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The Red-Haired Saint: Is Mary Magdaline Key to the Easter Narratives?

by James T. Baker

Dr. Baker is professor of history at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 6, 1977, p. 328. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at . Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


During a recent year spent in Italy, as I walked the dusty Roman-charted roads, sat by splashing medieval fountains, and gazed at the altars of Renaissance and Baroque churches, I found myself, much to my surprise, falling in love with a saint named Mary Magdalene. I am not the first Protestant to be attracted to a Catholic saint, and it is not unusual for a man to choose from among the saints a female. But why did my Puritan genes lead me not to an immaculate Virgin, a visionary Catherine, or an ascetic Clara but to one who, according to Christian tradition, was a woman of easy virtue? My “affair” with Magdalene has lasted two years, and in studying her I have learned much about Western Christian society. I am no longer surprised at my choice.

I

Magdalene is, of course, not one person but many. She is 20 centuries of conscious and unconscious composition. She is Bible story, medieval myth, Renaissance legend and modern pop heroine.

She is in the biblical accounts one of several women who followed Jesus from Galilee to his appointment with fate in Jerusalem. None of them got to he a disciple or an apostle: but despite the apparent conventional sexism of the day, these female followers seem to have been welcomed by a Leader who enjoyed the company of women. As Rachel Conrad Wahlberg has pointed out, Jesus saw women, Magdalene among them, not just as bodies for procreation but as souls who could respond to God’s word.

She is the one out of whom Jesus cast seven devils. She sees Jesus crucified, follows his body to the tomb, returns with the first group on Easter morning, and later in the day is the first to speak with the Risen Christ, The Gospels say no more. By Easter Monday she has disappeared from the record.

Magdalene begins to develop mythically in the first few Christian centuries. In the Middle Ages her shadowy image takes on a distinct shape and color. In the Renaissance she becomes visually sharp. In our own day she moves prominently across the giant screen. She comes very early to be identified as a converted prostitute with long, flowing and usually red hair, who just before his last trip to Jerusalem anoints Jesus’ head (or feet) with an expensive ointment and to the end of her long life remains a somewhat disturbed penitent.

In our own day, inspired by centuries of moral fiction and visual mythos, novelists and rock composers have made her Jesus’ faithful Greek or Eurasian prostitute, anguished because he won’t love her and she doesn’t know how to love him; earthy, beautiful, the saintly hooker who spices the story of the Galilean on his way to Superstardom.

History or legend, fact or myth, Magdalene remains one of the most fascinating characters of Christian history. She tells us more about womanhood in European Christian civilization than any other single figure.

II

The Gospel writers probably did not intend to make Magdalene such a mystery that subsequent ages would be tempted to elaborate on her frail biography. They simply gave her and Jesus’ other female followers very little space, naming them only when they were too central to an event to be ignored. In her case one of the New Testament’s major figures remained of virtually unknown origin, character and destiny, so roughly sketched that she could easily be confused with other unnamed and unsketched women and grow into a myth far different, far richer in some ways, than her actual self. By making her less than she was, the Gospels inadvertently made her more.

The Gospels that mention her origins say simply that she was a Galilean woman (Mark 15:40-41), a follower of Jesus in the north who came down with him to Jerusalem (Matt. 27:55-56). As her surname suggests and as Luke indicates, she was from a town in Galilee called Magdala. Luke also says that she was one of several women Jesus cured of diseases -- among the others were Joanna (wife of Herod’s agent Chuza) and Susanna -- and that they followed him through Galilee and Judea, ministering to his needs out of their own resources (Luke 8: 2-3). Luke and Mark identify her disease as seven evil spirits, a term common at that time for mental illness, and Mark says that Jesus cast the spirits out.

