National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

St. Mary Magdalene Stands Tall


July 16-22, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/17/06 at 10:00 AM


On the old game show “To Tell the Truth,” three contestants claimed to be the same person — someone notable but unknown. A panel of four interrogators would ask each a few questions, then try to separate two lying impostors from the one real deal.

Today the host of that program might touch off a melee by asking: “Will the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?” The pandemonium would be especially unruly on the saint’s feast day, July 22.

“The biggest popular lie being perpetrated is the possibility she was married to Jesus,” says Amy Welborn, author of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legend, and Lies (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006). “That is completely unfounded by anything in Scripture. It’s important for people to understand there’s nothing in the historical tradition or legends about Mary Magdalene indicating anything like that. It’s a totally 20th-century creation.”

Carl Olson, editor of and co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius, 2005) finds one of the problems is that modern readers of the Gospels look for the wrong things.

“Why is it so many people assume she’s 25 years old and drop-dead gorgeous?” Olson asks, rhetorically. He points out that, with this historical figure more than most others, people fill in their knowledge gaps with unfounded assumptions.

“It’s most frustrating,” says Olson, “when Mary Magdalene gets used for an ideological purpose that’s not in keeping with historical record.”

“History is much richer than fiction,” says Katherine Jansen, history professor at The Catholic University of America and author of The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton Press, 2000). She says Dan Brown, author of the mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, reduces her to only a vehicle with a biological function. “The Mary Magdalene of Scripture is a much richer figure than that.”

So it is that, on the rock-solid ground of Scripture, the phonies and frauds, the revisionists and the identity thieves — all fall while the real Mary Magdalene stands tall.

“The only thing we know for certain about Mary Magdalene is what is recorded the Gospels,” reminds Alan Schreck, theology chair at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of Catholic Church History from A to Z (Servant, 2002).

He notes that St. Paul warned against those who preach “another gospel,” in Galatians 1:8 and in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, describing the time people will stop listening to the truth, surround themselves with “teachers who tickle their ears,” and “will wander off to fables.”

Apostle to the Apostles

Our panel of experts turns to Luke 8:2, the first glimpse of Mary Magdalene. From this witness we know this much about Mary: She’s from the region of Magdala in northern Galilee, Jesus drives out seven demons from her, she becomes a disciple, she’s among a group of women who provide for Jesus and the apostles out of their means, she stands at the foot of Jesus’ cross and she goes to the tomb to anoint his body.

“She’s the first person to witness the foundational truth about the risen Jesus,” says Welborn.

“She’s the first witness to the primary tenet of the Christian faith,” seconds Jansen.

We don’t know a lot about her, but in what we do know, the real Mary Magdalene teaches us valuable spiritual lessons.

First, according to Welborn, the real Mary Magdalene demonstrates how to know the power that Jesus has to change our lives.

“There is never a closed door or final endpoint for any of us,” Welborn says. “There’s always the possibility of redemption. The Scriptures tell us Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons. Seven is a symbol of completeness. She was totally possessed. She probably thought her life was over, hopeless — until Jesus transformed her and saved her.”

Schreck agrees.

“We can learn the power of Jesus in our life to free from demonic bondage,” he says.

“We can also learn from her fidelity,” adds the theology professor. When Jesus was rejected, he says, she remained close to him in the Passion. The she went to the tomb guarded by soldiers, a fearful thing for a woman to do. But Mary Magdalene was a faithful disciple with a deep love for her teacher (see John 20:16).

“The fruit of that fidelity is that she was the first to encounter Jesus,” says Welborn, underscoring the point. Mary became “Apostle to the Apostles” — one of her Eastern Church titles — because she immediately runs to tell the others of Jesus’ resurrection.

From this, Olson draws another lesson.          

“You had women like Mary Magdalene around Christ where there was no romantic relation but they were completely devoted to Christ,” he says. “This points to the later development of religious orders and the devotion we see nuns have to Christ — like the passion and devotion of St. Teresa of Avila. It’s completely self-giving. You see all that hinted at in the person of Mary Magdalene.”

Mary Magdalene as a forerunner of consecrated women religious: not exactly the image the Dan Browns of the world have been promoting.

Magdalene Ascending

The real Mary Magdalene holds a higher place than any fictitious version representing the “divine feminine” ever could, says Olson. He sees the two Marys — the Blessed Mother and the Magdalene — as similar in noteworthy ways even though one is immaculately conceived and the other a sinner. One thing they share in common: They don’t draw attention to themselves. Their life’s goal is to constantly point people to Christ.

“This is the goal of a true disciple, male or female,” says Olson.

For the real Mary Magdalene, the Christian life all starts with being a repentant sinner. Welborn explains this was the dominant way of thinking and relating to her in the medieval period, a time when she became the most popular saint after Jesus’ own mother.

“Devotion to Mary Magdalene evolved as a way for people to find a model for repentance,” says Welborn. “You find her all over the place in medieval spirituality.”

Western Church legend has it that she, Lazarus, Martha and Maximin were set adrift in the Mediterranean. They landed in Southern France, where Mary Magdalene evangelized before spending time in penitence in Sainte-Baume cave. (Eastern legend has her joining St. John and the Blessed Mother in Ephesus, then dying there.)

According to Jansen, the first pilgrimage church appeared in the late 10th and early 11th century in Vezelay, Burgundy. Today that’s the Basilique Ste-Madeleine, France’s largest Romanesque church. The abbot claimed to have her relics.

“By tradition they’ve been authenticated,” says Jansen. “That’s the position of the Church on all relics if there has been a long history of devotion and veneration in a certain place.”

And there are lots of miracles associated with them, especially healings and therapeutic miracles in the Middles Ages, explains Jansen.

But Jansen turns to two things from the Gospels, not legends or fiction, which the real Mary Magdalene should inspire in us.

“One is her constancy,” the professor says. “In the face of danger and persecution from the Romans, when the other disciples fled for cover, she was there at the foot of the cross. Her faith never wavered. Her constancy should be a model for all of us.”

“It was to Mary Magdalene, a woman,” says Jansen, echoing our other panelists in stressing this point, that “the gift of being the first person to see the risen Christ was bestowed. A woman was chosen to see the risen Christ and a woman was chosen by the risen Christ to announce the news of his Resurrection.”

Welborn concludes that the Christian tradition on Mary Magdalene is so rich — it has been so fruitful for real Christian spirituality over the centuries — that to engage in the other nonsense is a waste of time.

“There’s enough in our tradition,” she says, “to keep us busy.”


Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.