What can we know about Mary Magdalene?

The 20th century saw a rise of interest in Mary Magdalene from people who were not interested in revering a Catholic/Orthodox saint but who were coming from entirely different religious perspectives. Dan Brown's enormously popular attack on the church, the Da Vinci Code, told a lot of people that the true story of Mary Magdalene was something that would explode the pretensions of “traditional” Christianity, but he didn't invent the idea in the first place.

In a note like this, the author's biases are important, so I should make clear that despite the name, I am no Roman Catholic. The Anglican church I worship at is High Church. I'm more comfortable in Low Church surroundings, but you find faithful people where you find them. For the purposes of this note, I am writing from an agnostic perspective. (It's a poor mind that can't see five sides to any question.)

From this perspective, the question is not “what is true about the Magdalene” but “what can we know about her”? What kinds of information sources could we accept?

I enjoy science fiction, and am a regular reader of the Fortean Times. Haldane was right: “the world is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.” All sorts of strange things might be true. An agnostic perspective is not a necessarily materialist one. It would be wonderful if the Akashic records existed! My (both actual and assumed) world view neither affirms nor denies such a thing. Empirical tests of claims of access to the Akasha are needed. It would be equally amazing and useful if it really were possible to communicate with the dead, although just because someone's dead doesn't necessarily mean they are truthful. Again, neither my actual nor my assumed world view either affirms or denies the possibility of such a thing. (It is possible to read the story of Saul's consultation with the “Witch of Endor” either as an encounter with a genuine medium or as an account with a faker using entirely comprehensible techniques to dupe the tragic king.) Again, claims of contact with the dead should be empirically tested. Given the incentives to fraud and the ingenuity of fraudsters, it's going to be hard to get convincing evidence either way. It is important to remember Swedenborg's warning that “the spirits lie”, and also that we are prone to deceive ourselves.

So I accept in principle that non-material means of obtaining reliable information about Mary Magdalene (or any other historic figure) may exist, and that it's possible that the existence and reliability of such means might be demonstrated in my lifetime. I even accept that tantalising hints of the possibility of such demonstration have been around for some time. But that's what they remain.

There's a Jewish story. I regret that I cannot recall who wrote it or the names of the people in it. It goes like this:

A bunch of rabbis were arguing a point. One of them was losing the argument, but he was so convinced that he was right that he said “If I'm right, let there be a Bath Kol (a voice from heaven).”

And there was.

And one of the others said, “That's not good enough! You must prove it from the Torah!”.

My kind of people! Even if non-material sources of information exist, because they are filtered through people, who are, well, people, any information gained from them should be cross-checked against normal sources of information before being fully trusted.

So this note is concerned only with the question “What can an open-minded agnostic know about Mary Magdalene?”

What we can know from the Bible

Still wearing my agnostic hat, let's treat the Bible as a collection of ancient documents which may provide evidence about historical facts, but not consider the supernatural. The key questions to ask are

What the Bible says

Matthew 27: And many women were there [at the crucifixion] beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children. ... And there [at the entombment] was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.

Matthew 28: [A day or so later] In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. [Earthquake and angel.] ... And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “All hail.” And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

Mark 15: There [at the crucifixion] were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem. ... [At the tomb] And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.

Mark 16: [A day or so later] And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. [The "young man" speaks to them.] And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid. Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.

Luke 8: [Jesus was roaming around the country preaching, accompanied by his disciples] And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

Luke 23: And there followed him [to the crucifixion] a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him. ... And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.

Luke 24: Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. [Two men in shining clothes talk to them.] And they remembered his words, and returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

John 19: Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

John 20: The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.” ... But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” She saith unto them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus saith unto her, “Mary”. She turned herself, and saith unto him, “Rabboni”; which is to say, “Master”. Jesus saith unto her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.

Are they contemporary accounts

It used to be fashionable to claim that the Gospels were very late documents. My own view is that they are pre-AD 70. For the sake of argument, let's take the dates from the Wikipedia: Mark somewhere between 65 and 73, Matthew somewhere between 70 and 100, Luke somewhere between 80 and 100, John somewhere between 90 and 110.

Even on traditional dates (going back to the 50s) these accounts are 20 years or more after the events reported. Second century tradition has it that Matthew and John were eyewitnesses, but that Mark and Luke were second-hand reports.