All four Gospels agree that she was present -- unlike most of the male followers -- at the crucifixion. Mark says that Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James the Younger and Joseph), Salome and other women stood watching from a distance.” Matthew also indicates that Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s Sons (James and John) watched from a distance. John says that Jesus’ mother and her sister stood with Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary of Magdala “near the cross.” Luke does not name the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and who watched the crucifixion -- but then Luke mentions only Jesus’ mother among the women of the earliest church (Acts 1:14). He does, however, say that Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and others were the first to arrive at the empty tomb Sunday morning; logic would conclude that these were the same women who watched from a distance, followed the body to the tomb, went home to prepare spices and ointments for embalming, and brought them on Easter morning.

The Gospels also agree (except for John, who is silent on the matter) that Magdalene followed the body to its tomb and saw it sealed up. Mark says it was she and the other Mary, presumably the mother of James and Joseph. Luke does not name the women who followed the body, but they are the same women who came first to the tomb on Sunday morning: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others. John makes no mention of women going to the tomb with the body, but Magdalene must have known where it had been taken, because she was the first to arrive there early Sunday.

III

All agree that Magdalene was present at the events on Easter morning. Matthew, Mark and John make her one of the central figures. Indeed, Matthew and John make her the key to the Easter narratives by saying she was the first to see the Risen Christ. Luke alone plays down her part. Jesus’ mother appears to have been a major source for his Gospel, and he probably knew her personally. Some have been cynical enough to suggest that he downplayed the role of the one woman who might have threatened the Virgin’s place of veneration in the new movement. But even Luke admits that Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women brought ointments to the tomb early Sunday morning; found the huge stone rolled away; went in and found the body missing; saw two men dressed in dazzling light, who told them Jesus had risen; and rushed back to tell the 11 disciples  -- though it is only at the end that Luke parenthetically provides the women’s names.

Mark, on the other hand, says at the beginning of his account that it was Magdalene, Salome and Mary the mother of James who carried embalming spices to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away, went in, and saw a young man dressed in white, who told them Jesus had come back to life and that they were to tell the 11 he would meet them in Galilee; then they fled the tomb. In the first verses of the appendix to Mark’s story, Magdalene is identified as the first to see the Risen Christ and the first to tell the 11, who significantly. perhaps because of her sex, refused to believe her.

Matthew says that early Sunday morning Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, felt an earthquake, and saw an angel come down, roll away the stone and sit on it. The guards fainted. He told the women not to be afraid because Jesus had come back to life and they were to go and tell the 11 to meet him in Galilee. As they ran away, Jesus appeared before them on the path and said, “Good morning.” They fell down and clasped his feet. He told them to go and tell his brothers to meet him in Galilee. Again they ran.

John says that early Sunday morning Mary Magdalene (alone, it would seem) came and found the stone rolled away and ran to tell Peter and John. Peter and John came to the tomb and believed (just what isn’t stated). Mary Magdalene returned crying, stooped and looked inside, and saw two angels in white robes sitting at the head and foot of the slab where the body had been. They asked her why she cried. She said someone had taken the body and she didn’t know where it was. When she turned back outside, Jesus was there. He asked her what she wanted; taking him for the gardener, she begged him to show her the body. He called her name, and then she knew him. He warned her not to touch him (Noli me tangere, as Titian would portray the scene) but to go and tell his brothers he was about to go to God.

IV

All of which demonstrates just how significant Magdalene was to the events of crucifixion and resurrection and thus to the birth of Christianity. She was perhaps the single most important person in the new faith’s most crucial three days. Yet she is not mentioned again -- not in Acts, not in the various epistles, not in earliest martyrology -- and that is doubtless why in succeeding generations readers, hungry for a more detailed picture of this woman rumored from the first to have been something “special” to Jesus, have given her the characteristics and experiences of other Marys and unnamed biblical women.

She has been identified as the woman “caught in the very act” of adultery (John 8:3-11). Drawing on ancient traditions, William Blake (The Everlasting Gospel) and Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) have made much of this match. But of course this woman was caught at her business (as was her male partner, though he apparently wasn’t accused) after Jesus had come to Jerusalem, and Magdalene was supposed to have been reformed by then, so other myths say. She has also been identified, perhaps more by modern novelists and screenwriters than by the ancients, as the woman at the well (John 4:4.29). But this woman was a Samaritan, not a Galilean like Magdalene; and nowhere is there any hint that Magdalene had had even one husband, let alone a whole series.

