Who was Mary Magdalene Really? Part Two

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A recap: Scene in a cafe. I am waiting for the barista to make my daily flat white when her friend arrives to say “hi.” Barista and I have been chatting about Mary Magdalene and “fake news.” Barista to friend: “You went to Catholic school. Who is Mary Magdalene?” Friend (looking back and forth at Barista and me): “Um. I think we learned about her in Social Studies…Jesus’s wife? No? A prostitute?”

It will be remembered from my earlier post on Mary Magdalene that, when Pope Gregory I delivered an Easter Homily in 591CE, he collapsed into the figure of the Magdalene other Marys mentioned in the Gospels. His message? “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary [the Magdalene] from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” 

Time for the Eastern Church to weigh in.

Who was Mary Magdalene historically, or, as I prefer to put it, in her own life? Outside fragmented and disputed Gnostic texts,  she never spoke for herself on the record although the canonical Gospel narratives, which place her and other women disciples at the Empty Tomb where Jesus had been buried, give her a few lines. Hours before that transfigurative moment, moreover, she had been among other women who, “observing from a distance,” kept vigil at the scene of the Crucifixion, at Golgotha, Place of a Skull. (All the male disciples had fled into hiding, fearing their arrest. Matthew 26:56) For months, women such as these had been among the followers of Jesus  during his brief earthly ministry “and attended on him when he was in Galilee” [Mark 15:41] We don’t know when or how Mary Magdalene, drawn into Jesus’s magnetic orbit, had left her home and situation in Magdala to join with others in sharing their material goods and even money for the sustenance of the disciples [Luke 8:3], clearly women of some means and independence.(That is, acting as deaconesses.)

Reports of Jesus’s healing ministry among the humble – the halt, the lame, the leprous, the epileptic and the mentally distraught – had reached them or perhaps they had even witnessed the miracles. “And certain women [were with Him] who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities – Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons.” [Luke 8:2]

So, from the succinct not to say scant Gospel record, certain biographical details may be deduced. Because Jewish women could inherit if no male siblings survived, because Magdala on the Sea of Galilee was an important urban centre trading in dyed fabrics and salted fish, because archaeological excavations in Magdala have revealed immersion pools, likely attached to the synagogue but possibly baptismal connected with followers of John the Baptist , we might construe a back story for Mary Magdalene such as offered by James McGrath in What Jesus Learned from Women. She was a successful businesswoman in the fabric dyeing trade with neither spouse nor parents and male siblings still living but with the means to be a benefactor [McGrath 229]. She was literate and numerate, a quick study in the news from Galilee concerning prophecies, miracles and instruction through parables, but, for all her self-sufficiency, she was afflicted by infirmities unspecified. Perhaps the hope of healing drew her out of her circumstances to follow the man who would call her, respectfully, Mary of Magdala, her own woman, neither mother nor wife of anyone. This back story, McGrath summarizes as having “set the stage for her role as supporter, disciple, and a proclaimer  of the good news about Jesus….” [McGrath 242]

The Prophet Jonah: “A great sea-monster appeared straightway by divine providence, and swallowed him up. For three days and nights he was found in its belly and he prayed, saying the words, “I cried aloud in my affliction unto the Lord my God…” The sea-monster then vomited him up on dry land.” https://www.goarch.org/chapel/saints?contentid=213

Satisfied by this portrait of the woman before she became a Saint, I was nevertheless nonplussed by the absence of any standard Orthodox affirmation of any of it. Wasn’t Orthodoxy interested in who Mary Magdalene might have/could have been as a historical, nonhagiographic, figure? I put the question to my go-to source for all things Orthodox, Right Reverend Fr Roman Bozyk, Dean at the Faculty of Theology, St Andrew’s College at the University of Manitoba.

“How does the Orthodox Church view the value of archaeology, archival research, anthropology, linguistics, what have you, in establishing the material history of our faith?” His response (from my notes of a telephone chat): “We don’t get excited about archaeology and so on. Science is secondary to faith. We don’t need this type of ‘proof.’ But we are very supportive of genuine knowledge of the sciences. We don’t require of our faith that a human being really can live inside a fish for three days.The important detail is that Jonah was vomited up ‘on the third day.'”

Me: “What about the demons that tormented Mary Magdalene – what does the Orthodox Church teach about the nature of demonic possession?”

