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.
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.