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Mary, the Magdalene


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(Μαρία Μαγδαληνή . A. V. "Mary Magdalene"), one of the most interesting, but at the same time most contradictorily-interpreted characters in the N.T. In the following statements respecting her we largely follow the article in Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, s.v.

I. The Name. Four different explanations have been given of this.

(1) That which at first suggests itself as the most natural, that she came from the town of Magdala. The statement that the women with whom she journeyed followed Jesus in Galilee (Mark 15:41), agrees with this notion. Magdala was originally a tower or fortress, as its name indicates, the situation of which is probably the same with that of the modern village of el-Mejdel, on the western shore of the Lake of Tiberias (Stanley). But Lightfoot starts another supposition, both with regard to the place of residence and to the identity of Mary Magdalene. He shows that there was a place called Magdala very near Jerusalem, so near that a person who set up his candles in order on the eve of the Sabbath, might afterwards go to Jerusalem, pray there, and return and light up his candles when the Sabbath was now coming in (Exercit. John 12:3). This place is stated in the Talmud to have been destroyed on account of its adulteries. Now, it is argued by Baronius, that Mary Magdalene must have been the same person as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and on this point Lightfoot entirely agrees with him, and he thinks that, Bethany and Magdala being both near Jerusalem, she may have married a mall of Magdala. and acquired the dissolute morals of the place; or that Magdala may have been another name for Bethany. All this, however, is full of improbabilities.

(2) Another explanation has been found in the fact that the Talmudic writers, in their calumnies against the Nazarenes, make mention of a Miriam Megaddela (מגדלא), and, deriving that word from the Piel of גָּדִל, to twine, explain it as meaning "the twiner or plaiter of hair." They connect with this name a story which will be mentioned later; but the derivation has been accepted by Lightfoot (Hor. Heb. on Matthew 26:56; Harm. Evang. on Luke 8:3) as satisfactory, and pointing to the previous worldliness of "Miriam with the braided locks" as identical with "the woman that was a sinner" of Luke 7:37. It has been urged in favor of this that the καλουμένη of Luke 8:3 implies something peculiar, and is not used where the word that follows points only to origin or residence.

(3) Either seriously, or with the patristic fondness for paronomasia, Jerome sees in her name, and in that of her town, the old Migdol ("a watch-tower"), and dwells on the coincidence accordingly. The name denotes the steadfastness of her faith. She is "vere πυργίτης, vere turris candoris et Libani, que prrospicit in faciem Damasci" (A)ist. ad Principi.ame). He is followed in this by later Latin writers, and the pun forms the theme of a panegyric sermon by Odo of Clhgni (Acta Sanctorumz, Antwerp, 1727, July 12).

(4) Origen, lastly, looking to the more common meaning of גָּדִל (gadal', to be great), sees in her name a prophecy of her spiritual greatness as having ministered to the Lord, and been the first witness of his resurrection (Tract. in Matthew 35). (See MAGDALENE).

II. Scripture Incidents.

1. Mary Magdalene comes before us for the first time in Luke 8:2 (A.D. 28). It was the custom of Jewish women (Jerome on 1 Corinthians 9:5) to contribute to the support of rabbis whom they reverenced, and, in conformity with that custom, there were among the disciples of Jesus women who "ministered unto him of their substance." All appear to have occupied a position of comparative wealth. With all the chief motive was that of gratitude for their deliverance from "evil spirits and infirmities." Of Mary it is said specially that "seven daemons (δαιμόνια ) went out of her," and the number indicates, as in Matthew 12:45, and the "legion" of the Gadarene daemoniac (Mark 5:9), a possession of more than ordinary malignity. We must think of her, accordingly, as having had, in their most aggravated forms, some of the phenomena of mental and spiritual disease which we meet with in other daemoniacs the wretchedness of despair, the divided consciousness, the preternatural frenzy, the long-continued fits of silence. The appearance of the same description in Mark 16:9 (whatever opinion we may form as to the authorship of the closing section of that Gospel), indicates that this was the fact most intimately connected with her name in the minds of the early disciples. From that state of misery she had been set free by the presence of the Healer, and, in the absence, as we may infer, of other ties and duties, she found her safety and her blessedness in following him. The silence of the Gospels as to the presence of these women at other periods of the Lord's ministry, makes it probable that they attended on him chiefly in his more solemn progresses through the towns and villages of Galilee, while at other times he journeyed to and fro without any other attendants than the Twelve, and sometimes without even them.

