WHEN WE THINK OF THE PEOPLE who appear in the Gospels we think first of all of Christ and His Mother, then perhaps of John the Forerunner and the apostles. But there is another figure who is more prominent both in the Gospels and in the life of the Church than even some of the apostles – St Mary Magdalene whom the Eastern Churches call the “equal-to-the- apostles.”
Mary Magdalene in the Gospels
The Scriptures have little to say about Mary; this has not prevented speculations and often erroneous conclusions to be made from the early centuries up to our own day. The Gospels tell us that:
a) According to her name she was from Magdala, a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Because she was known by her hometown rather than by the name of her husband, father or son, it is assumed she was unmarried.
b) She was one of the Lord’s traveling companions. “He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance” (Luke 8:1-3).
From this passage some have deduced that Mary was well-to-do. The Gospel text does not necessarily imply that Mary was one of those who provided for Jesus from their own resources. That phrase may only refer to the unnamed “others.”
The Gospels do not describe Mary’s healing and many have speculated about it. Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604), for example, equated these demons with the spiritual assaults within us: “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the passions?” He thus put his seal on the opinion that Mary was a great sinner, even a prostitute.
This idea came from a mistaken reading of the passage from Luke quoted above. The passage before it tells of an unnamed “woman in the city who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37) who washed Jesus feet with her tears. Commentators connected these two passages, believing they were about the same woman, which the Gospel itself does not imply.
c) Mary was one of the women who stayed near Jesus at the cross when His chosen disciples all ran away: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).
d) Most importantly, as all four Gospels relate, she was present at the tomb, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection and the first to alert the apostles to the news of the resurrection: “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him’” (John 20:1, 2).
As Luke tells it, Mary Magdalene was there with Joanna and Mary (the mother of James) when “…behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest… And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:4-11).
Reflecting on the Resurrection Gospels, Gregory the Great thought it fitting that “because in Paradise a woman offered death to a man, at the tomb a woman announced life to men” (49th Homily on the Gospels). Doing the same, the ninth-century archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus, called Mary Magdalene the “apostle to the apostles.” This title became common in the West during the centuries that followed.
Mary and the Red Eggs
As was common in the second and third centuries, there were Christian attempts to tell the stories of what happened to the New Testament figures after the events described in the Scriptures. In several of these stories Mary Magdalene is said to have traveled to Rome and shared her witness to Christ with the first believers there.
While in Rome she is said to have attended a dinner at which Emperor Tiberius (ad 14-37) was present. When she spoke about Christ’s resurrection, according to one version of this story, Tiberius laughed, saying that a man rising from the dead was no more possible than these eggs turning red before our eyes. The eggs did, in fact, turn red and Eastern Christians have been blessing red eggs on Pascha ever since.
Modestos, patriarch of Jerusalem (630-634) wrote, in his On the Myrrhbearers, that Mary Magdalene returned to Jerusalem, where she lived with Theotokos until her dormition. After the death of the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus where she spent the rest of her life.
Her tomb outside the city was described by Gregory of Tours (538-594) in his De Miraculis. Gregory had not seen the tomb himself, but was recounting the testimony of an unnamed “Syrian traveler.” Her holy relics were transferred in the ninth century to Constantinople, and placed in the monastery Church of Saint Lazarus. In the era of the Crusader campaigns they were taken to Italy and placed at Rome under the altar of the Lateran Cathedral. Her incorrupt hand is preserved in the Simonopetra Monastery on Mt Athos.
According to a later Western tradition Mary Magdalene had gone to the south of France where she was said to have spent her last years alone in the wilderness, fasting and engaging in acts of penitential self-discipline to atone for the “sins” of her early life. Her relics are supposedly kept in Provage, near Marseilles. This tradition is clearly based on the erroneous identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7, described above.
Mis-directions in the Story of Mary
Besides Mary Magdalene and the Theotokos the Gospels also mention other Marys: Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha), and Mary the mother of James. This led to a confusion in the West between Mary Magdalen (identified as the sinner of Luke 7) and these other Marys. This identification, which had never been accepted in the East, was finally rejected in the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar.
In the first centuries after Christ several groups developed their own “gospels” weaving the story of Jesus with their own teachings. Several of these, from gnostic sources, were discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In several of them Mary Magdalen is depicted as Jesus’ favorite companion, making the apostles jealous. These works gave rise to modern pseudo-historical attempts to say that Mary was Jesus’ wife or mistress.