I recently visited an Amish general store and, cheese in hand, wandered to the library section. The Low Dutch catechetical books were no surprise, but a pamphlet of melismatic chant settings was less expected. I also saw a copy of Heaven Is For Real. Seeing the wheat and tares so sown together reminded me of the Christianity aisle of Books-A-Million.
There is nothing new under the sun. You remember Qumran, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their invaluable testimony to the integrity of Scripture? A mere 879 kilometers southwest of there, antiquity shelved the Nag Hammadi collection. This canon of ancient eccentricity, the work of Gnostic sectarians, delivers the cutting-edge Jesus a lot of people today would rather have. It also includes some heroines who are way cooler than the ones in the regular Bible. The award for Best Female Makeover has to go to Mary Magdalene, whose Gnostic persona is a major improvement on commonplace Scripture.
Mary Magdalene and Contemporary Scholarship
Mary Magdalene has become one of many theological footballs of the New Testament. Perpetual public demand for leading ladies makes life easy for the eisogetes in elite theology departments. They do not have to invent stories from scratch, they can simply check them out of the Nag Hammadi library. The Gnostic Gospels, unearthed in 1945, quickly found their way to their true heirs: people who were in or around the church, but not of it. In the decades since, this alternate faith has been delivered to its saints both through its priestly class, represented by (among others) Jane Shaberg, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman, and its Joel Osteens: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and Dan Brown.
The result is that anything from the Early Church era is fair game for a formal principle of theology. If one of your beefs with the church is female suppression, the Gospel of Mary is for you: Mary Magdalene tells the apostles some stuff Jesus told her secretly. Peter feels threatened and says mean things, but Levi is with her and shows everybody what a good feminist ally looks like. Non-TERFs might also like the Gospel of Thomas, in which Peter wants Mary sent away from the inner circle, but Jesus won’t give her up, and says he’ll get her in by turning her into a male. Add in the Gospel of Philip, which even has kissing in it, and you’ve got all the evidence you need that the New Testament church was an egalitarian paradise.
Original sin’s effect on sex has always been that sinners are unhappy with the arrangement. Making Mary Magdalene a capitalized Apostle oppressed by sexism is not a uniquely-21st century insight. Heterodox or heretical views on Mary Magdalene aren’t new—people have been using condemned ancient texts to bolster their own interpretations for millenia. After the Lord’s mother, Mary Magdalene was the most obvious female candidate whose identity was there for the warping, and the ancient heresies continue to make good mileage among contemporary para-Christians. Scripture’s witness to Mary Magdalene’s prominence in the life of Christ is the truth that drives the innumerable false testimonies about her person and character.
But it is not only doubters, ancient and contemporary, who have made trouble for Mary Magdalene. We have Veggie Tales, and the medieval church had the legends of the saints. Both are an easy way to tickle the masses with God-based stuff that requires virtually nothing of the supervisor and can grow into a very strange piety in minds so-guided. Left untended, the historical Mary Magdalene increasingly became associated with some imaginative ideas. For example, a few years ago I ordered some pretty Easter eggs from an Orthodox monastery and learned from the included pamphlet that coloring eggs somehow originated with Mary Magdalene. But of greater note is a bad exegetical moment near the end of the 6th century. In one fell sermon, Gregory the Great smooshed Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman of Luke 7, and Mary of Bethany into a single character. The Roman church acknowledges and no longer supports this interpretation, but 1,300 years is a long time to get used to an idea. In the interim, Mary Magdalene came to personify girls whose lives go off the rails.
Ramona Tausz at First Things catalogs some of the resulting offense that has been taken: it’s not nice to say someone was a prostitute when she wasn’t. But Tausz also notes that the offended have missed the point. Whatever her exact sin, Mary Magdalene’s primary identifying characteristic is repentance. Luke and Mark both refer to her possession by seven demons. She presumably did some pretty bad things during this unregenerate phase. Is this less “insulting” than having gotten into a notorious line of work?
