The story of Mary Magdalene
Main themes of the story
Women are valid witnesses to Christ. The idea of women as primary witnesses does not seem unusual to people in the 21st century, but it was a revolutionary concept at the time. The testimony of women was not given the same weight as men's, either personally or in a court of law. Mary's witness to the Resurrection reversed this idea.
The status of women in early Christianity was equal to men's. When the Christian stories described Mary Magdalene and the other women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, they were saying something important about the nature of women: that they were capable of being as fully Christian as men.
Note: Throughout the centuries, Mary Magdalene was wrongly portrayed as a reformed prostitute:
Mary Magdalene has been immensely popular with
artists throughout the centuries. Go to Bible
Art: Mary Magdalene
for about twenty-five famous paintings.
The story of Mary Magdalene has four episodes:
2 Mary at the crucifixion
(Mark 15:40-41, Luke 23:49, Matthew 27:55-56, John
3 Mary prepared Jesus’ body for burial
(Luke 23:55-56, Matthew 27:61)
4 Mary witnesses the resurrection
(Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11, Matthew 28:1-10, John
* Go to Mary Magdalene in the gospels for all these Bible texts
Magdalene, disciple of Jesus
Mary’s town of Magdala was a thriving center of the fishing industry, producing smoked fish in large quantities. It was also known as a manufacturing center for fine wool and woolen dyes. Mary probably lived in a comfortable village house similar to the ones shown at Bible Architecture: Houses.
Many Greeks lived in Magdala, and the town had a worldly Hellenistic culture. Remains of the ancient town still exist, about two kilometers from the modern village of Migdel Nunya (meaning ‘fish tower’). This village was almost completely destroyed in the Arab-Israeli war.
Mary had a serious illness, caused by ‘seven demons’ who entered her.
From the earliest times, people believed that spirits and demons caused many illnesses. It was one way of explaining sickness and evil. According to the thinking of the time, specific demons caused specific illnesses, for example schizophrenia, blindness, heart disease and epilepsy. The spirits could be
This third type of demon was thought to have entered Mary Magdalene. Mary had seven demons tormenting her, the number ‘seven’ indicating the severity of the illness.
Magdala was quite close to
Cana, and Jesus probably visited the region a number of times. At some
point in her life, Mary met Jesus, and he cured her of a severe illness. We do not know what the illness was, or whether the cure happened in one moment or over a period of time. Perhaps it occurred
gradually, as her knowledge of Jesus developed.
Two groups traveled with Jesus: a group of men led by Peter and a group of women led by Mary Magdalene. It was the common practice for men and women to accompany each other when traveling, but they moved in separate groups.
Mary and Peter seem to have been the leaders of these two groups. Unfortunately, the words and actions of the men were recorded, and the women's were not. Nevertheless, Peter and Mary should probably be seen as equal in their support for Jesus’ work, each contributing different things.
Other named women in the group led by Mary were Joanna and Susanna. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward (Luke 8:3) was of high social standing, with connections at the royal court. She probably lived in Jerusalem in one of the grander houses in the Upper City. A woman like this would not travel without a retinue of servants, including a recognized chaperone.
This was an important point, as far as Luke was concerned. One of the purposes he had in writing his gospel was to make Jesus acceptable to a wide audience, including the Gentile population of the Roman empire.
At the time Luke recorded the stories, everyone knew that Jesus had been executed as a criminal by the Romans. Many people in the 1st century Roman world found it difficult to reconcile this fact with the belief that he was the Son of God. So Luke took pains to show that Jesus was supported by well-connected, law-abiding people during his life.
All four accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus say that women
were at the scene, and Mary Magdalene was prominent among these women. She had been close to Jesus during his life. She
stayed close to him as he faced death.
There are three groups of women mentioned in these verses from Mark:
Matthew 26:56 makes the point that all the male disciples deserted Jesus and
fled for their lives. But the women remained, standing as near as they dared to the spot where the soldiers
were carrying out the brutal execution.
