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Mary Magdalene has been embedded in the psyche of human civilisation since the development of the Christian religion roughly 2000 years ago. Her prominence is largely due to her being intimately linked to the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection; this prominence has made Mary Magdalene the subject of worship, as well as controversy and speculation. Her actions as a devoted follower of Jesus has made her a champion within the Christian faith, but questionable evidence surrounding her relationship with Jesus Christ has long been debated among historians and arguably may have discredited her reputation as an apostle of Jesus Christ and the Christian God.
Apart from the Bible, there is scarcely any primary sources with
substantial evidence about Mary Magdalene's background and early life. In saying this, the Bible itself has a bare minimum of information, with no actual mention of Mary's status, age or family found within the New Testament. In addition, the Bible doesn't mention her birthday or date of death, so this further intensifies the mystery of her role in the Christian religion.
However with the minute information presented, there are some key aspects of Mary's life that we are able to gauge from the Bible. For example, Mary's last name, 'Magdalene' can be traced back to a town called Magdala (which still exists today), which is positioned on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and is approximately 193 kilometres from Jerusalem. This perhaps suggests that Mary Magdalene's name was derived from the town she occupied and that she may have grew up in the small town that is Magdala. In addition, Magdala is also an ancient place that pops up in several religious texts, including esteemed Jewish texts and the New Testament. The full name is actually Magdala Tarichaea and Magdala means 'tower', whilst Tarichaea means 'salted fish'. If the name of the ancient town was 'tower of salted fish' then it is quite likely the main business and trading of the town would have been in fishing. This
Depiction of the ancient town Magdala
could be an indication of the work Mary's family had undertaken (something involving fishing), and as a young woman Mary may have worked in the fish markets (again, this only guessing from the information historians have gathered). Wherever Mary originally lived before she became a disciple of Jesus, it is likely it was somewhere on the coast of Galilee, similar to all of Jesus' other devoted disciples.
A specific Jewish text
mentions the ancient town Magdala, but the details describing the town are not particularly impressive. According to the religious text, Magdala was a town that was judged by God and destroyed because of its excessive fornication. This description could be the reason for Mary's association with prostitution
Mary Magdalene's prominence in the Christian religion and Western society can largely be attributed to her reputation as a former prostitute. Although it is a common assumption to believe that Mary was a prostitute, this may not be the case at all. Evidence to support this is fraught and there is even less information present in the Bible. The first documented mention of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute occurred in a sermon performed by Pope Gregory in 591 AD, in which he fused the actions of all three Marys of the New Testament into one and identified all these actions under the one woman… Mary Magdalene. Confusion over her past life ensued and the idea that Mary Magdalene had in fact been a prostitute took over the minds of Western civilisation.
Although there is no solid evidence that this is true, the possibility of Mary being a prostitute is still plausible. Brothels lined the coast of Galilee and were also scattered throughout the Mediterranean. If it is true that Mary hailed from Magdala, her family would have been subject to a huge tax burden from the Roman Empire. Economically, Roman imperial rule would have been a death sentence for working class families (in which Mary Magdalene most originated from) with dramatic tax demands. And when there was financial stress upon a family in those times it was not uncommon for young daughters to be sold to brothels in order for their families to obtain enough money to survive. However, the Bible states that Mary funded much of Jesus' travels and ministry, so this is an indication that she was quite wealthy. With this information, we can predict that Mary was probably not the destitute prostitute assumed.
Of course, the concept of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute links in well with Jesus' compassionate acceptance within the New Testament. According to Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 of the New Testament, Jesus Christ cleansed Mary of the 'seven sins'. These are interpreted to be vices (for example adultery) by the majority of those involved in the Christian church (from Biblical scholars to everyday believers). The link between her cleansing of the vices and prostitution could be the reason why Mary is por
The two verses within the New Testament that document Mary's 'cleansing'
trayed the way she is in Christianity, even though there is no proper evidence to support these views.
And there is one last theory surrounding the murky speculation over Mary's distasteful past career. Mary supposedly carried the name of her town 'Magdala' and not the last name of her husband. Therefore Mary Magdalene was most likely
. This is another reason that Mary may have been portrayed as a prostitute, because she was unmarried (an uncommon thing in her society at the time). As usually true within history, Mary's negative image as a prostitute was probably a consequence of her not conforming to the sexist and unequitable rules of her era.
