The Complexity of the Magdalene: A Film Review of ‘Mary Magdalene’ by Elizabeth Schrader

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When I told my mom that I was about to watch the new Mary Magdalene movie, the first question she asked was, “who’s playing Mary Magdalene?” I answered that Rooney Mara was playing the title role, and she gave her stamp of approval: “Well, they might as well get someone pretty!” Classic comment from Mom – even though I am enrolled in an elite doctoral program at Duke University, and planning to write my dissertation on Mary Magdalene, Mary’s prettiness is at the top of the list.

No matter that Mara is of Irish heritage, with porcelain skin and blue eyes. Nor does it matter that Jesus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is well into his forties (sorry but I’m not sure that our Lord and Savior ever quite made it to the salt and pepper stage). But that’s not the point here. We are going to give two hours of our life to be entertained, and Mom is right: the masses won’t want to learn anything new about Mary Magdalene unless there’s Hollywood star power to get us through yet another origins-of-Christianity biopic.

To be fair, Mara does a good job of portraying Mary Magdalene as a woman of courage and integrity, which helps to dispel the unfounded myth that she was a prostitute. Mara’s Mary exudes an ethereal quality and a quiet certainty, and she is uncomfortable with the patriarchal Jewish family she has been born into. Her refusal to marry brings shame on her family, who see her as a rebellious piece of property that must be brought under control.

Yet in apparently seeking to appeal to progressive Christian viewers like myself, this film has also swept some key aspects of Mary Magdalene under the rug. Luke 8:2-3 explicitly states that Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of seven demons, and that she helped to finance his ministry. But there is no exorcism scene in this film; rather, there is a compassionate comment from Joaquin Phoenix that “there are no demons here.” (Apparently Mary Magdalene’s “demons” were just a misunderstanding from her repressive family – they couldn’t comprehend a woman who preferred to be independent!) In the movie Mary doesn’t have any financial resources; rather she has run away from her family and joined Jesus’ entourage with nothing but the clothes on her back. So much for Mary “providing for them out of her own means” (Luke 8:3). These altered details may make Mary more likeable to a modern audience – but this portrayal is a liberal “whitewashing” of Mary Magdalene, and is not faithful to the biblical text.

A bigger problem is this film’s unquestioned assumption that Mary came from a town called Magdala, especially since the word migdal simply means “tower,” and could thus just as easily be a title for Mary as it could be a place name.[1] There has been an odd scholarly consensus in recent years that Mary hails from Magdala in Galilee; today tourists can visit this location, where an ancient synagogue has been unearthed and earnest tour guides will tell you that this is where she was born. But the meaning of the name “Magdalene” has never been cut-and-dry, nor should scholars and filmmakers suggest otherwise.

The first known commentator on the meaning of “Magdalene” was Origen of Alexandria, who wrote in the early third century. Origen did not think Mary’s name meant that she was from a town called Magdala. Rather, he believed that the word was based on the Hebrew גָּדִל (gadal’, “to be great”). For Origen, the title “Magdalene” was a reflection of her “spiritual greatness” in having ministered to Jesus, and being the first witness of his resurrection.[2]

In the fourth century, the Greek-speaking church historian Eusebius of Caesarea provided the only early reference to Mary hailing from a town called Magdala. Eusebius’ defense of Mary being from Magdala is odd – he argues that there were two Marys from that town! He does this to explain the discrepancy between Matthew and John’s Gospels: “…it is perfectly reasonable to say that two Marys came from the same place, Magdala. There is then no difficulty in saying that one of them was the Magdalene who, in Matthew, came to the tomb late on the sabbath; and then again that the other, also a Magdalene, came there early in the morning, in John.”[3]

In the early fifth century, Jerome also had something to say about the word “Magdalene.” Jerome was fluent in Hebrew and even knew some Aramaic – but according to this eminent scholar, her name was again a title. For Jerome, the word “Magdalene” meant “of the tower”, from the Aramaic word מִגְדָּל (migdal, “tower”). Thus Mary was given her name due to her “earnestness and ardent faith.”[4]

