“If the Savior considered her worthy, who are you to reject her?” from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, trans. Karen L. King
I guess quite a few church leaders over 2 millennia—including Peter, if Mary’s gospel is to be believed—felt comfortable doing just that. Both the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and Mary herself were very nearly buried for two thousand years. Of course she’s practically a cultural icon today, what with her rediscovered gospel, the Da Vinci Code, and even her own opera. If you haven’t kept up with all the brouhaha surrounding her contemporary rehabilitation, try the Smithsonian’s excellent overview, “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” online at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/.
It’s curious that although the gospels’ cast of characters reads like the credits for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (blink and you’ll miss the women) church fathers still conflated most of the few women mentioned into a composite Mary Magdalene. References to Mary Magdalene’s character in the original texts described her only as previously demon-possessed and a follower of Jesus, helping with his support.
As a result of the pronouncements of such men as Pope Gregory the Great, the two most important women in church tradition became the ever-virgin Mary and the Magdalene montage: a woman taken in adultery, demon possessed, and repenting of great sexual sins. In other words, the virgin and the whore: one of the most common and destructive stereotypes ever devised of women. I should mention that this conflation only happened in the Western, or Roman, church. What is now the Eastern Orthodox Church preserved the older, more balanced view of Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles, and companion of Mary the mother of Jesus.
Who was Mary Magdalene really?
I’m staying out of the debate. It’s not my area, and Karen L. King is doing a commendable job of defending my general point of view. But I will say that the now-outdated descriptions of her as a woman with a profligate past should have been buried long before now.
Two major traditions developed around the question of how Mary Magdalene lived her life after the resurrection. According to one, she lived with Mary the mother of Jesus and John in Ephesus, where she eventually died and was buried. According to the other, she went with Lazarus to France, preaching and later living as a penitent hermit wearing only her own hair, and died and was buried there. This latter legend was by far the more popular in Western art, and is the inspiration for Mary Magdalene’s frequent portrayal with long hair and meditating on a skull—as well as the term “maudlin,” derived from “Magdalene” and referring to her constant weeping for her sins.
The evolving legends of Mary Magdalene wove themselves into a fascinating and bizarre bit of history. Among the more macabre elements were the acrimonious claims to what appear to be multiple sets of her earthly remains. Much of the bickering died down after the French Revolution, when many sites claiming to possess her relics were destroyed. Today, in addition to her possible burial places, relics reputed to be hers are still preserved, including a gold-encased skull, a piece of her tibia, a tooth, part of an arm, and a bit of a foot, to name only a few. And that doesn’t begin to account for the second and third class relics.
In case this is alien territory for you, I’ll explain. There are three classes of relics in the Roman Catholic Church: 1st class relics, items relating to Jesus (robe, cross, etc.) or actual bits of saints’ bodies; 2nd class relics, including items used or worn by saints; and 3rd class relics, items that have touched 1st or 2nd class relics. It’s a fascinating subject, spilling into Paul Koudounaris’ amazing newbook, Heavenly Bodies, which documents the discovery of the jeweled skeletons of the “catacomb saints.”
Mary of Magdala is the most important character in Yeshua’s Cat after Yeshua and Mari. And I’ll give you clue: she isn’t a prostitute or a penitent there. But she has always fascinated me in all her incarnations, as you can see below in my digital mosaic, which expresses my own grief over the church’s demonization of Mary.