She has been identified (R. M. Grant says as early as the second century) as the woman who anointed Jesus’ head with a precious ointment. This happened in Bethany, at the table of one Simon the leper (Mark 14:3-9; Matt. 26: 7-13). Some of those present criticized her for the waste, but Jesus praised the act, and it was then that Judas decided to betray his master. Luke, placing the story in an earlier context, says that this “bad woman” washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with perfume; but it is probably the same story, for though it is said to have happened long before Judas’ betrayal and in a slightly different manner, it did happen in the home of a publican named Simon.

How did this event get to be associated with Magdalene? John may provide the answer. He says twice that Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany poured perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. This happened in her own home, not in the house of a man named Simon, but it was in Bethany, it was during a meal, and Judas did complain about the waste of perfume that could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But there is not the slightest shred of hard evidence that she was Magdalene or that Magdalene was any of the Gospels’ other Marys or unnamed “bad” women. There is certainly no biblical basis for saying that she was a reformed prostitute or that she had long red hair, though the length of the hair probably derives from her confusion with Mary of Bethany. She did have the audacity to be no man’s wife or mother.

Magdalene disappeared from the official record Easter afternoon. Perhaps she returned to Galilee to live quietly, uneventfully, under the protection of one of those Christian communities not recorded in the New Testament. Perhaps she was martyred. Perhaps she was left out of the canon because she never again did anything memorable, perhaps because her “special” relationship with Jesus would have made her a target for attack by those who wished to discredit his work. No one really knows, just as no one knows how much credit she should get for the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. Pesky questions have persisted from the first century to the modern age, as in the theological criticism of writers like Ernest Renan. Did Magdalene find the empty tomb and bring back to the other women and then to the men a story of visions so vivid they made them their own? Could all the subsequent encounters with the Risen One have been inspired by her bereaved delirium? Was she the real founder of the Christian faith?

V

One thing is certain. She was not given full credit for whatever part she did play until very late in Christian history. For a thousand years she all but disappeared. She lived on in oral tradition; it was then that her image expanded and deepened; but in almost no surviving art and few theological commentaries does she even appear. Her name, her face, her place in the tradition were officially ignored.

This could at first have been because the early fathers, like Luke before them, saw her as a potential rival to the Virgin. The Virgin is not, even in Luke, a particularly prominent figure in the ministry or passion of Jesus. His first recorded words mildly rebuke her for not understanding that even as a 12-year-old he had to tend to his father’s business. Later, at the marriage at Cana, he is none too happy with her for bothering him about the wine. In the middle of his work she tries to get him to come home and forget his adoring crowds, and he refuses to recognize her as his mother. But Magdalene is always there -- in Galilee, in Jerusalem, at Golgotha, at the tomb on Easter morning: and had her part in the pageant been duly acknowledged, she might well have surpassed the Virgin in prestige and reverence.

But while fear of rivalry may help explain the early silence and neglect, it does not explain its long continuation. By the day of the theologian Origen (182-251) the Virgin could without fear of contradiction be called Mother of God, the New Eve, the New Adam’s Mother. By the fourth century festivals to her outnumbered those to all other saints combined. She had no rival: Magdalene and all other women were eclipsed.

Perhaps this was due to the early and medieval church’s “gnostic” fear of fleshly, sexual impurity and the hushed-up but never completely silenced tradition that Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or his lover. It could be that as the first Christians moved out with their message into the Greek world, the popular hellenistic idea that sexual abstinence was the most important sign of spiritual purity made it necessary to portray Jesus -- even as early as the Gospels -- as a virgin, or at least to ignore his marriage or love affairs. The Gospel of Philip reflects a tradition as 01(1 as the second century that Magdalene was in fact Jesus’ wife.

William Phipps, who has written extensively on the subject of Jesus’ sexuality, says Jesus could not have been accepted as a rabbi in the Jewish society of his day had he not been married, and that the marriage in Cana, where his mother as hostess called on him for help with the wine, was probably his own wedding feast. Phipps also believes it likely that Magdalene was the bride. Noli me tangere, or in Greek me mou baptou, he translates: “Do not keep on hugging me” -- a sign of their former intimacy.

