2021 Festival of Mary Magdalene

Guest post 1: Celebrating Mary The Magdalene

Welcome guest scholar, Janet O. Antico. You’ll love her methodical analysis of the Scriptural evidence for the profundity of the ministry and leadership of Mary Magdalene. Don’t miss the reference section of the essay – so many good books and articles to read.

     (“Dream of Magdalene” by Sue Ellen Parkinson)

Mary the Magdalene has been the most mischaracterized, misinterpreted, and misunderstood woman in biblical texts, ancient sermons, and contemporary representations.  Throughout the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently presented the ideal roles of femininity and womanhood as virginity, motherhood, and martyrdom which “maintains that the hierarchical structure of the Church is totally ordered.” (1) First and foremost women are expected to emulate Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus – an unattainable option as one cannot be both virgin and mother.  The next most popular woman in the gospels is Mary the Magdalene, the “penitent whore.”  The extreme versions of these two women, holy perfect Christian woman versus wanton sinner, represent the distorted image of what men thought (and think) of women and their need to control them.  Women’s bodies and their sexuality have been weaponized against them, utilized by the authoritative hierarchy of the Church to keep women in their “natural” place, subordinate to men.  

Reading from our twenty-first century lens, we easily may miss the significance of women being named in the New Testament gospels.  I argue, however, that Mary the Magdalene’s presence in all four gospels accounts and in noncanonical texts such as The Pistis Sophia, The Dialogue of the Savior, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ, suggests that she was a known and recognized leader in the early Christian movement.  Mary represents our Tradition of feminine faith, genius, and leadership in early Christianity.

Mary the Magdalene in the New Testament

The Letters of Paul, the earliest writings in the Christian canon, affirm Mary’s apostolic authority.  Paul includes two main conditions for “apostolicity and legitimacy”: 

1) witnessing an appearance of the Risen Christ and 

2) receiving a divine call or commission to proclaim Christ’s message. (2)

By analyzing her actions and relationship to Jesus in the New Testament, Mary the Magdalene satisfied the criteria for apostolic authority.  The Gospel of Mark specifically names Mary Magdalene as among the women watching the crucifixion from afar. The gospel writer notes that these women were followers of Jesus and provided for him, an indication of their wealth and independence (Mark 15:40).  As the women go the tomb to anoint the body, they are greeted by an angel who tells them to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples and Peter. The extended version of the Gospel of Mark (16:9) has the resurrected Jesus appear to Mary Magdalene; when she tells the male disciples, they do not believe her.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew locates Mary Magdalene with other women at the crucifixion (27:55), who “had provided for him” (again, wealthy and independent women).  Then in 28:1-10, the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and he tells them to go and tell the others.  In both of these gospels, Mary is witness to the risen Christ and commanded to go forth and evangelize. 

I believe the Gospel of Luke tends to downplay the authority of Mary Magdalene. Here, she is not identified by name but is presumed to be among the group of women watching the crucifixion from afar and among the terrified women who found the empty tomb with “two men in dazzling clothes” who told them that Jesus had risen (Luke 24:1-9).  In the following paragraph, the author of Luke finally specifically names Mary Magdalene as one of the women reporting the resurrection to the disbelieving male apostles.  In Luke, Peter is actually given the credit for receiving the appearance of the risen Lord (24:34).  This may be the author’s attempt to diminish the status of Mary Magdalene and highlight Peter as the true leader of the apostles and Christ’s mission. (3)

We see a different narrative in the Gospel of John, which tends to slant favorably towards Mary Magdalene.  She appears at the end of the Gospel, John 19:25, 20:1:3, and 20:11-18, which all describe Mary Magdalene as the one who remains faithfully at the cross, goes alone to the tomb, and alerts Peter and another disciple about the missing body.  She then speaks with the resurrected Lord and tells about his imminent ascension.  Mary is the first to see the risen Christ, and is instructed to go and tell the other disciples.  She understands what the men cannot; her faith and love are greater, which is why several theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, gave her the esteemed title of “the Apostle to the Apostles.” (4)

Mary the Magdalene: Evangelist, Disciple, Leader

Mary the Magdalene travelled with Jesus and provided financial support; she refused to leave Jesus during his crucifixion; she went to the tomb to anoint the body of her friend and teacher.  Mary the Magdalene spoke to the risen Christ, was the first to understand its significance, proclaiming the Christological message. Mary and the other women were the first witnesses; they were the backbone of this early movement and they saw themselves as shapers of the Church. Mary the Magdalene was specifically named in all four canonical gospels, commented on in ancient sermons and literary correspondence, and highlighted in several apocryphal texts.

These noncanonical texts highlighted the diversity of thought and beliefs circulating in the late first to early second centuries, with evidence of women representing leadership, sanctioned by Jesus.  The apocryphal texts are literary proof of female-centered authority within the early Christian movement.  

For instance, the Pistis Sophia/Belief Wisdom, describes the ascended Jesus’ experience with the divine Feminine, and the audience is twelve apostles, which includes eight men and four women.  Mary the Magdalene is one of the women and is portrayed as the main speaker and interpreter of Jesus’ teachings. Peter is frustrated (and possibly jealous) of Mary’s dominance in the discussions and complains to Jesus about her involvement. Although Peter denies Mary’s authority and intimidates her, the Pistis Sophia fully supports anyone, male or female, to experience the Spirit.  This text supports the leadership and vision of women – particularly Mary Magdalene with her knowledge and power of light – and that women were indeed included by Christ as apostles.