2. In the last journey to Jerusalem, to which so many had been looking with eager expectation, they again accompanied him (Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 23:55; Luke 24:10), A.D. 29. It will explain much that follows if we remember that this life of ministration must have brought Mary Magdalene into companionship of the closest nature with Salome, the mother of James and John (Mark 4:40), and even also with Mary, the mother of the Lord (John 19:25). The women who thus devoted themselves are not prominent in the history: we have no record of their mode of life or abode, or hopes or fears, during the few momentous days that preceded the crucifixion. From that hour they came forth for a brief two days' space into marvelous distinctness. They "stood afar off, beholding these things" (Luke 23:49), during the closing hours of the agony on the cross. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of the Lord, and the beloved disciple, were at one time not afar off, but close to the cross, within hearing. The same close association which drew them together there is seen afterwards. She remains by the cross till all is over, waits till the body is taken down, and wrapped in linen-cloth and placed in the garden- sepulchre of Joseph of Arimathnea. She remains there in the dusk of the evening, watching what she must have looked upon as the final resting- place of the Prophet and Teacher whom she had honored (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). Not to her had there been given the hope of the resurrection. The disciples to whom the words that spoke of it had been addressed had failed to understand them, and were not likely to have reported them to her. The Sabbath that followed brought an enforced rest, but no sooner is the sunset over than she, with Salome and Mary, the mother of James, "bought sweet spices that they might come and anoint" the body, the interment of which on the night of the crucifixion they regarded as hasty and provisional (Mark 16:1).

The next morning, accordingly, in the earliest dawn (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2), they came with Mary, the mother of James, to the sepulcher, and successively saw the "vision of angels" (Matthew 28:5; Mark 16:5). A careful comparison of the relative time of the several appearances of Christ on his resurrection makes it evident that the term "first," applied by Mark (Mark 16:9) to the appearance to Mary. must not be taken so strictly as to exclude the prior appearance to the other females who had accompanied her to the sepulcher (see Meth. Quart. Rev. 1850, p. 337 sq.). (See APPEARANCES OF CHRIST).

To her, however, after the first moment of joy, it had seemed to be but a vision. She went with her cry of sorrow to Peter and John (let us remember that Salome had been with her), "They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him" (John 20:1-2). But she returns there. She follows Peter and John, and remains when they go back. The one thought that fills her mind is still that the body is not there. She has been robbed of that task of reverential love on which she had set her heart. The words of the angels can call out no other answer than that "They have taken awav my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him" (John 20:13). This intense brooding over one fixed thought was, we may venture to say, to one who had suffered as she had suffered, full of special danger, and called for a special discipline. The spirit must be raised out of its blank despair, or else the "seven devils" might come in once again, and the last state be worse than the first. The utter stupor of grief is shown in her want of power to recognize at first either the voice or the form of the Lord to whom she had ministered (John 20:14-15). At last her own name uttered by that voice, as she had heard it uttered, it may be, in the hour of her deepest misery, recalls her to consciousness; and then follows the cry of recognition, with the strongest word of reverence which a woman of Israel could use, "Rabboni," and the rush forwards to cling to his feet. That, however, is not the discipline she needs. Her love had been too dependent on the visible presence of her Master. She had the same lesson to learn as the other disciples. Though they had "known Christ after the flesh," they were "henceforth to know him so no more." She was to hear that truth in its highest and sharpest form. "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father." For a time, till the earthly affection had been raised to a heavenly one, she was to hold back. When he had finished his work and had ascended to the Father, there should be no barrier then to the fullest communion that the most devoted love could crave. Those who sought, might draw near and touch him then. He would be one with them, and they one with him. This is the last authentic record of the Magdalene. On her character, see the Journ. of Sac. Lit. Oct. 1866.

