Who Was the Real St. Mary Magdalene?

Because Mary Magdalene was granted the privilege of announcing the Resurrection, she was given the title, “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Guido Reni, “The Penitent Magdalene”, ca. 1635
Guido Reni, “The Penitent Magdalene”, ca. 1635 (photo: Guido Reni, “The Penitent Magdalene”, ca. 1635 / Public Domain)

In his Gospel, St. Luke tells how one day a woman who was a notorious sinner entered a house where Jesus was dining with friends, and, to the astonishment of everyone in the room, knelt, bathed his feet with her tears, then dried them with her hair. Luke does not give the penitent’s name, but a tradition that dates back at least to Pope St. Gregory the Great asserts that she is St. Mary Magdalene. Ever since, artists have shown St. Mary with a luxurious head of hair, usually red or auburn in color. That is why hairstylists have taken Mary Magdalene as their patron saint.

Now, let’s get this out of the way right from the start: St. Mary Magdalene was not notoriously promiscuous. And she certainly was not a prostitute. Yet nearly 1,700 years the anonymous woman who wept over Our Lord has been identified as St. Mary Magdalene. Blame it on St. Jerome and St. Gregory the Great, who conflated three separate women in the gospels into one individual.

Both Doctors of the Church asserted that the unnamed sinner who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the woman who was the first to see the Risen Christ, were all Mary Magdalene. Sometimes the adulterous woman Christ saved from being stoned to death is also said to be Mary Magdalene.

So, now that we’ve identified all this confusion, who was the real Mary Magdalene? St. Luke says Jesus cast seven devils out of Mary. Her surname, Magdalene, refers to her home, Magdala, a fishing village on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. We also know that Mary was one of the women who traveled with Christ and the twelve apostles.

Mary Magdalene followed Our Lord to Calvary, stood at the foot of the cross with the Blessed Mother and St. John and handful of faithful women, and she witnessed Christ’s death and burial. On the first Easter morning Mary encountered the Risen Christ in the garden, but she did not recognize him until he spoke her name. Then the Lord sent her to tell the apostles that he had risen from the dead.

Because Mary Magdalene was granted the privilege of announcing the Resurrection, St. Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 235) gave her the title, “Apostle to the Apostles.” The unique grace Mary received is celebrated each Easter in the sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, when the Church asks, “Tell us Mary, what did you see on the way?” And Mary answers, “I saw the sepulcher of the living Christ and the glory of his rising. I saw the angel witnesses, the linen that covered his face and the shroud. Christ my hope is risen!”

As with so many of the Lord’s disciples, legend supplies the details the New Testament omits. The most persistent tradition claims that during the persecution of the Church in Jerusalem the Jewish authorities set Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus, and Maximinus (one of the Lord’s 72 disciples) adrift in an oarless boat. The wind and the current took the little group to the south of France. Martha and Lazarus went off to preach the gospel. Maximinus became the first bishop of Aix. But Mary Magdalene retired to a cave east of Marseilles and spent the rest of her life as a hermit. She lived there so long that her clothes became rags and fell off her body. To preserve her modesty God made her hair grow to such length and thickness that it covered Mary’s nakedness. The cave, known as La Sainte-Baume, has been visited by pilgrims at least since the 5th century. The legend goes on to say that when Mary was dying angels carried her to the house of St. Maximinus so he could give her Holy Communion for the last time. She died there and Maximinus buried her in his chapel — a place known today as St.-Maximin. Pilgrims still come to the crypt of the medieval abbey church to pray at the tomb of St. Mary Magdalene and to venerate her relics, including strands of her abundant hair.

This article originally appeared July 22, 2017, at the Register.

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