Who is Mary Magdalene? What it is about her that garners so much attention? Was she a prostitute, a disciple, or even the wife of Jesus Christ? The legends surrounding this woman range from the innocuous to the blasphemous. The real tragedy, however, is how such myths distract us from the reality of God’s grace in this woman’s life.
Mary Magdalene is one of the best-known and least-understood names in Scripture. God’s Word draws a curtain of silence over much of her life and personal background, but she still emerges as one of the prominent women of the New Testament. She is mentioned by name in all four gospels, mostly in connection with the events of Jesus’ crucifixion. And she has the eternal distinction of being the first person to whom Christ revealed Himself after the resurrection.
Some church traditions dating back to the early fathers have identified Mary Magdalene with the anonymous woman (identified only as “a sinner” in Luke 7:37), who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:37–50). But there is absolutely no reason to make that connection. Indeed, if we take the text of Scripture at face value, we have every reason to think otherwise, since Luke first introduced Mary Magdalene by name in a completely different context (Luke 8:2) only two verses later. It seems highly unlikely that Mary Magdalene could be the same woman whom Luke described but did not name in the preceding account. Luke was too careful a historian to neglect a vital detail like that.
Some early commentators speculated that Mary Magdalene was the woman described in John 8:1–12, caught in the very act of adultery and saved from stoning by Christ, who forgave her and redeemed her. There is no basis for that association, either.
Mary Magdalene has also been the subject of a lot of extrabiblical mythology since medieval times. During the early Middle Ages, some of the gnostic heresies virtually co-opted the character of Mary Magdalene and attached her name to a plethora of fanciful legends. Apocryphal books were written about her, including one purporting to be Mary Magdalene’s account of the life of Christ, The Gospel of Mary. Another, the gnostic Gospel of Philip, portrayed her as an adversary to Peter.
In recent years, some of those legends have been resurrected, and many of the long-discredited apocryphal stories about Mary Magdalene have been republished. She has become something of an icon for women in the “spiritual” fringe of the feminist movement who like the idea of Mary Magdalene as a kind of mythical goddess figure. Many of the ancient gnostic tales about her are well suited for that perspective.
On a different front, one bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, adapted several long-forgotten gnostic legends about Mary Magdalene and wove them into an elaborate conspiracy theory that included the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were secretly married and even had children. (According to that view, she, not the apostle John, was the beloved disciple mentioned in John 20:2 and John 21:20.)
A seemingly endless procession of books ranging from utterly frivolous speculations to quasi-scholarly works have further revived selected gnostic fabrications about Mary Magdalene. And a few highly sensationalized television documentaries have further reinforced the popularity of the revived myths.
So while Mary Magdalene is being talked about more than ever, much of the discussion is mere hype and hyperbole borrowed from ancient cults. What Scripture actually says about her is extraordinary enough without any false embellishment. We don’t know if she was an adulterer, but we do know she had a dark and demonic past. She may not have been a champion for women’s rights, but she certainly was a trophy of God’s grace. And while she wasn’t secretly married to Christ, she did play a pivotal role as a herald of His resurrection.
This week we’re going to push aside the gnostic traditions, extrabiblical agendas, and conspiracy theories, and look at what God’s Word tells us about this fascinating woman. The truth is far more glorious than the fiction when it comes to the story of Mary Magdalene. And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time.