In Jewish society, marriage and all its sexual obligations, if carried out according to the Law, would not have been associated with impurity. But in Greek society, with which the first disciples came in contact even before the Gospels were written, Jesus could not have had a wife or an intimate female friend without suspicions of impurity and sin. His partner, his female counterpart, had to be his mother, who herself came to be thought of more and more as a perpetual. virgin, conceived without sin.

VI

Add all this to the gradual fusion of Magdalene and the various “loose” women of the Bible -- her ever-shadier reputation -- and the picture grows clear. By refusing to let her be his wife, or even his lover in his bereavement, the fathers let her become a camp follower, a whore for want of a purpose in the Nazarene band. She became an embarrassment to the first missionaries and a reproach to the kinds of pharisees who later came to control the church, to men who preferred not to remember Jesus’ preference for sinful people. Early and medieval church leadership, thoroughly masculine, preferred their female saints to be wives or mothers of holy men. Magdalene, stripped of her true role in the story of Jesus, was neither.

But maybe all this is going too far. Maybe her neglect was only a matter of the preferences of a particular cultic expression. Early Christian art seems to have preferred symbols: Noah’s boat as the church sailing through stormy political seas, the Good Shepherd and his lamb, the IKTHUS fish. Even New Testament characters were generally rendered abstractly. There was really no place for a personality like Magdalene’s. Later came the preference for nativities, the Madonna and Christchild and, later still, crucifixes unadorned by worshiping or swooning witnesses -- again no place for her. The resurrection, where she would have been unavoidable, where her influence and veneration would most certainly have grown, was seldom a subject of medieval art.

It was indeed only in the early Renaissance, in the liturgical drama which influenced the subject matter of the newly recovered art of painting -- where the resurrection did get attention -- that Magdalene was returned to prominence and became for the first time an officially popular figure. It was a long time coming. For several centuries the church fought classical drama because it was seen as a vehicle for the propagation of pagan philosophy, and it naturally resisted the use of drama to teach the faith. But of course the mass itself was a form of drama and became more so as years passed, especially in the time of Charlemagne, who loved liturgical splendor.

Using the newly developed tropes of the tenth century, priests began to improvise brief dramatizations, each appropriate for the mass of the day, to be performed before the Introit, or later just before the Te Deum. Since a reenactment of the crucifixion was neither practical nor seemly and one of the nativity difficult and somewhat undramatic, the first such “play” and the only one for a century or more -- and the one that remained the most popular, even in the 14th century when there were many -- was the scene of the three Marys at the empty tomb. Later when the Easter mass featured all elaborate play about the resurrection, the most impressive scene, the one professional writers labored to perfect, was of Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden. In this later cultic expression that so captivated Renaissance audiences, a new religious star was born.

VII

The Renaissance then was Magdalene’s era. In northern Europe, where the miracle play had its origin, she starred in such sacred theatrical productions as Dulot’s Maria Magdalena, his motet written for Rouen Cathedral, as well as the art of the day. In the south also she appeared both in drama and in painting and sculpture. There she appeared with long hair, usually red, sometimes carrying a jar of ointment (as in Viti), sometimes with the other Marys at the tomb and sometimes alone with the Risen Christ, in some works as a woman made beautiful by her rescue and salvation (as in Perugina, Dolci, Gaddi) and in others as a ravaged penitent (as in Donatello), but always now a central figure, at times complementing and at times in contrast to but often (as in the sculpture of Bologna) virtually overshadowing the more sedate Virgin.

It was her time, of course -- the day of the prostitute. This was how she was seen and admired. Town life was replacing the rural court; the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy; and the prostitute represented town life’s oldest capitalist profession. In the countryside, at the court, the “loose” woman did what she did for fun of it or for her keep. In the new capitalist towns she earned cash, and the more enterprising members of her group built up capital to invest in loftier and more profitable schemes, a trait commercial bankers and even hardheaded church financiers could appreciate. In Florence, where the greatest “Magdalena was carved, prostitutes were in plentiful supply to fascinate the leaders of society and mildly threaten ecclesiastical discipline, and a saint who was thought to have been a prostitute was bound to get attention from every group with money for the arts.

