Mary Magdalene

Our reading today inspired my subject this morning: Mary Magdalene. According to all the gospels she is present at Jesus’ death, and the first to witness the resurrection. What I want to explore today is why? Why Mary Magdalene? And why did God choose a woman as witness to the key moments of our whole faith?


Mark 16: 9-16

There are many of you sitting here today who wouldn’t consider themselves women’s liberationists, I’m sure. But the last 100 years have wrought huge changes to our society, and because of others’ battles our lives are very different now. It is now so normal for women to be involved in politics, we have our second female Prime Minister. Women have equal rights in law – we can own property in our own right, our salaries come to our own bank accounts, not those of our husbands. We marry – or we don’t, and we are still thought of as normal. Spinsters are no longer life’s rejects. But God was 2,000 years ahead of us in the battle for women’s equality. He chose a woman to witness both Jesus’s death and his resurrection. What should we learn from this?

Going back to Mary Magdalene’s own time, she was an unmarried woman who followed Jesus and the twelve disciples around – a woman, with a gang of men, on the road! She was Jewish: this was radical behaviour in a religion where women were not allowed to talk to any men who were not relatives; even now in traditional synagogues, they are segregated, women sit upstairs unable to pray alongside men. And they were living under Roman rule, where a woman wasn’t even considered to be a person. In law, they were their father’s or husband’s property. They could not own property. Women were considered too subject to their emotions to judge things rationally, so weren’t trustworthy to make important decisions – a state of affairs that lasted for nearly two millennia.

Yet God entrusted Mary Magdalene to be the main witness to His son’s death and resurrection. As Christians we know His plans is perfect. So why Mary Magdalene? What was He trying to tell us?

What do we know about Mary Magdalene?

She’s certainly inspired huge creativity: artists, poets, novelists, film-makers. But in most art, including The Passion of the Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, and umpteen classical paintings Mary is viewed as the fallen woman whom Christ redeemed.

You may remember Dan Brown’s bestselling thriller, The Da Vinci Code. It claimed that the lost Gospels not included in the books that form our Bible today would have revealed that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and they had a child whose holy descendants are still around today. The marriage was a work of pure fiction, of course, but there are lost Gospels which reveal her as a significant leader of the early church.

Mary is a common name in the Bible – I’m sure you can think of at least three. Unfortunately by the 6th century they all got rolled into one – the four women who anointed Jesus, and the prostitute mentioned in Luke 7:36-50. Even Pope Gregory the Great preached on this in 591 and Mary Magdalene became known as a penitent woman of dubious morality. It’s a good story, but it’s not Mary Magdalene’s story, and biblical scholars today reject this interpretation.

Interestingly, the Eastern Church never identified her as a prostitute, but honored her throughout history as “the Apostle to the Apostles”.

Gospel sources

So what do we know of her from the Bible?

She is the second most frequently named woman in the New Testament after Mary the mother of Jesus.

She’s called Mary Magdalene in all four gospels. In scholarly terms this is called multiple attestation, which means there is credible historical evidence that she existed. But how many other surnames can you think of in the Bible? To begin with, women were rarely named at all in ancient texts. If they were, it is because they were socially prominent, and most were still named in relationship to the men in their lives. Nothing in the Gospels suggests Mary is married, she’s never described as a widow, and there’s no mention of children. She’s one of a band of ‘women [who] were helping to support the [disciples] out of their own means.’ – so Mary M may have been a woman of independent wealth.

It seems likely that since she is associated with Magdala, a place on the shores of Galilee about 120 miles north of Jerusalem, she came from there. Magdala means Tower, which suggests a certain strength. If Peter was Jesus’s rock, was Mary his Tower? Interpreters since the time of Saint Jerome have suggested that Mary was called Magdalene because of her stature and faith.

Within the four Gospels she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles, all but once in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Uniquely among the followers of Jesus, she is specified by name (though not consistently by any one gospel) as a witness to four key events: Jesus’ crucifixion, his burial, the discovery that his tomb was empty, and most important of all, Jesus’s first resurrection appearance.

In Luke chapter 8 we see the only time that Mary Magdalene is mentioned not the in the context of Jesus’s end days: here she is accompanying him as he teaches the parable of the seeds, as one of ‘some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases’. Luke also mentions the seven demons, similar to the passage from Mark read today. This has been interpreted as meaning a Satanic exorcism, but to first century ears, this meant only that Mary had been cured of serious illness, not spiritual warfare. Illness was seen as an evil spirit, according to biblical scholars. The number seven in Biblical terms signifies completeness, so her illness was either chronic or very severe.

Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 all mention Mary Magdalene specifically as one of the women who witnessed the crucifixion.

In Matthew 27: 60-61 and Mark 15: 46-47 she is witness to Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus in the tomb:
Next morning, she then witnesses the EMPTY TOMB, according to Matthew, Mark and John. After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb, and she sees the earth move, literally:

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it
Matthew 28:1-2

Angels speak to them, tell them Jesus has risen, and to go see the place where he was laid for themselves.

John 20:1 describes Mary Magdalene discovering the tomb was empty, and running to fetch Peter and John.


In all the gospels, Mary Magdalene is first witness to the resurrection, either with other women as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, or alone, as in John, where Jesus exhorts her to go and tell his brothers to go to Galilee, where they will see him.

