Mary Magdalene was None of the Things a Pope Claimed

A long miscast outcast.

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  • "We're trying to right a 2,000-year-old wrong," Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based organization behind the movement, told U.S. Catholic magazine.

    Mary first appears in the Bible around A.D. 25 in Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is rapidly gaining a reputation as a healer. Afflicted with "seven demons," this single woman is probably 25 or 26. A few years older than Jesus and Jewish as well, she has made her way from Magdala (the origin of her name Magdalene), a cramped, smelly fish-processing town seething with angry, dispossessed farmers 7 miles to the southwest. It's not hard to picture Mary fleeing this hellhole in desperation, full of gratitude for finding someone who might save her from her demons. After an arduous, yearlong treatment, writes Chilton, she is finally cured by Jesus, who exorcises all the unnamed psychological torments.

    Although Luke speaks of Mary as one of the women who provide for Jesus "out of their means," the Gospel does not says she is rich, like Joanna, another follower, who is married to King Herod's steward. And it's not easy to imagine anyone wealthy coming from a place like Magdala.

    Still, Renaissance painters like Caravaggio and others portrayed the wealthy, fallen Mary as a red-haired siren draped in ermine, silk, and pearls. In these fantasies, the idly rich woman turned to prostitution not for money but for vanity, making her repentance and forgiveness that much sweeter.

    After Jesus cures her, Mary becomes the most influential woman in his movement, the oral source for the accounts of other exorcisms in the New Testament. According to Chilton, she teaches Jesus to use his own saliva for healing a deaf-mute and a blind man, an account that appears in Mark, the oldest Gospel, but is dropped from subsequent Gospels as women's magic.

    Mary also figures prominently in rituals of healing and anointing, practices intended to invoke the Holy Spirit. In one episode in Mark, where she seems to foreshadow Jesus's burial, she incurs the wrath of some of the disciples for pouring expensive spikenard oint-ment over Jesus's head. We could have sold the ointment and used the money to help the poor, they complain. Sternly upbraiding them, Jesus praises Mary for her beautiful gesture. "For you always have the poor with you," he says, "but you will not always have me. She has anointed my body beforehand for burying."

    • Women of the Bible
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      • Mary Magdalene: A Long Miscast Outcast
      • Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
      • Mary and Martha: Two Models of Christian Devotion
      • Salome: A Deadly Dance
      • Phoebe, Prisca, and Junica: Three Stalwart Sisters in Faith
      • The Feminist Hit List
      • Mary Magdalene is unquestionably one of Jesus's most faithful followers, witnessing the Crucifixion with his mother, Mary, while the male apostles flee to avoid arrest. In all four New Testament Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first (either alone or with a group of women) to arrive at Jesus's tomb, where she encounters an angel (or a pair of angels) who instructs her to go tell the disciples that Jesus has risen.

        In John, she later encounters the resurrected Christ, who warns her not to touch him, perhaps because he is an intangible spirit, not flesh and blood. In works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, and others, a joyous but frustrated Mary reaches to Christ with intense longing, so near yet so far.

        Nine verses further on in the text, Jesus orders doubting Thomas to place his hand in Jesus's side. A possible explanation of this seeming inconsistency is that the first episode stems from Mary herself and the episode with Thomas arises from another witness.