It is not by chance that Mary Magdalene is among the first to learn of Jesus's rebirth. Surely, the divine prophet who forsaw his own crucifixion also forsaw the witnesses of his resurrection; in a sense, Jesus chose Mary Magdalene as the herald of his return. For her pivotal role in the Resurrection, she became known as "the apostle to the apostles," a figure powerful enough to chide the apostles to follow Jesus's command to preach to nonbelievers, despite the risks.
In Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene travels to Rome, where she preaches to Tiberius, then settles in Ephesus in northwest Turkey with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John. Other accounts place her in southern France or even in India with the apostle Thomas. According to Chilton, she returns to Magdala, where she continues preaching, healing, and anointing. In A.D. 67, she becomes one of thousands of victims massacred by the Romans in reprisal for an armed rebellion.
Soon after, the early leaders of the emergent church, including the authors of the New Testament Gospels, written around 70-95, continued the process of erasing Mary Magdalene and other female followers that had begun with Peter and the other male disciples. In one text, the heretical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus himself makes the astonishing statement that Mary, and indeed all women, cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless they become male.
In order to offer a moral alternative to the decadent Roman religion, the emergent church trumpeted male-dominated traditional family values. "This allowed Christianity to make great strides in the Greco-Roman world, but at the enormous price of forgetting about the movement's influential women," says Chilton.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great brought Mary firmly back into the picture—not the way she was but as the church wanted her to be. With breathtaking oversimplification, Gregory conflated Mary Magdalene of the seven demons with the unnamed "sinner" who washed Jesus's feet with her hair in Luke (a close reading of Luke 7 and 8 shows that they are not the same woman) and also Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus with nard in John.
Gregory reasoned that if a woman like Mary, who had fallen so low, could be forgiven through faith and the church, her carnality transformed into spirituality, the worst sinners could hope for salvation. Mary Magdalene wiped away Eve's original sin. "In paradise, a woman was the cause of death for a man; coming from the sepulcher, a woman proclaimed life to men," Gregory declared in his famous sermon in 591. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, never accepted Gregory's melding of the three women.
In short order, Mary Magdalene soon became identified with the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning in John and with another woman who is not even mentioned in the New Testament—Mary of Egypt, a fourth-century prostitute who converted to Christianity and lived in a cave for the rest of her life.
Historian Jane Schaberg coined the term "harlotization" to describe Mary's negative makeover, a process that disempowered a powerful leader of the faith.
Tales about the hermit Mary clawing her breasts and tearing out her hair in penance for her sins abounded, inspiring the creation of orders of flagellant monks. Churches claiming bodily relics proliferated, with nearly 200 boasting a piece of the saint by the end of the 13th century. At Saint-Maximin in southern France, Dominican friars still display her skull with a miraculously preserved scrap of skin where Jesus touched her forehead after the Resurrection.
Painters like the 13th-century Italian Master of the Magdalene, Hans Holbein, and William Blake focused on her role in the Resurrection, while artists like Titian portrayed the saint in ecstasy, barely covering her naked body with long reddish-blond hair.