The preference for Mary over the male apostles is also illustrated in the Nag Hammadi Codex (NHC III), The Dialogue of the Savior.  In this text, Jesus is having a conversation with Judas, Matthew, and Mary Magdalene about the higher cosmos, spirituality, and eschatology.  The writer of the text notes Mary as “a woman who had understood completely” (5) and Jesus says to her, “You make clear the abundance of the revealer!”  (6) The men struggle with these concepts, yet Mary engages actively in the conversation, assertively speaks her mind, and with the negative comments made by the male apostles, she defends the works of womanhood: “They will never be obliterated.” (7) This text encourages a spirituality that does not prioritize male or female; it prioritizes knowledge and understanding beyond the material, bodily world. 

Another apocryphal text from Nag Hammadi, The Sophia of Jesus Christ (8), highlights Mary the Magdalene with a clear role, included as one of seven women and twelve men gathered to hear the savior after the resurrection but before the ascension. She is specifically named in the text and included in the conversation of Christ’s elevated teachings. This identification of seven women disciples, which is also repeated in First Apocalypse of James, (NH 26:4-10), (9) provides further evidence of women’s authority and active participation in the ministry of this early Church movement.

Diminished, Discredited, Disgraced

Usher in Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) who, during a sermon to his fellow brothers in Rome, forever tarnished the reputation of Mary Magdalene. Whether it was malice or an ingrained prejudice against women, Pope Gregory conflated the unnamed woman sinner from Luke 7:36-50 who kisses Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair, and anoints him with a costly ointment, with Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair, mentioned in John 11:1-2 and in John 12:1-8, and with Mary Magdalene, from “whom seven demons were cast out,” as noted in both Mark and Luke. Pope Gregory theorized these three episodes constituted the significant immorality of one woman.  Although not explicitly stated in the gospel, Pope Gregory assumes the unnamed woman sinner in Luke is a prostitute.  The three women of questionable status rolled into one “new” Mary Magdalene story.  Adopted and propagated by the Western Church, this revised story was never accepted by the Eastern Church.  However, Mary’s apostolic authority had been diminished and salacious stories abounded. Feminist biblical scholar, Jane Schaberg characterizes this “harlotization” (10) of Mary Magdalene as a deliberate act to promote the legitimacy of the male apostles in Jesus’ tight circle of followers.  And what better way to attack a woman and delegitimize her authority than to call her a whore?  For those that are threatened by powerful women, the ultimate tool would be to attack and degrade them, reducing them to their sexuality.  The harlotization of Mary Magdalene is a pattern and mindset that has been reiterated over the centuries, and continues even today.  In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church quietly acknowledged, in a revision of its missal, this penitent female “sinner” was in fact the first witness to the resurrection .  However, Pope Gregory’s misidentification and mischaracterization of Mary Magdalene was not explicitly rejected.  

To reclaim our Tradition, we need to expose the mischaracterization of Mary Magdalene and highlight the other narratives about women that were there, present in all kinds of places, as the shapers of our church. Going forward we must reimagine and reclaim our Tradition: including women’s voices and women’s wisdom in the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and including the stories of our foremothers, so that their presence and leadership is not denied.  

Saint Mary the Magdalene:  leader, revealer, teacher and apostle; the true Spirit and light.  She is Pistis Sophia, Faith and Wisdom.

  1. Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, accessed April 21, 2020, Vatican.va, 3.
  2. Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies, 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 6.
  3. Schaberg and Johnson-DeBaufre, Mary Magdalene Understood, 142.
  4. Diane Montagna, “Mary Magdalene, ‘Apostle to the Apostles,’ Given Equal Dignity in Feast,” Aleteia, June 10, 2016, https://aleteia.org/2016/06/10/mary-magdalene-apostle-to-the-apostles-given-equal-dignity-in-feast.
  5. Dialogue of the Savior, trans. Wesley W. Isenberg, The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, 2020, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/dialog.html.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. The Sophia of Jesus Christ, trans. Douglas M. Parrott, The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, 2020, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/sjc.html
  9. The (First) Apocalypse of James, trans. William R. Schoedel, The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, 2020, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/1ja.html.

JANET ANTICO, guest contributor

I am a feminist Catholic who advocates for women in leadership and authority in the Roman Catholic Church. I hold a Masters in Theology degree from Drew University, and am currently pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry. I also have 20+ years of life and work experiences in the finance and nonprofit sectors, and have owned and managed a small business. Married for 27 years to the love of my life, Peter and I have 3 daughters, all on the cusp of womanhood, pursuing their dreams.

My goal now is to educate and excite people about the women of our tradition, uncovering the activities of our foremothers by providing a feminist interpretation of our sacred texts.  

In exploring Catholic identity and how it presents to women and girls, I will highlight persuasive evidence from our tradition of feminine faith, genius, and leadership in early Christianity.  I strongly believe that knowing this tradition and our faith will empower our young, future leaders and further strengthen our Church. Read more of my work at www.janetantico.org

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