II. Proposed Identifications with other Females mentioned in the N. T

1. The questions which meet us connect themselves with the narratives in the four Gospels of women who came with precious ointment to anoint the feet or the head of Jesus. Each Gospel contains an account of one such anointing, and men have asked, in endeavoring to construct a harmony, "Do they tell us of four distinct acts, or of three, or of two, or of one only? On any supposition but the last, are the distinct acts performed by the same or by different persons, and if by different persons, then by how many? Further, have we any grounds for identifying Mary Magdalene with the woman or with any one of the women whose acts are thus brought before us?" This opens a wide range of possible combinations, but the limits of the inquiry may, without much difficulty, be narrowed. Although the opinion seems to have been at one time maintained (Origen, Tractr. in Matt. 35), few would now hold that Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are reports of two distinct events. Few, except critics bent like Schleiermacher and Strauss on getting up a case against the historical veracity of the evangelists, could persuade themselves that the narrative of Luke 7, differing as it does in well-nigh every circumstance, is but a misplaced and embellished version of the incident which the first two Gospels connect with the last week of our Lord's ministry. The supposition that there were three anointings has found favor with Origen (1. c.) and Lightfoot (Harm. Evang. ad loc., and Hor. Heb. in Matthew xxvi); but while, on the one hand, it removed some harmonistic difficulties, there is, on the other, something improbable, to the verge of being inconceivable, in the repetition within three days of the same scene, at the same place, with precisely the same murmur and the same reproof. We are left to the conclusion adopted by the great majority of interpreters, that the Gospels record two anointings, one in some city unnamed (Capernaum and Nain have been suggested), during our Lord's Galilean ministry (Luke 7), the other at Bethany, before the last entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 26; Mark 14; John 12).

We come, then, to the question whether in these two narratives we meet with one woman or with two. The one passage adduced for the former conclusion is John 11:2. It has been urged (Maldonatus, in Matthew 26, and Joan. 11:2; Acta Sanctorum, July 22) that the words which we find there (" It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment... whose brother Lazarus was sick") could not possibly refer by anticipation to the history which was about to follow in ch. 12, and must therefore presuppose some fact known through the other Gospels to the Church at large, and that fact, it is inferred, is found in the history of Luke 7. Against this it has been said, on the other side. that the assumption thus made is entirely an arbitrary one, and that there is not the slightest trace of the life of Mary of Bethany ever having been one of open and flagrant impurity. There is, therefore, but slender evidence for the assumption that the two anointings were the acts of one and the same woman, and that woman the sister of Lazarus. That she may have been in the later scene is probable, but certainly not in the earlier. See No. 3, below.

There is, if possible, still less reason for the identification of Mary Magdalene with the chief actor in either history. When her name appears in Luke 8:3, there is not one word to connect it with the history that immediately precedes. Though possible, it is at least unlikely that such a one as the "sinner" would at once have been received as the chosen companion of Joanna and Salome, and have gone from town to town with them and the disciples. Lastly, the description that is given "Out of whom went seven devils" points, as has been stated, to a form of suffering all but absolutely incompatible with the life implied in ἁμαρτωλός, and to a very different work of healing from that of the divine words of pardon "Thy sins be forgiven thee." To say, as has been said. that the "seven devils" are the "many sins" (Greg. Mag. Hom. in Evang. 25 and 53), is to identify two things which are separated in the whole tenor of the N.T. by the clearest line of demarcation. The argument that because Mary Magdalene is mentioned so soon afterwards, she must be the same as the woman of Luke 7 (Butler's Lives of the Saints, July 22), is simply puerile. It would be just as reasonable to identify "the sinner" with Susanna. Never, perhaps, has a figment so utterly baseless obtained so wide an acceptance as that which we connect with the name of the "penitent Magdalene." It is to be regretted that the chapter-heading of the A. V. of Luke 7 should seem to give a quasi-authoritative sanction to a tradition so utterly uncertain, and that it should have been perpetuated in connection with a great work of mercy.

