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.
It is important to stress where she first appears in the Gospels, because by the Middle Ages there had long been a confusion about who she was. The anonymous sinner woman mentioned in Lk. 7, who anointed Jesus' feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee, was assumed to be Miriam of Magdala. This is a serious mistake, and it really only became possible to make this mistake once manuscripts of the New Testament began to appear with separations of words, sentences, paragraphs, and then chapters and verses. That process first happened in the early Middle Ages.
But the culture in which Luke wrote his Gospel had a tradition of oral storytelling; documents were mere aids to oral communication. Luke's Gospel was intended to educate a new Christian named Theophilus (see Lk. 1 and Acts 1). Without the textual separation of the Gospel stories, there was no real way to skip ahead in the narrative and learn more about a character in the story who was not named. Put another way, Luke was a careful historian and narrator, and if he had wanted Theophilus, who would only be hearing this document read to him, to think that Miriam of Magdala was the sinner in Lk. 7, he would have named her upon first mention. Otherwise, no one would guess this was the case, since she is not mentioned in Lk. 1-6, even obliquely.
What, then, had happened to Miriam of Magdala when Jesus came into her life? Sometimes modern people have assumed that exorcism texts are simply about people who have mental illnesses or epilepsy. While that is true in some cases, there is also credible testimony across many cultures about the reality of evil spirits, and the practice of exorcism over many centuries, including our own.
Occult and astrological practices existed in Jesus' day and in every century since then; it is precisely these sorts of practices that have led to spiritual problems for their practitioners. Miriam may well have dabbled in the occult and believed in the powers of darkness. Thus, we can't simply dismiss the possibility that Jesus was dealing with a spiritual malady in the woman from Magdala.