Mary Magdalene was born c. AD 8 (3768–3769 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Galilee. She was the most faithful witness of Jesus during his trial and crucifixion, especially when all but one (i.e., John) of the male apostles deserted him (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). Rewarded for her efforts, Mary was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:10), and John gave her a prominent role at the end of his gospel account (John 20:1-18). By the close of the second century, many theologians began calling Mary the "apostle to the apostles," starting with Hippolytus of Rome (c. AD 170–235). In total, the synoptic gospels mentioned her twelve times, which is more than the other apostles other than Simon Peter.
The Historical Magdalene
Mary was a Jewish woman from Magdala, a village that was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its full name was Magdala Nunayya or the "Magdala of the fishes". Today, this is the Israeli town of Migdal. When Jesus first encountered Mary, he exorcised seven demons from her (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). Perhaps, "seven" in this context means that Mary was fully under the influence of demons, given the number seven is a Jewish symbol for completion. However, Mark and Luke could have referred to seven literal demons. Either way, it is plausible that Mary suffered from a type of mental illness, which physicians to this day can only treat but not heal. Even the apostles noted the difficulty and the skill required to exorcise demons (Matt. 17:19-20). He probably met with Mary several times to completely heal her from the possession. The Greek word daimōn (G1142) in the first century did not yet evolve into the Christian idea of evil tormentors. They were merely spirits which could be either good, bad, or neutral. The ancients often viewed demons as moderns do germs or bacteria. Mary's possession made her ritually unclean in Magdala, thus making her an outcast. However, we do well to view her former condition like an infection rather than a vice.
Mary was not a prostitute, as an early medieval tradition claimed. This distortion began with Gregory I (c. 540–604), the bishop of Rome, in a 591 homily in which he taught, "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman [7:37-38], whom John calls Mary [12:1-8], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark [16:9; cf. Luke 8:2]." Gregory conflated Mary of Bethany, the one who anointed Jesus with her hair, with Mary of Magdala. The towns of Bethany (now, the Palestinian town of Al-Eizariya) and Magdala were 75 miles apart (120 km; see here), so it is doubtful these two passages allude to the same woman. However, even if they did, neither one mentions anything about prostitution. Gregory and other medieval theologians simply assumed this from the word "sinful," which they probably would not interpret this way about a male penitent (e.g., Luke 18:13). There is no historical value in the prostitution claim, other than a lesson in recognizing a woman's dignity rather than sexually degrading her. The gospel writers did not portray Mary as a prostitute but held her in high esteem.
Mary was one of a few women who provided for Jesus and the twelve apostles out of their means (Luke 8:1-3). This is an allusion to the Greco-Roman patronage system, in which a wealthy patron would finance the work of a lower-class artisan or performer. This is not unlike the sponsors or donors of a university in our time. Mary was at least a middle-class patron of Jesus' ministry, which means that she invested herself into it as more than a mere follower.
Apostle to the Apostles
In the first century, most Jews were called by a patronymic name such as "Daniel son of Judah". However, some were identified with either their place of origin or residence once they gained positive recognition outside of their hometown. This was why the New Testament authors wrote about "Jesus of Nazareth" instead of "Jesus son of Joseph". Thus, when the same writers alluded to Mary as being "the Magdalene" or "of Magdala"; it was a title of respect. In a culture that did not consider women important, the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each challenged their readers to put aside their bias toward women to accept this historical truth: Jesus rose from the dead three days after being crucified under Pontius Pilate.
The emphasis on Mary Magdalene as the "apostle to the apostles" and as a dramatic witness is far from a contemporary one. In Jewish tradition, extending to the Law of Moses, only a man could be a valid witness in all legal or sociopolitical matters. This legal code also required a minimum of two witnesses (e.g., Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; John 8:17). In everyday life, Jewish culture did not value a woman's testimony. For example, when the Samaritan woman told her neighbors about Jesus' interaction with her, they said, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world" (John 4:42). However, Mary's witness about the resurrection had legal implications, considering Pilate was the one who sentenced Jesus to death. At the end of his gospel account, John wrote about Mary as a proclaimer of the gospel when the Lord told her, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20:17), and when she dutifully told the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (v. 18). The Greek verb legō (G3004) implies a sense of command and finality, the one Jesus used when he directed Mary to "say to my brothers". Hence, the title of Mary Magdalene as the "apostle to the apostles," because she was the first to proclaim the good news of Jesus' resurrection.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to the health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that, by your grace, we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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