What the Bible says about

Mary Magdalene

by Gary C. Burger, MDiv

Introduction

In his novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown asserts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who bore his child, and the legend of the Holy Grail was not about the cup used in the Last Supper. Rather than a cup, it is to be understood allegorically as representing Mary's womb carrying the bloodline of Jesus. There is a major problem to overcome to believe this view is credible. The best historical records that scholars have to tell us about Jesus and Mary do not support it. Most historians who specialize in the study of the first century Church agree that the New Testament Gospels are out best sources of information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Regardless of whether or not you like or agree with what they have to say they are the most reliable records we have.

The New Testament Gospels are far superior in every way to any of the Gnostic Gospels that were written over a hundred years after their deaths. Not only were the Gnostic Gospels written too long after Jesus and Mary lived to be of much use, their authors did not even attempt to write about the actual Jesus and Mary. They were simply fictional characters whom their authors used like a vantriloquist's dummies to say what the authors wanted to say. And what the authors wanted to say had very little to do with Christianity. They simply borrowed Christian characters and jargon to cloth the non-Christian theologies they got from pagan religions.

Furthermore, Dan Brown's invention called the Magdalene Diaries, which are supposed to be written by Mary herself aren't any help. They and the Purist Documents, like the Sangreal Documents they are supposed to be a part of, do not exist. They were invented by Dan Brown. For more on The Sangreal Documents please read my article The Sangreal Documents: Do They Exist?.

So in order to learn anything about the real Jesus and Mary Magdalene we must study the New Testament Gospels since they alone were written shortly after their deaths and sought earnestly to give a truthful account of their lives. Dan Brown is misleading people to have a distorted view of Jesus and Mary, as well. This article will examine every reference to Mary Magdalene found in the New Testament Gospels to determine what they factually tell us about her. Since she is not even mentioned in the rest of the New Testament books, nor in any other reliable documents outside of the New Testament, whatever can be known about her can only be known from the four New Testament Gospels. Please note that all quotations of Scripture are from the New International Version (NIV).

It is curious that while Dan Brown's characters Sir Leigh Teabing and Robert Langdon educate Sophia about who Mary Magdalene is, they do not give any information about Mary that can be easily and reliably obtained from the New Testament (Canonical) Gospels. Why would the New Testament Gospels be more reliable sources of historical information than the Gnostic Gospels? Any historian would agree that the documents that are closest in time and location to an historical event are probably more accurate and useful than those composed at a later date. Virtually every ancient historian agrees that the four canonical gospels were written in the last half of the first century (or possibly as late as the first few years of the second century regarding the Gospel of John) while the Gnostic gospels that refer to Mary Magdalene were not written until at least the middle to late second century and beyond. In addition, the New Testament Gospels were written by two eyewitnesses (Matthew and John), an assistant to an eyewitness (Mark was Peter's assistant), and a compiler of eyewitness accounts (Luke). The Gnostic Gospels were written long after all the eyewitnesses were dead. Let's find out what the New Testament Gospels tell us about Mary Magdalene.

Her name and hometown

Mary is the English translation of Maria or Miriam, which was a common Hebrew name. There were several other Marys identified in the Gospels including Jesus' mother. Their namesake was the prophetess in Exodus 15:20-21. It was a very popular name in NT times because it was the name of Herod the Great's wife.1 That she was named Mary definitely shows she was a Jew.

Magdalene is not her last name but means she was from the town of Magdala. The Greek word translated Magdalene literally means "woman from Magdala".2 Sometimes she is referred to in the Gospels as "Mary the Magdalene." Similarly, Jesus was from Nazareth, and so he was referred to as "the Nazarene" (Mk. 16:6). Magdala now lies under the modern day town of Khirbet Mejdel, three miles Northwest of Tiberias, on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. The name Magdala seems to have been derived from the Hebrew word "migdal," meaning "tower" or "fortification."3 Alfred Edersheim wrote in 1882, "The ancient watch-tower which gave the place its name is still there, probably standing on the same site as that which looked down on Jesus and the Magdalene."4

Occurrences

Mary Magdalene is referred to by name 14 times in the four Gospels. One time she is referred to as "Mary (called Magdalene)" to distinguish her from other Mary's (Lk. 8:2). Two times she is referred to simply as "Mary" but the context makes it clear that John means Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11,16). Eleven times she is referred to in the Greek text as "Mary the Magdalene."

She is not mentioned again in Acts or the rest of the New Testament. Since there are other women mentioned in Acts and the Epistles who play prominent roles in the first century churches, it is difficult to argue that Mary Magdalene had as prominent a role as Dan Brown and others say she did.

