Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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BY CARL E. OLSON
She was the wife of
Jesus and is the Holy Grail.
She embodies the “sacred
feminine.” She, not Peter, was meant to be the head apostle. The Church sought
to destroy her reputation and slandered her name, forcing her to flee for her
life. She is the Mary Magdalene of The Da Vinci Code,
a mythical creation who is part priestess, part goddess and all nonsense. But
the real Magdalene is a far cry from the mythological feminist martyr.
The Church, according to a character in Dan Brown’s novel,
“outlawed speaking of the shunned Mary Magdalene.” The truth is quite
different. There are at least a dozen references to Mary from Magdala (a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee) in the four Gospels. She
suffered from demonic possession. Both Mark and Luke recount that Jesus
expelled seven demons from her (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). She is prominently
mentioned as one of the women who accompanied Jesus in his ministry (Luke 8:2),
as a witness of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:56; John 19:25), of Jesus’ burial
(Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47), and of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark
16:1-8; Luke 24:10). And, quite significantly, Jesus appears to her alone at
the tomb after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-18).
In the Western
Church she became
identified with the sinful woman of Luke 7:37-50. That passage immediately
precedes the description of “Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven
demons had gone out” in Luke 8:2, and the two
descriptions were harmonized together. This, in part, was because the woman who
is anointed (Luke 7:37-50) is described as a “sinner” and Mary Magdalene had
been possessed by seven demons, which some understood as evidence that she was
A third woman was also identified with Mary
Magdalene: Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42;
John 11). In the Eastern Church, however, the three women were identified
separately, with feast days on March 21 (the unnamed sinner), March 18 (Mary of
Bethany), and July 22 (Mary Magdalene).
Mary Magdalene has a prominent role in the Gospels as
witness to Christ’s resurrection, remarkable considering the low value placed
on the testimony of women in first century Jewish society. Yet despite being
mentioned more times than some of the apostles (Thaddeus, for example, is named
just twice), some feminist writers speak of her being marginalized by a piece
of propaganda called the New Testament, written by “the anti-Magdalene party.”
The prime suspect in this alleged crime against
femininity is Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). On Sept. 21, 591, he
preached a homily based on Luke 7:36-50 — the story of the woman “who was a
sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil. “She whom Luke calls the sinful
woman, whom John calls Mary,” Pope Gregory stated, “we believe to be the Mary
from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven
devils signify, if not all the vices?”
facing approaching war and famine, the Pope encouraged Christians to repent of
their sins — and to follow the example of St. Mary Magdalene. He praised her
because “she now immolated herself” and she “turned the mass of her crimes to
virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.” (Hom.
XXXIII, PL LXXVI, col. 1239). Gregory likely linked the sinner of Luke 7 and
Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene because of their proximity to one another
in Luke 7-8. Also, by the sixth century, the biblical city of Magdala had acquired
a less than stellar reputation. Most importantly, Gregory’s exegesis of Luke 7
focused on the tropological, or moral, sense of the
reading. He believed that the seven demons that once possessed Mary Magdalene
were not only literal demons, but also represented the seven deadly sins.
Many early Church Fathers remarked about the
Magdalene and she was described by Hippolytus (c.
170-236) as “the apostle to the apostles” in his commentary on the Song of
Songs. By the eighth century the Western
Church celebrated a feast
day for Mary Magdalene on July 22. A century later there were specific prayers
for her feast day, and in the 11th century devotion to the Magdalene began to
The cult of Mary Magdalene was established at Vézelay, the Romanesque church in Burgandy
founded in the ninth century and originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
During the abbacy of Geoffrey (1037-1052) she was recognized as the patron of
that church in a papal bull dated April 27, 1050 by Pope Leo IX. At the same
time, relics of the Magdalene were being sought and gathered in earnest, and
soon Vézelay became a major destination for
A leading tradition in the West
held that Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus were expelled from Palestine following the
crucifixion of Christ. They eventually arrived at the southern coast of France. In the
East, a tradition stated that Mary had been the companion of the Apostle John
and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and that they settled in Ephesus. According to The Golden Legend, the Magdalene and John were betrothed. Some
legends depict Mary living her final days in a cave in France, a hermit covered
only by her long hair; these stories probably date back no farther than the
ninth century. The truth is lost in the fog of history.
What is clear is that St. Mary Magdalene has been
beloved and celebrated by Catholics for many centuries. She was a brave
disciple who stood at her Savior’s cross; she was also a witness to the
resurrected Christ. Far from being slandered, Mary of Magdala
is recognized as an exemplar of faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel of her
Master and Lord.
Carl E. Olson is the co-author,
with Sandra Miesel,
Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code
published by Ignatius Press.
He is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
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