Renaissance and Elizabethan Englanders called Mary Magdalene the “Mawdleyn,” a version of her name that gave rise to the modern word “maudlin,” which describes someone who weeps sentimentally.
“Reformed prostitute” is the definition of “Magdalene” given by the Concise Oxford Dictionary. But do these images describe the true Magdalene of the gospels? Or has history falsely labeled—and thus badly maligned—this devoted follower of Jesus?
Most likely, the surname Magdalene indicates Mary’s hometown. In first-century Palestine, Magdala was one of the largest towns around the Sea of Galilee. Archaeologists today identify it with the excavated ruins of Magdal, located not far from Tiberias, where the hills reach down to the lakeshore.
Plagued by evil spirits, Mary Magdalene was healed by Jesus (Luke 8:2). Consequently, some have concluded that she was emotionally unstable, a volatile personality—and wouldn’t it then follow?—of questionable virtue. Adding to this impression, several early biblical commentators identified her with the unnamed penitent who anointed the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). While there’s no evidence at all in the gospels that Mary and the repentant woman were the same person, Mary Magdalene nonetheless became the stereotype of a reformed sinner. Actually, there’s no reason to think she had led an immoral life or been a prostitute. Rather, it’s much more probable that she suffered from epileptic seizures or a mental disorder. In other scenes described by Luke, Jesus’ casting out of evil spirits resulted in people being healed of epilepsy (9:38-42), the inability to speak (11:14), and curvature of the spine (13:10-13).
A Faithful Follower of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was among the women who accompanied Jesus in his public ministry. Perhaps some of these women were relatives of Jesus. They may have been wealthy, supporting Jesus and his disciples with their resources. Some were young, and others were middle-aged and had sons who also followed this itinerant rabbi. But all these women had one thing in common: Their hearts had been deeply touched by Jesus, and as a result, their lives were changed.
Mary was probably among the crowd of followers who praised Jesus as he triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Did she, like many others in the holy city, expect him to deliver Israel from the Roman occupation? Less than a week later, Jesus was seized in Gethsemane, and his closest male disciples “deserted him and ran away” (Matthew 26:56). Perhaps they ran to find Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus to tell them of the master’s arrest.
We know from the gospels that there were women present at Golgotha: “There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:55-56; see also Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49). It is noteworthy that while many of the sons had fled, the mothers remained. John adds, “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).
Mary Magdalene and her companions watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus removed Jesus’ body from the cross and laid him in the tomb (Luke 23:50-56; see also Matthew 27:59-61 and Mark 15:46-47). After the sabbath, they returned to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1, 10). No thoughts of resurrection were in their minds. They hadn’t understood Jesus’ prophecies that he would be “raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:23; see also Mark 9:31). In their grief, these women simply sought to do one final service of love for him whom they had followed so faithfully, even to his grave.
First Witness to the Risen Christ. Mary Magdalene is the only woman named in all four gospel accounts of the resurrection. However, in John’s Gospel, Mary is the first witness to the risen Christ, and her moving encounter with Jesus conveys the pure joy she must have felt as she recognized her master.
Mary came to the tomb early on the first day of the week, as soon as the sabbath had ended. Distressed at not finding Jesus’ body there as expected, she ran to tell Simon Peter that it had been removed (John 20:1-2). On her return to the empty tomb, two angels questioned why she was weeping. However, consumed by grief, she persisted in her assumption that the body had been taken away—perhaps stolen by grave robbers (20:11-13). When Jesus himself stood near her, Mary even mistook him for the caretaker of the garden where the tomb was located (20:14-15).
How is it that Mary—who knew the one who had freed her from her demonic affliction so well—failed to recognize her beloved Lord? Perhaps her tears blinded her. She may have been so overwhelmed by sorrow that she was deceived by her own expectations, with no room in her heart to comprehend any other possibility than that of finding his corpse. Or maybe Jesus’ resurrected body was so totally and gloriously transformed that he was unrecognizable.
As if to probe Mary’s desire for him, Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?” (John 20:15). Was she searching for the Lord or, with her limited understanding, for her preconceived image of him as she assumed him to be? When he said “Mary,” it was to his voice speaking her name that she finally responded with joyful recognition (20:16). The noted French writer Henri Daniel-Rops described this meeting vividly:
“Then the unknown man spoke one word, “Mary,” and she looked at him, transfixed. . . . This one word sufficed to reawaken in the Magdalene the ardor and certainty of her faith. What Christian has not dreamed of hearing it, the word with which, from all eternity, God calls each one of us, but which the deaf do not hear.” (Jesus and His Times)
With this single word, Jesus freed Mary again, this time from the hopelessness that had taken hold of her when she watched him die on the cross. The liturgical prayer known as the sequence, recited at Mass on Easter Monday, poetically imagines Mary’s early morning visit to the garden where Jesus was buried: “‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?’ ‘I saw the tomb of the now living Christ. I saw the glory of Christ, now risen. Christ my hope has risen!’”
When Mary heard her name, she turned and saw the Lord. In a surge of joy and relief she exclaimed, “Rabboni!”—an ecstatic pledge of her faith in Jesus and in his resurrection.
Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen and glorified Lord, is most remembered for her Easter testimony. Present among the Galilean followers, at the crucifixion, and at the empty tomb, she was an eyewitness to the ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps she and the other women who shared the suffering at Golgotha and the joy of the resurrection supported one another in the coming years—and shared their memories with the believers who made up the early church. Some early writings state that Mary Magdalene later went to Ephesus with John and the mother of Jesus and was buried there.
In the Latin Church Mary Magdalene is known as apostola apostolorum or “female apostle to the male apostles.” When she proclaimed “I have seen the Lord!”, she was the first to convey the good news to the band of men who had been the closest to Jesus (John 20:18; see also Mark 16:9-10). Mary had accompanied Jesus from village to village, from Galilee to Jerusalem. With ardent love and perseverance, she had even followed him to Golgotha and the tomb. Her faith and constancy were rewarded on that first Easter morning, and she continued to follow Jesus as her risen and victorious Lord. Like Mary Magdalene, we too are called—each of us by name—to follow this same Lord and to share in his resurrection life.
This article is an excerpt from My Lord and My God! A Scriptural Journey with the Followers of Jesus by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2004).