Since the release, a few months ago, the film about Mary Magdalene, by the performers Rooney Mara and Joaquín Phoenix, has caught the attention of many people and raised multiple questions about this interesting character of the Gospels. The script has taken into account above all the apocryphal gospel of Gnostic origin of Mary Magdalene that was found in Nag Hamadi, Egypt, in 1945.
From this gospel we have only two fragments, in two different languages, which suggest some rivalry between the Magdalene and Peter; and some special knowledge of the things of God revealed only to her, which would make her Jesus’ favorite among the apostles. Let’s read both fragments:
“Peter says, But is it that, asked by the Lord about these matters, he would speak to a woman hiddenly and secretly for all of us to hear? Was he going to want to present her as more dignified than us? Levi says to Peter: You always have cholera by your side, and right now you argue with the woman confronting her. If the Savior has judged her worthy, who are you to despise her?” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Greek fragment).
Here’s the other one:
“Peter said, Marian, sister, we know that the Savior appreciated you more than other women. Tell us what the Savior’s words you remember, that you know, and we don’t, that we have not heard. Marian responded by saying, What is hidden for you I will announce to you. […] After saying all this, Marian remained silent, for the Savior had spoken to her here. Then Andrew spoke and said to the brethren, Say what you think about what he has said. I, for my part, do not believe that the Savior has said these things. These doctrines are very strange. Peter responded by talking about the same topics and questioned them about the Savior: Have you spoken to a woman without us knowing and not manifestly, so that we should all turn and listen to her? Have you preferred her to us? Then Marian burst into tears and said to Peter, Peter, my brother, what do you think? Do you suppose that I have reflected these things for myself or that I lie about the Savior? Then Levi spoke and said to Peter, “Peter, you were always impulsive. Now I see you exercising against a woman as if she were an adversary. However, if the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? It is true that the Savior knows her perfectly; for this reason he loved her more than we did” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Coptic fragment).
A certain press that likes more radical and anti-clerical feminism has raised suspicions about an alleged conspiracy of the Catholic Church to deliberately hide its true prominence in the Apostolic College, as it could overshadow the figure and primacy of Peter among the Twelve; and thus be able to legitimize the theological foundation of the papacy and sustain a sexist and patriarchal ecclesial structure for centuries.
Leaving aside the passions, opinions and ideological positions, it is healthy to approach the canonical Gospels, which are the only normatives for the Christian faith and clarify what they say about this woman, and what has been the origin of the historical error that has stigmatized her in Christian doctrine, liturgy and iconography.
Everything seems to indicate by name that Mary Magdalene was native to Magdala, a small village near the Sea of Galilee. The four gospels mention it thirty-two times. His name appears among the women who accompany Jesus during his public ministry (Mt 27:56; Mc 15, 47; Lk 8:2). Mark and Luke are the only ones who say that Jesus had cast out “seven demons” from it, which do not mean a great number of sins among which prostitution was, but, as the evangelist himself rightly clarifies, “evil spirits and diseases” (Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2). In passion he is at the foot of the cross with Mary, the Savior’s mother (Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25). Mark says he watches from afar how they bury the Lord (Mk 15:47). And on Easter morning she arrives at the tomb before Peter (Jn 20:1-2), so she is the first witness of the Resurrection (Mt 28:1-10; Mc 16, 9; Jn 20:14), although he does not immediately recognize it in his dialogue with the garden (Jn 20:15). The risen Jesus will make her an Apostle among the Apostles, when he sends her to his brethren with this good news (Jn 20:18).
Another Mary who has been confused with the Magdalene is Mary who is bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus took out of the tomb in the presence of all the people (Jn 11). This is the disciple who, sitting at the feet of the Lord, “takes the best part” (Lk 10:38-42) while Martha, her sister, works. Probably the mixture between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the public sinner has to do with the famous passage of the ation of Jesus by a woman. The accounts of Matthew and Mark are very similar. Jesus is in Bethany, at Simon’s house, the leper, is approached by a woman, who brings a jar of alabaster with a very expensive perfume that pours out at the feet of the Master. The disciples “protest such waste” as it could have been sold to give the poor the money, to which Jesus responds that “we will always have” among us and that she had “advanced to embalm his body” (Mt 26:6-13; Mc 14, 3-9).
For his part, John tells us that this anointing took place at Lazarus’ house and that Mary, his sister, had anointed the Lord, keeping the same details as the two synoptics about the opportunity to help the poor and preparation for burial (Jn 12:1-8). In Luke’s case, it is not mentioned in which city this event occurs, nor what is the name of the sinful woman who approaches Jesus, only identifies Simon the Pharisee, whom he admonishes with a parable (Lk 7:37-50).
When you read the four stories, one cannot fail to wonder if it is the same fact that each evangelist has narrated in the way that the oral tradition of his community recalls it, or whether there were two athetions of Jesus, one performed by Mary the sister of Lazarus, in his house of Bethany and another performed by a public sinner , at Simon’s house, the Pharisee, in the same city, or if Mary, The Sister of Martha and Lazarus, was a public sinner. Perhaps we will never have certain answers to this question, because we have these only sources for it. In any case, none of the accounts name Mary, the Magdalene.
