The Changing Story of Mary Magdalene

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With Jane Shaw and Rebecca Lyman in the Crypt at Grace Cathedral

Yesterday morning Rebecca Lyman and I joined Jane Shaw for a fascinating discussion of Mary Magdalene as part of the Grace Cathedral Forum series, and over the next few days I will be posting my reactions to the questions and ideas that have come in from members of the audience, both on the day and via the web afterward. (For a link to the Cathedral’s podcast of yesterday’s discussion, please click here).

San Francisco is an exciting place to think about Mary Magdalene these days, because the San Francisco Opera will be premiering Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene on 19 June. Adamo’s Opera picks up on the medieval legends about Mary as a repentant prostitute, so one of the issues we wanted to discuss was the origin of that version of Mary, a character who did not emerge until the end of the sixth century.

In the first century, Mary appears in the New Testament as one of the group of female disciples who travel with Jesus to Jerusalem and who were the first witnesses to his Resurrection from the dead.  The Gospel of Luke mentions (Chapter 24) that when the women learned that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they rushed to tell the male disciples, but the men refused to listen.

But by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), the image of Mary Magdalene had changed quite dramatically. During the 590s, when the city of Rome was ravaged by the plague, Gregory was looking for a powerful image of repentance, because he believed that only the people’s repentance could move God to take pity on him. Gregory was steeped in the stories of the Egyptian desert, among them the stories of repentant prostitutes who were believed to have been among the most courageous ascetic saints of the desert.

Gregory was an extraordinarily gifted preacher, and in a sermon on the Gospel of Luke (14 September 591),  he made an intuitive connection that was the sermonic equivalent of striking gold. He remebered another story in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 7) about an unnamed ‘sinful woman’, and although none of the Gospels refer to Mary as having been a sinner, Gregory remembered that the Gospel of Mark refers to Jesus as perfoming an exorcism on Mary Magdalene.

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. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?

And before you know it, the brilliant preacher has wrapped up the beloved female disciple, Mary Magdalene, with the romance of the repentant prostitute, and created a powerful female character, a sort of umami-figure of devotion and repentance. This was the Magdalene who would live on for centuries in the imagination of the Church, the Magdalene we know from the Da Vinci Code and Jesus Christ Superstar.

In a post to follow, I’ll consider what we know about the ‘original’ Mary Magdalene as a teacher, and how the apocryphal Gospel of Mary can shed light on Mary as a teacher of wisdom, and the controversies that emerged in the early Christian communities over how she should be remembered.

2 comments

  1. Kimberley Jones · · Reply

    September 14th will never come again without my joyous recollection of your Sunday morning talk about Mary Magdalene, Sunday afternoon further look into ancient texts, historical facts and theological transitions and Monday evening rich review of the human history of the institution of marriage. I wish I could have stayed longer to hear your last question and to make the comment that the highest ineffable dimension of marriage transcends the practical sociological functions of the institution. I hold marriage as a remarkable union of two choosing love that expresses the mysterious unity of love in God. Prohibiting this union for people who are gay conveys a prejudice against the full human value of these people as beloved creations of God. I hope something along these lines was expressed last evening. We were gathered in a cathedral! Thank you Kate most sincerely for blowing into town as if on the wind of the Holy Spirit and leaving a polis sized realm of knowledge and great inquiry for us all to savor!

  2. I think your point about how marriage can embody a human link to the idea of god as love is onw that a majority of the early Christian writers would have agreed with whole-heartedly. Thanks for your lovely thoughts!

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