Ancient history New Testament

Who Was Mary Magdalene?

Legend has a way of overshadowing history.

The account of Mary Magdalene in the Bible is only the beginning of her story, according to fictional accounts like The Davinci Code. But legend has a way of overshadowing history. In the case of Mary Magdalene, asking only if she was married to Jesus overlooks her contributions. In this interview, biographer Bruce Chilton tells the story of Jesus’ most pivotal female follower.

Read the book by Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography.

Table of contents

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Jesus had many female followers in the Gospels (see Mark 15:40-41, for example); of them all Mary Magdalene played the most pivotal role in his movement.

Her inheritance is not for Christianity alone—or for Judaism alone. Mary lived before those two religions separated from one another, and her native Magdala was influenced by the trade of products and ideas that came from far and wide.

They are clearly different people.

She took the lead in in three vital activities that made Jesus’ movement distinctive, and that have featured in Christianity, and certain forms of Judaism, ever since:

  • Exorcism. The first of these activities is exorcism. Mary Magdalene is the only named recipient of Jesus’ therapy as an exorcist (Luke 8:2), and that activity brought him to fame in Galilee. She became the single most important conduit of specific accounts of exorcism, and on that basis an oral contributor to what later became the New Testament.
  • Anointing. The second activity is anointing, a custom typically associated with women in first-century Galilee and Judea. Jesus himself took up and passed on the practice in order to heal (Mark 6:7-13). Mary Magdalene was so accomplished in this field, she anointed Jesus, and he understood her action to prepare him for his own death (Mark 14:3-9).
  • Vision. The third and most important activity is visionary. Mary Magdalene came to be called “the apostle to the apostles,” because her vision at Jesus’ tomb provoked others to encounter Jesus raised from the dead. Accounts of the Resurrection in the presentation of the four Gospels vary, but she is always given a primary role, introducing others to the reality of the Jesus’ living presence.

Without these activities—especially the last—Christianity’s emergence is very difficult to imagine.

How has she been portrayed differently over time?

The three key activities I have just mentioned were spiritual practices or sacraments that grounded Jesus’ movement until the point that it was perceived in the Roman Empire as different from Judaism. Owing to Mary Magdalene’s association with all of them, she was a figure of undeniable power and influence, and became a precedent for the prominent role of women in Christian leadership.

Over time, Constantine’s policy changes in the fourth century made Christianity legal—and eventually resulted in unique privileges. That change brought relief from persecution, but also produced unintended results. Among the most fateful was that, because priests of the Church also functioned as Roman magistrates and judges, only males could serve in that newly combined function. The hierarchy of Rome was absorbed within the structure of Christianity.

Sometimes, readers are cross with me.

Mary Magdalene was reduced to a subservient position in various ways as a consequence of her symbolizing women.

At the end of the sixth century, a faulty exegesis was passed on which is still influential. In a sermon he preached to a congregation of all-male monks, Pope Gregory the Great taught that Mary was the same person as the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50.

Because that woman is described as a sinner (Luke 7:37), she is also made out to be a prostitute in the sermon. That is especially convenient for Gregory, since he also identifies the sinful woman Mary Magdalene with the female lover of the Song of Songs. There is beauty and wisdom in Gregory’s sermon, but it works as an appeal to analogy—not exegesis.

Luke clearly identifies Mary in Luke 8:2 without any reference whatever to the previous story of the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet. They are clearly different people.

How have readers responded to Bruce Chilton’s biography?

As I look over reviews and comments to books I have written for a general readership, I see that Rabbi Jesus and Rabbi Paul each drew more responses. But Mary Magdalene brought readers from a greater range of publications. Similarly, invitations to speak and lead seminars have come from outside academic settings (my usual venues), and there has been considerable interests from religious groups, whether affiliated or completely unaffiliated with a denomination.

Sometimes, readers are cross with me for not endorsing their preferred way of seeing Mary or events connected with her. Joan Acocella, writing for The New Yorker, objected that calling attention to Mary’s vision would mean that the Resurrection is not “real,” by which Acocella means physical. An ideology that is fashionable in some Christian circles, of course, insists that every single Christian interpretation of any passage must find that Jesus was raised “in the same body in which he died.” But it came to me as a surprise to see The New Yorker sign up to that view. In the New Testament, of course, the Resurrection is depicted in a variety of ways, both physical and spiritual (see my later work, Resurrection Logic).