She does so, but significantly ‘they did not believe it’ – a foretaste of what was to come, perhaps. When Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples later, he rebuked them for their lack of faith

Significantly, he said: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Mary was the first believer [in the resurrected Christ]. He then lists the signs of a true believer – the ability to dismiss evil, speak in tongues, touch the untouchable, the ability to heal. Do we still believe in all this today? As true believers, we should.

The fullest account of Mary’s role after discovering the empty tomb is in John. Having gone to tell the disciples and not been believed, Peter and John return with her to see the empty tomb, to see for themselves.

It is Mary Magdalene’s most significant moment. She is in floods of tears and can’t see who is asking her who it is she is looking for, whether it is the angels or the “gardener”. She is desperate to find out where Jesus is, and doesn’t recognize the voice until He calls her by name, when she calls out “Rabbouni”. She then did what you do to someone you love and have missed – hugged him.

Jesus then says “Don’t hold on to me.” This isn’t an admonition, it’s because she has a more important task in front of her. She has a great commission – to go and tell others that He has risen from the dead.
A new concept in our faith developed, which had nothing to with what Jesus himself was preaching, and this is the concept that Jesus didn’t die – or he did, but he was raised from the dead. This is the basis of our Christian faith. And it is Mary Magdalene who first reveals this.

Jesus’ resurrection was the turning point for Christianity. This was when it changed from a small movement to a whole new religion.

The gospels were written from memory 35-65 years after Jesus’s death. I don’t know about you but my memories of events 40 years ago tend to be the highlights only. From these gospels we can conclude that Mary Magdalene was a highlight, a leading figure among those who followed Jesus.

Apocryphal sources

It was not until the fourth century that the list of canonized books we now know as the New Testament was established. The early church taught using other texts that were not accepted into the canon, and are known as apocryphal sources. But from these we have learnt a lot more about Mary Magdalene’s significance in the Christian movement.

In a Cairo bazaar in 1896, a German scholar came across a curious papyrus book, written in Coptic, – the Gospel of Mary. Set some time after the resurrection, it tells of disciples who have just had a vision of Jesus encouraging them to go out and preach his teachings to the world, but they are afraid to do so in case they are killed like him. In this book, it’s Mary Magdalene who steps up and tells them not to worry, He promised he would protect them. She is the leader, explaining Jesus’s teachings to the other disciples. Perhaps this was just too radical. But then again, remember this is how the Eastern Orthodox Church has always presented her – as the apostle to the apostles.

In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, in southern Egypt, two men came across a sealed ceramic jar in which there was a hoard of ancient papyrus books. Although they never received as much public attention as the Dead Sea Scrolls, these actually turned out to be much more important for writing the history of early Christianity. They were a cache of other Christian texts. including the Gospel of Philip.

In Philip, Mary Magdalene is presented as one of Jesus’ followers, but described as his koinônos, a Greek word variously translated in contemporary versions as partner, associate, comrade, companion. She is presented as a symbol of wisdom. When the other disciples at times seem confused, she is the one who understands His word.

I mention these apocryphal texts because they present further evidence of her historical significance – she is portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement whom Jesus loved and saw as significant. Mary ‘gets’ him more than any of the other disciples. Although they’re not Biblical texts, experts still believe that they give us significant insights into Christian history.

So to sum up, she wasn’t a prostitute, didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet, and wasn’t married to Jesus. What is not disputed is that Mary Magdalene is an important woman leader and witness in the earliest Christian Churches.

She was unconventional. She doesn’t fit the image of the subservient woman in the ancient world. She challenges all the stereotypes – don’t you just love a rebel? What’s most suprising, perhaps, is that Jesus seems to affirm her in this. Not once does he criticise Mary Magdalene as he did others of his inner circle: Peter, James, John and even his own mother.

That the message of the Resurrection was first entrusted to women is regarded by scripture scholars as strong proof for the historical truth of the Resurrection accounts. Had they been fabricated, women would never have been chosen as witnesses, since Jewish law did not acknowledge the testimony of women. That God first entrusted the proclamation of the Resurrection to a woman tells me that while human beings discriminate, God doesn’t.

In an age when women were not viewed as men’s equals, and had no rights, the message comes across loud and clear.

Jesus is for everyone.

What Jesus did often surprises us. He thought children were important. He reassured the repentant thief hanging on the cross next to him that later they would be in paradise together. And he (as part of God’s perfect plan) validated 50% of the world’s population, the half historically invalidated for so long, and by so many cultures, faiths and times, by choosing a woman to witness the most important parts of the Christian faith – Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection. To have been at one of these events would have made you theologically important, to be at all is significant: what a privilege.

I hope I have managed to convey why He chose Mary.

She was a willing and faithful servant who knew it was better to give than to receive.
Mary Magdalene loved Jesus deeply – with all her heart and soul. She followed him everywhere, and understood his teachings. Can we not learn from her utter belief, persistence and enthusiasm?

Mary was an extraordinary person, not just because she was a woman. I hope I haven’t alienated the other half of the population here, that was not my intention, I just wanted to make you think, and see that the real point of choosing Mary is to show that Jesus is for everyone.

Jesus is for all of us, young or old, male or female, the powerful and the powerless, regardless of race or religion. Jesus was for sinners as well as those who think their behaviour is good.

Jesus is for everyone, and I say Thank God for that, Amen.

Wendy SuffieldPosted on Tuesday, 1st May, 2018 by Wendy Suffield (based on her talk in church on Sunday morning 29th April).

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