Mary Magdalene: In the Movies - In the Gospels

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Hollywood is not great at doing saints.  It may be that there are not many saints there and therefore not many rôle models to guide storytellers, actors, producers, and directors.  Villains are there aplenty, it would seem.  The Godfather is always going to be more attractive than The Nun’s Story.



          So what might be expected when Mary Magdalene is ushered on to the silver screen?  It may depend on which Mary Magdalene has been chosen.  There are four accounts of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels.  Outside the Gospels there is a Mary Magdalene who didn’t quite know how to love Jesus Christ Superstar (she comes from The Gospel of Mary, an ancient text, but not one you will find in your Bible).  And there are the many Mary Magdalenes who adorn the canvases of great artists.   So will the real Mary Magdalene please come forward?


          To find her, it is best to discard the Mary that never existed.  After the 16th century Council of Trent, when the Catholic Church in Europe was trying to impress Catholics that sin was at the heart of our faith, Mary was presented as the model of the great sinner whose tears of repentance earned forgiveness.   She is the Mary who is presumed to be a prostitute, or, in the imagination of Caravaggio, an upmarket courtesan.  Caravaggio’s The Penitent Magdalene (1597) is a beautiful painting but, like so many, it maligns the woman of Magdala.[1]  The scattered jewellery at her feet indicates her repentance and her firm purpose of amendment.   Her red hair is a standard artistic cliché announcing her profession.  But his is not the woman who was a close companion of Jesus in the Gospels.


          You will find the same misidentification in Donatello (1455) who puts the woman into a cave in the desert where we are expected to deduce that she spent the rest of her life repenting of her sins.  Some years later, Filippino Lippi presents Magdalene with profuse red hair (lest we miss the point) but an emaciated body, signs of divine punishment for her profession on the one hand, and her repentance, on the other.



          The belief that Mary was a sinner, indeed, a prostitute, is derived from a mistaken understanding of the story of a woman who comes to Jesus as he dines with Simon the Pharisee and his guests (Luke 7:36-50).  This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner, wet the feet of Jesus with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and kissed them (a somewhat sexual scene).  This causes considerable embarrassment to everyone except Jesus, who says to the womsn:  ”Your sins are forgiven you”.  She is told that she is saved and gently sent away: “Go in peace”, the greatest gift we can receive from God.  But she is not Mary Magdalene. 


          To return to Luke’s Gospel, in the very  next incident we meet Jesus, the Twelve, and also some women who had been healed by Jesus.  Here they are:      


                   Soon afterward he went on through cities and                     villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of                the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him,            and also some women who had been healed of evil           spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene,                             from whom seven demons had gone out, and                     Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household                     manager, and Susanna, and many others, who                            ministered to him/them out of their means.      

Luke 8:1-3


By recounting that some women had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, and that seven demons had been banished from Mary Magdalene, immediately after the story of the sinful woman who interrupted the meal, Luke gave lazy readers an opportunity of tarring the women, in particular Mary Magdalene, with the same brush.   Seven demons!  The woman must be a notorious sinner, obviously a prostitute.  No.  She was, however, very ill, yet restored to good health by the man from Nazareth.  “The woman of the city” (Luke 7:37)  is not the woman of Magdala.  But many people, including a cardinal I know, have made that mistake.  If I were Mary Magdalene I would sue.




The first Gospel to be written was that of St Mark.  In his pages we meet Magdalene at the end of the story.  When Jesus dies and the centurion identifies him as the Son of God, Mark tells of the women who were there when all the men had vanished:


                    There were also women looking on from a distance,                    among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the               mother of James the younger and of Joses, and                          Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him           and   ministered to him, and there were also many             other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.       




Notice that Mary Magdalene is mentioned first.  She is one of the many women who travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem and “ ministered to him”.  Or, as some early manuscripts have it, “ministered to them”.


          The men who travelled to Jerusalem had fled.  So it is left to the women to buy spices to anoint the body of their Lord:


          When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the   mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they         might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day         of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the        tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will      roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the    tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back— it was very large. And entering the        tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side,      dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he   said to them, “Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of      Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not    here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his     disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.       There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they       went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and           astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to   anyone, for they were afraid.                                                16:1-8


The figure who appears to these women is probably meant to be an angel.  Be that as it may, they are told “He is risen.  He is not here” and by heavenly commission, they are sent to proclaim the good news to his disciples and Peter and to direct them back to Galilee.