As a whole, however, response to Mary Magdalene: A Biography has involved me in fascinating discussions and explorations, as readers have come to grips with the nexus of spirituality, history, and gender embodied by Mary Magdalene.

What light do the Targums shed on early Christianity?

The Targums are Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, which were designed for worship in synagogues. The word targum in Aramaic simply means translation. So, by definition, the Targums let us see how the Scriptures of Israel were rendered in Aramaic. At the same time, these renderings are highly interpretative, and on occasion they provide insight into language also used in the New Testament.

Mary took the brunt.

Jesus’ principal theme in his thinking was “the kingdom of God.” When I was studying in seminary, I inherited the traditional wisdom that this phrase was unusual within the Judaism of his time. I quickly found out, while writing my Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge (later published as God in Strength: Jesus Announcement of the Kingdom) that this traditional wisdom was in fact folly. The phrase is frequently found in the Targums, when referring to how God intervenes on behalf of God’s people.

There are literally dozens of similar cases in which understanding the Targums contributes to understanding the New Testament. Analysis is demanding, since the Targums were produced over the course of many centuries. But since World War II research has been intense, productive, and increasingly accessible. With Alan J. Avery Peck, I have edited a volume under contract with Zondervan, setting out how Rabbinic literature and the Targums intersect with the New Testament.

How did the role of women at the time of Jesus lead to the effacement of Mary Magdalene?

Women were denied determinative roles in the hierarchy of the Romanized Church. In Syria, however, it is interesting that women continued to function prominently in the role of deacons—an ancillary but important role within ordained ministry. That shows us that the place of female disciples was downgraded over time, but also that they could not be written off entirely.

I am happy to take criticism.

As the most influential of Jesus’ female followers, Mary Magdalene took the brunt of the demotion of women generally. Even within the New Testament, Luke’s Gospel actually omits the scene of Jesus’ anointing before his Crucifixion. And John’s Gospel, although referring to Mary in the scene of Jesus’ Resurrection, literally depicts Peter and “the beloved” disciple running ahead of her to investigate the tomb (John 20:1-10).

Was Mary Magdalene Jesus’s wife?

The process of putting Mary and Jesus into a prolonged, intimate relationship, and then having them produce progeny, literally required millennia.

By the sixth century, Mary was portrayed as a prostitute. This thought prompted the claims during the thirteenth century that she was Jesus’ concubine, or perhaps the nameless woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-11 in certain witnesses). By a combination of such associations, Martin Luther in the sixteenth century asserted that Jesus and Mary had an adulterous relationship. The twentieth century portrayed their union as more or less official, and some legends and a few authors speculated about their having children.

What is notable about all of these steps is how late they were taken—and how far removed they are from any statement in the earliest sources. In the end, Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as himself the result of an irregular birth, which made establishing his paternity impossible. In the Judaic law of his time, that made him a mamzer (an Israelite without an established genealogy), and therefore prohibited from marrying those whose ancestry was clear. Mary Magdalene, for her part, had come to Jesus in need of exorcism. In differing ways, both were outcasts, and each was unattached. While their intimacy cannot be disproved, neither can it be established.

How does the sexualization of Mary Magdalene overshadow her contributions?

Mary Magdalene’s long journey in legend from first-century Galilee to the European Middle Ages and on to the global modern period involved her in sexual adventures, financial ups and downs, and even a trip to France in a boat without a rudder. When her skeleton was allegedly uncovered in Saint-Maximin in the south of France in 1279, her bones had long been venerated to the north in Vézelay, yet both sites enjoyed papal recognition.

In the case of Mary Magdalene, the capacity of legend to overwhelm evidence has been clearly established. At the opening of the Reformation, the University of Paris declared Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples a heretic. Among his perceived offenses, he had shown that Mary Magdalene had been badly confused with other figures in the New Testament, especially the sinful woman of Luke 7.

Then in her sixties…

He was right, and the University of Paris was wrong. More importantly, however, turning Mary Magdalene into a figment of sexual imagination has occluded an appreciation—grounded in evidence—of her vital role in Christianity’s characteristic activities of exorcism, anointing, and vision.

Richard Covington reviewed my book for U.S. News and World Report, and came to the conclusion:

The sexy, reformed Mary Magdalene is a symbol that’s proven difficult to abandon. But the visionary Mary, full of faith at the foot of the cross and messenger of the Resurrection, a founding disciple entrusted by Jesus with a special mission to spread God’s word, carries the greater ring of truth.

