Solving the Mystery of the Bible's Most Controversial Character, Mary Magdalene

The penitent Mary Magdalene. Wikimedia Commons.

While Mary Magdalene might seem like a minor figure in the Gospels, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that she was actually very important in the life of Jesus. From the passage from Luke, it’s obvious that Mary helped support Jesus’ ministry financially. But she was also one of his first followers. And in many ways, she was one of his most devoted disciples. After all, Mary shows up at many of the most important moments in Jesus’ life. When Jesus is crucified, many of his disciples abandon him.

Mary is also mentioned specifically as being present at the crucifixion and refusing to leave Jesus’ side at the moment of his death. Mary then follows Jesus’ body as it is laid to rest in a tomb. And in the Gospel of Mark, it’s Mary who brings perfume to anoint his body, an important part of Jewish burial traditions at the time. In three of the Gospels, Mary is even mentioned as the first person that the resurrected Jesus appears to. He then instructs her to tell the other disciples, making her an “apostle to the apostles.”

The fact that in the Gospel tradition it is Mary that Jesus chooses to appear to instead of any other disciple implies that Mary had a central role in his life and ministry. And the fact that it is Mary who sticks by him to the end says a lot about her as a person. It suggests that Mary was a much more important figure in the early church than has been passed down in the Gospels. But part of the problem when one tries to get a handle on who Mary really was is that the Bible is really one of the only sources of evidence for her life.

And the Bible itself wasn’t written to serve as a historical document. The Gospels were written to provide religious instruction. And the authors of the Gospels were each trying to push a specific interpretation of Jesus and his life based on their audience. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, was written for a Jewish audience and stresses Jesus’ role as a fulfillment of the promised Jewish Messiah. Meanwhile, John was written for a later, gentile audience and stresses the divinity of Jesus and his role as a savior for everyone.

Jesus appearing to Mary after the resurrection. Wikimedia Commons.

But written at a time when women were widely regarded as inferior to men, none of the authors of the Gospels were eager to play up the possible role of Mary Magdalene as one of the Jesus’ disciples. But there were also other gospels written around the same time that didn’t make their way into the official canon of the Bible. And in many of these “apocryphal,” or hidden gospels, Mary plays a much more important role in the early Church. And some have even seen evidence in them that she may have had a romantic relationship with Jesus. But is this true?