          Mary is again the first named in this group.  It is a mystery to scholars as to why they decide to tell no one.  It may mean that they did not divulge the amazing fact to anyone until they caught up with the men disciples.  It may be that Mark’s Gospel was not completed or that the last piece of the scroll was lost.  Or it may mean that the women were so terrified that they headed back to their homes in Galilee and kept quiet.  But I do not think that is likely.  After all, we have heard their story.


          In your Bibles you will find that Mark’s Gospel does not end at 16:8.  There are three bits, each an ending in itself, added on.  These were not written by St Mark and were additions that seem to have been added to make up for the mysterious ending at 16:8.  The first of them mentions Mary:


          Now when he [Jesus] rose early on the first day of the       week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from         whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and   told those who had been with him, as they mourned          and wept.  But when           they heard that he was alive and    had been seen by her, they would not believe it.


This seems to have been cobbled together by pinching bits from chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel and bits from St Luke.  The information that Jesus “had cast out seven demons” from Mary Magdalene is pinched from Luke 8:2, to which we have discussed above.




Matthew’s Gospel, owing much to St Mark’s Gospel for a considerable amount of its material, mentions Mary Magdalen three times.   First, as in Mark,


          There were also many women there, looking on from a      distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene           and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.                 Matthew 27:55-56


Matthew adds a little information, not in Mark:


          When it was evening, there came a rich man from    Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of     Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.           Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph        took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the    rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the      tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other       Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

                                                                                                    Matthew 27:62-66


The two Marys keep vigil for some time and, presumably, they return to wherever they were staying in Jerusalem.  Then,

          Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day     of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went       to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from         heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.   His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing      white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled     and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus          who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead,    

          and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you    will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed   quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran    to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and         said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do    not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee,        and there they will see me”.                     Matthew  28:1-10



This information is not found in Mark’s Gospel.  Mary and the other Mary go to see the tomb.   There is an earthquake, and an angel from heaven, looking like lightning and wearing an impressive white outfit.  The point of all the fireworks is to announce the fact of the resurrection to Mary and the other Mary and to command them to tell his disciples.  This is rather like Mark.  But there is much more.  Jesus meets with them, greets them, and they fall down and worship him.  It is the women who first meet the Risen Lord. Then Jesus himself bids them not be afraid and sends them to tell ”my brothers” to go before him to Galilee.  This is important.  An angel, then the Risen Lord himself appear to “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” and both send the women to go and tell.  That is a double divine commission to be apostles - for that is what apostles are told to do - to go and proclaim the Risen Lord.   Is it any wonder that in our true Christian tradition Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute but a woman who is called apostola apostolorum, the apostle to the apostles.  And wait till you read her story in John’s Gospel!




 I have mentioned the story of the woman whose sins were forgiven, the woman who is not Mary Magdalene. That woman is not reduced to sackcloth and ashes.  She is treated with the utmost kindness and compassion by Jesus.  Luke introduces Mary Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus cast out demons, in our terminology, a woman healed of serious illness.  She becomes part of the resurrection story.  First Luke mentions the women (not named) who had come from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus:


          The women who had come with him from Galilee      followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.   Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

          On the Sabbath they rested according to the   commandment.                                                      Luke 23:55-56


The Resurrection Story opens with Mary Magdalene and the other women.  It is really important to know, believe, and understand that the announcement to this world of the resurrection of Jesus, Son of God, is made by women.  The greatest story ever told is entrusted to these women who have always been faithful companions of Jesus as he made his way from Nazareth to Jerusalem.   They ministered to him in life and they sought to minister to his dead body.  Instead they were met by angels.   This is their story in chapter 24 of Luke which opens with the women:


                             But on the first day of the week, at early                              dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the                                spices they had prepared.   And           they found                    the stone rolled away from the tomb, but                                       when they went in they did not find the body                       of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed                    about this, behold, two men stood by them in                          dazzling apparel. And as they were                                                frightened and bowed their faces to the                               ground, the men said to them, “Why do you                      seek the living among the dead? He is not                                    here, but has risen. Remember how he told                        you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son                             of Man must be delivered into the hands of                           sinful men and be crucified and on the third                         day rise.” And they remembered his words,                         and returning from the tomb they told all                                 these things to the eleven and to all the rest.                              Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and                     Mary the mother of James and  the                                            women with them who told these things to                                  the apostles, but these words seemed to them                             an idle tale, and they did not believe them.                                    But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping                             and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by                                 themselves; and he went home marvelling at                      what had happened.                          Luke 24:1-12


The bit about they did not believe them has a long history in our Church, - too long.  Are not Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and these other women deserving of being heard in our Church?  In our time? 




