Mary Magdalene

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Mary Magdalene

(măg`dələn; formerly, and still in Magdalen College, Oxford, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, môd`lən, hence maudlin, i.e., tearful) [traditionally Greek,=of MagdalaMagdala
, in the New Testament, home of Mary Magdalene. It is identified with Migdal, Israel, a town on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the neighboring site of the former Arab village of Al-Majdal.
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], Christian saint, a woman widely venerated in Christendom. The name Madeleine is a French form of Magdalene. She appears in the New Testament as a woman whose evil spirits are cast out by Jesus, as a watcher at the Cross, as an attendant at Jesus' burial, and as one of those who found the tomb empty (Mat. 27.56,61; 28; Mark 15.47; 16; Luke 8.2; 24; John 19.25; 20). Long-standing tradition identified her with the repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7.36–50), and some also have identified her with the sister of Martha (Luke 10.38). Both of these traditions, however, are not justified by the texts of the canonical Gospels. Because of the legend (held completely improbable by the Roman Catholic Church) that St. Mary Magdalene lived in penitence at Sainte-Baume, W Var dept., France, the grotto there became a place of pilgrimage. The principal aspect of her cult is as the penitent, hence the word Magdalen. In many of the Gnostic gospels (see GnosticismGnosticism
, dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. A.D.
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), Mary Magdalene is favored by Jesus and is among the most prominent of his disciples. Artistic representations deal particularly with her repentance, with her bathing of the feet of Jesus, and with her meeting with Jesus after the resurrection. She appears in representations of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. Frequently she is shown with red hair. Feast: July 22.
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Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus Christ. Various passages from Christian scripture demonstrate that she remained faithful to him even during his final hours. Not only did she wait at the foot of the cross, but she also attended his burial. Furthermore, each of the four biblical accounts of the first Easter records her presence at the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb. Thus her devotion earned her the extraordinary privilege of being one of the first to witness and proclaim the Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Christian scripture contains twelve separate references to Mary Magdalene. The Gospel according to Luke identifies her as a woman from whom Jesus cast out seven demons. It continues by noting that Mary Magdalene, along with several other women whom Jesus had healed, traveled about with him and the disciples, supporting them from their own resources (Luke 8:2-3).

All the other Bible passages that refer to Mary Magdalene come from accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, scriptural accounts of Jesus' life. Matthew, Mark, and John record her presence at the site of Jesus' crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). Matthew and Mark mention that she was present at Jesus' entombment as well (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47). Finally, all four Gospel writers agree that she rose early on the Sunday morning after the Crucifixion and went to Jesus'tomb, bringing with her the ointments required to give Jesus' body a proper burial. Thus Mary was among the first witnesses of the Resurrection. Mark says the risen Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-10). Matthew declares that he appeared first to Mary Magdalene and another, unspecified Mary (Matthew 28:110). Luke claims that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James received the first news of the Resurrection from an angel at the site of Jesus' empty tomb. His account also specifies that after the women received this news the risen Christ himself appeared to Peter and another male disciple as they were walking to a village called Emmaus (see also Emmaus Walk). John asserts that the risen Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene alone.

Thus the biblical portrait of Mary Magdalene depicts her as the foremost witness to the Resurrection. As the first to witness to the Resurrection Mary also became the first to proclaim the news of the risen Christ. In John and Matthew the risen Jesus himself commands her to spread word of his resurrection to the apostles.

The biblical portrait of Mary portrays her as someone whose faith in Jesus never wavered. This record of unwavering devotion may be compared to that of the disciples, most of whom appear to have deserted Jesus during his trial and execution. Peter denied his relationship with Jesus after Jesus had been seized by the religious authorities. Matthew records that only a handful of Jesus' female followers accompanied him to the cross and lists Mary Magdalene's name first among them (Matthew 27:55-56) (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Mark's account of the Crucifixion mentions three women by name and again Mary Magdalene's name heads the list. He also records the presence of unspecified others who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40). Luke states that Jesus' "acquaintances" as well as his female followers witnessed the Crucifixion, although he doesn't offer any names (Luke 23:49). John's account of those who followed Jesus to the cross names several women, including Mary Magdalene, and alludes to only one, unnamed male disciple (John 19:26-27).

The Bible reveals only one more detail about the life of Mary Magdalene. The name "Magdalene" identifies Mary as a resident of Magdala, a small town on the shores of Lake Galilee. Scholars believe that the word "Magdala" comes from migdol or migdal, the Hebrew word for "tower." Thus St. Jerome (c. 347-419 or 420) called her "Mary of the Tower," and argued that her name reflected her steadfast faith. Mary's surname set her apart from the other women who surrounded Jesus. The others are usually identified as the mother, sister, or wife of someone else. The fact that Mary Magdalene was identified by her place of origin suggests that she may have been an unusually independent woman, perhaps an unmarried woman of means who used her income to follow and support Jesus.

Mary Magdalene in the Christian East

The image of Mary Magdalene that developed among Orthodox Christians differed quite strongly from the one advanced by Western Christians, that is, Roman Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity developed in eastern Europe and the countries surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea. Orthodox Christians follow a different church calendar than that commonly adhered to by Roman Catholics and Protestants (see also Easter, Date of).

