The Da Vinci Hoax: Mary Magdalene

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 that sinner.

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?”

With Rome 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 increase.

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 pilgrimages.

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, of

The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code


published by Ignatius Press.

He is the editor of