As Holy Week begins, I completed some reading this morning in the Gospel of John. I focused on the empty tomb pericope that features Mary Magdalene so prominently. “Magdalene” most likely ties this Mary to the town of Magdala, which was a “strongly Hellenized site . . . five kilometers northeast of Tiberias” (R. Riesner, 37–38, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). Performing a search revealed that there are twelve explicit references in the New Testament to Mary Magdalene:
Gospel of Matthew (NET)
Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee . . . (Now Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there, opposite the tomb) (Matthew 27:56, 61).
Now after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb (Matthew 28:1).
Gospel of Mark (NET)
There were also women, watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:40).
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was placed (Mark 15:47).
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought aromatic spices so that they might go and anoint him (Mark 16:1).
Early on the first day of the week, after he arose, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had driven out seven demons (Mark 16:9).
Gospel of Luke (NET)
. . . and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out . . . (Luke 8:2).
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles (Luke 24:10).
Gospel of John (NET)
Now standing beside Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
Now very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance (John 20:1).
Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them what Jesus had said to her (John 20:18).
At times, people have confused Mary Magdalene with other women in the Gospels. In Luke 7, an unnamed woman enter’s a house where Jesus is located and anoints Jesus’ feet. In the pericope adulterae (John 7:53–8:11), Jesus forgives the sin of an unnamed woman caught in adultery.
However, Mark and Luke both inform us of Mary Magdalene’s connection to Jesus—he set her free from the possession of seven demons. She subsequently followed Jesus, even being one of the few present at his crucifixion and an eyewitness to his resurrection.
The Gospel of Philip
You can find out more about the history of the 1945 Nag Hammadi discovery and The Gospel of Philip here and especially here. Suffice it to say that these “other Gospels” (1) are not written by those whose names are attached to them, making them pseudepigrapha, (2) originate from the second century or later, and (3) were not received by the catholic (i.e., universal) church community not only because of their strange, sometimes unorthodox, and sometimes contra-apostolic depiction of Jesus of Nazareth, but also because of their divergent perspectives on the Old Testament, creation, and anthropology. However, I would like to focus on its references to Mary Magdalene. The first mention of this Mary in The Gospel of Philip is found in context with two other Marys:
Three women always walked with the master: Mary his mother, <his> sister, and Mary of Magdala, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother, and his companion.
The writing again refers to Mary Magdala as Jesus’ companion here,
Wisdom, who is called barren, is the mother of the angels.
The companion of the [savior] is Mary of Magdala. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth].
The other [disciples] …said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? If a blind person and one who can see are both in darkness, they are the same. When the light comes, one who can see will see the light, and the blind person will stay in darkness.”
[The brackets] typically identify places in the manuscript where the text is unknown due to some kind of injury.
From this, people have surmised from these sayings that Mary Magdalene was no mere disciple of Jesus, but that she was his wife.
The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Laid to Rest
In 2012 in Rome, Harvard University’s Dr. Karen L. King revealed a shocking document—a fourth century papyrus fragment—claiming the matrimony of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. With Dr. King’s credentials and backing, the fragment’s reveal sent shockwaves through academia and found its way into the public square as well. The Coptic text and a transcription is available through Harvard University.
Since then, the investigative reporting of Ariel Saber of The Atlantic has exposed the full origin story of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment. The title “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife” is followed by the subtitle,
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
Saber’s work uncovered that the fragment is most likely a very recent forgery. Dr. Karen L. King agreed publicly following Saber’s published work. If you’re up for going further down the rabbit hole, you can find more related material via Dr. Mark Goodacre’s blog here and more recently here. Peter Gurry also commented on the matter in 2016 at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.
The Real Mary Magdalene Please Rise
While the story of this forged fragment made for great entertainment, perhaps a positive result may surface. Maybe we’ll allow the real Mary Magdalene to surface once again. Mary’s legacy has been clouded publicly ever since Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code in 2003.
Some have wondered why Mary Magdalene is not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. It seems that the apostles have no problem making mention of women who play a prominent role in the spread of the gospel—Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia, Lydia, Damaris, and a number of other women who are described as devout. One thought is that Mary Magdalene passed away shortly after the resurrection. This can’t be proven. We are never told anything about her age or her death.
We are told three things about this Mary that should stick with any of us who depend on the glorious salvation of Jesus. First, this Mary was set free by Jesus from the darkest kind of spiritual oppression. She was demon-possessed. Sevenfold. We learn from this Mary that Jesus is strong enough to break the bondage of the darkest sources of spiritual slavery.
Second, we find Mary following Jesus to a place where very few of his disciples dared to follow—the cross. I am truly amazed at this. Matthew, Mark, and John testify that Mary Magdalene joined a few other women at the crucifixion. Keep in mind that the other women seem to have been related to Jesus. Mary Magdalene was not. It appears that John the apostle was the only member of the twelve who dared identify himself with the Christ of the cross. While Jesus would continue his fellowship with the other ten disciples after the resurrection, Mary Magdalene was “ahead of the curve” when it came to denying oneself, counting the cost, and following Jesus wherever he went.
Lastly, Mark tells us that this Mary is the first to see the resurrected Jesus. Again, how amazing. Scholars have told us over and over again, that this element of the resurrection narrative—Mary, a woman, as the first eyewitness—is a criteria of the authenticity for the Gospels’ narratives. No first century author who wanted to be convincing and who wanted their movement to catch on would propose that there first eyewitness to the most important element of their story was . . . a woman. This would have been embarrassing, as indicated by the apostles’ reaction to the testimony of the women (Luke 24:10–11). The Gospel writers were clearly concerned with what really happened, with communicating a historical account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sure, they wrote to evangelize and to make more disciples, but they were not doing so by being irresponsible or deceptive about what really happened. Additionally, I can’t help but also think that Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene is a reward for her faithfulness to follow to the cross. After appearing to Mary, Jesus sent her to report to the disciples (John 20:17–18), and she proclaimed to them, “I have seen the Lord!” making her the first evangelist of the resurrection era.
This Holy Week, let’s lay to rest the Jesus-wife myth that has clouded Mary’s legacy and “resurrect” the real Mary Magdalene and her already impressive resume—a delivered, devoted, eyewitness, evangelist of Jesus Christ. Happy Holy Week.