2. The belief that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are identical is yet more startling. Not one single circumstance, except that of love and reverence for their Master, is common. The epithet Magdalene, whatever may be its meaning, seems chosen for the express purpose of distinguishing her from all other Marys, No one evangelist gives the slightest hint of identity Luke mentions Martha and her sister Mary in 10:38, 39, as though neither had been named before. John, who gives the fullest account of both, keeps their distinct individuality most prominent. The only simulacrum of an argument on behalf of the identity is that, if we do not admit it, we have no record of the sister of Lazarus having been a witness of the resurrection.

III. Traditions. 1. On the above Identification. This lack of evidence in the N.T. itself is not compensated by any such weight of authority as would indicate a really trustworthy tradition. Two of the earliest writers who allude to the histories of the anointing Clement of Alexandria (Poedag. 2:8) and Tertullian (De Pudic. chap. 8) say nothing that would imply that they accepted it. The language of Irenaeus (3:4) is against it. Origen (l. c.) discusses the question fully, and rejects it. He is followed by the whole succession of the expositors of the Eastern Church: Theophilus of Antioch, Macarius, Chrysostom, Theophylact. The traditions of that Church, when they wandered into the regions of conjecture, took another direction, and suggested the identity of Mary Magdalene with the daughter of the Syro- Phoenician woman of Mark 7:26 (Nicephorus, H. E. 1:33). In the Western Church, however, the other belief began to spread. At first it is mentioned hesitatingly, as by Ambrose (De Virg. Vel., and in Luc. lib. 6), and Jerome (in Matthew 26:2; contr. Jovin. c. 16). Augustine at one time inclines to it (De Consenss. Evany. c. 69), at another speaks very doubtingly (Tract. in Joann. 49).

At the close of the first great period of Church history, Gregory the Great takes up both notions, embodies them in his Homilies (in Esv. 25, 53), and stamps them with his authority. The reverence felt for him, and the constant use of his works as a text-book of theology during the whole mediaeval period, secured for the hypothesis a currency which it never would have gained on its own merits. The services of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene were constructed on the assumption of its truth (Brev. Romans in Jul. 22). Hymns, and paintings, and sculptures fixed it deep in the minds of the Western nations, France and England being foremost in their reverence for the saint whose history appealed to their sympathies. (See below.) In particular, that passage in Luke has been adopted as the lesson of the day for her festival (Meyer on Luke 7:37), and her name has passed into all the languages of Western Christendom as expressive of a female penitent. Deyling (Obss. Sacr. 3:261) gives a history both of the progress of the identification and of those controversies, especially in the Gallic Church, which resulted in the distinction being again drawn between them; and a testimony to the success with which this was done will be found in Daniel (Thesaurus Hymnologicus, 2:129), who tells us that in the missals of various churches, the words "Peccatricem absolvisti" were substituted for those which unquestionably belong to that noble hymn, the Dies Irae, in its original condition, "Qui Mariam absolvisti." Well-nigh all ecclesiastical writers, after the time of Gregory the Great (Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas are exceptions), take it for granted. When it was first questioned by Fevre d'Etaples (Faber Stapulensis) in the early Biblical criticism of the 16th century, the new opinion was formally condemned by the Sorbonne (Acta Sanctorum, l. c.), and denounced by bishop Fisher of Rochester. The Prayer-book of 1549 follows in the wake of the Breviary; but in that of 1552, either on account of the uncertainty or for other reasons, the feast disappears. The Book of Homilies gives a doubtful testimony. In one passage the "sinful woman" is mentioned without any notice of her being the same as the Magdalene (Sermon on Repentance, part 2); in another it depends upon a comma whether the two are distinguished or identified (ibid. part 2). The translators under James I, as has been stated, adopted the received tradition. Since that period there has been a gradually accumulating consensus against it. Calvin, Grotius, Hammond, Casaubon, among older critics, Bengel, Lampe, Greswell, Alford, Wordsworth, Stier, Meyer, Ellicott, Olshausen, among later, agree in rejecting it. Romanist writers even (Tillemont, Dupin, Estius) have borne their protest against it in whole or in part; and books that represent the present teaching of the Gallican Church reject entirely the identification of the two Marys as an unhappy mistake (Migne, Dict. de le Bible). The mediaeval tradition has, however, found defenders in Baronius, the writers of the Acta Sanctorum, Maldonatuls, bishop Andrewes, Lightfoot, Isaac Williams, and Dr. Pusey.

