After Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene is probably the most famous woman mentioned in the New Testament. All four gospels in our Bibles agree that she was one of the women who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion, and who went to his tomb early on that fateful Sunday morning. She had the privilege of being the first to see him raised from the dead (John 20:11-18).
Apart from that, we know next to nothing about her. Only Luke tells us (Luke 8:1-3) that she was a woman of independent means who supported Jesus financially while he was an itinerant Rabbi, and that she had previously been possessed by seven demons.
Lack of historical information, however, is a stimulus to the imagination. In the centuries following these events, an impressive ‘backstory’ was created that made a far greater impression on people’s minds than the meagre facts. Mary was a very common name in first-century Palestine, which allowed Mary Magdalene to become confused with Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-3). Early on, she also became identified with the unnamed prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50) – although Luke clearly regarded them as being two different women. The intensity of her emotional bond with Jesus (hinted at in the resurrection appearance recorded by John) became the source material for their legendary romance. This particular story is still being perpetuated even today (in the book The Da Vinci Code, for example), and it loses nothing in the re-telling.
More interesting, perhaps, is her conscription to the cause of feminism. She has been elevated to the status of a founding apostle of the Christian faith, whose supposed role as Jesus’ consort was ‘suppressed’ by misogynistic church leaders and gospel writers.
But there is nothing misogynistic about the Biblical accounts. In an age when a woman’s place was most definitely in the kitchen, and in a culture that forbade women to study theology, Mary Magdalene is named as one of those women who broke with convention to follow Jesus around the country. Women were considered unreliable as witnesses, and their evidence was not accepted in the law courts – yet the first crucial resurrection appearances were, by unanimous gospel testimony, to women (and the men, true to their cultural prejudices, didn’t believe them!).
Perhaps something else has been going on – not so much sexism, as a fascination with sex. To some, Mary Magdalene was the ‘fallen woman’ who had repented; to others, she was Jesus’ lover or even his wife.
And all the time, the one snippet of information that we do possess was being glossed over. Whatever you think about the concept of demon possession, it is clear that at one point in her life Mary was a seriously disturbed woman; we would have probably described her as ‘raving mad’. And severe mental illness is terrifying for the sufferer and a nightmare for their family; it is also a social embarrassment, rarely admitted to or talked about, but usually swept under the carpet. As anyone who has ever suffered in this way will know, even after recovery there remains a stigma attached, and very often there is also a continual fear of relapse.
But in Jesus, Mary had found a Healer; then, in the travelling community of his disciples, she had found support and acceptance. He was her rock, her lifeline to sanity. If his death was like a deep wound in her mind, the mysterious disappearance of his body must have been a further cruel twist of the knife. Reason enough to be crying her eyes out – until she became aware that the ‘stranger’ in the garden knew her name…