The mysteries of Mary Magdalene

She is a figure shrouded in mystery; portrayed over the years as a prostitute, an adulteress, an object of veneration and even as Christ's wife. Here, Michael Haag follows Mary Magdalene through the centuries, exploring how she has been reinterpreted for every age

Mary Magdalene. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

According to the gospels Mary Magdalene was with Jesus in Galilee where he preached the kingdom of God to people in their thousands and healed the sick and lame. And she accompanied Jesus as he journeyed to Jerusalem and entered the holy city in accordance with the Old Testament prophecy, “humble and mounted on a donkey”. Mary Magdalene was there when the multitudes greeted Jesus, waving palm branches and casting their garments before him and calling out “hosanna” [an exclamation used to express adoration, praise or joy].


When the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross, abandoned by his disciples, and he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Mary Magdalene was there. And when it was finished, Mary Magdalene followed as they carried his body to the tomb and she watched as the stone was rolled into place.

Mary Magdalene was at the crucifixion of Jesus, she was at his burial, and before that she was with Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee. As a woman and companion of Jesus she was the only person close to him at the critical moments that defined his purpose; that described his fate.

"Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene, St. Eusebius and St. Philip Neri, by Pierre Subleyras, 18th century, oil on canvas. Italy, Lombardy, Milan, Brera Collection. Whole artwork view. Crucifixion with Saints Eusebius standing, Philip Neri and Mary Magdalene kneeling, skull and bones at the foot of the cross. (Photo by Cesare Somaini/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)"
Crucifixion with St Eusebius (standing), St Philip Neri and Mary Magdalene (kneeling). A skull and bones can be seen at the foot of the cross. (Cesare Somaini/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

And it was Mary Magdalene who went to the tomb of Jesus on the third day and found that it was empty. The earliest version of Mark, the oldest gospel, says no more than that. It says nothing of the resurrection, and it says nothing of Jesus appearing to his disciples. The whole of the Christian mystery starts with that first moment when Mary Magdalene stood alone at the empty tomb.

This mystery, with its suggestion of intimacy, is bound up with the nature of Mary Magdalene’s vision – the vision of the kingdom of God that she shared with Jesus. The question ever since has been how much of that vision was distorted or suppressed or lost in the controversies that shaped the new religion.

Those struggles saw the Church attempt to control the visionary nature of Mary Magdalene’s experience by turning her into a prostitute. Nor has it been a historical accident that Mary, the mother of Jesus, who apart from the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke plays almost no role in the gospels and in the life of Jesus (and who was regarded by early sceptics and critics of Christianity as a wanton; an adulteress, her son as a bastard) was transformed by the Church (without any gospel evidence) into a perpetual virgin and the Mother of God.

Mary Magdalene in the Cave, 1876 (oil on canvas) by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1912). Mary’s naked body is seen lying at the site where Jesus had lain. (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia/Bridgeman Images)
Mary Magdalene in the Cave, 1876 (oil on canvas) by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1912). Mary’s naked body is seen lying at the site where Jesus had lain. (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia/Bridgeman Images)

Only in 1969, during the papacy of Paul VI, did the Vatican make some discreet alterations to the Latin mass. Until then the reading for the feast day of Mary Magdalene on 22 July was from chapter 7 of the gospel of Luke in which an unnamed woman enters a house where Jesus is a dinner guest and abases herself to him, washing his feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair. “And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven”.

This story was replaced in 1969 by a very different reading, this time from chapter 20 of the gospel of John in which Jesus reveals himself first to Mary Magdalene at the resurrection. He called to her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” and then he called her name, saying “Mary”, and recognising him she “saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master”.

Without making an unmistakable public apology, the Vatican appeared to be saying that it had got it wrong about Mary Magdalene for 1,400 years, ever since 591 when Pope Gregory the Great delivered his homily that confirmed the triumph of Mary the Mother of God by declaring that Mary Magdalene was that sinner woman in Luke and who he decided must be a prostitute.

But not that many people have paid attention to the Vatican’s retraction, or perhaps they simply prefer the prostitute to the woman who witnessed the resurrection; the event that stands at the centre of the religion that has shaped the history and culture of the greater part of the world for the past 2,000 years. Whether in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ or Mel Gibson’s 2004 Passion of the Christ, Mary Magdalene is a prostitute or an adulteress.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) starring Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. ( Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
The Passion of the Christ (2004) starring Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. (Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

The public appetite for ‘Mary Magdalene the prostitute’ is matched only by that for ‘Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus’ and even as the mother of his child. Witness to this is the huge media attention given to Harvard University’s professor Karen King’s announcement in 2012 of the discovery of an ancient papyrus fragment bearing the words “Jesus said unto them, ‘my wife’”.

Certainly in the Middle Ages the Cathars in France saw Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus in the divine world and as his concubine in the world of illusion – the world that they believed we inhabit in our everyday lives. While in the early centuries of the Christian era the gnostic gospels portray Mary Magdalene as the “companion”, “consort” and even “wife” of Jesus, as the woman he loved more than all the other disciples; their relationship often described in erotic terms.

For that matter there are incidents even in the canonical gospels of the New Testament that have suggested to scholars that Mary Magdalene was indeed the wife of Jesus. For some the argument is not whether it was true but why the truth was edited out.

The quest for Mary Magdalene and the struggle for her identity is the story of the development of Christianity and the very nature of our culture and society.


Michael Haag is the author of The Quest For Mary Magdalene: History & Legend (Profile Books, 17 March 2016). To find out more, click here.