Most likely the confusion has to do with the closeness – in the Gospel of Luke – of this episode with the next chapter, which begins by announcing that Jesus was touring cities and towns proclaiming the good news and among those who followed him was Mary Magdalene, from which he had cast out seven demons (Lk 8:1-3).
The case is that Saint Gregory the Great, who was Pope between the years 540 and 604, in one of his homilies, pronounced in 591 says: “The woman described by Luke as a sinner, named Mary by John, is the same as Mark attests that she was liberated by Jesus from seven demons. Therefore, these three characters are the same person: Mary Magdalene, and what else do all vices mean those seven demons? For as in seven days it is presented all the time, so number seven represents universality. Mary had seven demons, for she had committed all kinds of sins […] For every pleasure, then, she herself has immolated herself. He turned his crimes into virtues, to serve God in complete penance, as much as he misappreciating God” (Homily 33; Patrologia Latina, vol. 76, 1188). She was always held up as a saint for her follow-up to the Master, but a penitent saint. This view of Pope Gregory left a mark for the following centuries on Christian doctrine, the Catholic liturgy and art.
So much so, that in the pre-reconciled period the memory of “Holy Mary Magdalene, penitent” was celebrated on July 22. And in the liturgy there abounded the references to his sin forgiven by Jesus and to his status as sister of Lazarus. The gospel that was then proclaimed was that of the ation of Jesus by a public sinner of the city (Lk 7:36-50). It is also good to know that his memory was celebrated in the liturgy of the Eastern Church since before the twentieth century; while in the West the cult spread around the twentieth century, wrongly gathering in one person the three women of the gospel that the Orientals considered different and venerated on various dates. From the counter-reformation, the cult of Mary Magdalene, “forgiven sinner”, acquires even more strength.
And so it remained until, in 1969, Pope Paul VI claimed his name, and he moved from the calendar, during the liturgical reform, the adjective of “sinner” with which St Mary Magdalene was catalogued. A few years later, in 2012 Pope Benedict XVI attended the presentation of the film Mary of Nazareth on the life of Mary and in which the Magdalene appears. In his next catechesis, in the Clementine Room of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, he comments on the figure of the Magdalene and says of her that “after experiencing the charm of an easy life”, he finds Jesus, “who opens his heart and changes his existence”.
Of course, the term “an easy life” should not be associated with prostitution that, while she has always been ill-sighted, whatever society she is in, has been the only way these women have been able to feed their family quickly and with the exclusive use of their bodies. Prostitution entails great suffering for the prostitute, both psychic and physical, as well as the terrible opportunity to contract multiple diseases. I think that the Pope would have in mind, rather, the superficiality in which a life of abundances and riches could have submerged the Magdalene, who by context we noticed that he was a friend of Joan, wife of Cusa, one of the administrators of Herod, Susana and other women who would happily help Jesus with his goods (Lk 8:3).
As far as we know through the Gospels, today the idea that she was neither “public sinner”, nor “adulterous”, nor “prostitute”, but a faithful disciple of Christ, is sustained. For this reason, since the liturgical reform of Vatican II, the biblical texts proclaimed in the celebration of St Mary Magdalene have been changed. The first reading reads a text from the Song of Songs, which highlights the search for the “beloved of my soul” (Cant 3:1-4a). The second reading corresponds to the Apostle Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians, which tells us of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a mystery of love that presses us to live for “He who died and rose” for us (2 Cor 5:14-17). And the gospel proclaimed is the Easter account in which the Magdalene appears as the first witness of Jesus’ Resurrection (Jn 20:1-2, 11-18).
In the texts of the mission, we have three precious prayers asking for the intercession of St Mary Magdalene whom the Son of God “entrusted, before anyone else […] the mission of proclaiming to your own the Easter joy” (Collected Prayer). She is the one “whose offering of love was so mercyfully accepted by your Son Jesus Christ” (Prayer on Offerings) and a model of “that love that prompted her to give herself forever to Christ, her Master” (Postcommunication Prayer).
At the request of Pope Francis, since June 2016 the Roman liturgical calendar celebrates with the category of “Feast” and not of “Memory” to St Mary Magdalene. The Pontifical Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments maintained, as was customary for centuries, the 22nd of July in the calendar and said that this wanted to :”to emphasize the importance of this woman who showed great love for Christ and who was so loved by Christ and to highlight the special mission of this woman , example and model for every woman in the Church.”
No reference is made to the sins of Mary Magdalene or to her status as a “penitent”, or to any of the other characteristics that would come from being misidentified with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. The Church has considered it appropriate to abide only with the data that comes from the canonical gospels. Therefore, the identification between Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Lazarus and the public sinner is considered to be a regrettable confusion that has no biblical basis.
The rest of his story beyond the Gospels until his death is legendary. Some accounts place her living in Ephesus, with the Apostle John and the Virgin Mary until the end of her life, and her remains would have been brought to Constantinople. Others say that, together with Lazarus and Martha, he went to Marseille, in the south of present-day France, where he lived until his death. It is said that five kings prostred before his tomb: Philip of Valois, king of France; Alfonso IV King of Aragon; Hugo IV, King of Cyprus; John I of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia and Robert of Anjou, King of Sicily; and also that it was visited by seven popes: John XXII, Benedict XXIII, Clement VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, Clement VII and Benedict XIII. Ω