The next time her name appears in any early Christian literature is at least 150 years later in the so-called Gnostic Gospels. They were written from the late second century through the fourth century. In those texts she is used as a literary symbol in an allegorical style that is not intended to communicate anything about her actual earthly existence. She is simply a fictional character that serves as a mouthpiece for Gnostic theological ideas which are too complicated and bizarre to write about here.

Mary Magdalene as a member of the group traveling with Jesus

Chronologically, the first time we are introduced to Mary Magdalene is by Luke, in Luke 8:2.

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 Cuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

We learn several things about Mary Magdalene from this introduction. She was among "many" people, including other women, who travelled with Jesus and his disciples. She had been possessed by seven demons, which Jesus exorcised from her. She also seems to have been single.

It was customary in those days to identify a woman by the name of her husband (or by her sons if they are prominent-see Luke 24:10). This is the way Luke identifies Joanna the wife of Cuza. Instead, Luke identifies her by her hometown, which was a customary way of identifying a single woman. Although Suzanna is not identified by her hometown she was probably also single since she is not identified with a husband. The important point is that if Jesus and Mary were married at this time then Luke would have called her "Mary the wife of Jesus."

Luke writes that these women were contributing to the material needs of Jesus and his Disciples as they traveled and ministered. Because of this we may safely assume she was fairly wealthy or at least financially independent. Even so, before Jesus cast the demons out of her she was probably socially ostracized. She may not have been able to return to her family and community, but now she is a member of a new community based on God's gracious acceptance.5

There is absolutely no hint of a close, privileged, romantic or improper relationship between her and Jesus. It is true that in that culture single women travelling with single men would have been seen as immoral and socially unacceptable, however, we must weight this charge against what Luke has just shown us about Jesus' character, priorities and treatment of women.

In Luke's Gospel, her introduction comes after the story of the prostitute coming to Jesus in Simon the Pharisee's house for repentance of her sin (Lk 7: 36-50). He clearly reveals his view of sexual sin. He not only condemns it but also graciously forgives people of it. He also clearly reveals his perspective on social norms. He condemns the practice of using social norms to prevent people from receiving God's gracious forgiveness as Simon the Pharisee wanted to do. Any charges or rumors of sexual immorality generated by this odd travelling group could be dispelled immediately by travelling with it or observing it for a day. Jesus ensured the highest of propriety by making his life, teachings and followers highly visible to large groups of people. Furthermore, the Gospel writers never mention that Jesus' critics had a problem with single women travelling with Jesus and His disciples.

Especially in light of the previous story about Simon, it is readily apparent that these women wanted to generously manifest their gratitude for what Jesus had done for them. They chose to serve Him in a way that was to become a pattern for others later in the very first years of the Church. They put their material wealth into His service. Luke relates in his sequel (Acts 4:32) that "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common."

Mary Magdalene at Jesus' execution

The next time Mary Magdalene appears in the NT Gospels is at the crucifixion. Matthew, Mark and John report in parallel passages that she witnessed Jesus' crucifixion along with many other women, some of whom are named. Luke's version of the story does not include the names of the women:

But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23:49)

Matthew reports:

Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee's sons. (Matthew 27:55)

We are informed here that Mary Magdalene and the other women traveled with Jesus as helpers. The Greek word that is translated "to care for his needs" is the same word from which we get the word "deacon" and means to help, to serve, or to minister to. These women were helping voluntarily out of an overflow of the healing grace they received from Jesus.

Mark uses the same expression when he writes:

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had follwed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (Mark 15:40)

This passage adds the name of Salame to the list of women and then says many other women came to witness the crucifixion as well.

John gives a briefer discription:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

At Jesus' execution, Mary Magdalene is portrayed by the authors of the Gospels as simply one of several women followers of Jesus. Mark and Matthew might have put her name at the front of the list because of her more prominent role in being the first person to see Jesus after He rose from the dead (reported by John in John 20:10-18). It might also imply she was the leader of the group of women. That she was single and wealthy enough to be able to travel around with Jesus and His followers would imply that she was a strong and independent woman. She may have been in charge of a family business. Her repeated inclusion in the lists of women follwers may mean she was the most influencial of the group of women. Perhaps she took charge of how the other women served Jesus and the disciples.

John does not put her at the front of his list giving deference first to Jesus' mother, then to His aunt, then to Mary the wife of Clopas. He puts Mary of Magdala last.That John would put Jesus' mother and aunt before Mary Magdalene is quite understandable since they are family and in light of the upcoming exchange between Jesus, his mother and John (vs. 26-27). This familial priority would also imply that Mary the wife of Clopas is a family member as well. The ancient church historian Eusebius relates that she was the sister of Joseph making her an aunt as well.

No other non-family member is mentioned in this list of women at the cross This might suggest a prominent role for Mary Magdalene. On the other hand, it may only mean that John put her in the list to prepare the reader for her encounter with Jesus in chapter 20. It certainly does not automatically mean they had a romantic relationship or were married.

