Feature

Prostitute or Apostle? ... Upgrading Mary Magdalene
A misinterpretation of the Gospels has contributed to the confusion surrounding Mary Magdalene, writes Fr Brendan McConvery CSsR

The change in status of a liturgical celebration from ‘obligatory memorial’ to ‘feast’ normally entails little more than the inclusion of the Gloria in the Mass and the requirement to use certain special texts in the Eucharist and the Divine Office. In the case of the upgrading of the liturgical celebration of St Mary Magdalene, July 22, it is much more than that. 

As the explanatory statement by Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, states, “the Holy Father Francis has taken this decision precisely in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy to stress the importance of this woman, who shows great love for Christ and was very dear to Christ”. 

By giving her the same liturgical status as an apostle, the change also restores to Mary the oldest title by which she was known, Apostola Apostolorum, “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

The earliest use of the title, “Apostle to the Apostles” is in an early commentary on the Song of Songs by a shadowy figure in the early Church called Hippolytus, dating from the early 3rd Century. 

Commentary

It has been suggested that at least part of this commentary began life as an Easter homily. 

Using the text of the woman’s search for her beloved in Song 3:1-4 as a prototype for the search by Mary and the other women for the body of Jesus on Easter Sunday, the text comments, “they show us a good testimony of those who were made apostles to the apostles, sent by Christ. It is to these that the angel first said ‘Go and tell his disciples: ‘He goes before you into Galilee, there you shall see him’’ (Mark 16:7, Matt 28:7). So that the apostles might not doubt that these women were sent by the angels, Jesus himself comes to meet the apostles so that the women might be truly recognised as apostles of Christ and make good the failure of ancient Eve by their obedience.”

The New Testament does not limit the use of the term ‘apostle’ to the 12 chosen by Jesus. Matthias, for example, replaces Judas and Paul is very insistent on his apostolic status, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (I Cor. 9:1). 

At the end of Romans, he greets a husband and wife, “Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was” (Rom. 16:7). Ephesians 4:11 lists apostleship among a list of offices and charisms for the work of ministry.

Mary passes the test for apostleship under several heads. When Peter invited the first Jesus community to select a replacement for Judas: “Out of the men who have been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was living with us, from the time when John was baptising until the day when he was taken up from us, one must be appointed to serve with us as a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22 NJB).

As her name suggests, Mary had followed Jesus from her hometown on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and had been present at his death on the Cross (as none of the male disciples had been, bar the Beloved Disciple). She had also been a witness to the empty tomb (prior to Peter and the Beloved Disciple – John 20:2ff) and had been sent by the Risen Lord to tell his disciples that he had risen (John 20:17-18).

Mary’s title, ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, continued in use well into the Middle Ages. St Thomas Aquinas used it of her, because she announced to the apostles what they in turn would announce to the whole world.

Somewhere in the centuries that followed, Mary’s title got lost and she became the prototype of the repentant sinner and prostitute. Prostitution was as common in the land of Jesus as it was elsewhere. One of the marks of Jesus’ ministry was his ability to reach out to ‘tax collectors and sinners’ including women who were regarded as sinful.

A certain misinterpretation of the Gospels has contributed to the confusion surrounding Mary Magdalene. What we know about Mary from the Gospel evidence is relatively clear.

As her name implies, she was a native of the town of Magdala or Migdal on the shores of the  Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:2)

She had experienced some kind of dramatic healing or deliverance through Jesus (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2)

She became, along with other women, a member of the itinerant Jesus community, following him and the apostles from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 8:3, Mark 15:41)

She was a witness to the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:40,47)

She was a witness to the Empty Tomb and encountered the Risen Lord (Mark 16:1ff, Matt 28:1, Luke 24:10, John 20:1ff).

An incident popularly associated with Mary is not included in the list above. It is the incident in the Gospels where “a woman who was a sinner” gate-crashed a party in the house of a Pharisee called Simon to anoint the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:37-38). That woman is unnamed. 

Confusion

To add further to the confusion, there are two similar stories in the Gospels. In the first, an unnamed woman anointed the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the Leper at Bethany a few days before his passion (Mark 14:3-5), but nothing is said about her sinful life. In the second, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed the feet of Jesus with costly nard (John 12:3) at a dinner party her family had prepared for him to celebrate the raising of their brother.

While it is likely that details in these stories feed into one another, they have also been interpreted by preachers as though they were referring to the same event. It should be clear that Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, is not Mary Magdalene and there is no evidence to call either of the other two women Mary.

Recent archaeological excavations of the Magdala/Migdal site prove it to be a settlement of some considerable size and prosperity. 

From the Jewish historian Josephus, we know it was a centre for the fishing trade on the lake. Its Greek name, ‘Migdal of the Fish Salters’, suggests that preserving fish was a profitable local industry. Given that Mary is included among a group of women who provided for Jesus out of their own resources (Luke 8:2-3), it is not unreasonable to suspect that she or her family might have made their money from the fishing industry.

What made her follow Jesus was her own experience of his healing power. She was delivered from seven demons. Firstly, “seven” is not a literal number – seven demons implies a mighty destructive force, just as seven gifts of the Holy Spirit implies all the spiritual blessings of the Spirit. 

What deliverance from such oppressive force meant in the days of Jesus we cannot say with certainty but Mary seems to have experienced a life-changing freedom that makes her a committed disciple of Jesus.

Archbishop Roche concludes his short commentary on the liturgical change by saying “it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman should have the same level of festivity given to the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and that the special mission of this woman be highlighted, as an example and model to every woman in the Church.” 

It is also good to see justice done to her memory after so long a time. 

 

Brendan McConvery CSsR taught sacred scripture for many years in Maynooth and elsewhere. He is an author, with Ciaran O’Callaghan CSsR, of The Three Faces of Christ: Reading the Gospels in the Liturgical Year and is currently editor of Reality magazine.