Eric D. Huntsman

The DaVinci Code is a publishing phenomenon, topping the best-seller lists and raising questions about what is truth and what is fiction in this taut page-turner. The Museum of Art on the BYU campus sponsored a series of lectures trying to untangle the issues the book raises attracting turn-away crowds. Here is Part 1 of a discussion that explores who Mary Magdalene really was, based on the evidence from scripturel and early Church Fathers. Part 2, coming tomorrow will examine what light, dappled as it may be, the apocryphal gospels shed on her identity and her relationship with Christ.
Original presentation: February 25, 2004 as part of the Museum of Art lecture series Mystery, Metaphor, and Meaning: LDS Perspectives on The Da Vinci Code Revised presentation: May 26, 2004, KBYU Studios

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has caught the imagination of many, including many Latter-day Saints, because of its use of the historical figures of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene as well as its references to little known apocryphal texts as backdrops for an engaging mystery novel.  The Da Vinci Code is just that, a novel, that does not purport to be exact history or actual theology.  Nevertheless, as a novel it has raised interest in textual and historical issues without giving sufficient background to evaluate these issues adequately, and nowhere is that more apparent than its allusions to Mary Magdalene and the possible nature of her relationship to our Savior, Jesus Christ.  In both ancient and modern accounts, Mary Magdalene emerges as an enigmatic figure, with the evidence suggesting, but not definitively confirming, her full identity and role in the early Christian Church.

My intent is not to evaluate Brown’s novel but rather to examine the evidence that survives regarding Mary Magdalene, starting with the biblical, that is New Testament evidence, and then looking at other ancient evidence, particularly the references to her in apocryphal writings.  After briefly considering how modern scholarship-and in the case of Dan Brown, modern novelists-use this evidence, we can then look at what some of the implications may be for those of us in the LDS community, not so much to speculate as to what Mary Magdalene’s relationship with the Savior might have been but rather to understand why she becomes a prominent figure at the end of all four of the gospels. 

In all of this, it is important to remember the working difference between how a historical figure is used as a literary character.  Mary Magdalene, Peter, and of course the Lord himself were real people who lived and acted in a particular historical time and context.  Texts, some better than others, provide evidence for historical figures and their activities, but they also use these figures as characters in their narratives, characters who are portrayed a certain way by authors to achieve certain ends.  In some instances, particularly in authoritative texts such as the New Testament gospels, the assumption is that the historical figures and literary characters converge quite nicely.  However, in other instances, both ancient and modern, the portrait painted of these characters might differ substantially from historical reality.

New Testament Evidence

In considering the ancient evidence for Mary Magdalene, we properly begin with the evidence from the New Testament gospels, the texts that Latter-day Saints and most other Christians accept as authoritative.  In the gospels we find 20 direct references to Mary Magdalene, with an added, possibly indirect reference to her in the Book of Acts.  She is consistently referred to as Mary Magdalene, the epithet “Magdalene” probably being a toponym indicating that she came from the Galilean seaside town of Magdala, a community of somewhat questionable reputation.  Too much should not be made of this however, since Mary or Miriam in Hebrew was one of the most common names for Jewish girls, necessitating individual identification based upon the name of a father, a husband, or, apparently in this case, place of origin.

Her role is basically the same in the Synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and generally of Luke.  In each of these she is associated with other women who together serve as direct witnesses of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In chapter 15 of Mark, probably the earliest of the gospel accounts, we read the in verses 40-41:

Here were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

This passage is repeated, with only minor variation, in Matthew 27:55-56 and Luke 23:49.  Whereas the male disciples had fled, these women provide the direct that the Lord did indeed die on the cross for our sins.

All three Synoptics-Mark 15:47, Matthew 27:61, and Luke 23:55-56-agree that Mary was among the women who then saw the place were the body of Jesus was laid, providing crucial evidence later that the tomb found empty Easter morning was indeed the very one where he had been buried.  All three-Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10, and Luke 24:1-11-also note that the women were the ones who found the tomb empty, receiving in addition an angelic witness that Christ had truly risen fro the dead. 

Mary’s role in the Synoptics, then, is basically being one of a group of several witnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Savior.  She gains some distinction from the other women by being consistently named, often first, in all three accounts, and in Mark 16:9-11, we find our first evidence that she was the first one who actually saw the Savior alive, an incident much expanded by John. 

Only in Luke do we have what we could call biographical information, with other passages that provide us of some idea of Mary’s conversion and her role in the early movement following Jesus.  Luke 8:1-3 reads:

 And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.

