Mary Magdalene - When History Screws up Your Story

Mary Magdalene - When History Screws up Your Story

In a few weeks, Universal Pictures UK will release a new movie about a female Biblical figure who has been the topic of controversy, dissent, and conflicting viewpoints for centuries.

Her name and movie title? Mary Magdalene.

The film will attempt to paint a portrait of Mary (played by Rooney Mara) and her relationship with Jesus Christ (played by Joaquin Phoenix), particularly her rise to prominence as one of Christianity’s leaders, and her role as a pseudo-social warrior for women.

In the trailer, the disciple named Peter (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) says to Mary, “It’s not right that he has raised you up to lead us,” implying that the movie may portray Mary and Jesus as more than just friends.

This notion is not uncommon.

  • In the 1970s musical, “Jesus Christ-Superstar”, Mary is depicted as a prostitute platonically in love with Jesus and confused about how to show her love for Him.
  • In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 classic movie, “Jesus of Nazareth”, actress Anne Bancroft passionately brings to life the character of Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately, she also plays a hooker earlier in the movie. 
  • In Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ”, actress Monica Belluci brought many to tears in her portrayal of Mary. Unfortunately, she was also cast as the adulterous woman caught in an affair earlier in the movie.
  • There's of course the Hollywood blockbuster, “The Davinci Code” where it was suggested that Jesus and Mary had a secret fling which resulted in an offspring who had to go into hiding and whose identity had to be protected by a secret society.
  • Don't even get me started on Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"!

Poor Mary.

History has really given her a bad rap, even within the Church.

I say this because at the very mention of her name (even among Christians), chances are, you immediately assume she’s one of two people. You may wrongly assume that Mary Magdalene is the sinful woman caught in adultery who almost got stoned  in John 8:1-11, or the woman “who had lived a sinful lifestyle” and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed it with expensive perfume in Luke 7:36-50.  

What if I told you that the real Mary Magdalene is neither one of those, and that most of what’s retold about her is just a widespread case of mistaken identity?

Interestingly, the misunderstanding about her didn’t arise till centuries after she was dead. In her day, everyone knew exactly who she was, and more importantly, who she wasn’t.

So, why the confusion?

A CASE OF THE MARYS

One of the biggest sources of misunderstanding about Mary’s identity is the number of Marys in the New Testament. There’s too many of them! One study of the recorded names of Jewish women in Palestine from 330 B.C to 200 A.D shows that 47.7 percent were called either Salome or Mary.  

In the New Testament accounts alone, there are at least 6 different Marys we know of.

  • First there’s the All-Star Mary, wife of Joseph and mother of Jesus.
  • Next up is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
  • There’s a third Mary in Mark 15:40 identified as, “Mary, the mother of James and John.” 
  • The remaining two Marys are featured in the apostle Paul’s letters. One is identified as John Mark’s mom in Acts 12:12 and the other is commended in Romans 16:6 for her hard work on behalf of the Church in Rome.

That leaves us with one last Mary, our girl from the town of Magdala. Magdalene means, “an inhabitant of Magdala”.  To make it easy for readers, whenever Mary’s name is mentioned, she is always called, “Mary Magdalene.”

Besides the multitude of Marys in the Gospels, you know who else is to blame for Mary’s mistaken identity?

GREG! 

By Greg, I mean Pope Gregory the first, also known as Saint Gregory the Great, who in 591 A.D preached an Easter sermon that lumped together three different women, (the sinful woman in Luke 7, Mary of Bethany who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and Mary Magdalene.) From then on, myth became legend, and Mary has ever since been tagged as a prostitute.

So who exactly is Mary Magdalene?

Let’s meet her in Luke’s gospel (Luke 8:1-3) “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” 

Please note that at her introduction, there’s no mention of her having lived a sinful lifestyle of prostituting herself! What we know of her from this first-read is that she was a faithful follower and financial supporter of the ministry of Jesus Christ. She probably met up and joined His entourage during one of His missionary tours through her town in Magdala.

We can surmise that she was not married, because there’s no mention of her husband. Perhaps she was widowed or maybe never even married? It’s also safe to presume she was moderately wealthy because she had enough money from which she contributed to the care and sustenance of 12 grown men, Jesus, and countless others.

In Liz Curtis Higgs’ book, “Unveiling Mary Magdalene” she points out some interesting details about Mary’s assumed role and appearance. She writes, “Since she’s almost always listed first when Mary the mother of Jesus and others are mentioned, it’s clear that Mary Magdalene was a leader among these women….”  

