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The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

From the June 14, 2010 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel


People tell many stories about the woman in the Bible called Mary Magdalene. Who she really was has been a bit of a mystery. The Bible talks about Mary from Magdala who was healed by Jesus of seven demons. People also thought she was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and they thought she was the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Today many Bible scholars agree that each of these women is a different person. So, who was Mary Magdalene really? Let's find out together by following these clues.

Clue 1: Names were very important to Biblical people. They were carefully chosen and might tell a lot about a person's character. Women and men didn't have family names as we do. They had a first name followed by the name of their father (or husband, or brother in the case of women). Or their first name could be followed by the name of the village or city they lived in. Mary Magdalene is also called "Mary of Magdala" because she originally lived in Magdala. This made her different from the other Marys. As far as we know, Jesus never visited Magdala. So, how did she get to know Jesus?

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in these Bible passages: Matthew 27:55, 56, 61; 28:1-10; Mark 15:40, 41, 47; 16:1-11; Luke 8:1-3; 24:1-10; John 19:25; 20:1, 2, 11-18.

Clue 2: Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels. The Gospel writers Mark and Luke both list Mary first among the women who followed Jesus (see Mark 15:40, 41; Luke 8:1–3). These women joined Jesus and his disciples as he brought the "good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 8:1) to villages and cities in Galilee.

Clue 3: Some of them had been cured of diseases. This includes "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out" (Luke 8:2). The "demons" were some kind of diseases that were healed. Whatever Mary's difficulties were, she was completely healed—that's what "seven" means here.

Clue 4: Luke also says that Mary and the other women used their own "resources" to provide for Jesus and his disciples (see Luke 8:3).

Magdala

Magdala means "tower." Magdala was a city on the Sea of Galilee, but is not mentioned in the Bible. It had about 40,000 citizens with its own Roman hippodrome, or stadium, and a large fishing industry, which exported salted fish. The Greeks called it Magdala-Taricheae, which means "tower of (salted) fish." After the city of Tiberias was founded, Magdala lost its importance, and we might not remember it today if it wasn't part of Mary Magdalene's name.

These clues tell us a lot about Mary Magdalene:

• She came from Magdala.

• She was an important disciple because her name usually is first in the list when women are named.

• Jesus had healed her; that's probably how she met him.

• She had enough money to help provide food and clothes for Jesus and his disciples.

But there is more.

The other places where Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the New Testament tell us something even more important. Mary Magdalene was an eyewitness to all that happened to Jesus after he was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. The male disciples ran away. They were afraid. Because they had followed Jesus, they might be crucified as he was. Mary and two other women were courageous and stayed. They wanted to know where Jesus' body was placed so that they could prepare it properly for burial when the Sabbath was over.

The Gospel of Mary

In the very early days of Christianity, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, the disciples shared the good news of Jesus Christ and what he taught them by telling it to others. As yet, there was no New Testament. None of the stories about Jesus were written. Besides, most people couldn't read. As the disciples taught in villages and towns, small groups of people who believed what the disciples taught came together and eventually became churches.

Some groups began to write about Jesus and the disciples. And that's how we got the four Gospels and the New Testament. Archaeologists have found other "gospels" about Jesus and the disciples, which aren't in the Bible. At least four of these gospels mention Mary Magdalene, and two of them present her as an especially enlightened disciple. A fifth gospel is the Gospel of Mary. It's not complete and is about a conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It's the only gospel about a woman disciple, which shows us that Mary Magdalene and other women were very important leaders in the early Christian church.

What a surprise Mary got when she returned to the tomb the next morning with her spices and ointments! The stone was rolled away and Jesus wasn't there. She ran and told Peter and another disciple, and they came and saw the empty tomb but went home again. Mary stayed. She was crying, and asked a man who she thought was the gardener what he had done with Jesus. The man said, "Mary!" Mary said, "Rabbouni!" which means, "My dear teacher!" Just as sheep recognize their shepherd's voice, Mary recognized Jesus' voice. Jesus wasn't dead, and she was the first to witness the risen Savior. What joy!

Jesus told Mary not to "hold on to" him, but to go and tell his disciples that he was ascending to his Father, and to their Father, to his God and to their God (see John 20:17). Mary went and said, "I have seen the Lord!" A woman's witness in those days was not to be believed. But they believed! Mary was the first to preach that Jesus had risen. Because of this, she is known as "the Apostle to the Apostles." Mary was a faithful and a courageous woman and continued to be an important disciple in the early Christian church.

All Bible passages are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.

Questions

1. Why do you think Mary and the other women would follow Jesus and use their own money to take care of everyone's needs, such as food?

2. How was Mary courageous?

3. Have you ever had to be courageous or faithful when it wasn't convenient or comfortable? Why were you willing to do that? Did it change you or your thinking in any way?

4. At the most critical time in Jesus career, Jesus' mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene stood by him. What people in your life have helped you when you needed it? How did this make you feel?

5. Did Mary have a different understanding of Jesus after he talked with her in the garden? (Read John 20:1–18)


Virginia Stopfel is a Bible scholar and gives talks about the Bible all over the United States.

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