In 2017, I published an article in the Harvard Theological Review arguing that Martha was added to the Gospel of John by second-century editors. The argument is based on some of the oldest and most important manuscripts of John in existence; it concludes that Martha, a character from the Gospel of Luke, does not belong in John’s Gospel. By the addition of Martha to the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, Mary Magdalene’s original role in John has been diluted; she now appears as three different women (Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene). In other words, I believe that John’s Gospel has been altered to hide that Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene. I suggest that the title “Magdalene” could be a combination of the Greek name Ἐλένη (“Helen”) and the Aramaic word מִגְדָּל (“tower”), i.e. “Towering Helen.”[5]

Here is my point: the meaning of the word “Magdalene” is uncertain. Ancient writers were divided on the word’s meaning, so why are modern scholars and filmmakers so sure that Mary was from a fishing village called Magdala? The “Magdala” assumption was similarly presented as fact in the “Jesus: His Life” series that aired on the History Channel last month. Several eminent professors that I know and respect were interviewed for this series – but I believe that on this point, they are mistaken in uncritically assuming that Mary came from Magdala.

Here’s why it matters. If we insist that Mary came from Magdala, we strip her of one of her most important traditional roles: the prophetic anointing of Jesus, which this film does not depict. According to John 12:3, Mary of Bethany “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”[6] As Magdalene enthusiast and Episcopal priest Cynthia Borgeault points out in her review of the movie, the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ anointer should not be so casually left by the wayside.

At the end of the film, Mara’s Mary informs Peter and the other men that she has seen the resurrected Jesus. Her apostolic message sounds suspiciously like that of a modern therapist: “All we have to do is let go of our anguish and our resentment and we become like children, just as he said!” Peter (tastefully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is apparently jealous; his response shows influence from the apocryphal Gospel of Mary: “it’s not right that you come here now, to tell us he has chosen you before us.” Peter then begins to craft a different vision of Jesus’ story, to be preached by the men only, which he says is “one purpose, one message.” Mary calls him out by replying, “your message, not his.” It’s fun to see Mary Magdalene sticking it to Peter and the patriarchy. But we should be wary of any film that makes Mary Magdalene in our own image, as opposed to portraying her in all of her complexity.

The movie closes with the words “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of Mary and her story.” More likely this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of its writers and director. Still it is the first time that a Jesus biopic has been made from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, and Rooney Mara is compelling to watch throughout the entire film. She is almost certainly not what Mary Magdalene looked like. But if a pretty, palatable version of her story is what progressive Christians want to watch these days, this movie has done an admirable job of delivering it.

Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader is a doctoral candidate in Early Christianity at Duke University. She became a Bible scholar after writing a song about Mary Magdalene (you can watch the music video here: https://vimeo.com/69995141). A lifelong member of the Episcopal Church, Schrader’s research interests include the Gospel of John, textual criticism, and feminist theology.

[1] See Joan E. Taylor’s article https://www.academia.edu/8651424/Missing_Magdala_and_the_Name_of_Mary_Magdalene

[2]Origen, Tract. in Matt. xxxv. See Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. III (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1877) 1812b.

[3]Eusebius of Caesarea, To Marinus 2. This translation in Roger Pearse, ed. Eusebius of Caesarea, Gospel Problems and Solutions: Quaestiones ad Stephanum et Marinum (CPG 3470). Ancient Texts in Translation, 1. (Ipswich: Chieftain Publishing, 2010), 113.

[4] Jerome, Letter CXXVII. This translation in F. A. Wright, Select Letters of St. Jerome. LCL 262 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933), 450-1.

[5] See Elizabeth Schrader, “Was Martha of Bethany Added to the Fourth Gospel in the Second Century?” HTR 110:3 (July 2011), 360-392. Jesus often gave Greek names to his closest disciples.

[6] John 12:3, NRSV translation.

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