What we are dealing with, then, are accounts recorded within the lifespan of eyewitnesses. It is possible that there is contemporary testimony in them. (Of course I believe a lot more than that, but remember that I've adopted an agnostic viewpoint, and in any case this is the quest for the historic Mary Magdalene, not the quest for the historic Jesus.)

Do they contradict contemporary accounts

The key point is that these are the earliest accounts we have. We have nothing else mentioning Mary Magdalene by name that can be dated to the first century AD. If these accounts don't give us historic information about her, nothing available to us does. There are no other contemporary accounts that they could contradict.

Do they contradict each other? They can be so read. They can also be read as agreeing, at least on the main points about Mary Magdalene. In fact, disagreement about other points, like exactly how many people (or angels) were seen in the tomb, gives us some grounds for hope that their agreement about her is not a result of editing for consistency.

Was anybody in a position to know what the accounts claim?

Yes. All of the points listed in the following summary are such as could become known by ordinary physical means to ordinary human beings. Note in particular that (from an agnostic perspective) we can accept that she told the disciples about the empty tomb without having to accept that what she said was true, and we can accept that an exorcism took place and was witnessed without having to accept the existence of supernatural beings to be expelled.

Summary

  1. Mary seems to have been an awfully common name.
  2. There was a woman called Mary who came from a place called Magdala.
  3. Jesus had exorcised her. (You do not have to believe that devils are real in order to believe that exorcisms are real!)
  4. She was one of many woman associated with Jesus.
  5. These women apparently supported him financially and perhaps logistically.
  6. She was said to have been present at the execution of Jesus, at his burial, and at the scene of his restoration to life.
  7. She is claimed as one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.
  8. Two women are particularly prominent in these accounts: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James. Others are named, including Salome and Joanna.
  9. She was not merely a follower of Jesus, she was known to him.

Inferences

  1. Nothing says she wasn't 90 years old.
  2. She must have been an adult, because she was able to control her own movements and money.
  3. She may have been well off by the standards of the day.
  4. Women seem to have had more freedom in 1st century Palestine than most people think.
  5. We are given no direct information about her marital status, but she is identified by a geographical location, not a father or a husband or a son. As an adult, she might well have been married, but someone who was perceived by her culture as possessed must have been a good candidate for divorce.
  6. If the Catholic Church or anyone else “wrote Mary Magdalene out of the Bible”, they did a remarkably bad job of it! And making her a saint meant that they kept on reminding people about her, and pointing people back at her every Easter, which is a very strange way to suppress someone's memory!
  7. The authors of the Gospels believed that what they were writing about Mary Magdalene was true: what sane person in those days, wanting to establish the truth of a weird event, would not just present as chief witness a woman, but a woman he had gone out of his way earlier to say had been mad, unless he was convinced it was true?

What we can know from other sources

Summary

Nothing.

Now WAIT A MINUTE!

This may seem surprising. Thanks to Baigent, Brown, and others, don't we all know that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and went to France?

Beware the man of one book

If you only read the Quran, it might seem pretty convincing. There are over a milliard people living who are convinced of it.

If you only read the Book of Mormon, it might seem pretty convincing. There are nearly fourteen million people who called themselves Mormons in 2008.

But they cannot both be true. The Quran says explicitly that God does not have a son. The Book of Mormon says explicitly that he does. Somebody is wrong. Some “prophet” did not speak for God. In short, somebody made their scripture up.

If you've only come across the Gospel of Philip, passages such as these seem pretty convincing:

although it's less impressive when you realise that the word “mouth” isn't intact in the text and could very well be forehead, cheek, or even feet. another translation has

Interestingly, that translator thinks “Mate” means a sexual “partner” rather than “wife” for which other words are available. And although the word “mouth” is missing, that translator thinks it's “virtually certain”. The references given in support, however, appear to have no relevance to this verse.

Anyway, that's two translations of one book. And if the Gospel of Philip were all we had, there might be a good case for Jesus-married-Mary.

Now turn to another book, the Gospel of Thomas. In one translation we find:

So who is it? Mary Magdalene or Salome? Lying down on a woman's bed is a rather stronger indication of possible marriage than kissing them on [unreadable word]. And it's certainly a bed.

Of course, Jesus might have had more than one wife.

About the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah issued an edict (Herem de-Rabbenu Gershom) which was considered authoritative among Ashkenazi Jews. This edict substantially prohibited plural marriage. One exception was allowed: A man could marry more than one wife if he obtained the special permission of 100 rabbis in 3 countries. (See the Judaism FAQ for more.)