Mary Magdalene in the Gospels
Mary Magdalene’s life as a demoniac may well have included sexual sins, but that’s not the purpose of her role in the narrative. The emphasis is on the trust and humility she manifests following her deliverance. Reformation theologian Valerius Herberger says of Mary Magdalene, “It is not an example that we should follow but one from which we should derive comfort. One should learn from Mary Magdalene not to sin but to part from sin by true repentance.” Making someone the poster girl for prostitutes (or internet trolls, usurers, or drunks) easily degenerates into a crude antinomian safe space for one’s pet sins. Every Christian is best known as a model of repentance, and not what came before it.
It’s true that Mary Magdalene isn’t the prominent and assertive apostle that contemporary feminists would like to see, but neither is she a fount of occult wisdom and influence so threatening to men that they conspired to smother her. The Mary Magdalene of all four Gospels sounds a lot like a church lady. She materially supported the Lord’s ministry, showed up for even the most poorly attended church events, and took care of the linens (or meant to). If we like her to be a little more relatable, the frazzled among us could note that she seems a bit unprepared, longer on heart and intentions than workable plans. She has her spices, but no one to roll away the stone; she volunteers to take Jesus’ apparently misplaced body, but her work crew has already left.
Perhaps her most endearing feature is the fact that no one believes her when she says that Jesus is risen from the dead. This does not make Mary Magdalene a downtrodden woman. It makes her a Christian. Hers is the vexation every witness to the Gospel must surrender to God: that so many will not believe the message of his resurrection. Those who condemn the disciples for dismissing Mary’s testimony should recall that Thomas did the same thing to his ten closest friends (well past the Deuteronomic call for two or three witnesses). The apostolic means of evangelism did not take hold until it was explicitly authorized by Jesus himself to a select group.
But the fact that Mary Magdalene is a woman is not a random accident, either. Venerable Bede preaches, “A woman first tasted death, but in Magdalene woman first saw the resurrection, that woman might not bear the perpetual guilt of transgression among men.” Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that his forgiveness and comfort run first to those in the greatest need. Neither is it an accident that of all the New Testament Marys, it is Mary Magdalene whose name keeps showing up in the final chapters of the Gospels. Magdala was a port city on the Sea of Galilee, but Martin Luther saw more than a demonym in Mary’s Magdalene. Borrowing some etymologies from Jerome, Luther preaches,
“Mary means ‘a drop in the sea’; Magdalene means ‘a good, solid, strong tower’. That’s why John names Mary Magdalene, for the sake of her name alone. She is a Mary, that is she is not a bucket full of water, but only a little drop; that is, she is nothing at all, and yet she is a Magdalene, that is, she has a tower from which she can be strong. As Solomon says, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and they are safe.’ (Proverbs 18:10) . . . For ourselves we are only a poor little drop of water. Satan has a heap of tongues and would guzzle down half the Elbe. And yet he is so weak that he cannot do it, for he will find a tower there. The Word, which the angel carries, is the tower.”
The church traditionally remembers Mary Magdalene on July 22, and at this point in history there is quite a bit to consider about her. She is not the only biblical celebrity who has been contorted into a parodic figurehead for novel ideas. The tares that have grown up among the rich yield of her life were sown by the enemy, and his servants will continue to tend that perverse crop. But the Lord of the harvest will make the truth known of Mary Magdalene and all of us: that no matter how insignificant a person is, or how many demons possessed her, the repentant are safe in the strong tower of his name.
Rebekah Curtis received her master’s in exegetical theology from Concordia Seminary. She is a professional indexer for Concordia Publishing’s scholarly Concordia Commentaries. She has written for Modern Reformation, Chronicles, Touchstone, Salvo, and Lutheran Forum, and for websites including First Things, Front Porch Republic, The Behemoth, Babble, and The Imaginative Conservative. An article she wrote for The Cresset received an Award of Excellence from the American Church Press in April 2018.
This article was originally published at Modern Reformation on July 23, 2019.
 Venerable Bede, Homilies on the Gospels. Ancient Christian Commentary on Mark 16:9b.
 Luther, Martin. Sermon for Easter Sunday Afternoon, March 28, 1529. The 1529 Holy Week and Easter Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther. Trans. Irving L. Sandberg. St. Louis: Concordia, 1999. 133-134.