Magdalene got it, and from groups with the money to hire the best artists of the day. Fra Angelico, the sensual Florentine monk who used to crawl out his window to visit the girls, painted her watching joyfully as on Easter morning Jesus dances in ecstasy at his resurrection. But it was Donatello, the revolutionary artist whose David was the first freestanding nude since antiquity, who made her a supreme work of art.

Donatello did three figures of strikingly similar, exceptionally powerful character, a Magdalena and two John the Baptist figures, one just before and one just after her. The first John, done in 1452 in wood for Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice and influenced by the Byzantine style, makes John long and thin with wild hair that flows down to merge with clothing made of animal skins. The second John, done in bronze for the Siena Cathedral in 1457, has that same fusion of hair and skins plus a famous “mad” look about the eyes. Between them stands the Magdalena, done in wood in 1455 for the cathedral baptistry in Florence. Emaciated, mad, with long hair that merges with skins, ravaged by a life of dissipation and then long repentence, she is one of the most powerful works of Christian art, the perfect example of the grotesque made beautiful.

The red-haired saint. She is still as popular as she was in the Renaissance and for much the same reasons. Liberated artists today, those who deal in religious subject & still portray her as the prostitute, the loose woman near the Lord. But they seem to enjoy her sensuality more openly. She seldom repents anymore. Once a whore, always a whore, and so much the better.

VIII

The problem with this, and perhaps the problem with our supposedly liberated age, is that while Magdalene is no longer forced to repent her natural desires, she is still not permitted to be an equal-to-the-male human being. The medieval designation of woman as either virgin or whore stands, and Magdalene is still the latter. She is Playmate of the Christian Era.

Kazantzakis ushered in our part of the era, perhaps inadvertently, with his confused, confusing but vivid novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis’s Jesus, like his Saint Francis, is a tortured hero, emerging from an earthshaking experience with God convinced that sex is sinful -- the antitype of the novelist’s totally sensuous Zorba the Greek. Jesus and Magdalene are cousins, betrothed, but he receives a sign from God that he is divine and must remain celibate. He goes off to the desert; in her agony she searches in bed after bed for someone to take his place. Part of Jesus’ torment during the passion is that by doing God’s will he has ruined the life of the one he loves; his “last temptation” is to forsake the cross and make her his wife. She is too completely a slave to her female desires to save herself.

Kazantzakis despised, perhaps feared, the femininity of his Magdalene, as does the eloquent black Judas of Jesus Christ Superstar. Faithful to the biblical account of Judas’ disgust with Jesus’ acceptance of “impure” women, the rock opera opens with his song of outrage at the tolerance that gives the Nazarenes a bad name. But readers of Last Temptation and fans of Superstar are struck by how attractive Magdalene is despite her detractors, even when, as in Kazantzakis’s case, they are her creators. She is, despite all the protest, still beautiful, still modern man s favorite holy Playmate. She may not “know how to love him,” but she won’t stop trying. Why should she? She’s only a woman. She remains our secular but juvenile age’s favorite female saint because she strokes the male’s ego and feeds his sexual fantasy.

As this parody of what she really was, she inspires great art, but she also stands as an obstacle to female social equality by helping perpetuate a stereotype which, whether it is shamed or glorified, demeans womanhood. Yet in Magdalene I see a key to a new level of Christian sexual consciousness. All we need do is demonstrate honestly the true role this woman had in the story of redemption, the apparent fact that she was Jesus’ partner, wife or lover, his favorite disciple, a full member of a revolutionary community created by One who considered men and women equal. Just as Magdalene was the key to postresurrection consciousness, so could she now serve as the key to a new age of sexual liberation. All we in the church need do is at long last give her due credit for all she did and all she was.


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