This is simply amazing stuff:

                             Standing by the cross of Jesus were his                              mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife                         of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus                           saw his mother and the disciple whom he                                     loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,                      “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to                              the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And                                    from that hour the disciple took her to his                                      own home.                                          John 19:25-27


We remember the mother of Jesus, never named in John’s Gospel but always called “Woman”.  Why?  What son ever calls his mother “Woman”?  See John 2:4, the Cana story.  And in the whole of ancient Greek literature no son ever addresses his mother with “Mother”.  It simply isn’t done.  So why does Jesus do it?


          And why do we not think enough about the other women at the foot of the cross?  There we find Our Lady’s sister “and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.[2] 


          Chapter 20 in John’s Gospel is the place where Mary Magdalene really shines.  This is the opening:


                             Now on the first day of the week Mary                        Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was                           still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken             away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon           Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus              loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord             out of the tomb, and we do not know where they                      have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other                 disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.                        Both of them were running together, but the other           disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.                 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths                            lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter                   came, following him, and went into the tomb. He              saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth,            which had been on Jesus ' head, not lying with the           linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then                    the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first,             also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet                       they did not understand the Scripture, that he                             must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went                    back to their homes.                                    John 20:1-10


So again the story of the Resurrection of Jesus, the very heart of our faith, begins with Mary Magdalene.  She runs to tell Peter and the other disciple (often called ‘the beloved disciple” in this Gospel) that the tomb is empty.  Sensible woman that she is, she doesn’t jump to any wild conclusion.  The obvious explanation is that someone stole the body.  Notice by the way that Mary uses the plural: we do not know where they have laid him.  Does she mean the other women?   

          The two men start running and have their own experience at the empty tomb.[3]  But notice the last line of this paragraph:  Then the disciples went back to their homes.   Not much excited proclamation there.


          But look what happens to Mary as she stands weeping outside the tomb:


                             But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,                                    and as she wept she stooped to look into the                             tomb. And she saw two angels in white,                                sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one                      at the head and one at the feet. They said to                       her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She                               said to them, “They have taken away my                                 Lord, and I do not know where they have laid                      him.” Having said this, she turned around                                     and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know                          that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman,                       why are you weeping? Whom are you                                  seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener,                     she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him                       away, tell me where you have laid him, and I                      will take him away.” Jesus said to her,                                 “Mary.” She turned and said to him in                                    Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).                      Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I                                    have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to                             my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending                      to my Father and your Father, to my God and                        your God. ’” Mary Magdalene went and                                announced to the disciples, “I have seen the                       Lord”—and that he had said these things to                            her.                                                       John 20:11-18


This is amazing.  To examine the wonders of this story we would need a week.  Notice Mary is weeping.   Notice, not one, but two angels make a dramatic appearance taking up very particular positions.  Notice that they, too, call Mary “Woman”.  Notice that Mary calls Jesus “Kyrie”.   Notice that Mary turns around but does not recognise Jesus.  And notice that Jesus calls her “Woman” and asks the same question as the angels: “Why are you weeping?”  Notice the pertinent question: “Whom are you seeking?”   Do not miss the wonderfully extravangant love she has for this man Jesus: “I will take him away”.  And that gentle, loving “Mary”.  She turns around again and she is allowed in this telling of the story to speak her own language and his.  In Aramaic: Rabboni! - which the helpful evangelist tells us means “Teacher”.  Actually, strictly speaking, it means “My Great One”, used as a mark of respect for a rabbi.  However, since rabbi was the title of a teacher, that is what is meant here.  Jesus is her teacher, her great teacher.  And much more.

          Then she jumps on him, arms around his neck, legs about his hips.  That may be my imagination but the Greek verb allows my imagination to run a bit.  Listen to what Jesus lovingly says to her: “Don’t cling to me” and tells her why.[4] 


          What Jesus says to Mary is profoundly important for Christian faith for what the Risen Lord entrusts to Mary and what he sends her to proclaim to “my brother” is this:


I am ascending to

my Father and your Father,

to my God and to your God.