2. It remains to give the substance of the legend formed out of these combinations. At some time before the commencement of our Lord's ministry, a great sorrow fell upon the household of Bethany. The younger of the two sisters fell from her purity and sank into the depths of shame. Her life was that of one possessed by the "seven devils" of uncleanness. From the city to which she then went, or from her harlot-like adornments, she was known by the new name of Magdalene. Then she hears of the Deliverer, and repents, and loves, and is forgiven. Then she is received at once into the fellowship of the holy women and ministers to the Lord, and is received back again by her sister and dwells with her, and shows that she has chosen the good part. The death of Lazarus and his return to life are new motives to her gratitude and love; and she shows them, as she had shown them before, anointing no longer the feet only, but the head also of her Lord. She watches by the cross, and is present at the sepulcher, and witnesses the resurrection. Then (the legend goes on, when the work of fantastic combination is completed), after some years of waiting, she goes with Lazarus, and Martha, and Maximin (one of the seventy) to Marseilles. (See LAZARUS).

They land there; and she, leaving Martha to more active work, retires to a cave in the neighborhood of Arles, and there leads a life of penitence for thirty years. When she dies a church is built in her honor, and miracles are wrought at her tomb. Clovis the Frank is healed by her intercession, and his new faith is strengthened; and the chivalry of France does homage to her name as to that of the greater Mary.

Such was the full-grown form of the Western story. In the East there was a different tradition. Nicephorus (H. E. 2:10) states that she went to Rome to accuse Pilate for his unrighteous judgment; Modestus, patriarch of Constantinople (Hom. in Marias), that she came to Ephesus with the Virgin and St. John, and died and was buried there. The emperor Leo the Philosopher (cir. 890) brought her body from that city to Constantinople (Acta Sanctorum, l. c.), and deposited it in the church of St. Lazarus. The day of her festival, in both the Eastern and Western Church, is July 22.

The name appears to have been conspicuous enough, either among the living members of the Church at Jerusalem or in their written records, to attract the notice of their Jewish opponents. The Talmudists record a tradition, confused enough, that Stada or Satda, whom they represent as the mother of the Prophet of Nazareth, was known by this name as a "plaiter or twiner of hair;" that she was the wife of Paphus ben-Jehudah, a contemporary of Gamaliel, Joshua, and Akiba; and that she grieved and angered him by her wantonness (Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. on Matthew 26; Harm. Evang. on Luke 8:3). It seems, however, from the fuller report given by Eisenmenger, that there were two women to whom the Talmudists gave this name, and the wife of Paphus is not the one whom they identified with the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels (Entdeckt. Judeuth. 1:277). There is a pretended history of her said to have been written in Hebrew by Marada, servant of Martha, but there is no doubt that it is a forgery (Calmet's Dictionary of the Bible).

There is, lastly, the strange supposition (rising out of an attempt to evade some of the harmonistic difficulties of the resurrection history) that there were two women both known by this name, and both among those who went early to the sepulcher (Lampe, Comm. in Joann; Ambrose, Comm. in Luke 10:24).


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Mary, the Magdalene'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/m/mary-the-magdalene.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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