. And there’s this section where the women, after they returned from the tomb, they related everything to the eleven and to everybody else. The group included Mary of Magdala and Joanna and Mary, the mother of James. It’s only in the report to the eleven that he names them. So they’re being completely subordinated to the group of the eleven. That’s not the case in Mark or Matthew. They related their story to the apostles, but their stories seemed nonsense to them, so they refused to believe the women. What Luke has done has taken the women completely out of the resurrection tradition. Their witness is useless. For Mark, it’s the primary witness. This is a very, very different telling of the tale.
Now, many of you probably know there’s a longer ending of Mark. Actually, there’s several longer endings of Mark, three of them. But the one that got into the King James was Mark 9 to 11, and it’s clearly later. It doesn’t get added to Mark until sometime in the late second century, maybe early third century. It’s kind of iffy exactly where it comes in. But Mark, if you remember, ends with the women going away saying nothing. And that’s a kind of unsatisfying or problematic ending. So various endings got invented, beginning with Matthew and then Luke, and even John. Here’s the ending that gets added to the Markan manuscripts.
“Now after he arose at daybreak on Sunday, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala, from whom he had driven out seven demons.”
You can see that whoever wrote this longer ending of Mark got his evidence from Luke.
“She went and told those who were close to him who were mourning and weeping. But when those folks heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it.”
So basically whoever wrote this ending has used Luke to construct a new ending for the Gospel of Mark.
If there’s a conspiracy there, here’s where it really gets deep. Pope Gregory the Great in 591 wrote a letter where he said, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. . . It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh for forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.”
So it’s Gregory the Great who takes these different fragments, the Lukan story of the woman who anoints Jesus turns her into Mary Magdalene, the longer ending of Mark with the casting out of the seven demons. And he combines those stories into Mary Magdalene, the prostitute. This is where the tradition puts it all together and it has stuck. That’s where her reputation was destroyed: with Gregory the Great. Luke planted the seed, and Gregory the Great reaped the harvest.
This is one of my favorite stories in this whole tradition.