It would have been quite legal. But it would considerably diminish the Magdalene's significance if she were only one of two or more wives.

But then in the Gospel of Judas we find that it wasn't Mary or Salome who was the special disciple, it was Judas.

According to Hippolytus,

Basilides, therefore, and Isidorus, the true son and disciple of Basilides, say that Matthias communicated to them secret discourses, which, being specially instructed, he heard from the Saviour.

in the lost Traditions of Matthias. So maybe it was Matthias who was the special disciple, not Judas?

The Secret Gospel of James claims that it was James who received special revelations.

The Book of Thomas the Contender claims that it was Thomas who received special revelations.

The simplest explanation seems to be that a variety of second century and later groups produced dialogues (not Gospels sensu strictu) in which Jesus revealed whatever their doctrine happened to be to some character who was tolerably well known in the Christian community.

There are just too many “X was the one who really understood Jesus' real doctrine“ with different values of X to find any one of them specially credible.

It's important to distinguish between the religious doctrines of many of these ancient books and their claims about historic characters. It's entirely possible that some sort of Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic religious system is true. That's not my concern here. My concern is whether they give us roughly true information about historical characters. Or for that matter, whether they were even trying to.

Is there a non-historical reason for picking her name

It's interesting that the name Mary = Mariam apparently comes from a Hebrew word “mrom” meaning exalted. And Magdala apparently comes from “migdal” meaning tower. If, in the absence of other information, you were trying to pick who you would choose as your special mouthpiece, wouldn't a name that suggested “exalted tower” seem like almost a supernatural sign that you had found the right one? If you were secretly referring to someone else that your group held to be the great intermediary, wouldn't a name like that make a great cover?

Well, just to put this kind of speculation in perspective, although some of the translators I've cited above confidently say Mariam = mrom, the Wikipedia article about Miriam says that Miriam means ‘either “wished for child,” “bitterness,” “rebellious,” or “lifted up”; or perhaps originally from Egyptian mry “beloved” or mr “love”’ and since that was the name of Moses' (elder) sister, that explains why it was such a popular name in 1st century Palestine. There's no difference between “lifted up” and “exalted”.

The Wedding at Cana

People who believe that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus often claim that the Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana records this.

Since all of the Gospels have no hesitation in mentioning her at the Crucifixion and Resurrection, it is strange that they should not mention her if they thought it was her marriage.

Here's my paraphrase. If you don't like it, look up the Greek on line. It's from John chapter 2.

  1. On the third day [of the week?] there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus' mother was there.
  2. Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding too.
  3. When the wine ran out, Jesus' mother said to him, “there's no wine.”.
  4. He said to her, “What's it got to do with us, Ma'am? My time hasn't come.”
  5. ...

The word I took as “were invited” is “eklethe, was-called. Whatever Jesus' rôle in the wedding, it's evidently shared by his disciples. (Polygamy in Palestine, yes. Polyandry, no.)

“What's it got to do with us” is literally “what to you and to me”. If it were Jesus's wedding, it would be their business.

It's difficult to reconcile “my time hasn't come” with the idea of it being Jesus' wedding.

What's particularly interesting is the verse after this event.

  1. After this [wedding] he and his mother and brothers and disciples went down to Capernaum and stayed there for a few days.

Who isn't there? His wife! Strange wedding...

What does this establish? That the text as we have it provides no trace of support for it being Jesus' wedding, and fairly strong hints that it wasn't. (So we're not talking about absence of evidence. We're talking about presence of contrary evidence.)

This doesn't prove that it wasn't Jesus' wedding. It's theoretically possible that the original account told of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, Salome, a mermaid, and a goat. Remember, I'm writing this from an agnostic perspective. The text we have about the Wedding at Cana doesn't support the claim that Mary Magdalene married Jesus then or at any other time.

What about other versions? Well, what other versions? We don't have any. Not in the other Gospels. Not even in Celsus. We cannot draw conclusions from materials we do not have.

The dreadful desire to fill gaps

Whenever we find a story we like, we want more of it. If the author doesn't oblige, other people will fill the gaps.