Fr Roman took me by surprise (clearly I did not grasp the the theology of this) with his blunt answer: “We believe angels and demons exist. Some people overdo the ‘angels,’ forgetting that only three or four show up in Scripture. Some are real demons, or vices, or mental illnesses. For the afflicted: first rest, then pray, and if still unwell, see a doctor.”

Finally concerning Mary Magdalene’s role as one of the Myrrh-bearers, I wondered what exactly the women were so intent on doing as they approached the tomb with herbs, spices and aromatic oil. Jesus had been buried, but hastily, before Sabbath, and the women had come to do the anointing properly. Fr Roman: “It’s the family that does the anointing of the dead and women who complete the prayers and raise their voices in ritual lamentation. The myrrh-bearers saw themselves as having the status to do this as intimate sisters of the new family. Remember also the woman who anointed Christ’s feet before his journey toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion.”

White Angel icon in monastery in Mileševa, Serbia

Women have tended the bodies of their dead since time immemorial. So here they are, very early on the Sunday morning after the Friday of the crucifixion and the Saturday/Sabbath, prepared to anoint Jesus where he had been laid. Among them were his mother, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. At the tomb,  they are confronted by an angel who is seated on the massive stone that was now rolled away from the tomb’s mouth. “Right there,” continued Fr Roman, “was the Good News: no Angel would have sat in the presence of the King, but sitting he was, for ‘He is not here.”

But, but, I had still not come across a source from Orthodox scholarship deeply interested in who Mary Magdalene was in her own life. “Science is secondary to faith.” Had Orthodox thinkers, in foregrounding her life in the Church as a Saint, a Myrrh-bearer, a Witness to the Resurrection, ceded the study of a putative historical Magdalene to the scientists and cultists? Ceded her story to students of Biblical archaeology, scholars of Palestinian sociology and archivists of Galilean commerce, who have brought into focus a Magdalene present in the new community of the followers of Jesus, active in that ministry before she is present at the Cross?


“Despite the fact that legally a woman’s testimony at that time was considered invalid, the authors of the four gospels all make women the primary witnesses to the most important event of Christianity.” (Heidi Schlumpf, “Who framed Mary Magdalene?”]

Me: “Fr Roman, do you think the Eastern Church truly ‘gets’ Mary Magdalene in these terms?”

Fr Roman: “Truly Orthodox theology ‘gets’ Mary Magdalene but maybe not the actual Orthodox in the pews.”


For us in the pews, Mary Magdalene makes three appearance in the Gospels: she is delivered from seven demons, she joins and supports Jesus’s ministry [Luke8:2,3]; she is present at the Crucifixion and Entombment [Matt 27:55-61]; she is first to see the Risen Lord [Mark 16:9 and John 20:1-18]. So, if we are paying attention, we will have learned of a remarkable woman disciple who has entered into the history of the Church, East and West. Introduced as well as “she who was not believed” by her fellow disciples – “and their [the myrrh-bearers’] words seemed to them like idle tales” – who rush tripping over themselves to see if the Tomb really is empty. (Reader, it is.) Neither Luke nor Mark nor Matthew mention that any of the male disciples had witnessed the Crucifixion let alone the Resurrection. It is to women that the Angel speaks, it is to a woman that the Risen Christ reveals himself. Eva Catafygiotu Topping pretty much sums it up: “From a woman’s lips first came the good news of love’s triumph over evil and death, the good news of life and liberation for all of God’s children. Christianity’s first apostle, a leader in the primitive Christian Church, a pioneer in the struggle to build a new earth, St. Mary Magdalene wears the brightest of halos.”

Honoring the Ancient Myrrhbearers  modernmyrrhbearers.com

Mary Magdalene also has her moments in Liturgies celebrated by the Orthodox Church. And here too we in the pews will learn of her as Myrrh-bearer and Apostle to the Apostles, but not necessarily on Sundays (which is after all “the centre of all prayer,” Fr Roman reminds us) when the pews are most full. Mark 16:9 – “Now, rising early on the first day of the Sabbath-week, [Jesus] appeared first to Mary Magdalene…” –  is officially read at Matins on the Feast of the Ascension “but this is seldom done in today’s parishes.” If we’re lucky we will hear of Mary Magdalene early in the evening of Holy Saturday (before Easter Sunday) but Jesus’s  joyous proclamation to Mary, “Rejoice!” [Matthew 28:9] is squeezed in just before the midnight proclamation from the pulpit: “Christ is Risen!” I’ve been there, standing with a small crowd at the cathedral doors in deepest, darkest midnight, as the priest knocks with a heavy crucifix on the closed doors until they are opened – all lights and candles blazing within – and we walk in, representing the Myrrh-bearing women. Who knew?