John 20:17


Throughout the Gospel of St John Jesus has called God   “Father” or “My Father”.   The  word “Father” in reference to God occurs 125 times in John’s Gospel.   Indeed, here in this very sentence, he calls God “My Father”.   But “Your Father” (in the plural) occurs only once in this Gospel and it is of huge significance.  Read carefully and slowly: Jesus is saying that “I have not yet ascended to my Father.  But go and declare to my brothers that I go to My Father and to your Father”  In returning to his Father, he has accomplished his purpose on earth: the God who is his Father becomes our Father, the Father of all.  This is what has been fulfilled, what has been accomplished by his life, death and return to the Father.  Humanity has been adopted and must now know itself as children of God our Father. 


          Mary went to do what her Lord had asked, to declare to  the disciples  “I have seen the Lord” and to report all that Jesus had said to her.


The truth of the matter may be clear to us in these words from earlier in the Gospel:


                             “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

                                      No one comes to the Father

                                                except through me.

               JOHN 14:6


           Mary Magdalen is ‘the Apostle to the Apostles”.  As I have remarked, it used to be that, apart from Our Lady’s feast days, Magadalen was the only woman on whose feast the Creed was recited.  We have stopped doing this.  A sign of the times, and an unfortunate one.


The Gospel of Mary and other flights of fancy


A word about Jesus Christ Superstar.   A fictional text entitled The Gospel of Mary was originally written in Greek sometime in the second century.  Bits of this text survive but not much.  A more complete version in Coptic (ancient Egyptian) survives from the fifth century.  In this text there is a confrontation between Peter and Andrew on the one hand, and Mary on the other.  This matter is touched on in other documents that never found their way into our Bibles, namely, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Pistis Sophia (Wisdom’s Faith).  These documents are fragmentary and add a little to help flesh out the story.


          The Risen Jesus is addressing Peter and the other apostles, warning them to observe his teaching. He blesses them and departs.  The bewildered apostles wonder how they will be brave enough to preach, given the hostility shown to Jesus.  Peter turns for advice to Mary Magdalene:


                   Peter said to Mary,

                   “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more               than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the                        Saviour which you remember - which you know,            but we do not, nor have we heard them”.

                   Mary answered, ‘”What is hidden from you I will                  proclaim to you”.


[Then Mary offers teaching on what she learned from Jesus in a vision granted exclusively to her.  This teaching concerns the powers of the soul to grasp the secrets of the ages to come.

 Then Andrew, Peter’s brother, says that he will have none of this strange teaching offered by the Saviour exclusively to Mary.  Peter chips in as follow :]


                   “Did he really speak with a woman without our                              knowledge, and not openly?  Are we to turn about              and everyone of us listen to her?  Did he prefer her                to us?

                   Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother                            Peter, what do you think?  Do you think that I                       made this up myself, in my own heart, or that I am                  lying about the Saviour?”

                   Levi (= Matthew?] answered and said to Peter,

                   “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered.  Now I           see you contending against the woman as if against               our enemies.  But if the Saviour made her worthy,                   who are you to reject her? Surely the Saviour                     knows her well, very well.  That is why he loved                           her more than us!


And that is the origin of Jesus Christ Superstar.


Whatever Hollywood might make of Mary Magdalene and her women companions, it is time for our Church to take these great women seriously.  Then perhaps it might begin to take all women seriously.


          Joseph O’Hanlon




























































































































[1]  Magdala was Mary’s home town, situated on the northwestern shore of Lake Kinnereth, otherwise known in the Gospels as the Sea of Galilee.

[2]  In Luke 24, of the two going to Emmaus who meet Jesus one is called Clophas.  Is the other one his wife, who stood with the women at the foot of the cross as we read in John’s Gospel?


[3]  See my notes on the readings for Easter Sunday Mass in the Year of Mark, Year 2.

[4]  The Latin Vulgate Bible, the translation made by St Jerome in the fifth century A.D. is still the official Bible of the Western (Roman/Latin) Catholic Church.  It translates the Greek into Latin as  Noli me tangere.  This mean Do not touch me!  This translation has inspired many artists.  Try Titian.  For a really keep-away- from-me presentation of the event, see Hans Holbein the Younger.  It means “Don’t hold on to me!”.