Monday, July 22, 2013

St. Mary Magdalene: How the Apostle to the Apostles Subverts Patriarchy

By Meghan Clark

Note: This commentary was first published June 22, 2013 by Millennial: Young Catholics, An Ancient Faith, A New Century.

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles.

Who was Mary Magdalene? Few women in Christian history seem to be surrounded by as much scandal, rumors, and drama. Why?

I grew up steeped in Catholicism and Catholic culture. And so it was a complete shock when in my first semester at Fordham I learned there is no biblical evidence to support the claim Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Why hadn’t I heard this before? In what was perhaps my first intellectual encounter with patriarchy, I learned that art and culture had conflated an unnamed prostitute and Mary Magdalene – but there was absolutely no historical evidence supporting that move. For millennia, much has been made of the juxtaposition of Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene — the virgin and the whore.

But what do we actually know about Mary Magdalene?

According to Luke,

Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve (2) and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, (3) Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.

And so we know that she was part of a loyal group of women following Jesus, providing resources, and healed. So great was her faith and discipleship, that we know she was at the crucifixion and one of the women who followed Jesus’ body to see it properly attended. She is one of the first to find the empty tomb – being instructed in Mark to go and tell the others.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. (2) Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. (3) They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (4) When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. (5) On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. (6) He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. (7) But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”

And in John’s Gospel, it is Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus appears and gives a mission:

But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb (12) and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. (13) And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” (14) When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. (15) Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” (16) Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (17) Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (18) Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her.

And thus, she receives the title Apostle to the Apostles.

From medieval art to The Da Vinci Code, men throughout Christian history have desperately tried to sexualize and lessen the witness of Mary Magdalene. Like most of the women in the Bible, we are only given brief highlights and not much detail about their lives. What we are told about Mary Magdalene, however, subverts patriarchy. She is a model of fidelity to the Lord for all of us – she stayed when all but the “beloved disciple” fled. She is not a repentant whore or foil to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a faithful disciple who stays with her Lord until the bitter end and after – a witness who proclaims the gospel.

And so on this July 22, let us celebrate a woman who subverted patriarchy and proclaims the gospel in spite of all our tradition’s attempts to make her into someone less strong, less independent, less dangerous to the patriarchal narrative.


Image: Writes Janet McKenzie of her painting, “Apostle to the Apostles” (the third panel in her Succession of Mary Magdalene series):

The Gospel of John tells us that the Risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and told her “Go to my brothers and tell them I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). She is seen here as in medieval paintings of her as preacher with the characteristic gesture of forefinger raised toward the heavens, proclaiming the Resurrection to Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved.” The Beloved Disciple, who is sometimes understood as a symbol for the Johannine community, is listening to her but Peter is not.

See also the previous PCV post:
A Homily for the Feast of Mary Magdalene
Roy Bourgeois: "The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood is a Grave Injustice"

Related Off-site Link:
Mary of MagdalaThe Wild Reed (June 22, 2008).


  1. Mary of Magdala in Scripture is mentioned as a seller of "purple cloth" which was a rare fabric color - worn only by royalty. She is a single woman - therefore, considered a "sinner" by the Pharisees - without basis other than appearances and status. Our early Christian Church INTENTIONALLY degraded her as a prostitute to maintain male domination in the Jewish tradition. She was BELOVED of Jesus - so loved that He appeared to her FIRST and sent her to tell the others (thus, He made her an APOSTLE, just as he did Paul - Apostle means one who is sent with a message/mission). Yet, early Church Fathers sinned against Jesus and the Holy Spirit by making her appear less worthy - a mere prostitute. Two thousand years later - this sin against God continues with the refusal by the "Holy" Catholic Church in refusing women their vocations as ordained priestesses ! Do they not "fear" their God ?

  2. I've always thought it more than interesting that Jesus chose to first appear to Mary Magdalene, and she refers to Jesus as her 'teacher'. Why not first appear to His mother or any one of the Apostles? I have to believe the reason was to affirm Mary Magdalene in her understanding of just who Jesus was and what He was teaching. Same reason Mary sees 'angels' at the tomb. She understood what Jesus meant with His teachings about the Kingdom.

    In reading the Gospel of Thomas, one also sees a similar emphasis on Mary's deeper understanding of Jesus' teachings--and Peter's jealousy of her relationship with Jesus. Given that, it shouldn't be shocking that the New Testament does not include the Gospel of Thomas.

  3. 1. In 594, Pope Gregory named MM as a prostitute. This was carried forward by Catholicism until the 1960s when the Vatican finally admitted very quietly that they'd messed this one up big time.
    2. Jesus never named Saul/Paul to anything. They never met = Saul/Paul NEVER KNEW JESUS, and for years after the Crucifixion, Saul/Paul's greatest joy was persecuting the early believers. Saul/Paul was self-nominated and self-declared as an apostle.
    3. MM was one of the disciples who became an apostle to the apostles. Simon Peter, Andrew, and some of the other guys hated that, and the submersion of her worth and her work has continued until VERY recently....