Maria Magdalene appears in several places. I discuss here some of them. as well as modern interpretations of her historical role.
According to the Gnostic Gospels
Beginning in 1896, fragmentary manuscripts known as the Gnostic Gospels were discovered by theologians and archaeologists. The Gospel of Mary, believed to have been written in the 3rd century, reveals a Mary Magdalene who had a special relationship with Jesus and possessed a deeper understanding of his teachings.
The Gospel of Philip describes Mary’s relationship with Jesus as a partner, associate or companion. This has been interpreted to mean their relationship was intimate.
Mary Magdalene continues to be an object of fascination for both religious devotees and those in secular media.
In Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, Mary is depicted as the repentant sinner. However, Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code portrays Mary to be the disciple to Jesus‘ right in da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper and Jesus‘ pregnant wife when he was crucified.
Although we know something about Jewish society in ancient Palestine 2,000 years ago, we know very little about Mary herself. The Bible provides no personal details of her age, status or family.
Her name, Mary Magdalene, gives us the first real clue about her. It suggests that she came from a town called Magdala. There is a place today called Magdala, 120 miles north of Jerusalem on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
We do know there was also an ancient place called Magdala from literature. The name occurs in the New Testament, and also in Jewish texts. Its full name is Magdala Tarichaea. Magdala seems to mean tower, and Tarichaea means salted fish. If the name of the town was Tower of Salted Fish, it’s no surprise that its main business was fishing. As a woman living in Magdala, Mary may have worked in the fish markets and met the fishermen.
One Jewish text which mentions Magdala, called Lamentations Raba, says is that Magdala is judged by God and destroyed because of its fornication. It is possible that this description of Magdala as a place of fornication is the origin of the idea that arose in western Christianity that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
We know there were brothels elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and Galilee was probably no exception. It was part of the Roman Empire, which placed a heavy tax burden on families, and often women paid the heaviest price.
The Roman conquest, and then Roman imperial rule, would have made quite a dramatic impact on Galilee. Economically it would have brought the people greater and greater tax burdens, and that would have put pressure on families. When tax burdens were at their worst and a family could no longer pay off its debts, children were sometimes given up as slaves. Perhaps this was Mary Magdalene’s fate. With such a tough background, it’s not hard to imagine that Mary might have been a prostitute, but this evidence is purely circumstantial.
However, her name, Mary of Magdala, could suggest something else altogether: she was unmarried. A married woman would have carried her husband’s name and Mary didn’t.
There is nothing in the limited amount of material we have about Mary in the Gospel traditions that suggests she is married, she’s never described as being a widow and she not said to have any children. 2,000 years ago an unmarried woman was viewed with suspicion. Perhaps this isolated Mary, but it wouldn’t fully account for her negative image.
Could anything else in Mary’s life have made her an outcast? The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary (Luke 8:2). Jesus was known as an exorcist. In all of the gospels, one of the principal things he is doing in his campaign for a renewal of Israel is exorcism. The exorcisms and healings probably go together with the teaching and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.
At that time, people believed that the demons possessed people who had done something wrong, and deserved to be possessed, whereas good, virtuous people were protected from demon possession. Whatever the cause of her possession, Mary’s exorcism is the catalyst which makes her sign up with the Jesus movement.
The message that Jesus is said to have preached seems to have particular appeal for people who are in the margins of society. Luke chapter 8, tells us that Mary was one of Jesus‘ followers and travelled with him.