Mary, the First Apostle

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Mark 16:9-12: Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.­  After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.

This scripture from yesterday’s lectionary readings is part the “longer ending” tacked onto Mark by those dissatisfied with the original, which simply left readers at an empty tomb with Jesus’ frightened female followers (the “longer ending” is missing from manuscripts pre-dating the late 2nd century). But what stands out to me is not the late addition. It is Mary Magdalene. For already by the end of the 2nd century, Mary of Magdala was fading from her original place of great prominence in the tradition, as patriarchy edged out female leadership. Yet the story of her being first to announce Jesus’ resurrection to the others, making her an “apostle to the apostles,” was so firmly grounded in the tradition that even the author(s) of this late-added ending couldn’t avoid it.

It is remarkable, especially because of how unfavorably the figure of Mary Magdalene was treated in the tightening orthodoxy of early Christianity in the 2nd to 4th centuries. One issue serves to underscore how Mary, along with other female disciples within early Christianity, was treated unfavorably. To illustrate the issue, I pose a couple of questions. 1) How many readers know of Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute? Most of us—Christian or non—would answer “yes.” Yet the fact is, nowhere in the scriptures is Mary associated with prostitution. The origin of this tradition seems to be a mistaken conflation of Mary of Magdala with the woman “known as a sinner” who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume from an alabaster jar in Luke 7:36-47. But nothing in the passage suggests it is Mary. Now, 2) How many readers believe the gospels unanimously depict Mary as cured of demons? This too is false. Only Luke and the very late-addition ending of Mark associate her with demon possession, and the Mark association likely came from Luke. The gospels of Matthew, John, and the earlier “body” of Mark have no mention of Mary’s supposed demons.

So though the association of Mary Magdalene with demons stands on tenuous ground and her association with prostitution is entirely baseless, most people reflexively see her as a formerly demon-possessed, reformed prostitute. This story-trail became so well established in early Christianity that when in 594 Pope Gregory the Great stated it as the Catholic position, it became gospel. The rest, as they say, is history. Not only has this mistake been enshrined in Christian tradition, it is conveyed in almost every film or story or play featuring the character of Mary Magdalene.

So if not a formerly demon-possessed, repentant prostitute, who was this woman who according to near unanimous New Testament tradition was at the cross (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40; Lk 23:49; Jn 19:25), witness to Jesus’ burial (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47; Lk 23:55-56), and the first witness to the resurrection (Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-11; Jn 20:1-18)?

Probably the fullest treatment of Mary Magdalene comes from a non-canonical gospel entitled The Gospel of Mary (GMary) that was lost for most of Christian history,1 only to be rediscovered in papyrus fragments surfacing through the early to late 20th century, fragments that had been preserved in the dry climes of Egypt. The gospel, which GMary expert Karen L. King convincingly dates to the early second century,2 is an amazing counterpoint to the master narrative that eventually dominated Christianity from the third century on. Even if The Gospel of Mary didn’t win the battle over orthodoxy and canonization in the fourth century when canon and creed were formed, it reveals a strong strain of early Christian thinking about Mary as a leader among the disciples, even as the disciple closest to Jesus.

The short Gospel of Mary (of which half is missing from the fragments so far discovered) begins with a farewell scene between the post-resurrection Jesus and his followers, that conforms to many conventions of post-resurrection farewell/commissioning scenes. But in this gospel, Mary authoritatively speaks the words of comfort to the disciples upon Jesus’ leaving and shares with them a long vision she had received from him. The emphasis of the gospel’s theology is on the dawning of the kingdom/realm of God within, not through law, leaders, or dominating structures. The gospel also portrays an argument between the disciples about whether Mary, as a woman, should be heard—in which Peter challenges her validity, and Levi speaks in her defense, saying “Assuredly the Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.” Only after Mary’s words and the ensuing scuffle amongst the disciples do they all go out to preach, and the gospel ends.

The Hellenistic culture Christianity grew up in was intensely patriarchal, and we all know that women, who were among the leaders of the Jesus Movement, did not fare well as Christian leaders over time. What The Gospel of Mary underscores, is how vibrant was the discussion over women’s roles, and how the debate centered around Peter and Mary, and “apostolic authority” vs. authority based on personal character and understanding of Jesus’ message (King’s analysis [2003:172] shows how pervasive was the Peter/Mary dichotomy in early Christianity). It also provides a glimpse into the heated debates taking place in the first to early-second centuries about power structures within Christian communities. And structureS is the proper term for this still very pluralistic time in Christian history. It provides a window into a time when, at least in certain communities as evidenced by GMary, women were deemed important leaders, with Mary of Magdala foremost among them.

In light of the deeply constraining views of women in the Mediterranean world at the time (I am being diplomatic here), and the tightening of patriarchal controls within certain segments of the early Christian movement, as seen in canonical pastoral epistles like 1 Timothy, it is not surprising that Mary of Magdala was treated so unfavorably over time. She went from being remembered by some as the “one Jesus loved most,” who had a profound grasp of the inner-transformational message of Jesus, and whose leadership role among the disciples was matchless, to one slandered—remembered as a demon-possessed, reformed prostitute, when she seems to have been neither.

For those wishing to delve more deeply into this history, and into The Gospel of Mary in particular, I highly recommend Karen L. King’s The Gospel of Mary: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003), and Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala, 2010). In this short essay, I have barely scratched the surface of the richness of this gospel and tradition.

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1  For the foremost treatment of this gospel, see Karen L. King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003).

2 See King (2003:3, 11-12)https://www.patreon.com/TriciaGatesBrownhttps://www.patreon.com/TriciaGatesBrown

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One thought on “Mary, the First Apostle

  1. Thank you for helping to raise awareness of (as I know her) The Great Mary/Prophet. You’re stimulating me to put time again into pulling her out of my head and getting her presented in my series viewing biblical women as their stories might have been told by other women of the times. In particular for this Mary, I take seriously the difference in how the “demon” association is described by Luke and in the adoption by Mark. In Luke, it’s simply 7 demons that have “gone out” of her. I suggest that might describe something as simple as an incompetent cervix, so that she could conceive and bear fetuses into the 2nd or 3rd trimester, but not to term. Think of what the community of the time might think when it saw these fetuses “come out” of her.

    I would also suggest there are class differences at work here. Jesus ministered primarily among a working class that couldn’t afford to disregard women. The Bible was written by urban elites, where public and private life were dismembered, and women restricted to the latter.

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