Mary Magdalene at Jesus' burial

Mary Magdalene is one of at least two women who witnessed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrap Jesus' body in burial cloth and lay him in Joseph's own tomb. Another Mary accompanied her. Here is the text from Matthew 27:59-61:

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus...Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there across from the tomb.

Mark writes:

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid." (Mark 15:47).

Luke does not include the names of any of the women just as he did not name them when they were watching Jesus die:

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee follwed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and propared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

John does not mention the women at all at in his account of the burial (John 19:38-42. There is no contradiction here. He simply has a different focus on making sure the reader understands that there was no funny business with the body. Jesus' burial was striclty by the book supporting the credibility of the Apostles' claim that Jesus died, was buried, and then rose from the dead.

In the passages where the women are named Mary Magdalene appears to be the most prominent person at the burial site. This, again, is probably due to her role as the first person to see Jesus alive again and his assignment to her to tell the Disciples. He could rely on her to get the job done of notifying them and persuading them to come back to see the empty tomb for themselves.

1.6. Mary Magdalene at Jesus' empty tomb

On Sunday morning Mary Magdalene is one of at least four women who come to add more fragrant spices to Jesus' burial wrappings. This was a Jewish custom designed to cover over the stench of decaying flesh. Mary the mother of James, Salome and Joanna are the other three that are named. Matthew and Luke relate the encounter Mary Magdalene and the other women had with angels at the empty tomb who informed them that Jesus had risen from the dead. Only John relates the story of Jesus appearing personally to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb in the garden. Although Matthew and Mark do not report that event, their placing Mary Magdalene's name at the front of their list at the sites of execution and burial certainly corraborates John's report.

Matthew writes:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. ... The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you." So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his diciples. (Matthew 28:1, 5-8)

Mark writes:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. (Mark 16:1)

The rest of the passage (vv. 2 - 8) goes on to describe their finding the covering stone rolled away from the tomb's entrance and their conversation with an angel. Mark's version is very similar to Matthew's:

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Luke writes a very similar account in Luke 24:1-8 but does not name the women who went to the tomb until verse 10:

"When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles." (Luke 24:9-10)

Luke referrs to Mary in the Greek literally as "the Magdalene Mary" in order to eliminate any possible confusion with the other Mary.

John in a parallel passage writes:

"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!' " (John 20:1, 2)

The other women mentioned by Matthew, Mark and Luke are not mentioned here. The focus is solely on Mary Magdalene in order to build up to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus in verses 10-18 (see below).

Mary Magdalene at Jesus' post-resurrection appearances

Matthew records the conversation the risen Jesus had with Mary and the other women:

Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Mary Magdalene is mentioned also in Mark 16:9-10:

"When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping."

There is a problem with these verses as well as the rest of the passage in verses 11 - 20. These verses are not found in the earliest and best manuscripts but seem to have been added by a later copist. Apparently, this later copyist was uncomfortable with Mark's abrupt ending at verse 8 and so added these verses. Verses 9 and 10 are, however, consistent with material in the other gospels. Remember that Luke 8:2 says Jesus had driven seven demons out of her earlier. They agree, also, with other passages in Matthew 28:8, Luke 24:10 and John 20:2 that she went to tell the disciples about Jesus' missing body.

Luke does not relate the story of Jesus' appearance to Mary at all. The first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus Luke relates is to two of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is not a contradiction; Luke simply chose to not relate the appearance outside the tomb.

In John 20:10-17 John does not use the geographical identifier, Magdalene. At this point, he refers to her only as "Mary." However, that she is Mary Magdalene is unmistakable in the context of verses 1 and 18.

Here are verses 10-18:

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to lookk into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. "

"Woman, he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Jesus said to her, "Mary."

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. God instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

Mary of Magdala went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

John is the only Gospel that preserves this interaction between Mary and Jesus, and it shows us several characteristics of Mary. First, Mary had a very strong devotion to Jesus. It does not even hint, though, at any kind of romantic attraction or relationship or marriage. Second, it suggests that Mary might have been the leader of the group of women. She showed the leadership qualities of initiative and self-confidence when she went to the tomb with extra spices (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, John 20:1) and especially even though they didn't have a plan for removing the stone from the entrance to the tomb which by scholars' estimate would have weighed around 2 tons. The fact that she did not give up easily is seen when after the disciples left the empty tomb she stayed and "bent over to look into the tomb (John 20:11)." Her persistence paid off because not only did she talk to two angels but was the first to see Jesus alive and talk to Him. Added to this persistence was a confident determination to get what she wants revealed when she told Jesus, whom she mistook for the gardener, "tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." (John 20:15)