Richard Covington

I am happy to take criticism from ideologues for enabling insights of that kind, and grateful that I have not yet been condemned as Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples was! Getting Mary Magdalene into focus looks to be a millennial task.

What does Bruce Chilton think of the portrayal of Mary Magdalene in The Chosen?

I have just watched the opening episode, and of course appreciate the focus on exorcism. At the same time, the presentation of Mary Magdalene is still in terms of prostitution, and she is made to embody evil with the name of “Lilith,” a traditional designation of a female demon.

Agency is not attributed to her in the film, in that Jesus seeks her out without an apparent previous connection. The production values are high, but there are a whole series of anachronisms that could easily have been avoided.

Elizabeth Tabish speaks about her portrayal of Mary Magdalene in “The Chosen,” including the exorcism scene in the series pilot.

What did Mary Magdalene do after Jesus’s death?

Subsequent to the Crucifixion, Mary and other women followers of Jesus crucially remain in the vicinity, despite the flight of his male disciples. For this reason she becomes the pivotal figure in the subsequent visit to Jesus’ tomb, and therefore in the announcement of his Resurrection.

In the case of each Gospel, this explicitly involves the vision of a heavenly young man or men (Mark and Luke) or of an angel or angels (Matthew and John).

Following the visionary encounter, two Gospels (Matthew and John) also describe her personal meeting with Jesus. Throughout, she is directed toward his other followers, so that they also can realize his risen presence.

How did Mary Magdalene die?

In the oldest Gospel (Mark, followed in this regard by Matthew), Mary is commanded at the tomb to tell Jesus’ followers to go to Galilee, to meet him there (Mark 16:7). Galilee, and her birthplace Magdala, were likely where she also went.

Her influence in the Gospels, in shaping traditions in regard to exorcism, anointing, and vision, suggest that she lived for years afterward.

In 67 CE, however, the Roman invasion of Galilee in response to a revolt centered in Jerusalem resulted in the total destruction of Magdala, the enslavement of the young, and the extermination of the elderly.

Then in her sixties, Mary Magdalene was probably among those whom the Romans eliminated.

Was there an objective effort to write Mary out of the story?

The most objective efforts to reduce Mary’s apparent role are in omissions: omitting the entire story of Jesus’ anointing prior to the Crucifixion in Luke, and omitting Mary Magdalene from that story and replacing her with another person named Mary in John (John 12:1-8).

These are clear indications that, as time went on, Mary Magdalene became an embarrassment for early Christianity, although her role in the Resurrection could not be denied.

Even that role, however, became qualified. In Luke, her report along with other women is ridiculed as idle talk by the male apostles (Luke 24:10-11). In John, Peter and the beloved disciple actually precede Mary Magdalene into the tomb (John 20:3-13).

These examples of her literal displacement demonstrate a method of marginalization that resulted in covering up her contribution over time, permitting her then to be characterized simply in terms of her gender.

How would Bruce Chilton integrate Mary Magdalene into Jesus’ formative experiences?

One way in which I found it helpful to write about Mary Magdalene was that her signature activities unfolded in a way that, by interacting with Jesus, punctuated his development. Exorcism corresponds to the Galilean period, anointing climaxes prior to the Crucifixion, and vision opens the Resurrection.

I only saw that correspondence by analyzing Mary. For that reason, I am especially grateful to my colleagues in the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College. After I had written on Jesus and Paul, they encouraged me to convene a seminar on Mary Magdalene. That proved interesting enough to offer a public series of lectures—and those lectures were the basis of the book. Finally, my editor at Doubleday, Andrew Corbin, and my consulting editor, Ken Wapner, enabled me to bring my analysis to print. All those collaborators have helped bring Mary Magdalene to life in her own terms.

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About Bruce Chilton

Bruce D. Chilton is a scholar of early Christianity and Judaism, and an Episcopalian priest. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University in New Testament and founded two academic journals. Chilton has published several books, including Mary Magdalene: A Biography, Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, and The Temple of Jesus: His Sacrificial Program within a Cultural History of Sacrifice.

Bruce Chilton is the author of several books, including “Mary Magdalene: A Biography.”

Further reading

Mary Magdalene resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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