What a Different Reading of Mary Magdalene Can Tell Us About the Christian Value of a Woman’s Voice

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What a Different Reading of Mary Magdalene Can Tell Us About the Christian Value of a Woman’s Voice

Nynia Chance

The War on Women fights to take away a women's rights to make decisions for their own lives, instead granting male leaders the sole authority to dictate their allowable actions.  This injustice is furthered by a common Fundamentalist Christian idea that a woman can't be entrusted with authority even over themselves. If we take another look at the Bible, however, we'll have to confront this idea with the example of a woman whom Christ himself had entrusted with the authority to bear his message: Mary Magdalene

In my introduction to the Christian Role in the War on Women, I promised I’d be exploring this role using much shorter bulletins. However, I uncovered so much in preparing this first one, I wanted to share it all wth you. So here’s the summary portion, for those who just want the gist:

  1. Mainstream Christian authorities have claimed for millenia that the proper place for a woman is to be submissive to men in all things.

  2. This is kept alive today in Fundamentalist circles by the claim that women never held positions of religious authority, particularly in the earliest days of the Christian church.

  3. As a result, many Fundamentalist Christians claim that it’s the place of male authorities to decide what a woman should be allowed to do, and that it’s the duty of all Christians to enforce these dictates.

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  4. A re-examining of the Bible shows that at least one woman was appointed by Christ to deliver his teaching to men: Mary Magdalene.

  5. With this in mind, it may said that a Christian should listen to the wisdom and leadership shared by all people, regardless of gender.

Before I get into the details, I want to offer two apologies about my introduction. First, I neglected to specify that the War on Women may be fueled by the efforts of many people who feel it is a part of their Christianity, but that does not make this a Christian war. As someone of very Christian heritage who’s used to facing all sorts of popular assumptions about that term, I really ought to have known better. In fact, my efforts here are to share my perspective that the “more Christlike” Christian role in the War on Women is to defend women and our rights.

Second, I knowingly repeated a common misunderstanding about Mary Magdalene because it’s so much in my context, but I soon came to regret it. I set out to vindicate her in this piece, and my research on stories about her led to writings about her that I had never encountered before. To give the proper care and attention to the major points, I’m going to touch on each one.

And I really think that this deserves extra care and attention, as the stories of Mary Magdalene can challenge some very fundamental ideas about what Christianity means (pun intended).  One of the hardest things with religion is to challenge what we think we know about it.  Whether we are for or against something, if we’ve heavily invested in a particular understanding, it can be tough to risk giving that up.  So let’s start with what the general assumptions are out there in the public sphere about what the “Christian view of women” is presumed to be.

I think we’re all pretty well-versed in Summary points 1 and 2, above.  It’s frequently assumed that Christianity demands women accept a submissive role, with her mind, body and soul belonging to her duty to be a meek help-meet to her husband and mother to as many children as she may bear.  A woman should bear her testimony and instruct children in the Bible and so on, but otherwise should never presume to speak up on behalf of Jesus, particularly where it might place her above the status of any man.  In short, a woman should be seen and heard as little as possible, out of deference to the natural authority of a man.

Now, I do realize that I’m definitely making some pretty broad generalizations here, but I think I’ve hit the major points being pushed through the War on Women by many who claim to speak for Christianity.  They don’t speak for all of us, but theirs is the message so many people tend to hear.  Now, it’s time to compare their claims to how Jesus seemed to view women through the example of his treatment of one woman in particular: Mary Magdalene.

In my intro text, I referred to the story of Mary Magdalene being dragged forward by the crowd under accusations of prostitution, intending to stone her to death.  In the story, Jesus told the crowd that only the one who hadn’t sinned could throw the first stone.  The crowd each recognized that their souls bore their own errors, and didn’t dare claim to be blameless.  Jesus then forgave Mary, and she repented of her sins and followed him.

That’s the way the story goes, anyway, as it’s commonly repeated.  And that’s why I phrased my thoughts as I did, because those who have repeated the story that way have so often gone on to break my heart with their stone-throwing toward people in our lives.  But the biblical truth of the story has a few very instructive twists.

