The True Character of Mary Magdalene
July 21, 2020
By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt
Mary Magdalene has suffered millennia-long stereotyping as a reformed prostitute. Any woman in the Gospels who doesn’t have a name, who is referred to as being caught in adultery, or purchasing expensive ointment, or weeping at Jesus feet, is identified as Mary Magdalene the “sinful woman.” This mis-identification has come from male exegetes and preachers—even Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises.
It’s only because women interpreters of the scriptures have vigorously corrected this view in the last 40 or so years that we now emphasize the true character of Mary Magdalene: She is the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the first authorized messenger to the male disciples that Jesus was alive.
There are a lot of Marys in the Gospels—Mary of the Annunciation, married to Joseph, and the mother of Jesus; Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha. There is the “other Mary” who is distinguished from Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary the mother of James accompanies Mary Magdalene to the tomb and returns with Magdalene to tell the male disciples. By contrast, Mary Magdalene is not known by her relationship to a husband or her father’s tribal identity. Neither her father nor her mother is named. She doesn’t have a sister or brother who is named, nor does she have a child.
Luke distinguishes her as a robust, energetic woman; she had been healed of some pretty serious ailments. “Freed of seven demons” must mean she now enjoyed radiant health, personal magnetism, physical stamina and abundant generosity as a philanthropist. She’d let go of the past and been freed for everything that holds a woman back from the use of her gifts, her personal liberty, mobility, meaningful service to others, identity with the greater good and spiritual sense of mission.
She, along with other women, supported Jesus out of her means (Luke 8:1-3). Practically, this meant she and other women from Galilee, like herself, provided the financial backing for Jesus’ ministry as “he went on through cities and villages.” This sisterhood was not engaged by family or household responsibilities—they must have been able to delegate to others. No husband kept them in tow, and they evidently didn’t feel tied down by traditional norms for women that restricted their “going out” on the road. Mary Magdalene’s philanthropic support of Jesus included paying the expenses of the 12 (or more) male disciples when they were on the road. Most likely she also subsidized the daily needs of wives and children the male disciples left behind when they quit fishing to follow Jesus. She, with the other women from Galilee, also supported themselves—lodging, food, travel—when they made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, several days’ journey to the south.
Mary of Magdala. What does it mean to be identified with a city? Like “a woman from Samaria,” Mary Magdalene is known by the place she comes from. Jesus himself is alternatively written off and identified as a Nazarene, the “son of the carpenter,” whose family members are known to the townspeople of Nazareth. In contrast to Nazareth as a pretext to dismiss Jesus, Mary Magdalene’s hometown was a reason to respect her.
What is it about Magdala? It was not just any village, like Capernaum or Bethsaida, where the male disciples came from. Magdala was not only a particular village, but it named a whole commercial fishing district all along the western shore of Sea of Galilee or that of the Lake of Tiberias, depending on whether you used the Jewish name or Roman name for the locale. Magdala was a salted-fish-processing economic hub for the distinctly flavored freshwater fish caught in the Sea of Galilee. The fish that the male disciples caught for a living would have been mostly sold to commercial vendors—the ones engaged in the salted-fish export business—who transported the product as a delicacy all over the Mediterranean.
The export business involved cooperative relations between Jewish fishermen and Roman businessmen connected to shipping. We can’t know for certain how Mary Magdalene enjoyed economic autonomy or the source of her fortune, but it was most likely an interest in the salted-fish enterprise. In addition, she was socially oriented to cooperative relations with the Roman occupiers, not politically alienated from Romans as were some of Jesus’ followers.
When Mary Magdalene met Jesus at the tomb after his resurrection, she was first among the disciples to do so. All the Gospels admit this gender-bending fact. When she met Jesus in the garden, she was on the road, on pilgrimage, away from home in Galilee, in Jerusalem. She had every basis for disorientation and distraction at a time when a Passover festival had turned into a nightmare and was upended by the arrest and execution of her master; she didn’t know what to expect. Fear, helplessness, grief, confusion, disbelief.
But re-centered by her personal encounter with Jesus, she found her emotional grounding and didn’t lose her voice. She went back to the male disciples and reported what she saw and heard Jesus say. She didn’t hold back. She spoke with energy and passion. That’s why we love her and remember her. On her feast, let the force of both her financial generosity and truth-telling inspire us today.