The reason Mary Magdalene is such an important woman in history is because of her association with arguably the most defining event in history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although the legitimacy of this event is still argued today, it cannot be denied that Mary Magdalene's role in it has been remarkable.
Her first meeting with Christ is documented in the New Testament when it discusses Jesus' cleansing of the 'seven sins'. She was seen walking with Christ afterwards, apparently converted by his compassion and spirit. Mary was so awed by Jesus that she dropped everything and immediately began to follow him around the coast of Galilee (or so Luke in the New Testament tells us). In Chapter 8 of Luke it is also stated that Mary Magdalene and an unknown group of women also helped provision the disciples and Jesus' as they travelled delivering 'the good news of God'. This perhaps indicates that Mary was particularly wealthy, although this could just mean Mary helped cater and clean for the disciples. Whatever it did mean, it was clear that Mary was now committed to Christ.
It is alleged that the next time Mary of Magdalene is documented in the New Testament is with Jesus at a dinner, where she anoints Jesus' feet with expensive perfume (a sign of deep affection and admiration). However, this has been a topic of considerable debate for many years because the woman in the passage
Mary of Magdalene depicted holding a jar of perfume in which she supposedly anoints Jesus' feet with (Jan van Scorel)
within Luke is not actually
. Described in the Bible as a woman who has been sinful all her life (this can be easily assumed to be Mary Magdalene), she cries tears of repentance as she washes Jesus' feet with a perfume (purest of Spikenard, according to the Gospel of Mark) and the tears land on Jesus' feet by accident. As the tears fall onto Jesus' feet, the anonymous woman wipes the tears away with her hair. The place in which this iconic scene takes place is argued, but the owner of the house's name was Simon and the house was most likely located in the town of Bethany. In society and Christianity today it is commonly accepted that Mary Magdalene was the unidentified woman in the scenario. But we cannot forget that there were three other Marys in the bible, all of which had rich and unique lives as disciples of Christ. Even so, this event definitely links in well with Mary's deep love for God and Jesus' Christ.
And finally, Mary Magdalene's most defining moment in history. The resurrection of Jesus' Christ is perhaps the most controversial event in history and is shrouded in mystery… And Mary Magdalene was the first person to witness Jesus resurrected after his crucifixion, making her one of the most important witnesses in all of history. The New Testament states that Mary was present when Jesus was on the cross and dying; she was apparently among a throng of women who were crying desperately as they watched their beloved Son of God die. According to the New Testament, the mourning women saw where Jesus was buried, in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. They left grieving, with Mary of Magdalene to return on Easter morning to anoint Jesus' body and change the linen
Mary Magdalene and other women depicted mourning Jesus' death
wrapped around his body, in an act of mourning. But according to the Gospels in the New Testament, Mary arrived to discover the stone in front of the tomb rolled away, and an empty tomb. She ran to tell a disciple of Jesus', Peter, and they and Peter's fellow disciples searched the tomb to only find linen that once bound Jesus' body. The apostles that Peter had brought with him returned home to grieve, but Mary stayed, crying by the tomb. According to the Bible, Mary turned to see a man and he asked her why she was crying. Mary suddenly realised it was the Jesus himself and he had been resurrected from the dead.
Of course, the whole event of Jesus' resurrection is one that is heavily disputed and there is question over the legitimacy of the New Testament as a primary, historical source. The most exciting thing about Mary Magdalene was that she was supposedly the first human being to witness the newly resurrected Jesus Christ and the most important thing about her role in the whole occurrence is that she was a woman. Women were genuinely regarded as lower class humans than men during her era and so it is genuinely incredible that Mary was documented as the first human to see him in the flesh, a newly resurrected man.
Unfortunately, it is unclear what happens to Mary after Jesus' resurrection. Only Apocryphal (rejected religious) texts and the Bible have information regarding her story and even that documented information was shallow. The rest of her life goes undocumented, with no mention of her in history again.