I was grateful for a footnote in the Orthodox Study Bible, that tells me “‘Rejoice is the first word of the risen Christ, a common greeting here filled with great blessing.” He repeats the proclamation “Rejoice!” to the Myrrh-bearing women on the evening of Easter Sunday. (However, other, newer, translations have Jesus hailing Mary and her companions plainly: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’”)


On the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, the Magdalene, Jesus’s faithful and inseparable disciple, has a commemoration all to herself, not only as a Myrrh-bearer but also as Equal to the Apostles, a term once used only in the Orthodox Church to denote Saints who contributed as much as the Apostles to the enlightenment of the whole world. But on June 3, 2016, the Vatican announced that the liturgical celebration of “the memorial of St Mary Magdalene” was now raised to the dignity of  Feast, the same rank given to the liturgical celebration of the Apostles.

So now East and West are on the same page again.

Mary Magdalene has had an afterlife in the Church, East and West, mainly in traditions that continue her life story well beyond the Gospels and hymns and iconography. According to one Holy Tradition, she accompanied the apostles, who had left Jerusalem, “to preach to all the ends of the earth,” herself making her way to Rome and then, from Rome, “already bent with age, moved to Ephesus where the holy Apostle John unceasingly labored. There the saint finished her earthly life and was buried.” (I’ve been in Ephesus, I’ve viewed St John’s burial place but there was nothing to indicate – admittedly from a Turkish tourist board – she has likewise been interred in the vicinity.) The Holy Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt Athos in Greece preserved the still-warm hand believed to be that of Mary Magdalene, a relic unfortunately carried off by pirates in 1747.


But a beloved Tradition that tells of Mary in Rome is represented in another very popular icon of the Saint. In place of the jar of  fragrant oil, she delicately holds a red egg. “Tradition teaches that when Mary first met the Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar, she held a plain egg in her hand and greeted him with the words, ‘Christ is risen!’ Tiberius exclaimed: ‘How can someone rise from the dead? This is hard to believe. It is just as likely that Christ rose from the dead as it is that the egg you are holding will turn red.’ Even as he spoke, the egg turned a brilliant red! She then preached the good news of Jesus Christ to the emperor and the imperial household.” A blogger adds: “To this day, the Byzantine church commemorates this legend with the exchange of red eggs. If you look closely at one of the many dinner scenes in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ you will see characters tapping each other’s red eggs as if they are toasting with wine-glasses.” I’ve been at an Easter Sunday feast in the Greek countryside, the guest of a group of Communists; true to form the kids went around smashing red eggs. If one is dealing with metaphors, perhaps this was a game of “Smash the  bourgeoisie.”

This is all charming, But I have to ask myself how these traditions or Traditions add to the honour and prestige in which the Church holds her? But that is not the right question. People tell these stories, for they are full of wonder: how Mary Magdalene returns to Palestine to live with the Theotokos (Mother of God) who in other versions had moved to a modest house near Ephesus which one can visit still; how the Magdalene suffered persecution in Ephesus and was exiled to Marseilles, of all places.

But there is another iconographic subject, East and West, that I find more deeply satisfying, one more poignant and infused with the profound humanity of Mary Magdalene’s mission, namely – back to the Gospels for a moment –  the scene at at the Resurrection often represented in the West as Noli Me Tangere [John 20:1617]

I’m looking at an art postcard of Giotto’s La resurrezione of 1304-1306 (a fresco in the Chapel of the Scorovegni, Padua, Italy). Giotto has focussed on the moment when the resurrected Christ has spoken her name, “Mary,” and, in full, devastating recognition of his voice, and then of his risen body standing before her, she cries out “‘Rabbouni,” which means  Teacher.” [John 20:16]


There are several figures in this fresco, two Angels in white garments, winged and haloed, seated comfortably on a marble slab; four sleeping men in drab clothing (not in John but perhaps guardians or wardens modelled after men Giotto dragged in off the street); Christ in white robes and holding aloft a fluttering standard (I can’t make out the lettering). And, not quite at dead centre but the focus of our gaze, Mary, in luminous red from haloed head to foot. This cloak covers her kneeling posture in profile to us, her two arms reaching out – “Rabbouni!” – as Christ, already turning, his right foot making the pivot away from her as his right arm and hand keep her distant even as his lovely head is still turned toward her, inclined toward her: “Do not hold on to me.” [John 20:17] Noli Me Tangere.

