Apostle to the Apostles: Reclaiming St Mary of Magdala

St Mary Magdalene's Feast Day is 22nd July and so we invite you to celebrate her in a new light, and in honour of the Pope's recent elevation of her role and feast day as the 'Apostle to the Apostles'.

icon-home » Focus » Scripture and Saints » Apostle to the Apostles: Reclaiming...

By Fleur Dorrell

It all hangs on Jesus’ death. The first witness to Christ’s Resurrection—as all four Gospel writers report—was a woman whose name and reputation have become so misunderstood over the centuries that she is remembered more as a prostitute than as the faithful first bearer of the Good News.

Mary Magdalene brings the resurrection into our lives with her very witness just as Mary brings Jesus’ birth into our lives with her total and lifelong ‘yes’. In this way Mary Magdalene is an example and model for every woman in the church but also for men with her fidelity to Christ both in life and beyond the tomb.

Many Scripture scholars have challenged the myth that Mary Magdalene and the notorious repentant sinner who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears is the same woman. And today her more accurate biblical portrait is being promoted, and this “Apostle to the Apostles” is finally taking her rightful place in history as a beloved disciple of Jesus and a prominent early church believer.

Recognising St. Mary Magdalene’s role as the first to witness Christ’s resurrection and as a “true and authentic evangeliser,” Pope Francis raised the July 22 memorial of St. Mary Magdalene to a feast in the Church’s liturgical calendar. A decree formalising the decision was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship on 10th June 2019 along with an article explaining its significance.

It is interesting that both the decree and the article were titled “Apostolorum Apostola” (“Apostle of the Apostles”) – saltandlighttv.org/blogfeed

Liturgical celebrations classified as feasts are reserved for significant events in Christian history and for saints of particular importance, such as the Twelve Apostles. Through this feast day all Christians, and not just Catholics, are invited to reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelisation and the power of grace and mercy.

Reclaiming Mary Magdalene’s reputation as an early church believer, and as some scholars would say, early Church leader, has implications for women’s leadership in the church today, including the ordination of women. Unlike most other women in the Bible, Mary of Magdala is not identified in relation to another person; she is not anyone’s mother, wife, or sister. Instead, she is called Mary of Magdala, a title that implies a relationship to the city’s name, which was a centre of commercial fishing on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee. What we glean is that she left her home to follow Jesus, and it is believed she was among several fairly wealthy, independent women who may have financially supported Jesus’ ministry. These female followers of Jesus—who would have been called ‘disciples’—became central to Jesus’ mission. While many others fled, the women were faithful, and they were led by Mary of Magdala.

Details differ in the four Gospels, yet all four agree that Mary Magdalene was faithful until the end, and her faithfulness was rewarded with an appearance by the risen Lord. In spite of the fact that, legally a woman’s testimony at that time, was considered invalid, all four Gospel writers report women to be the primary witnesses to the most important event of Christianity. These passages can be found here: Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1-18.

We can see from all four accounts that Mary of Magdala is consistently portrayed as a central person and witness to this miraculous event of Jesus’ resurrection. Her witness is crucial for Christianity and for its dissemination throughout the early Church. Yet the problem lies in the alternative image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and seducer. Throughout Church history she has been vilified as fallen, and then redeemed – and this idea has also been promulgated in all the arts. It is especially illustrated in the repeated paintings of Mary Magdalene who epitomises the tension between sensuality and spirituality—an image that is so ingrained in the imaginations of centuries of Christians that it is very difficult to reverse.

One of our difficulties lies in the fact that Mary Magdalene has been confused with several other women in the Bible, most controversially with the unnamed sinner in Chapter 7 of Luke. Nowhere does it say that this woman was a prostitute, and nowhere is she identified as Mary of Magdala. The confusion may have arisen from the proximity of that passage to the one that identifies Mary of Magdala by name as a follower of Jesus who had had seven demons cast out of her in Luke 8:2.

