The four canonical gospels identify Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection. And yet, later Christian tradition comes to primarily identify this Mary as a reformed prostitute. In the Medieval church there were even women religious orders named after Mary Magdalene that consisted of former prostitutes turned nuns. How did Mary the Apostle become Mary the Prostitute?
The recent discoveries of both the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas confirms the fact that Mary was a leader in the early church and that her leadership was a threat to the authority of Peter. In the last saying of The Gospel of Thomas Peter declares that “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life” (saying 114). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul claims the title of an “apostle” because the resurrected Jesus appeared to him “the least of the apostles”; and yet, unlike the four canonical gospels, Paul does not list Mary as the first witness to the resurrection. Instead, Peter is listed as the forerunner and Mary is nowhere to be found. Was Paul’s omission intentional?
The Gospel of Mary portrays Mary Magdalene as a leader of the disciples, as well as a respected and intimate friend of Jesus. The first few chapters of the document are missing, but the story begins with Jesus talking with his disciples (which included Mary) after the resurrection. Jesus then departs leaving them disheartened. Mary steps in and offers encouragement: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.” (Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 14-15). As the narrative continues the reader learns that Mary is privy to private teaching that Jesus disclosed to her alone. The other disciples ask Mary to tell them these hidden teachings of Christ. Upon hearing Mary share, Peter claims that she is lying since the teaching is difficult to comprehend. He says, “Did he [Jesus], then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” (17). Mary is heart broken after hearing Peter’s words, but Levi comes to Mary’s aid and rebukes Peter claiming that he has “always been a wrathful person” (17).
The Golden Legend, a collection of saint lives written by Jacobus de Voragine around 1260, was one of the most popular and influential books during the Middle Ages and it is fascinating to see how Mary Magdalene’s story developed in these legends. She is depicted as the sister of Martha, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and a sinner (referring to how she was formerly a prostitute and the lady delivered from seven demons). Mary is not portrayed as a leader, but only as a well respected preacher who traveled as far as France to preach the gospel. The Golden Legend’s account of her life is fascinating, but what happened to the real Mary Magdalene?
The little that we can piece together about who Mary Magdalene was from the canonical scripture is that she was one of the disciples of Jesus (Luke 8:2) and that she was amongst the group of women at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). Mary Malone states that “When the world had turned to darkness and all the others had abandoned Jesus – including even his Father – the women were still standing there” (Malone, Women & Christianity, Vol. 1, 46). The women passed on the eye witness accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death (Matt. 27:61 Mark 15:46; Luke 23:49, 55; John 19:25). And, when these women are listed, Mary Magdalene’s name is first (Matt. 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 46; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10). Mistakenly, though, throughout the Christian tradition, Mary is remembered as a prostitute even though the Gospels never label her as such. The scripture also identifies Mary Magdalene as the first person to witness the resurrection of Jesus (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-9; Luke 24:10; John 20:11-18 ). In all four of these stories Mary leads the way and, in this regard, she is, to quote Bernard of Clairvaux, “the apostle to the apostles.” Nevertheless, the male disciples dominate the stories in their reception history. Today, we barely even remember that women were present during the crucifixion let alone that a woman was the first witness to the resurrection. Such a trend may have started early: unlike the four gospel accounts, Paul does not list Mary as the first witness to see the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Was Paul curtailing Mary in order to gain favor with Peter and the other leaders? We know Paul had legitimacy issues with the “real” disciples in light of his letter to the Galatians.
Karen King says that, “History, as we know, is written by the winners. In the case of early Christianity, this has meant that many voices in these debates were silenced through repression or neglect. The Gospel of Mary, along with other newly discovered works from the earliest Christian period, increases our knowledge of the enormous diversity and dynamic character of the processes by which Christianity was shaped” (6-7). Why has the legendary perception of Mary-the-prostitute gained ascendancy, while Mary-the-Apostle has been relegated to a few shards of “apocryphal” scriptures? The canonical gospels clearly identify Mary as the first person Jesus choose to converse with upon raising form the dead. Ironically, Paul even defends the legitimacy of his own apostleship based on having, like the other apostles before him, received a personal visit from the resurrected Jesus. If an eye witness account of the resurrection is what it means to be an apostle, then Mary is indeed “the apostle to the apostles.” She was the one who told the other disciples that Jesus was alive. Could it be, that Christians have debased Mary as a reformed Prostitute in order to strip her of all of her accolades? Such a power play could already have been at work in the early leadership of the Christian movement as is evident in the tension between Peter and Mary. As we all know, Peter is remembered as the first Bishop (Pope) of Rome and the linchpin to “apostolic” succession. I think we should start reminding people that Mary Magdalene was not the “prostitute of prostitutes”, but the “Apostle to the Apostles” in that she was the first apostolic witness to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.