          Russian icon /www.holyart.com

The fourteenth century in Italian painting was still close enough to Byzantine influence that one can see the same moment represented in Orthodox iconography – the same positioning of the figures of Mary and Christ, the same small pivot of His left foot, the same bright red of Mary’s cloak. But peeking out from under her robe are her arms clothed in blue. For his part, in Orthodox icons Christ is draped in red and blue. But notice which colour is closer to the figure’s body. Fr Roman again: “Some Orthodox understand that Red is the colour of Divinity and Blue is the colour of Humanity. So, the icons of Christ have red closer to His body, seen as Christ as Eternal God;  and blue on top as God who took on a human body.” Conversely the Magdalene has blue as the first layer (her humanity shared with us ) and red her outer garment, signalling her transformation as Apostle and Saint.

Giotto paints Christ entirely in white garments, like an Angel. (“WHITE: Typically represents purity and divinity. It is seen on angels, babies, and the shroud of the dead. Christ after his death is shown in white as well.”) Byzantine iconography  never fundamentally changed this suite of colours, figures and stylized landscape. (At the time of Giotto’s work, Byzantium had 150 years more as a shrinking empire in the eastern Mediterranean before it flared out in the brilliance of the so-called Palaiologan Renaissance, the final period in the development of Byzantine art. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.) But East or West, this is the moment of the Magdalene’s transformation from disciple to Apostle to the Apostles, for Christ’s next words to her are: “But go to my brothers and say to them…”

As discussed in Part One of this blog post about the “framing” of Mary Magdalene, the Western Church would develop another sequence of imagery of the Magdalene as the repentant prostitute who, purified, joins Jesus on his Path. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Brunig finds in her story “that great medieval hope – uniting spiritual virtue with deep sensuality.” She writes of the gradual development of “a less corporeal, more ethereal spirituality” in both Protestant and Roman Catholic veneration, so much so that Reformation theology sees Mary Magdalene as “an example of the universality of the sinful condition.”

The Orthodox tradition, cleaving much closer to the Scriptural sources, presents us a much different and in many ways simpler Magdalene. Healed of what ailed her, she becomes a follower of Jesus, one of many women who, of independent means, help finance the needs of the mission. She displays enough moral fortitude to keep vigil at the Cross and enough spiritual vulnerability to apprehend the Risen Christ. No fallen state of whorishness is necessary nor abject penitence nor an elevation to the ethereal to establish her dignity among the Apostles and as a saint of the (Orthodox) Church.

Granted, I sometimes feel that the very sacredness ascribed by Eastern Christian theology to iconographic images renders the Magdalene precisely as a creature of elevated ethereality beyond her lived life – her hieratic pose, her generic Christian piety that betrays no particular personality, the repetition, age after age, so that we recognize her instantly, modestly cloaked in red, her head covered, and her hands holding a cross and an ornate jar of ointment.

Mary Magdalene © Shanelle Callaghan

But that’s the power of icons, writes Dr Wilma Tommaso, they have the gift o “converting the profane into the sacred,” the hinge that swings between the person at prayer and the Divine. And thus an icon, even of Mary Magdalene, full of humanity, “cannot be the object of free interpretation by the artists.” But now and then she breaks into our own time still bearing the old, old message, as the late Orthodox theologian Fr Alexander Schmemann reminded us in a sermon about the significance of the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women, that it “calls us to ensure that in this world love and faithfulness do not disappear or die out.”

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1 year ago

Wow Myrna, quite the erudite piece! It is curious how the Giotto painting and the Russian icon have Jesus in almost the same stance…

Helen Ible
Helen Ible
1 year ago

Fascinating work, Myrna, to give us a portrait of a virtuous woman, in her humanity and her glory.

Alice Major
Alice Major
1 year ago

Fascinating, Myrna. One of the many interesting tidbits is the colour iconography, and I’m intrigued by the idea that in Eastern traditions, red can be the colour of divinity, and yet the western tradition of “Scarlet Woman” would seem to indicate the opposite. Mary, with her red egg, seems to be both, depending on who is looking at her.