Summary

The following list summarizes what we know about Mary Magdalene from the New Testament Gospels which are the only source of information that exists about her.
  1. Her name identified her as a Jew from the town of Magdala, near Tiberius.
  2. She was single and finanically self-sufficient.
  3. Jesus excorcised seven demons from her.
  4. She became a member of a group of financially self-sufficient women who traveled with Jesus.
  5. She graciously contributed to the material needs of Jesus and the Disciples and served them in other ways, perhaps cooking and washing clothes.
  6. She and Jesus did not have a romantic or marriage relationship.
  7. She was one of "many" women who witnessed Jesus' crucifixion.
  8. She and other women witnessed Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (two religious leaders) prepare Jesus' body for burial and place him in Joseph's tomb.
  9. She returned with the other women three days later to anoint Jesus' body with perfume but discovered the body was missing from the tomb.
  10. Jesus appeared to her, and she had a brief conversation with Him. He told her to go tell His disciples He was risen.
  11. She had an unfailing devotion to Jesus.
  12. She demonstrated leadership qualities which suggest she might have been the leader of the group of women followers.

Conclusion

We looked at every single reference to Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels. All we can know about Mary is found in those references. Any theories beyond that are merely baseless speculation including the assertion that she and Jesus were married. For more on Dan Brown's assertion that they were married please see my article: Assertions about a Marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There and in other ariticles on my web site I have shown the Gnostic Gospels can not provide any factual information about the real Jesus and Mary, as that was not their authors' intent.

We do not know what she did after Jesus' Ascension. The Gospels do not tell us how old she was. Popular conception has it that she was Jesus' age, yet we do not know this. She could have been Jesus' mother's age or older. Perhaps that is why we do not hear of her again. Maybe she was too old and frail to continue to serve and went back to Magdala to live a few more years and die. She might have stayed in Jerusalem continuing to serve the Apostles and the thousands of new believers (Acts 2:42-47).

Although Jesus gave Mary the job of returning to the Disciples to tell them He had risen we do not know for a fact that He meant for her to have a more prominent role in the Primitive Church than any other woman or man. It seems reasonable to assume that if that is what He meant then Luke would have told about this important role in the Book of Acts. The fact of the matter is that Jesus left His Church to Peter and the Apostles to lead and grow. (I'm not Roman Catholic so I'm not suggesting that Peter was the first Pope in that sense of the word.) The Book of Acts (which, as a sequel to Luke, tells what happened after Jesus returned to Heaven) mentions some prominent female leaders, but the focus is on the ministry of the Apostles. That is why we don't even know what happened to Jesus' mother or any of the other women that are mentioned in the Gospels. It does not mean they were unimportant or didn't make important contributions to the young movement of Jesus' followers. However, neither can we say they did have important roles. The writers of Acts and the rest of the New Testament simply had other topics and people they chose to write about instead. Mary Magdalene might have continued to have a prominent role. But then again she might not have. She might have siimply gone back to her hometown—back to her livelihood and family. We just can not know, and modern feminists who latch on to Mary Magdalene are simply using her for support of their own causes. But chances are, as a first century Palestinian Jewish woman, she would probably have thought modern feminism is ridiculous, especially that strand that wants to elevate her to the level of a goddess.

What should we make of the legends about Mary going to France? The problems are (1) that they are only legends that have no real support from history, (2) are contradictory, (3) seem to have been manufactured for PR purposes, and (4) were invented many centuries after Mary died. Please see Wikipedia: Mary Magdalene for more on the legends. The medieval legends and modern authors' reliance on them completely miss the point of the first missionary journeys by the first Christians. We know from the Book of Acts that the focus of these trips was to tell people about the Good News of Christ's life, teachings, death, resurrection and offer of salvation. They were evangelistic. Forming a political alliance with the kings of France does not fit into this agenda at all. Jesus' taught that His Kingdom was a spiritual one not a geopolitical one. The Apostles understood this well. The idea of a geopolitcal Kingdom did not creep into the Church until centuries later.

In fact, all that Dan Brown asserts about Mary Magdalene is based on pure speculation, not historically reliable documents. The only exception is his (correctly) pointing out that she was not a prostitute. Yet the only historically reliable evidence he can possibly claim to know she was not a prostitute comes from the New Testament Gospels, which (ironically) he claims are not reliable because of the misogynistic bias of their authors and the church leaders of the time. It is amazing that people like Dan Brown don't believe the Bible is a reliable source of historical truth because they think (wrongly) that the Bible is full of unreliable myths and legends, yet believe legends about Mary Magdalene to be true even though they are legends! This is why I repeatedly say he doesn't really know what he is writing about at all.


References

1 Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Vol. 4, p. 103)

2 Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker. 3rd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 608.

3 Brown, F., S. Driver, and C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. p. 548, 550.

4 Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans. 1883. (Reprint 1942) p. 572.

5 Green, Joel. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997. 318.


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