This last phrase, “which ministered unto him of their substance,” is particularly interesting.  Although many assume that these women were very wealthy, Joanna being the wife of a an important Herodian official, the consensus of scholarship is that they were not all necessarily wealthy.  Rather, comparatively speaking, they had some means, and were legally and socially able to dispose of their property.  We need to imagine Christ and the wider band of the disciples, more than just the inner twelve, as a traveling group or band of preachers , going from place to place.  Questions immediately arise: How did they live?  Where did they buy food?  How did they get their money?  Luke provides the answer to this, suggesting that some women who were attracted to the Savior’s message early on were committed enough not only to follow the Savior but to cover the bills.  There are other interpretations, of course.  The Greek verb ministering in this instances, diakoneo, has the same root as our “deacon,” which means “one who serves,” and a minority school suggests that these women were just brought along to cook and clean.  Nevertheless, Luke portrays a group of women who are traveling with the Savior, something that would have been a bit odd in the Jewish context of the Second Temple period.  Women would not generally travel with such a group unless they were family or related to some of its members in some way.  Of course Christ is does not seem to have been constrained by many of the social conventions of the time, but the presence of Mary and the others may well have been provocative.

In this passage of Luke, as well as in Mark 16:9, the texts state that out of Mary went seven devils.  While this may help to explain how Mary gained her witness of the divinity of the Savior and chose to follow him throughout the Galilean ministry and then to witness his death at Jerusalem, her exorcism is the source for some later misconstructions of Mary.  The assumption is that if she needed to have an exorcism performed on her, she must have done something wrong-one does not suffer from demon possession unless he or she has done something evil. This is partially at the root of the myth of Mary the Sinner, that she had done something wrong and consequently was afflicted by demons, and seven of them at that.  The number seven, however, was probably not intended to indicate that she suffered from a particularly large number of demons; after all the Gadarene demonic was afflicted with legions of devils in the gospels.  Rather seven is symbolic, the number of completion, indicating that before Christ healed her, Mary was totally in the thrall of Satan.  Somehow, the Adversary was totally in control of her.  Also, we should recall that in the gospels, demonic possession was often a sign as someone needed to be healed from a physical infirmity as it was from a spiritual infirmity.  Often in the gospels we find someone who is deaf or dumb or palsied, and when Christ casts out the evil spirit that is afflicting that individual, that person’s healed. 

Rather, then, than seeing Mary as a sinner, Luke and Mark’s emphasis of her possession may have indicated that she was healed of serious or “complete” physical or emotional illness, illness that was perceived as having been caused by Satan or at least aggravated by him.  Even if Mary’s possession is seen as a sign of being in a state of sin, the emphasis in the exorcism is not on the sin as much as it is on her being freed from it.  In this Mary serves as a type for every woman and every man: we are all in the thrall of Satan until we are saved, until we accept Christ.  As a fallen woman, subject to death, disease, and sin, Mary was enslaved to Satan; through her Lord Jesus Christ, she was freed. 

This is, importantly, the only secure information that we have concerning Mary Magdalene before all four gospels begin to treat her role as a witness of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.  Although later writers associated her with the “sinful” woman of Luke 7:36-50 who washed the Lord’s feet with her tears as he sat at dinner, this woman is anonymous and the passage occurs before Mary is introduced in chapter 8.  Likewise, the woman caught in adultery of John 8:1-11, is not named and there is no textual reason to associate her with Mary Magdalene.  There is nothing in the texts that make these identifications explicit.  Indeed, it may have been Jerome, the translator of the Bible from Greek to Latin, who was the first to begin to associate Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7 and the adulterous woman of John 8, an idea that became standard in Medieval Christianity beginning with Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, who explicitly conflated these three distinct historical women into one character.  Luke 7’s woman washing Christ’s feet was then associated with other anointing episodes in the gospels, all of which happen to be positive.  Nevertheless, the idea of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute became common, although it was not necessarily intended to denigrate her.  Rather it emphasized the redeeming and fully transforming power of Christ’s redemptive grace. 

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John includes some significant differences from her depiction in the Synoptics.  Like Mark and Matthew, John portrays her solely as a witness of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In John 19:25 we read: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.”  The important difference here is that while in the Synoptics Mary and the other women were witnesses of the crucifixion, there they stood afar off.  In the account of John, Mary is part of an intimate group that stands directly at the foot of the cross.  The other women are all family members: Mary, his mother; an aunt, the sister of Mary; the wife of Cleophas, in some sources assumed to be a paternal aunt; and then Mary Magdalene.  Some rush to the conclusion that Mary too must have been a family member, but we should remember that if so, there are other relationships, such as being a cousin, that might apply. 