Mary Magdalene has accumulated a certain amount of notoriety because of speculation over her and Jesus' relationship. This idea was most likely derived from a discovered Apocryphal (non canonical) text that stated that Jesus often kissed Mary upon the mouth. It must be noted that the apocryphal text in question was written after the New Testament and may not be a primary historical account. Its authenticity is further questioned as it was actually a document rejected by most religious institutions, so therefore may be seriously untrustworthy. As said above, the text states that Jesus would often kiss Mary upon the mouth and that he loved Mary of Magdalene more than any of his other disciples. ALthough this text sounds damning, it was probably not uncommon for people to greet each other by kissing upon the mouth in the time in which Mary and Jesus' lived. It may have been a polite, customary gesture. It is unfortunate that there are no other historical documents to deny or support this apocryphal text and its dramatic statements.
Roman statue depicting Mary Magdalene and Jesus' relationship (Aguilar de Campoo)
It cannot be denied that Mary Magdalene appears more than any other woman in the New Testament and is portrayed as a hugely close follower of Jesus in the Gospels. Her presence at several fundamental moments in Jesus' life could suggest a wife type role, although there is
factual evidence of this.
Another theory that could suggest that Mary of Magdalene may have had some sort of romantic relationship with Jesus is that it was expected of Rabbis of the time to have wives (therefore it would have been very uncommon for Jesus' to be unwed). But in opposition to this argument, the development of the role of the Rabbi may have not been clearly defined in the era in which Jesus' and Mary lived. According to historical documents, the clearly defined role of a Jewish rabbi would only occur after 70 AD.
In summary, it is highly unlikely that Mary and Jesus' ever shared a romantic relationship. There is just not enough historical evidence to prove that such a relationship ever existed, although this debate will rage on for hundreds of years to come.
Unfortunately, we can only guess where Mary died. However, it is speculated that Mary moved on from Galilee and may have travelled to places as far as Asia or Europe (France, Spain, Turkey, Britain) and spread the word of God. It is most likely that she didn't hang around her Galilee as Jesus told all his followers to spread the news of God, she probably took this request to heart and travelled far and wide. What can be assumed is that she probably wasn't buried anywhere in Galilee or near Jerusalem, but somewhere overseas. This is a logical explanation because areas in Galilee and Jerusalem became extremely dangerous to live in, so Mary probably steered clear of those areas. Again, this is only guessing. Know one really knows where Mary ended up living her final days.
Mary Magdalene will forever be embedded in history as a woman of many different identities. Many will see her as a fallen woman who repented and devoted her life to Jesus Christ, whilst others may view her as a common prostitute who may have had a sexual/romantic relationship with the Son of God. However Mary Magdalene is viewed, it cannot be denied that she broke down barriers for women in a way that should be
The Dead Christ Mourned - The Three Maries by Annibale Carracci
admired for centuries to come. She was one of the first respected female apostles to exist and her commitment to her God saw her fight for her right to be recognised as a legitimate follower of her religion, and not the lower class citizen that she was usually viewed as because of her gender. The mystery that shrouds her existence fuels a desire to find more about
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
her and her influence as
a woman in her era. Countless books have been written about her, fiction and non-fiction, with notable works including the
Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown and
Holy Blood, Holy Grail
by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Her prominence within the Christian faith has seen her be portrayed in hundreds of different paintings, many from the Renaissance period. Some notable works of art that include Mary Magdalene are
Noli me tangere
by Duccio di Buoninsegna and
The Dead Christ Mourned - The Three Maries
by Annibale Carracci. There are also countless film portrayals of Mary Magdalene, many of which centre around Jesus' life.
Whatever conclusion is drawn about Mary Magdalene, it cannot be denied she was one of the most important women to ever grace Earth.
Unfortunately there are no dates documented about Mary Magdalene. Even her birthday and date of death are approximate guesses. Here are the three most important (guessed) dates in Mary's life:
EARLY FIRST CENTURY AD: Mary is born.
FIRST CENTURY 27 - 36 AD: Jesus' death and resurrection.
MID TO LATE FIRST CENTURY AD: Mary dies.
Again, there is not official documentation suggesting where Mary actually travelled and lived. However, it can be assumed that she travelled wherever Jesus went, so all around Galilee - to Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethany. Magdala is highlighted towards the centre of the map and indicates where Mary Magdalene supposedly lived in.
This map highlights possible countries of death for Mary Magdalene in Europe. They are circled in red.
