Mary Magdalene held one of the most important roles among the disciples—she is always named first when the women disciples are listed, and she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. Mary kept vigil at the cross throughout Jesus’ crucifixion, discovered the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection, and was then commissioned to “go and tell” the good news.
The following from Sr Kath Rushton RSM gives us a more detailed and informative picture of this saint who we celebrate on 22 July.
St. Mary Magdalene - a reflection
There is a tendency in the history of biblical interpretation to sexualise, demonise and trivialise biblical women. I offer the following reflections on Mary Magdalene at this time of her feast day. It is important to remember that aspects of how she has been presented are complex and not easy to summarise.
- Read and reflect on the prayers and readings as presented in our current Roman Missal and Lectionary for 22 July, the Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene – there she is witness to the Resurrection. There is no reference at all to her being a sexual sinner who repented. The gospel reading is John 20:1-2, 11-18 which is a significant changed from the 1962 edition of the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII which had Luke 7:36-50 (story of the unnamed anointing woman whose sins Jesus forgives). Our current official texts for the Feast of Mary Magdalene do not “sexualise, demonise and trivialise” her as does the popular imagination and sadly many inferences and uninformed information the People of God hear in much preaching.
- Read and reflect on the text of four Gospels. Link HERE. There are no references to Mary Magdalene being a sinner.
- Contemporary Christians are uninformed about Mary Magdalene’s faithful discipleship for many reasons among which is a common misreading of Luke 8:1-3 which states that “the seven demons had gone out her.” For first century people, this would have meant only that she had been cured of serious illness but not that she was sinful let alone a sexual sinner. Illness was often attributed to evil spirits in ways that today we talk about germs. The number seven symbolised that her illness was either very severe or chronic.
- In 2016, Pope Francis elevated the annual memorial of Mary Magdalene on July 22 to that of a Feast, the same status as celebrations of the apostles and evangelists. “In light of the fact that she announced the good news of the resurrection to the Twelve on Easter Morning, she is fittingly called “Apostle to the Apostles.” Rabanus Maurus and Saint Thomas Aquinas say, she becomes the “apostolorum apostola” because she announces to the apostles what in turn they will announce to the whole world (Rabanus Maurus, De vita beatae Mariae Magdalenae, XXVII; Saint Thomas Aquinas, In Ioannem Evangelistam Expositio, c. XX, L. III, 6).
- We know her as Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala. We associate this name with a town. But in Luke’s Gospel, she is “Mary, called Magdalene.” This title is similar to “Simon, called Peter.” Just as petra means rock in Greek, migdala means fortress temple, watchtower, stronghold, and elevated pulpit in the in Aramaic and Hebrew.[i]
- Until 6th Century, there are no mentions in early Christian writings that Mary came from Magdala. “Magdalene” does not indicate location but a nick name. Origen (c. 185 – c. 253), refers to Magdala as meaning Mary magnifying and to her magnification. Jerome wrote in 412: “And Mary, properly “the Magdalene who, because of diligence and ardent faith received the name “of the tower/tower-ess” deserved to see the risen Christ before the Apostles.” (Ep.120.4 to Heddybia).
- Gadal (Hebrew) means to be great/large; to grow, become great or important, promote, make powerful, praise, magnify, do great things.
- There is no archaeological evidence of the existence at the time of Jesus of a village called Magdala on the shore of the Lake of Galilee. The village on the site known as Magdala today came into existence during the 4-5th century as the Christian pilgrimage movement grew.
- In the four gospels, Mary Magdalene and other women in the movement “ministered to [Jesus].” The Greek word diakonos means minister.
- In the four gospels, Mary Magdalene – either alone or with other women – is the first to experience the Resurrected Jesus.
- The early Christian community knew Mary Magdalene as an important leader and for her role as the first proclaimer of the Resurrection. Early Church fathers called her Apostola Apostolorum ‒ “Apostle to the Apostles”; “companion of the Lord”; Isapostolas – equal to the apostles.
- When Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in 312, a cultural conflict emerged for the Christian community which met and worshipped in the private space of house churches where women’s leadership was acceptable. Freedom to worship in public meant that women’s leadership would violate Romans social codes of honour and shame. The Council of Laodicea (363–364), a regional synod of about thirty clerics, suppressed women leaders. During this period and afterwards, the memory of Mary Magdalene as a strong, faithful disciple and proclaimer of the resurrection was changed to a repentant prostitute and public sinner.
- Examples of the change emerging which erase or downplay Mary Magdalene by several biblical women rolled into one:
- 4th Century Syria: Ephrem’s Homily on Our Lord, “Mary,” sister of Martha, pours oil on this head and is also “the sinful woman.”
- 5th Century: hymn by Romanus the Melodist (Kontakion 26), deacon in Constantinople, retelling John 11, the raising of Lazarus, with Martha and Mary; Jesus saved this Mary from seven demons (26.5.4-7) ‒ she is Mary Magdalene.
- 6th Century: Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) used synthesis in his 33rd Identifies with Mary – she “turned her crimes into so many virtues,” showed that “when we turn back to him he embraces us with tenderness.”
- Our Canonical Scripture texts depend on ancient manuscripts. Raymond Brown tells us that the Gospel of John contains layers of editing. A study of over one hundred of the oldest extant Greek and Vetus Latina witnesses point to consistent textual instability around the presence of Martha in John 11-12. Starting with Papyrus 66 (an important witness to late 2nd Century scribal variants in John) in which changes have been made suggests that scribes inserted Martha’s name here, and in other manuscripts, in the place of Mary Magdalene.
- Reflect for a moment on the image of Mary Magdalene that you carry in your religious imagination. How does she look? How is she clothed? Be aware of how the sexualising and demonising of Mary Madgalene in modern art depictions overshadows how she is presented in the four gospels and in the Roman Missal and Lectionary.
- Contemporary scholarship has, and is, restoring our understanding of Mary Magdalene as a significant early Christian leader. If any one wants some of these resources I can recommend and forward some.
Kathleen Rushton RSM. July 2023
 Here and elsewhere, I draw on Elizabeth Schrader and Joan E. Taylor. “The Meaning of “Magdalene”: A Review of Literary Evidence.” Journal of Biblical Literature 140:4 (2021), 751–773. In their article, in this prestigious peer-reviewed journal, the authors in their examination of the Gospel of Luke, Origen, Eusebius, Macarius Magnes, and Jerome, as well as evidence in hagiography, pilgrimage, and diverse literature, reveal multiple ways that the epithet ἡ Μαγδαληνή (the Magdalene) can be understood and why it is perhaps best left untranslated. Joan is a New Zealander.
 Elizabeth Schader, “Was Mary of Bethany Added to the Fourth Gospel in the Second Century?” Harvard Theological Review 110:3 (2017, 360-392.
Image on slider. A sculpted relief by artist Margaret Beaudette, SC, depicts Mary Magdalene proclaiming “The First Easter Homily.” Image courtesy of Rita Houlihan.
Image of page 51 of the St. Albans Psalter, depicting Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles. Produced in England, St. Albans Abbey, ca.1119-23.