The biblical version starts with the Book of John, when the Pharisees are said to have brought a woman caught committing adultery (though not the man who had to have been there).  They said the Law of Moses demanded the woman be stoned, and tried to test Jesus as to whether he’d contradict this ruling.  Instead, Jesus crouched down to write in the dirt, saying that he who is without sin should cast the first stone.  The Pharisees left rather than declare themselves blameless in condemning the woman to death.  Jesus then stood up with the woman and said he also does not condemn her, and advised her to go and “sin no more”.

Let’s stop a moment here and note what Jesus said before sending the woman on her way: “Neither do I condemn you.”  Even though the law of the land had condemned her to death for breaking a marriage covenant while female, Jesus taught through example that this law was wrong.  He also taught that it is wrong to condemn a woman for her perceived sins, or to rebuke her or shame her.  Rather, he spoke to her respectfully, even though a religious teacher was expected never to speak to a woman in public, not even his wife.  And when he spoke, he didn’t preach at her, or lecture her about how what she was presumed to have done was wrong.  He simply stated that he would not condemn her, and advised her to keep good conduct from that day forward.  No “or else”, no threats of damnation, nothing.  Just a respectful farewell.  That’s something to learn from.

Now we’ll learn something about the idea of women speaking up as teachers and leaders in the Christian tradition.  Mary Magdalene is named in the books of Luke and Mark only as a woman from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons.  Nothing more is said of her background, however much one may speculate.  However, in 591 Pope Gregory I made some assumptions about her history in Homily XXXIII.  Long story short, he claimed that the casting out of seven demons meant she had indulged in the seven deadly sins, that this meant she clearly perfumed herself to indulge in sexual crimes, that she then used this perfume to anoint Jesus, and that with this act of penitence she devoted herself to serving Jesus.

There’s a few problems with this:

  1. The healing of illnesses was frequently referred to as the casting out of devils, given how they referred to disease.  And even if Mary Magdalene had been possessed, the Bible has other examples of an innocent person being possessed.

  2. It’s in the Book of Luke that the penitent sinner washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Since Simon the Pharisee believed the woman to be unclean this implies her perceived sins were sexual in nature, and since an adulteress is put to death it’s further assumed she’s a prostitute.  But even though Mary Magdalene was introduced immediately following this story, the Bible doesn’t say they are the same person.  Generally, the Bible tries to be clearer on stuff like that, so there’s no reason to assume Mary was a prostitute.

  3. The woman use anointed Jesus with perfume was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha.  However, because in her story she also dried Jesus’ feet with her hair, it seems the Homily is placing the anointing as the work of Mary of Magdala.  Mary of Bethany had much to commend her for, so this confusion is unfortunate.

Fortunately, the Vatican later turned away from the Homily above in 1969 via the Roman Missal declaring Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany and the penitent woman to be three different people.  That said, many people still make the confusion of Mary of Bethany with the penitent sinner because of the hair-drying bit, but we’ll save that Mary for another time.

What’s important here is that many people still assume that Mary Magdalene was the penitent sinner, and that this sinner was also the adulteress who was dragged through the streets to be stoned to death for her perceived transgressions.  The Bible doesn’t say this, but for various reasons this level of association can still be out there.  And you know what, let’s grant for the moment that this might be true.  Let’s presume that Mary of Magdala may have once been a prideful woman who committed any number of sexual acts with a man or men who weren’t her husband.  What does that mean for the appropriate Christian view of the worthiness and value of this woman?

Absolutely nothing.  Even if these allegations are true, Mary Magdalene clearly holds a special place in the Gospels, and in the life of Jesus.  He defied the customs of his time that forbade women from being spoken to in public, instead welcoming them and interacting with them.  It was the financial support of the group of women who followed him that enabled his mission, and the word used for how they served him was “diakonos”, which is translated in the Bible as “minister”, “servant” and “deacon”.

Further, Mary Magdalene was depicted as more than just another follower.  She was among the women who remained with Jesus at the cross when even his male apostles had fled from him.  She is the one who stayed by his tomb, chosen to be the first to greet the resurrected Christ.  Jesus deemed her worthy for a special teaching and a commission to be the apostle to the apostles with news of his return.  Even though the testimony of a woman was worthless in the eyes of their laws, Jesus saw that the word of a woman was to be honored.