This is a map of the Asia Minor, another possible location in which Mary may have died. These are the original countries that existed when Mary was alive.
The only primary sources that relate to Mary Magdalene are verses from the New Testament. There are questions over the legitimacy of the New Testament as a primary, historical source, as the people who wrote the New Testament were not objective historians, but apostles who followed Jesus Christ. As far as Mary Magdalene is concerned, however, this is all the information we have of her.
Source 1, verses concerning Mary's prescence at an exorcism:
These verses state that Mary was exorcised by Jesus Christ and were recounted by two of Jesus Christ's devoted disciples. So obviously these sources may not be very
, as they would have been recounted from a
perspective. This source may also have led to assumptions that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, as it is written that 'seven sins' or 'seven demons' were expelled out of her by Jesus Christ.
Source 2, verses concerning Mary Magdalene as Jesus' crucifixion:
These verses validate that Mary was part of a group of weeping women at Jesus' crucifixion. There is a little bit more evidence supporting this, as there are three apostles that write Mary was present: Matthew, Mark and John. Again, this source could be both
, so cannot be completely trustworthy.
Source 3, verses concerning Mary Magdalene witnessing Jesus' resurrection:
The interesting thing about this source is that it may be biased, untrustworthy and unreliable, but the fact that Mary is recounted as the first person to meet the newly resurrected Jesus' could mean that the source has some legitimacy. The reason for this is because women of the time were viewed very as lower class citizens and for a woman to be documented as the first to meet Jesus' would have been a huge contradiction against the values of the time. Why would respected disciples and men recount a woman as having the honor to first meet the resurrected Jesus?
Statue: Mary Magdalene turns when she hears the voice of Jesus
Controversial painting: Mary Magdalene in the Grotto by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre
Apocryphal Text - The Gospel of Mary
Film portrayal of Mary Magdalene in 'The Passion of The Christ'
Titian Painting: St Mary Magdalene circa 1533
Painting: The Magdalen by Bernardio Luini
The Da Vinci Code
This book is an interesting read if you are someone who enjoys fiction and the mystery genre. It has a weak factual base, but the plot line involving Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ makes for an eye opening and entertaining read. If you want some light reading instead of research, this is the book for you. This book is not a book for research, so if you're looking for a bit of a break from factual research, the Da Vinci Code is a good book to start with.
The Saintly Sinner: The Two Thousand Year Obsession with Mary Magdalene (found in 2006 edition of the New Yorker)
This is a good article because it dissects popular myths about Mary Magdalene, like her association with prostitution and her supposed romantic relationship with Jesus. It is also a good read if you have read the Da Vinci Code, as it dismantles several historical errors within the book.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
This is a highly controversial book that investigates the idea that Mary Magdalene and Jesus shared a relationship, and subsequently had several children together. If you're looking for an alternative to the usual non-fiction Mary Magdalene, then this is a book you should definitely read. It also talks about Jesus' and Mary Magdalene's bloodline eventually becoming nobility as the Merovinigan Dynasty in France. Historians have reacted negatively to the book, but it is interesting if you want to know more about a supposed bloodline of Jesus Christ.
Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (2003 Harvard Uiversity Press)
Ann Graham Brock
This is perhaps the most interesting read I have found on the internet. It discusses the possiblity that Mary Magdalene was eliminated from the Gospels because there was competition for authority between her and other disciples, specifically Peter. It really highlights her disadvantage during her life because of her gender, although it is unlikely that this theory of elimination is true.
BBC Religions - Mary Magdalene - A Profile
If you want straight facts about Mary Magdalene, this is the place to go. Great factual evidence and dissection of myths and common assumptions. For research and a foundation of information, this page is very helpful.
Fundamental ingredient of the expensive perfume poured on Jesus' feet.
Mary's name appears a few times in the --- ---------.
Mary is often mistaken to have had this distasteful career.
The number of approximate documented dates concerning Mary Magdalene's life.
Town that Mary Magdalene's name derived from.
Highly controversial book about Mary and Jesus' relationship.
Mary was first to meet Jesus after his ------------.
Name for texts rejected by most religious institutions.
Means salted fish.
Mary provided these so that Jesus' could travel with his disciples and spread the message of God.
By Sophie Edmondstone
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