The science fiction writer James Schmitz wrote a book called The Witches of Karres. I enjoyed it very much. Sadly, it was the only story he ever wrote about those characters. For years I'd wondered about writing a sequel myself, but never came up with a plot I liked. I was delighted to discover The Wizard of Karres. Until I read it. The publisher's web site says “At last, here's the book which SF readers have been awaiting for nearly four decades—the sequel to The Witches of Karres, the masterwork of science fiction adventure by James H. Schmitz. Three top writers join forces to continue the bewitching adventures begun in one of science fiction's most beloved novels.” If I had never read Witches, I would have enjoyed Wizard no end. As it was, it seemed to me as if the authors of Wizard had read a different book from me. For example, in the first book, Pausert addresses a planetary ruler, Sedmon, as “Sedmon of the seven lives”, which in connection with the observation that the planet's culture has been consistently pushed in a particular direction by its last few rulers, suggests a single person coming back sequentially. (Like van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher.) But the authors of the Wizard have based a large chunk of their plot on the idea that this means “Sedmon of the seven bodies (at the same time)”, i.e., that Sedmon is a clone.

Points from this example:

You don't have to agree with me about whose reading is mistaken to accept this last point. If they are right, then the story I wanted to write would have been wrong.

The stories about Sherlock Homes have an enduring popularity. However, the canon, with all of its tantalising references to other cases, is closed. Other authors in abundance have filled these gaps. Nicholas Meyer, for example, wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer. They are all great stories. However, Solution has Holmes treated for cocaine addiction by Freud, at a time when Freud was still insisting that “All reports of addiction to cocaine and deterioration resulting from it refer to morphine addicts, persons who, already in the grip of one demon are so weak in will power, so susceptible, that they would misuse, and indeed have misused, any stimulant held out to them. Cocaine has claimed no other, no victim on its own.” We add another point:

Not only that, The Case of the Man who was Wanted was presented as, and for a time believed to be, a genuine Holmes story by Conan Doyle himself. It's now accepted that it was by someone else.

There is a rather puzzling passage in the Old Testament:

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. [Genesis 6:4]

How big were the giants? Who are the sons of God? Are they the giants or someone else? Who are the daughters of men? What's the point the author was making?

If you read a commentary, you will probably come away with a clear idea. If you read two, you will be puzzled. If you read more, you will realise that by now, nobody knows for sure.

Now go and read the Book of Enoch, more precisely, that part of it called the Book of the Watchers. This is thought to go back at least two hundred years BC. It's basically an amplification of that one verse of the Bible, by someone who in my view also didn't have a clue what it really meant, so made something up.

In precisely the same way, the apocryphal book The History of the Rechabites takes off from a brief passage at the beginning of Jeremiah 35.

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But the Catholic church suppressed it!

I'm not a Roman Catholic, so I can say that the organised Catholic Church as such simply didn't exist in the first century. In the second century and third century, it was still politically weak. Anyone whose books were threatened by the Catholic Church only had to scream for help to the Roman authorities to see his would-be persecutors in the arena. It wasn't until the fourth century that the Church became official, and even then, the actual power of the Church to suppress dissent was astonishingly small. Documents outside the canon continued to circulate for centuries. For example, some of the material about Jesus and Mary in the Quran is clearly derived from some of the so-called “infancy gospels”, so those non-canonical books were clearly still enjoying circulation in the seventh century. Indeed, to this day Mary's parents are called Joachim and Anna on the strength of a book that the Church has never accepted as canonical.

As I noted above, if you want to suppress knowledge of a person, you don't make them the chief witness to the resurrection of your God, and you don't authorise the worship of her as a saint, and you don't ensure that people hear about her by requiring that the story be regularly recited to them.

Can we find an empirical test of the Catholic Church's power to suppress unwanted books? Why yes!

I mentioned the Book of Enoch above. It was popular in the first few centuries of the church, but by the 4th century it was excluded from the canon. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church disagreed. We have the book now because they never lost it. For thirteen centuries the might of the Roman Church accomplished ... nothing.

Now the very existence of 1 Enoch is something of an embarrassment, because (a) some Christian churches regard it as canonical, and (b) parts of the New Testament, notably the Epistle of Jude, quote it, and (c) what does that say about the inspiration of the New Testament? It would have simplified matters enormously had it been suppressed. It is, in fact, far more embarrassing than the so-called gospels of Philip and Thomas.

Yet either the Catholic Church didn't want to suppress it, or it wasn't able to.

People in the West often forget the existence of ancient churches outside the rule of Rome. The first country to become Christian was not Rome but Armenia, in 301.

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