This then becomes even more confusing when this unnamed sinner gets conflated with another Mary—Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister—who also anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair, as described in Chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. An earlier version of this story in Matthew refrains from specifically naming this woman. In Matthew this woman is a close friend of Jesus—rather than a stranger with a reputation as a sinner.

Some believe the fusion of Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala emerges not simply because of the shared name but from the parallel presence of the alabaster jar of perfumed oil. Nevertheless, blending and merging characters clearly doesn’t preserve the integrity of the texts in their own right and makes it much harder, in the light of modern biblical scholarship, to be able to separate out the characters, their attributes and their actions in ways which render a more accurate description of each one of them.

The Bible provides no personal details of Mary of Magdala’s age, status or family. Her name, Mary Magdalene, suggests that she came from a town called Magdala. There is a place today called Magdala, 120 miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We do know there was also an ancient place called Magdala from literature. The name occurs in the New Testament, and also in Jewish texts. Its full name is Magdala Tarichaea. Magdala seems to mean tower, and Tarichaea means salted fish. As a woman living in Magdala, Mary may have worked in the fish markets. One Jewish text which mentions Magdala, called Lamentations Rabbah, says that Magdala is judged by God and destroyed because of its sinfulness and fornication. It is quite plausible that the description of Magdala as a place of iniquity became the origin of the idea that arose in western Christianity that Mary Magdalene was therefore, a prostitute.

However, her name, Mary of Magdala, could suggest something quite different: she was unmarried. A married woman would have carried her husband’s name, and Mary of Magdala, from the Bible texts, did not. She does not appear to be married, nor is she ever described as being a widow or as having any children. 2,000 years ago an unmarried woman was viewed with suspicion and with sadness. Perhaps this isolated Mary, but it doesn’t entirely account for her continued negative image.

Although Mary of Magdala’s reputation as apostle and leader would have begun soon after her death, the transformation to repentant prostitute was sealed on September 14, 1591, when Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in Rome that pronounced that Mary Magdalene, Luke’s unnamed sinner, and Mary of Bethany were, indeed, the same person.

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” Pope Gregory said in his 23rd homily. “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? . . .
It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts . . .”

The most likely reason for this portrayal would have been to use the story to assure converts that their sins would be forgiven if they similarly repented. Today, this Gospel passage is still a powerful one, without being inaccurately attached to Mary Magdalene. Yet we also have a duty to hear about women in the Scriptures in other lights and through other examples. By reducing one of the most important believers and leaders of the Early Church to a prostitute has restricted our understanding of women and their Biblical role models to either madonnas or prostitutes – both extremes are decidedly unhelpful in our faith formation and spiritual growth.

Whether Mary Magdalene’s reputation was deliberately limited to suppress women’s leadership in the church in those early centuries is debatable. Given all four Gospel accounts, her importance and place at the side of Christ could not be denied but her character and attributes could be changed to be less threatening. That women were leaders in the early church movements is becoming clearer and more widely accepted among many Biblical scholars. The portrayal of women as apostles, deacons, and co-workers is, in many quarters, more openly well-received, as well as the feminine use – presbytera—for women in the first centuries.

In our Western Churches, however, the image of Mary Magdalene as a siren, another Eve and temptress is still deeply entrenched and also, sadly, makes better TV and film movie content if she stays that way – since it is in the paradoxes and contradictions of human sinfulness that these narratives depend for their drama and suspense.  However, the Eastern Church took a different tack with Mary Magdalene. She is honoured and celebrated for her witness to the Resurrection as all the Gospels record.

So by reclaiming Mary Magdalene’s proper and more accurate roles as apostle, witness, loyal believer and early Church leader we will slowly begin to erode these injustices against our first witness to the Resurrection. It is a small start but a necessary one, and one that we can now adopt more widely, especially on her feast day and in our catechesis.


Fleur Dorrell is Catholic Scripture Engagement Manager for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and Bible Society.

Image: Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, Alexander Ivanov, 1835, Source: Wikimedia Commons