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Mary Magdalene: Profile & Biography of Mary Magdalene, Female Disciple of Jesus

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Mary Magdalene, Sketch by Da Vinci

Mary Magdalene

Who was Mary Magdalene?:


Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the lists of Jesus’ female companions that appear in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Some believe that Mary Magdalene may have been an important figure among the female disciples, perhaps even their leader and a member of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples — but not, apparently, to the degree of the 12 apostles. There is no textual evidence to allow for any definitive conclusions, though.

When & Where did Mary Magdalene live?:


Mary Magdalene’s age is unknown; biblical texts say nothing about when she was born or died. Like Jesus’ male disciples, Mary Magdalene appears to have come from Galilee. She was with him at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee and continued after his execution. The name Magdalene suggests her origin as the town of Magdala (Taricheae), on the Sea of Galilee's western shore. It was an important source of salt, an administrative center, and the largest of ten major towns around the lake.

What did Mary Magdalene do?:


Mary Magdalene is described as having helped pay for Jesus’ ministry out of her own pocket. Obviously Jesus’ ministry wasn’t a paying job and nothing is said in the text about their having collected donations from the people he preached to. This means that he and all his companions would have relied upon the generosity of strangers and/or their own private funds. It appears, then, that Mary Magdalene’s private funds may have been an important source of financial support.

Iconography and Portrayals of Mary Magdalene:


Mary Magdalene is usually portrayed in one of the various gospel scenes that have been associated with her — for example anointing Jesus, washing Jesus’ feet, or discovering the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is also frequently painted with a skull. This isn’t referenced in any biblical text and the symbol is probably supposed to represent either her association with Jesus’ crucifixion (at Golgotha, the “place of the skull”) or her understanding of the nature of death.

Was Mary Magdalene an Apostle of Jesus Christ?:


Mary Magdalene’s role in the canonical gospels is small; in noncanonical gospels like Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Peter, she plays a prominent role — often asking intelligent questions when all the other disciples are confused. Jesus is depicted as loving her more than any of the others because of her understanding. Some readers have interpreted Jesus “love” here as physical, not just spiritual, and hence that Jeusa and Mary Magdalene were intimate — if not married.

Was Mary Magdalene a Prostitute?:


Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four of the canonical gospels, but nowhere is she described as a prostitute. This popular image of Mary comes from confusion between here and two other women: Martha’s sister Mary and an unnamed sinner in Luke’s gospel (7:36-50). Both of these women wash Jesus’ feet with their hair. Pope Gregory the Great declared that all three women were the same person and it wasn’t until 1969 that the Catholic Church reversed course.

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail:


Mary Magdalene doesn’t have anything directly to do with the Holy Grail legends, but some authors have claimed that the Holy Grail was never a literal cup at all. Instead, the repository of the blood of Jesus Christ was actually Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ wife who was pregnant with his child at the time of the crucifixion. She was taken to southern France by Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus’ descendants became the Merovingian dynasty. Supposedly, the blood line lives on to this day, in secret.

Why was Mary Magdalene important?:


Mary Magdalene is not mentioned often in the gospel texts, but she does appear at key moments and has become an important figure for those interested in the role of women in early Christianity as well as in Jesus’ ministry. She accompanied him throughout his ministry and travels. She was a witness to his death — which, according to Mark, appears to be a requirement in order to truly understand Jesus’ nature. She was a witness to the empty tomb and was instructed by Jesus to carry the news to the other disciples. John says that the risen Jesus appeared to her first.

Western church tradition has identified her both as the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:37-38 and as Mary, the sister of Martha, who anoints Jesus in John 12:3. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, there continues to be a distinction between these three figures.

In the Roman Catholic tradition Mary Magdalene’s feast day is July 22 and she is regarded as a saint representing the important principle of pentitence. Visual representations typically portray her as the pentitent sinner, washing Jesus’ feet.

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