Rather than implying a particular relationship, John’s placement of Mary is an example of his using someone he knew, a real historical figure, and using her as a literary character to emphasize a particular point, namely that those who knew the Savior, who were close to him, were physically close to him to witness the culminating act of his mortal ministry.  He then uses these literary characters to teach important points applicable to all true disciples, including, presumably, many of his readers.

An example of this usage from this very scene is seen in how John uses the mother of Christ, who is actually never named in the gospel, and John himself, who is also never named but is kept anonymous and referred to as the Beloved Disciple or the Disciple Whom Christ Loved.  In the famous exchange of John 19:26-27 we read, “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!  Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.”  Here John may have been taking an actual event and using it to illustrate a broader, more symbolic point.  If the Beloved Disciple became the “son” of Christ’s mother at this point, then the disciple’s relationship to the Savior was no longer just that of master and servant but now that of brother.  By keeping the two players, the mother and the disciple, anonymous (remember that Mary’s name is never mentioned in John), readers are more able to identify with the characters, putting themselves in their places.  Hence any true disciple of Christ can lean in his bosom at the time of the Last Supper, just as he can symbolically stand at the foot of the cross, receiving his own sure witness that Christ died for his or her sins.  We will see, at the end, that this kind of typology is important for John’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene at the tomb.

Indeed, perhaps the most important scriptural passage in regard to Mary is John 20, which we will treat here and then come back to again.  In this account Mary Magdalene came early to the sepulcher, apparently alone, found the tomb empty, and then ran and told Peter.  Peter and the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, once again anonymous, ran back, found the tomb empty, and left Mary there weeping.  At this point Mary actually sees the Risen Lord, but John, in a passage important enough to quote at length, provides more detail than did Mark. 

 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,  And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.  And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.  And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.  Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.  Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:11-17)

This is episode is quite detailed, stressing the progressive unfolding of Christ’s identify, Mary’s gradual recognition of the Savior, and then her powerful, emotional response to his presence.    Additionally, the Savior’s address of Mary as “woman,” gynai in the Greek vocative, has a generalizing effect.  It is not only to Mary as a particular person that he is speaking; he is talking to “a woman,” perhaps any woman, and in that case Mary is not only the historical figure who first saw the Lord, she is a literary character meant perhaps to represent the women of John’s audience.

Christ’s injunction “touch me not” may have particular relevance here, although not necessarily that which we first assume looking at the King James translation alone.  Me mou haptou in Greek  is a present imperative stressing a repeated or continuous action, and so actually means something like “don’t keep touching me.”  Accordingly some modern translations render this as “don’t cling to me” or “don’t hold on to me.”  The sense is not that somehow, metaphysically, it is dangerous to touch a newly resurrected being, but rather that Mary in her joy at seeing the Savior alive had fallen at his feet and was clinging to him.  This can be seen as a particularly intimate posture or, symbolically, the Savior’s words, “Do not hold on to me,” could be reminding Mary that the Risen Lord had much to do-he needed to ascend to his Father to report his mission, he had further ministries to perform, perhaps Mary herself needed to move on with the rest of her life without the Savior always present and could not cling on to the mortal Messiah whom she had known up that point.

Much has been made, both in early postapostolic Christian writings and in modern scholarship, of Christ’s direction to Mary that she goes to his brethren and share her witness.  Playing upon the meaning of the Greek word apostolos, which means “one who was sent,” she is sometimes referred to as “the apostle to the apostles.”  The Greek, however, does not support this notion as easily as many would like it to, the command for “go” here being the imperative form poreuou, a verb with a completely different stem from apostell_, meaning “to send.”

Mary is not mentioned again by name in the New Testament, although she may well have been part of the group mentioned in Acts 1:13-14.  After the apostles returned from the Mount of Olives, having witnessed the Ascension of the Risen Lord, they return to the upper room where “these all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”  “With the women” here is a translation here of syn gynaixin, which could refer to the group of women accompanying the disciples mentioned earlier by Luke in his gospel, or perhaps, since gyne also means “wife,” it could refer to the wives of the apostles, brothers of the Lord, and the other early disciples gathered there.  If so, Mary Magdalene again is portrayed as an intimate associate, even a family member.  Nevertheless, in Acts as in the gospels, the scriptures suggest a close association but do not explicitly define the relationship between Mary and the Savior.

Watch for Part 2, coming tomorrow.

2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.