For more than 40 years, I made my living by knowing other people’s business. Since I got out of newspaper journalism, however, I have tried to know only as much as I need to know—or, perhaps more accurately, as much as people want me to know.
I was thinking about that recently while I was reading Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History by Philip C. Almond, professor emeritus of the history of religious thought at the University of Queensland, Australia.
As the title implies, Almond explores the many ways Mary has been imagined and presented over the centuries. Necessarily, this includes the idea endorsed by Pope Gregory the Great that before her encounter with Jesus Mary was a prostitute. The pope, in a sixth century homily, drew this conclusion by identifying Mary Magdalene with the “sinful” woman described in Luke’s Gospel who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. He also took the reference to Jesus ridding Mary of seven demons to mean that she had dabbled in all seven of the deadly sins.
This practice of identifying one literary character with another is called “conflation” and, as Almond describes in detail, Pope Gregory is hardly the only person to engage in it. Speculators over time have found Mary Magdalene to be the same person as Luke’s sinner and also Mary of Bethany—the sister of Lazarus. Modern scholarship has debunked these ideas.
Traditions have thrived about where Mary Magdalene went and what she did in the years after the Resurrection, about where she died and was buried, and about where her remains have been transported by relic enthusiasts.
The notion has also been developed that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and that she bore him a child and that the Church has been at pains to keep this a secret. The marriage myth was famously disseminated in recent times in Dan Brown’s novel “The DaVinci Code” and the film based upon it. Besides being disrespectful, such works run the risk that gullible people will take the stories as true and that cynics will use such fiction to demean the Church and the Christian faith in general.
The fact is that all the information we have about Mary Magdalene is in the gospels. To put it another way, all the information we need about Mary is in the gospels. Luke’s Gospel informs us that Mary and two other women, Joanna and Susanna, accompanied Jesus as he traveled through Palestine and provided financial support for his ministry. All four evangelists report that Mary was the first witness and the first herald of the Resurrection. She remained faithful to Jesus to the end. She went to the tomb, she encountered the risen Christ, she proclaimed the news to the apostles.
These accounts of the preeminent role that Mary played in the gospel story are remarkable both because it was inconsistent with the cultural and religious norms of Jewish society for women to accompany a group of men not related to them, and it was out of character for writers in that time and place to assign to a woman such an important role as Mary played.
We Christians can save our curiosity for movie stars and other celebrities. Mary Magdalene, as she is presented in the gospels, is all she needs to be, an example of faithfulness and courage. In those qualities, she is a model for us to imitate. By virtue of our baptism, we are called to do what Mary did, to proclaim to the world, without embarrassment, fear, or hesitation, that Jesus Christ has risen and that he lives among us, in his word, in our hearts, and in the Eucharist. May we live up to her example.
Painting: Detail of Mary Magdalene weeping at the crucifixion of Jesus, as portrayed in The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435) by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Public domain..
Charles Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International and a retired permanent deacon of the Diocese of Metuchen. This post was first published in The Catholic Spirit, the Metuchen diocesan newspaper.