And that’s where the story gets interesting, now that I’ve stopped to really think about it.  Rather than gladly receive the teaching that Jesus had sent to them, the male apostles rejected the message completely, because it had come through a woman.  When Jesus later appeared to them, he chastised them for their lack of faith in their spurning of the messenger he had appointed.  He could have first appeared to whomever he chose, and he chose she who was seeking him with the most earnest devotion.  Since he didn’t feel a woman was beneath being a conduit for his word, why should they?

That alone could be example enough of how, historically, Christian authorities have erred when they rejected the idea that Christ would appoint women as teachers or even leaders, all the way back to the very beginning.  But as it happens, there’s a little more to it than that.  Even though Paul is credited with some problematic ideas on the value of a woman’s word as a teacher, he also gave great thanks and honors to women who dedicated and gave their lives in the early forming of Christianity.  One such commendation was to a Junia, who with her partner Andronicus were mentioned as noted among the apostles.  In some versions of the Bible, though, her name was given as “Junias”, presumably because the translators or editors again rejected that a woman could be granted such an important mission.

This same ancient cultural prejudice against women holding religious authority may also have come into play with regards to where Mary Magdalene’s story ends.  In Romans 16 Paul also greeted a “Mary, who bestowed much labour on us”, but we can’t assume it’s the same Mary.  It’s commonly understood that she retired to Ephesus with Mary the Mother of Jesus, where they stayed until their deaths.

That said, there were early Christians who claimed that Mary Magdalene did continue an apostolic mission, spreading the teachings that Jesus had imparted to her.  This sect claimed that Mary Magdalene was the unnamed Beloved Disciple from the gospel known as the Book of John, which they believed was the repository of Mary’s teachings.  The sectarians are generally known as the Gnostics, and their texts have since become available in the discovery known as the Nag Hammadi library.  You can read their texts dealing with Mary Magdalene online, particularly at Magdalene.org, a place dedicated to writings about their favorite saint.

The Gnostics were devoted egalitarians who felt that women were fully equal to men, and that Mary Magdalene was above them all due to her special understanding and relationship with Jesus.  In the Gnostic text The Sophia of Jesus Christ, it refers to seven women in addition to the twelve male disciples, and in the Pistis Sophia the women and men discourse together at greath length on equal terms.  This was one of the points that had met with such resistance from the more authoritative branch of Christianity, most notably Irenaeus, the early Christian writer whose repudiations of Gnosticism were previously one of the only resources available regarding what Gnostics may have believed.

Irenaeus emphatically repudiated the Gnostic interpretations of the Book of John, which is significant given that the earliest known commentary on this book was by the Gnostic Heracleon around year 180, who explored the Gnostic themes and ideas therein.  It’s been speculated by Ramon K. Jusino that the Book of John was originally Gnostic, being more clear in naming the Beloved Disciple as Mary Magdalene.  He makes a pretty decent case in how one might think an editor removed the identity and reversed the gender of the Beloved Disciple to gain mainstream approval to retain its other teachings.  While that’s not exactly the accepted lineage of the Book of John, its authorship is generally regarded as a mystery.

Regardless, the important point is that there was a large number of early Christians who believed that Mary of Magdala was not just a disciple of Jesus, but also an appointed teacher to the Christian church.  Thanks to Paul, we also have the canonical texts of the Christian Bible commending women as important leaders in the foundation of the church.  So even if we can’t assume that Mary of Magdala was the Beloved Disciple, it would be presumptuous to presume that she couldn’t have been a teacher and leader just because she was a woman.

And yet, there have been Christian authorities who have rejected women’s authority out of hand, all the way back to when the apostles rejected Mary Magdalene and her message directly from the risen Christ.  With all this in mind, it’s valid to question whether someone can so reflexively reject a woman’s word if they want to consider themselves followers of Christ, rather than merely obedients to Christian authorities.

In fact, it’s also valid to question whether there should be a group of men holding final authority for what a Christian may believe, versus it being each person’s responsibility to hear what the leaders have to say and meditate in their own hearts to seek and find the truth as it is revealed to them.  I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that this was a point of fierce debate in the early days of the Christian church, and is still debated today.  Still, I do believe that Jesus seemed to follow the latter path.  After all, if Jesus has submitted himself to the religious understanding as taught by the religious authorities of his day, his ministry never would have started.

Just something else to think about.