AND A GOOD FRIDAY WAS HAD BY ALL, by Bruce Dawe
You men there, keep
those women back
well this Nazarene
Silenus held the spikes steady and I let fly
Orders is orders, I said
after it was over
then we hauled on the
In this part of the story, Mary
‘The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.’ (Read Luke 23:55-56, Mark 15:47, Matthew 27:61 at Mary in the gospels)
The burial seems to have been done hastily, either because it was night or because of the approaching Sabbath. Pilgrims who died in Jerusalem and people who were executed were temporarily buried in graves for non-residents, and then later removed to the tomb of their family.
See Bible Archaeology: Tombs for images of the interior and exterior of tombs from the time of Jesus.
The presence of
the women at the tomb was meant to highlight the factual nature of the burial: that Jesus
was indeed dead, and that his body had been buried in the normal manner.
This point was later disputed by people who said that Jesus had not been dead, but merely unconscious. Since women’s testimony was not given the same weight as men’s in courts of law, this might have been a problem. Deuteronomy 19:15 stipulated that at least two or three witnesses were needed to prove that something had happened.
But the gospels stress that as well as the women, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, was there, so the required number of witnesses was present at the tomb of Jesus to verify that he was really dead.
witnesses the Resurrection
The women intended to wash and anoint the body of Jesus. This was a traditional task of Jewish women, as they prepared the bodies of family members for burial. It was a last, gentle service given to the body of the person they loved.
But when they got to the tomb, they found it empty of Jesus’ body. At this moment Mary had a profound revelation where she 'saw' and 'heard' Jesus. She understood in a way that is not easily explained that Jesus was no longer dead, but alive. She experienced what the gospels call an ‘angel’, a message from God that gave her an unshakeable conviction that Jesus lived.
‘But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said to her “Woman, why are you weeping?”
Jesus said to her “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Jesus said to her “Mary!”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples “I have seen the Lord”. And she told them that he had said these things to her.’
(Read John 20:11-18, Mark 16:1-11, Luke 24:1-11, Matthew 28:1-10 at Mary in the gospels)
Mary saw and heard Jesus. She was the first witness of the Resurrection.
She was convinced that he was alive, although she was too distraught to recognize him immediately.
It is interesting that in this moment of extreme emotion she calls him 'rabbouni', the title his disciples would have used.
She did not call him by his own personal name of 'Jesus', which she surely would have done if she and Jesus had had the sort of intimate relationship that has been suggested in popular novels. She used the word she had always used as his name, 'rabbouni', teacher.
Jesus told Mary not to cling to him, but to let him go. He was telling her that their former way of life has ended, that she must let go and move on. They are words that are often said by those who seek to comfort and advise people who are grieving.
In a way the angel said the same thing: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Death had happened, nothing would ever be the same. Your place is now with the living.
At the tomb, Mary was given instructions. She was told by Jesus or by the
angel to “Go to my brothers and say to them….” Mary then ‘went and announced’. With these words Mary
was commissioned as an apostle of Jesus (‘go and tell’ is
apostellein in Greek). She was an apostle in the same way as the men (the Twelve and the other disciples) who were commissioned to spread the story of Jesus.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul does not include the women at the tomb among the witnesses to the Resurrection. According to his narrative, Jesus appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve male disciples, then to 500 people, then to James, then to all the apostles. Mary of Magdala is not mentioned. Paul was writing to Greeks in Corinth, and sadly his letter reflects the culture of the Greeks, who viewed the testimony of women as unreliable.
SOME EXTRA SNIPPETS
'There is a good deal of evidence
that in the Greco-Roman world in general women were thought be gullible in religious matters and especilly prone to
superstititus fantasy and excessive in religious practices. Strabo, for
example, points out that "in dealing with a crowd of women.... a
philosopher cannot influence them by reason or exhort them to reverence,
piety and faith; nay, there is need to religious fear also, and this
cannot be aroused without myths and marvels" (Geog.1.2.8).
Read about other significant women of the Bible
|Bible Study Resource: Mary Magdalene, first witness of the Resurrection; Apostle to the Apostles|