Orthodox Christians retained an image of Mary Magdalene similar to that portrayed in the Bible. She is honored as a witness to the Resurrection and accorded the titles of "Myrrhbearer" and "Equal to the Apostles." In the late fourth century Orthodox Christian leaders dedicated the second Sunday after Easter to Mary Magdalene and the other women who brought burial spices and ointments to Jesus'tomb. It is called the "Sunday of the Myrrophores," or Sunday of the Myrrh Bearers.

A well-known legend among Orthodox Christians tells that after Jesus' ascension Mary Magdalene traveled about spreading word of Jesus' resurrection. When she arrived in Rome she visited the emperor Tiberius in order to lodge a complaint against Pilate and to bear witness to the Resurrection. During her audience with the Emperor she picked up an egg from a nearby table in order to illustrate the concept of resurrection. Tiberius scoffed at her, however, declaring that a man once dead couldn't rise again to new life any more than the egg in her hand could turn red. At once the egg flushed a deep, blood red. In Orthodox religious art Mary Magdalene is often portrayed holding a red egg. Greeks and other Orthodox Christians still follow an old tradition of celebrating Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, with eggs dyed a deep, blood red.

Mary Magdalene in Western Europe

During the first several centuries after Christ's death, western European Christians began to construct a very different view of Mary Magdalene. During this era speculations about her past started to overshadow the actual biblical record of Mary's character. As commentators searched the Bible for more evidence of her background, they began to merge Mary Magdalene with several other women who knew Jesus. For example, the unnamed woman who washes and anoints Jesus' feet in a story from the Gospel according to Luke was often thought to be Mary Magdalene (Luke 7:36-50). Luke describes this woman as "a woman of the city" and "a sinner." Christian authorities in western Europe quickly assumed that this meant that the woman was sexually involved with more than one man, or perhaps a prostitute. Several sentences later, Luke introduces Mary Magdalene, a sequence of events which led many to conclude that the immoral woman and Mary Magdalene were one and the same person. The fact that in biblical times the citizens of the town of Magdala had acquired a reputation for immoral and irreverent behavior may also have influenced Bible commentators to assume that Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman were the same person. In this way western European Christians came to view Mary Magdalene as a notorious prostitute who had been cured of her inclination to pursue this way of life by Jesus Christ.

Christian officials in western Europe also assumed that Mary Magdalene and a woman identified in the Bible as Mary of Bethany were the same person. Mary of Bethany is perhaps best known for her rapt attention to Jesus' teaching as demonstrated in a story told in the Gospel according to Luke (10:38-42). In another passage Mary of Bethany also anoints Jesus'feet (John 12:3).

By blending together aspects of three women who at one time or another anointed Jesus, western European Christians created an imaginary history for Mary Magdalene. According to this history she had been a prostitute who, after having admitted her sins to Jesus, had been cured and forgiven by him. Thereafter she dedicated herself to mourning her misguided past and leading a pious and retiring life of devotion to Christ. Thus western European Christians viewed her as the primary model of repentance presented in Christian scripture. In fact, the English word "maudlin," meaning foolishly sentimental and given to tears, evolved from the word "Magdalene" and reflects the predominant image of her in Western Christianity. For close to two thousand years this vision of Mary eclipsed the biblical record of her deeds and character.

In western Europe the cult of Mary Magdalene reached its zenith in the late Middle Ages. Its increasing appeal may have been enhanced by a renewed emphasis on the virtues of repentance among western European preachers during that era. Artists continued to provide memorable representations of Mary Magdalene long after her cult declined in popularity, however. In western European religious art Mary Magdalene usually appears with the jar of ointment that she used to anoint Jesus and long, flowing golden hair, a symbol of her sexuality.

In recent decades Western Christians have begun to reevaluate their image of Mary Magdalene. In 1969 Roman Catholic Church authorities officially declared that Luke's penitent sinner, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were not the same person.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. "Mary." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993. Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. The Making of the Magdelen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. "Mary Magdalene, St." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Munro, Winsome. "Mary." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Portraro, Sam. Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1998. Schlumpf, Heidi. "Who Framed Mary Magdalene?" U.S. Catholic (April 2000). Available online at:

Web Sites

For an Orthodox perspective on Mary Magdalene, see the web site of Ortho- dox America, a magazine for American Orthodox Christians: http://www. roca. org/OA/9/9k.htm

For another Orthodox perspective on Mary Magdalene, see the page sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia: .
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Mary Magdalene

tearfully washes Christ’s feet. [N.T.: Luke 7:37–38]
See: Crying

Mary Magdalene

abjectly cleans Jesus’s feet with tears; dries them with her hair. [N.T.: Luke 7:37–50]

Mary Magdalene

repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus’s feet. [N.T.: Luke 7:36–50]

Mary Magdalene

portrayed traditionally in art as weeping; whence, maudlin. [Art: Misc.]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mary Magdalene

New Testament Saint. a woman of Magdala in Galilee whom Jesus cured of evil spirits (Luke 8:2) and who is often identified with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36--50. In Christian tradition she is usually taken to have been a prostitute. See magdalen. Feast day: July 22
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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