Concerning her age and beauty, Higgs’ writes, “If Jesus was about thirty years old when he met Mary, (coulda been older) his mother was a minimum of forty-four, assuming Jesus was conceived when she was thirteen ….In order for Mary [Magdalene] to lead a group that included this esteemed woman, Mary Magdalene would no doubt have been the same age or older than Mother Mary – in her mid-forties at least and possibly a good bit older. She’d certainly be past the childbearing years, perhaps a widow, giving her freedom to leave Magdala behind and follow Jesus. …….As to her appearance, I’d gently place her in the category of a woman who had a beautiful soul rather than a picture-perfect face and curvaceous figures, because outward appearance never impressed God.” 

Very telling.

If you look back at those three verses from Luke’s gospel where we first met Mary, something significant probably caught your eye about her. Did you see that one verse where it says Mary, at one point had seven, that’s right, SEVEN demons expelled from her?

That detail is really bothersome when you consider how much damage one demon can do. There’s an account in Luke 9:37-43 where a desperate father brings his son to Jesus to deliver him from a demon that had indwelt him. Here’s how the father describes the demon’s tormenting activity in his son’s life, “38…Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, my only child. An evil spirit keeps seizing him, making him scream. It throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It batters him and hardly ever leaves him alone.”  

How tormented must Mary Magdalene’s soul have been with 7 demons living in her?

Can you imagine how isolated a life she must have lived? Let’s face it, nobody wants to spend time with a demon-possessed person, much less go on a date or remain close friends with them.

Fortunately, Jesus tracked her down (or perhaps Mary tracked Him down?), very possibly during His missionary trip through the town of Magdala. Below is my attempt to recreate the events of that day, based on other encounters Jesus had with demoniacs in the scriptures.

when history remembers you as a prostitute - mary magdalene.jpg

THE DAY MARY MET JESUS

Mary saw Jesus coming at a distance. In desperation, she ran and fell to her knees in front of Him. At the top of her voice, the seven demons possessing her shouted, “What do you want with [us] Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture [us]!” (Mark 5:7). In anguished terror they kept screaming, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? [We] know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Luke 4:34).

But Jesus sternly rebuked the demons to, “Be quiet!” and, “come out of [her].” (Luke 4:35). The seven demons “begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.” (Luke 8:31), but upon His command, the demons “[threw Mary] down…and came out without injuring [her].” (Luke 4:35).

After years of torment, in one moment, she was free.

All the voices screaming in her head were now silent. Perhaps physical pain had accompanied her possession, but suddenly, there was no more pain, no more suicidal thoughts, and no more accusations.

Only peace. More importantly, only Jesus.

What a moment that must have been. The freedom. The relief. The renewed sense of hope and purpose. As far as Mary was concerned, SHE WOULD FOLLOW JESUS WHEREVER HE WENT! Which probably explains why she seems so bold and appears in places the disciples were often afraid to go. After being delivered from 7 demons by Jesus – THIS WOMAN BECAME FEARLESS!

In fact, she’s one of the only disciples who remained by Jesus’ side during His crucifixion, (when the rest fled into hiding). On Easter Sunday morning, she’s one of the only three women who went back to make sure Jesus’ body was well taken care of. She’s also the only one who stayed behind after they discovered that Jesus was no longer in the grave and had risen. Mary was so grief-stricken that even when the resurrected Christ showed up, she didn’t even recognize Him!

When she eventually does, she latches on to Him so tightly with no intention of ever letting anyone take Him from her that Jesus had to tell her in John 20:17, “Don’t cling to me….for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

Mary loved Jesus with all her heart, all her mind, and all her soul, not because she had some secret admiration for him as a lover, but because He rescued her soul from the prison of the enemy, and welcomed her into the family of God. 

Now, let me ask you this, is that the woman you always assumed Mary Magdalene was?

It seems to me that when we get to heaven, there’s gonna be a long line of people waiting to say to her, “I am so sorry, Mary. We got your story wrong!” (jk).

The question still lingers though - so what happened to her?

The truth is, she seemingly disappears after the Gospels. The book of Acts doesn’t mention her name, nor does Paul make any reference to her in his epistles. This silence is what has led to much of the misinformation about her over the centuries.

But it need not be so confusing.

The last we hear of her, Jesus was commissioning her to become a missionary, “…go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17). Furthermore, there’s plenty of reason to believe she was included in the list of women (and men) mentioned in Acts 1:14 who waited in prayerful anticipation for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. If that’s the case, then it also means she would have been part of the event that took place on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit birth the new Church, and the global evangelistic movement that followed.

Whatever became of Mary, here’s what we can say for sure. She was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ who labored alongside the disciples for the Gospels. Hence, she deserves our highest praise and honor (not the crappy rap history has given her).

The apostle Paul captures best the honor we should accord her when he says in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, “Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.”

God bless you, Mary Magdalene!

God bless you indeed! 


Husband. Dad. Pastor. Nigerian American. Storyteller. Aspiring Prayer Warrior. Steak Lover. Follower of Jesus Christ reminding you that God the Father still loves you.