One of the great saints in the New Testament is Mary of Magdala (aka Mary Magdalene), who is mentioned more often in the four Gospels than most of the Apostles, and more than any other woman, save the Blessed Mother. She is well known to most Catholics as a paradigm of repentance. However, her appearance in Sacred Scripture is on the controversial side these days, as she is not specified as a sinner nor a penitent in Scripture. Nowadays, she has become something of an icon for progressive feminist theology, which believes the Church patriarchy transformed her into an adulteress-turned-saint.
I’m going to argue against the feminist theory. When I sat down to write this, I was on their side. But I found something in my research that changed my mind.
First, I’ve never believed that a toxic patriarchy transformed a strong woman saint into a sexual sinner. There was simply a somewhat creative exegetical approach to analyzing Scripture in the early middle ages; in this case, four different women were thought to be one and the same. Since the 6th century, Roman Catholics have fairly believed that the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:2-11), the sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet (Lk 7:36-50), Mary of Bethany (Jn 12:1-8), and Mary of Magdala were one and the same person. There is a somewhat reasonable but tenuous argument linking them. On the other hand, the Orthodox churches have traditionally held these to be different individuals; I tend to side with the Orthodox on questions of tradition, which is why earlier today I sided with them and the feminists on this topic. But all has changed for me.
What does Scripture have to say about Mary of Magdala? She is mentioned in passing by Luke as a follower of Jesus (Lk 8:2), and then as one who was with Jesus at His crucifixion (Mt 27:55, Mk 15:40, Jn 19:25), a witness at His burial (Mt 27:61, Mk 15:47), and the first to meet the Risen Lord (Mt 28:1, Mk 16:1, Lk 24:1-10, Jn 20:1). This last is quite the honor and this encounter is described beautifully in John’s Gospel (see another essay HERE). Nevertheless, this is all Sacred Scripture tells us about her; from this alone, the Orthodox and the feminist theologians are spot on.
Now let’s look at how the Roman Church wove four different stories in the NT into one person. We start with a simple statement from Mark:
9 Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast our seven demons. (Mk 16:9)
Mark tells us that Jesus had cast out seven demons from Mary of Magdela. This fact is also mentioned in Luke 8:2. Therefore, she was possessed, and we can surmise that in her possessed state sinful acts were done (as is common with possession). I’ve no idea what those acts were, nor the meaning behind the seven demons. At any rate, the medieval Church looked for other “Marys” in the NT who were sinners which they could perhaps connect to our Mary; they found one, in a roundabout way: Mary of Bethany.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. (Jn 12:1-3)
This text, where Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair, was compared with another text from Luke:
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner. " … 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." 48 And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." (Lk 7:36-39, 44-48)
These two texts are similar in that a woman anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. In John’s text it is Mary of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. In Luke’s text, it is an unnamed woman, only described as a notorious sinner. In fact, a woman of many sins, per Jesus. So, medieval exegetes identified Mary Magdalene – possessed by seven demons – with this repentant, public sinner. And going one step further, she is further identified as the “Mary” of John’s similar story. Yes, it’s a stretch to make these connections.
Next, we come to a homily of Pope St. Gregory the Great in 591:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did those seven devils signify if not all the vices? (Pope Gregory I, Homily XXXIII)
Although he says here, “all the vices,” St. Gregory goes on to elaborate on only one vice, that of her sexual sins, which he frames in a language implying prostitution. Some modern theologians point to this homily as the origin of tying the above texts together into Mary Magdalen, and perhaps a diving point for the next, final point.
The final identity connection is the woman caught in adultery:
2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11 She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." (Jn 8:2-11)
Here we have a woman caught in adultery. She is now a “public sinner.” Again, one can speculate further that she is the same public sinner as in our text above from Luke 7, and furthermore, from St. Gregory’s homily, a prostitute. And now we’ve connected all the dots and our Mary of Magdela was a prostitute who repented and became a great saint, an icon of God’s mercy. This is all beautiful, in a way; a reflection of God’s mercy. But Sacred Scripture does not support this connection of these texts.
Sacred Tradition does, however. First, it connects St. Mary Magdalen with Mary of Bethesda. Sacred Tradition primarily expresses itself in the liturgy, where we find this Collect prayer in the Extraordinary Form:
May we be assisted, O Lord, we beseech Thee, by the intercession of blessed Mary Magdalen for whom, moved by her prayers, Thou didst bring back her brother Lazarus, then dead for four days, alive from the grave. Who lives. (Roman Missal, Proper of St. Mary Magdalen)
Furthermore, the Liturgy connects our saint with the similar woman of Luke. Matins of the Extraordinary Form quotes from another homily of St. Gregory:
Mary Magdalene, who had been a sinner in the city, through love of truth washed away the stains of sin with her tears; and the voice of truth is fulfilled in which it is said: “Many sins are forgiven her, because she loved much.” (Roman Breviary, Nocturn, Matins of St. Mary Magdalene, Penitent)
Both the phrase, “a sinner in the city” and the quotation of Jesus place this as the Lucan story. From Sacred Tradition, we can identify our saint as both Mary of Bethany and the sinner in the Pharisee’s house.
Furthermore, if we look back at the previous Gregorian text above and read the full homily, we will see language that implies he was speaking to Christians who already knew Mary of Magdala was the woman of the Lucan text. That is, he was not saying something new.
Nevertheless, the Johannine text of the woman caught in adultery remains aloof; neither Scripture nor Tradition, nor even patristic testimony supports her connection to Mary Magdalene.
My conclusion: Sacred Scripture cannot explain long held beliefs about Mary Magdalene which underlie certain texts. However, Sacred Tradition can and does connect certain of those texts. I have used Tradition to understand Scripture. Thanks be to God!
Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end… Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Second Vatican Council, 9, 10)