Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Misrepresented Mary of Magdala

In the Easter account in John's gospel, Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala (the town she was from along the coast of the Sea of Galilee), is honored as the first person to give witness to the resurrection of Jesus. She is also named as among the few of Jesus's followers who remained at his side during his crucifixion (the male disciples who fled undoubtedly knew they were more likely to be arrested than the women).

Over time Mary Magdalene, mentioned more often than any other woman in the gospels (even more than the most of Jesus's twelve male followers), became identified as one of the several women of questionable character who anointed Jesus in an act of penitence--and even as the woman caught in the act of adultery.  

Since most of these women are unnamed, this is pure speculation. And adding to the confusion, there are numerous other "Marys" in the gospels, Mary the mother of Jesus (think "Magnificat"), Mary, an avid student of Jesus and the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, or Mary Clopas.

By the time of Pope Gregory I, Mary Magdalene was known as a composite figure erroneously identified with some or all of the female characters in the gospels who showed their devotion to Jesus by pouring expensive ointment on his head or feet, then drying them with her hair. According to his Homily XXXIII, this sixth century Pope declared,
"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. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?
"It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance."                
Most scholars no longer accept this view of Mary Magdalene's identity, and insist she was almost certainly a person of both sterling reputation and of considerable means, who with the other women named, were Jesus' patrons and confidantes during his ministry, according to this text:

"After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means."    - Luke 8:1-3 NIV

The "seven demons" that once afflicted her, most current scholars believe, probably had to do with a complicated physical (or mental?) illness from which she had been delivered, not some kind of demon possession.

In an article in the June, 2006, issue of Smithsonian magazine, historian James Carroll concludes that the church has wrongly made a caricature of Mary Magdalene. They created this Mary as a representative of her entire gender, as redeemed but weak and vulnerable, and destined to remain subservient and secondary.

The actual truth, Carroll believes, is that she was a respected and valued part of Jesus's inner circle.
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