Why Mary Magdalene remains in the shadows

Middle class and cultured? A detail from Mary Magdalene (1641) by Jusepe de Ribera

The Quest for Mary Magdalene
by Michael Haag, Profile Books

Mary Magdalene has for centuries been portrayed as the repentant prostitute, reclining in her cave with a skull to remind us of mortality, and with her long red hair barely covering her modesty. Blame Pope Gregory the Great for this: in AD 591 he identified Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman of Luke 7, and made the sin sexual – an error not overturned by the Church until the 1960s.

Since The Da Vinci Code, many people have instead identified the Magdalene not as a prostitute but as Jesus’s wife, based on the possible interpretation of a few verses in some apocryphal gospels. Haag is pretty scathing about Dan Brown’s potboiler, and the pseudo-histories from which it appropriated its so-called facts. He finds no evidence for her being Jesus’s wife.

There is very little detail in the Gospels about Mary Magdalene. She was usually the first-named of the group of women who travelled around with Jesus and the disciples, providing for them financially, so she must have been a woman of means. She features mainly in the accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection – she was one of those at the Cross, and she was the first to visit the empty tomb and see the risen Christ – and then, having been right at the very heart of the Christian story, she’s never mentioned again.

Paul says nothing about her in any of his letters (though, as Haag points out, he makes no direct mention of the Virgin Mary either). The first person to discover the empty tomb is not even mentioned in Paul’s list of Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. Haag argues that it’s as if she was airbrushed out of the official account of the Early Church. She’s not mentioned even once in Acts, despite the Early Church seeing her as “the apostle to the apostles”. After the first few chapters, the focus is entirely on Paul. Mary Magdalene, as someone close to the living Jesus (whom Paul never knew), was perhaps an inconvenience to the newly developing religion, Haag suggests.

What about her unusual name? Haag disposes of the idea that she was from Magdala; no such place existed in either Old or New Testament times. A 5th-century Byzantine copyist altered “the coasts of Magadan” to “the coasts of Magdala” in Matthew 15, and we’ve been stuck with the misidentification ever since. In any case, she’s not called “Mary of Magadan”, let alone “Mary of Magdala” in the Gospels, but “Mary the Magdalene” as if it’s a title. Haag suggests it’s a nickname given by Jesus, in the same way as Simon was called Peter the rock, or James and John called Boanerges, Sons of Thunder.

Magdal (Aramaic) and migdal (Hebrew) mean “tower”. Jewish shepherds built towers to oversee their flocks, and fishermen on Galilee had a tower as a lighthouse or beacon – so “Mary the magdal” had “a powerful name” which reflected her helping to protect Jesus’s flock and being a beacon, an illuminator. It’s speculation, but as likely as any other explanation.

We tend to have a somewhat simplistic view of the Holy Land at the time of Jesus: a country of Jewish farmers and fishermen ruled by their Roman overlords. But it was far more complex and diverse than that. While exploring the story of Mary Magdalene, Haag paints a vibrant picture of the country at the time. Only about half of the million-strong population of the Holy Land were Jewish; the rest were Greeks, Canaanites and others. And only a minority of Jews were actually in Roman Judea; there were many Jews in Antioch in Syria, and in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome; there were maybe as many as a million Jews in Egypt, with 200,000 in Alexandria alone. And like the rest of the population of the Middle East, many of these were Hellenised, speaking and reading Greek rather than Hebrew. Mary Magdalene was more likely than not to be a Hellenised Jew, Haag argues: middle class, cultured and well off.

Mary Magdalene’s supposed relics (like those of many others) have a tangled history. The Golden Legend says that she was put in a boat without rudder or sail, and ended up on the south coast of France. After converting the governor of the province and building some churches, she retired to her cave in the wilderness for the next 30-odd years.

She was buried by St Maximin at Aix-en-Provence – only to be dug up and taken off to the abbey at Vezelay in Burgundy in AD 769. Or was she? Because by 1279 she’d reappeared in the church at St Maximin-la-Ste-Baume, some 25 miles from Aix – albeit a different St Maximin.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene wanders off into speculation in places, but on the whole it’s a well-researched and well-argued case for looking at the Magdalene with fresh eyes. As a bonus, the book is beautifully illustrated throughout with artwork from ancient to modern, though unfortunately only the Kindle edition has colour.