Mary, Mary, Extraordinary

She was an important disciple and witness for Jesus, but there is no historical evidence for a more intimate relationship.

Over the last few years some extravagant claims have been made about Mary of Magdala. Was she really Jesus' paramour? Did she become a famous preacher after the Easter events? Did she later found Christian communities with distinctive theologies--with a feminist or Gnostic tinge?

Just last month, a doctoral thesis came across my desk dealing with medieval stories about Mary of Magdala, which have no basis in the New Testament. This does not necessarily mean they are all false, but they have to be examined with a critical eye--especially when they do not seem to have any analogues or precursors in traditions that go back as far as the second century C.E.

What, then, can we say with certainty about Mary Magdalene? First, her name was not Mary. It was Miriam, as is also true for the mother of Jesus. This means she was named after the Jewish prophetess of the Old Testament (see Ex. 15.20-21). Second, she did not have a last name, `Magdalene.' Like many ancient Near Eastern people, including Jesus, she was distinguished from others through mention of her place of birth or residence-in this case Magdala. Magdala was a tiny fishing village on the northwest corner of the sea of Galilee, an area we know Jesus evangelized.


Two of the extraordinary qualities about Jesus, which distinguished him from other Jewish sages, is that he recruited followers, and he was itinerant. What is even more unusual is that he recruited and traveled with both female and male followers. This would have been seen as scandalous by most early Jews, who believed women should only travel with their own kin. Miriam of Magdala was one of Jesus' disciples and traveled with him and the Twelve.

The first real mention we have of Miriam of Magdala in the New Testament is found in a brief passage in Lk. 8.1-3: "Afterward he journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources." She is not mentioned in the earliest Gospel (Mark) prior to the stories about the last week of Jesus' life, nor in the second earliest Gospel (Matthew), also prior to the last week of Jesus' life, nor in John's Gospel prior to the crucifixion.

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