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The Gospel Truth
About Mary Magdalene


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The Writing of the Gospels | The Gospels of Mark and Matthew: The Anointing | The Gospel of John: “Mary” | The Gospel of Luke: A “Sinful” Woman | Mary Magdalene | Mary Magdalene as Witness | A Homily by Pope Gregory the Great

BEFORE looking into what the Gospels say about Mary Magdalene, let me first introduce you to some history of the New Testament Gospels, because each Gospel, for different theological reasons, says something different about Mary.

The Writing of the Gospels

Tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was the first Gospel written. But, as Biblical scholarship started looking at everything through modern principles of literary criticism, it was noticed that the Gospel of Matthew (as well as the Gospel of Luke) actually borrowed information, sometimes word-for-word, from the Gospel of Mark. Some scholars therefore claim that the Gospel of Mark had to have been written first. But actually, no one knows what really happened. Obviously, Matthew borrowed from the information in the Gospel of Mark, but that information could have been oral, not written; so maybe Matthew wrote it first, and then, after the Gospel of Matthew began circulating, maybe someone decided to publish the Markan information as the Gospel of Mark. In any event, it really doesn’t matter that much in terms of Christianity itself. But it does touch on what we know about Mary Magdalene.

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew: The Anointing

You can find in Mark 14:3-9 the story of the Anointing at Bethany, when a woman (not named) poured costly, fragrant oil on the head of Jesus. Matthew 26:6-13 repeats this story just about word-for-word from the Gospel of Mark.


Something everyone seems to overlook in Mark’s story is Judas’ snide remark about the cost of the oil. Take the time to figure it out. What does 300 days wages really amount to? Just to get a rough modern estimate, let’s use $7/hour as a minimum wage and multiply by 8 hours for a day for 300 days; we get about $17,000. That’s a lot of money for one tiny jar of oil! And this woman poured it all on Christ. $17,000 worth.
So what in the world was this woman doing with a $17,000 flask of rare aromatic oil in the first place? Well, maybe she was a very wealthy woman, given over to a life of worldly decadence—perhaps like an actress or other celebrity of today.
And therein you have the depth of her sin and the depth of her repentance and love for Christ. And Christ understands all this. He forgives her sins.
So let’s just say that this woman was asking for forgiveness and put her money where her mouth was.


The Gospel of John: “Mary”

The Gospel of John, the last Gospel written, tells the same story as the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew, but John 12:1-8 adds some details. John identifies the woman by name as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (the man Jesus had raised from the dead; see John 11:1-44). But the theological intent of the story remains the same as it is in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew.

The Gospel of Luke: A “Sinful” Woman

In the Gospel of Luke, however, the third Gospel written, things get changed a bit. Luke 7:36-50 tells the story with a different theological intent. Here the woman is nameless, but she is described as a “sinful” woman, and the point of the story is about how a person with much to be forgiven has much reason to love.

Mary Magdalene

Now you’re probably wondering by now what this all has to do with the woman we call Mary Magdalene. And so far, it doesn’t have anything to do with her—at least, by name. Magdalene is first introduced by name in Luke 8:2, and all we know of her history is what Luke says there: Jesus had cured several women of “evil spirits and infirmities” and seven demons had gone out of “Mary, called Magdalene.” That’s it.


Now, we might wonder what it means that, through Jesus’ command, seven demons had gone out of Mary Magdalene. Does it mean that she was possessed, as with head spinning and green vomit? Does it mean that she had multiple personalities?

Well, no, to both questions.

Demonic possession does not necessarily have any great drama attached to it. It can be something that seems very ordinary, something that has no obvious outward appearances—other than a disrespect for authority and a decadent lifestyle.


However, because of the account of the Anointing given in the Gospel of John, in which the woman is called Mary, tradition has tended to merge John’s story with the story in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50), so that the “sinful” woman in Luke’s account is thought to have been the Mary of John’s account. “Sinful” has also been expanded in popular sentiment to mean a prostitute, and, because the account of “Mary, called Magdalene” by name in the Gospel of Luke follows right after Luke’s “sinful woman” story, popular sentiment has made Mary Magdalene a “prostitute” who anointed Jesus.


But was Mary Magdalene really a prostitute? Well, just consider any of the celebrities of today’s world who fill social media with perversity, scandal, and gossip. Are they prostitutes? Or are they just broken, lost souls possessed by decadence and sin, hiding their emotional pain behind empty illusions of vanity and glamor?

No, Mary Magdalene was no different from any of them—except for the fact that she repented her sins.


Mary Magdalene as Witness

As for what we are actually told about Mary Magdalene by name, besides the short introduction in the Gospel of Luke, all we have is the accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 and John 19:25 all tell us that Mary Magdalene was present at the cross; Luke mentions that “the women” who had followed Christ from Galilee witnessed the Crucifixion, but Mary Magdalene isn’t named.

All of the Gospels mention Mary Magdalene by name as a witness to the Resurrection, but only the Gospel of John tells the full story. And on this story, the following homily by Pope Gregory the Great has its basis.

She longed for Christ, though she thought He had been taken away

WHEN Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and did not find the Lord’s body, she thought It had been taken away and so informed the disciples. After they came and saw the tomb, they too believed what Mary had told them. The text then says: The disciples went back home, and it adds: but Mary wept and remained standing outside the tomb.
We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the One she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for Him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see Him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.
Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions Whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognized when He calls her “woman”; so He calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognize Me as I recognize you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognizes who is speaking. She immediately calls Him rabboni, that is to say, teacher, because the One whom she sought outwardly was the One who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.

—From a homily on the Gospels
by Gregory the Great, pope
Office of Readings, July 22:
Mary Magdalene


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