The Truth about Mary Magdalene
by Bart Ehrman
The Da Vinci Code is a murder mystery set in modern times, but its intrigue for many people has been its historical claims about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I won’t summarize the entire plot here, as it is familiar to nearly everyone—there are only six people in the English-speaking world who have not read the book—and in any event there are numerous books written about it. What I’m interested in here is the portrayal specifically of Mary Magdalene, which for many readers is the book’s most captivating feature. According to the leading characters of The Da Vinci Code, who are historical sleuths who appear to know everything there is to be known about the Holy Grail and its origins in the life of Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Mary were married lovers whose union was covered over by the later ecclesiastical authorities. Not only did they have (licit) sex, they produced an offspring: after Jesus was crucified, Mary fled Palestine for France, where her daughter, Sarah, was born. Sarah was eventually to become the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, so French royalty (and—big surprise—one of the leading characters in the novel) could claim a divine bloodline. This is obviously a significant datum: if your direct ancestor was none other than the Son of God, wouldn’t you want people to know?
These historical claims about Mary in The Da Vinci Code have intrigued modern readers, a surprising number of whom have simply assumed that it is gospel truth. Over the past year or so, since I published my own book on The Da Vinci Code (I didn’t want to be left out), I have given lots of talks to lots of audiences about the historical problems in Dan Brown’s narrative. There are in fact mistakes all over the place, some of them howlers and some of them simply rooted in a misunderstanding of, or more likely an ignorance of, what our ancient sources actually say about Jesus (and Mary Magdalene). What I have found is that people in my audiences are all too eager to know where Dan Brown got it wrong. But when it comes to Mary Magdalene, there are always two or three people who want to insist that he must have gotten it right. These are never people who are historians, who know the ancient sources and read them in their ancient languages (Greek and Latin, for example). They are just regular folk who think that it must be right: Jesus and Mary must have been married with kids, just because it makes sense. Unfortunately, history cannot be written simply on the basis of what makes sense.
Modern readers probably don’t realize just how little is said about Mary in our surviving sources. Her name occurs only thirteen times in the entire New Testament—and that includes parallel passages (that is, if her name shows up twice in a story in Matthew, and the same story is in Mark and Luke, that would be six of the thirteen occurrences). She is never mentioned in the book of Acts, in the letters of Paul, in any of the other writings of the New Testament, by the ten authors known as the Apostolic Fathers just after the New Testament, or by many of our earliest church fathers.
Moreover, when she does happen to be mentioned in our early sources, not much is said about her. Many people assume that she must have been a particularly close and intimate companion of Jesus. This is often based on their sense of what she must have been like, or on the legendary accounts that have come down to us, whether in the Golden Legend or in The Da Vinci Code. Some scholars have done nothing to disabuse people of this idea, championing her as Jesus’ closest disciple, or as the only one who was faithful to him to the end, or as the one who must have received his special teachings privately in their shared moments together. How much evidence is there for any of this in our most ancient sources, the Gospels of the New Testament? In fact, virtually none. During Jesus’ entire public ministry, prior to his crucifixion, Mary is mentioned once, and that is in only one Gospel (i.e., the other three don’t mention her at all before the crucifixion). Even in that one instance it is not a reference just to her—let alone a reference that suggests she was particularly close to Jesus. The reference comes in Luke 8:2, where we are told that three women traveled with Jesus and his disciples, providing them with financial support from their own private means: Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene. Two of these women are identified further: Joanna is the wife of an important figure in the administration of King Herod, and Mary is one from whom seven demons had been exorcised (whether by Jesus the text doesn’t say).
That’s the only reference to Mary’s relationship to Jesus during his ministry in the entire New Testament. Obviously it doesn’t give us much to go on. In this case we are not dealing with a situation like that of Peter and Paul, where there was so much information that it was difficult to weed out what was historical from what was legendary. Here there is so little information that it is difficult to know even what to talk about.
But that hasn’t stopped Christian storytellers (and scholars) from trying. That’s because of what happens after Jesus’ ministry, when he is crucified and then raised from the dead. According to our early accounts, Mary was one of the women who observed the crucifixion, watched his burial, and came on the third day to anoint his body, only to find the tomb empty. In a couple of our sources, the resurrected Jesus appeared to her first, before he appeared to anyone else, even Peter.
This is why Mary was destined to become a figure of paramount importance to Christian storytellers past and present. She is portrayed as the first witness to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. If this is true historically, it is hard to deny or underplay her importance. In some sense, you could argue that Mary started Christianity.
The fact that she is historically important, however, does not mean that we know much about her. Of the thirteen explicit references to her in our sources, all but the one I just mentioned, from Luke 8, deal with her involvement (from a distance, mostly; she wasn’t a main player) in observing Jesus’ death and burial and then her experience at the empty tomb afterward. As we will see in greater depth later, even these twelve references to Mary are problematic for knowing what really happened to her.
If you compare the four New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in detail, you’ll see that they differ on just about every point. Who went to Jesus’ tomb on the third day after his crucifixion? Was it Mary alone or Mary in the company of other women? If there were other women, how many others were there and who were they? Was the stone in front of the tomb when they arrived, or had it been rolled away? Whom did the women see there? Was it a young man? Two men? An angel? What were the women told to do? Were they instructed to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, or to stay in Jerusalem to meet him? How did the women react? Did they do as they were told, or did they keep silent and not tell, out of fear? And what then did the disciples do in response? Did they believe the women or disbelieve them? Did they check it out for themselves or not? Did they head up to Galilee or stay in Jerusalem? And did the women themselves (or Mary herself) have a vision of the resurrected Jesus? If so, was Mary the first to see him, or was someone else? And when she saw
him, did she grab hold of him or not? And on and on. The answers to all these questions, and more, depend entirely on which account you happen to read.
Another problem is that there are other people named Mary in the New Testament, and sometimes these other Marys are confused with Mary Magdalene. That is how the various traditional interpretations of Mary have come about—for example, that she was a prostitute, that she was nearly stoned for committing adultery, that she had a sister, Martha, and a brother, Lazarus, and so on. None of these New Testament stories, however, deals with Mary Magdalene except in popular imagination, which has kept blissfully removed from a careful reading of the texts themselves. In fact, the New Testament texts actually tell a different tale. Mary Magdalene is not the person she is sometimes said to be.
1. Mary Magdalene cannot be the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7. This woman, I should repeat, is not called a prostitute. Anyone who assumes that a “sinful woman” must have been someone who was paid for sex is simply misogynist. In fact, for particularly strict Jews of the first century, a sinful woman could be someone who ground her grain on the Sabbath or who ate a bit of shrimp cocktail, for this would be someone who did not assiduously observe the law of Moses. But in any event, this sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, because Mary Magdalene is actually introduced by Luke in his very next story (Luke 8:1–3), where he gives her name (Mary), her identification (of the town of Magdala), and describes something about her (“from whom seven demons had gone out”). As New Testament scholars today all agree, if the earlier story of Luke 7 were about Mary, he would have introduced her for the first time there, not later.
2. Mary Magdalene is not the same person as Mary of Bethany. The name Magdalene indicates the town she comes from: the Galilean town, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, known as Magdala. The other Mary, however, came from and lived in Bethany, a town near Jerusalem in Judea. They can’t be the same person because the one identifying mark for both of them is given precisely to differentiate them.
3. Mary Magdalene was not attacked by a group of angry men who wanted to stone her for committing adultery (a story found in John 8). The woman in this intriguing story is left unnamed. I should point out that even though this has long been a favorite story for readers of the New Testament—and the one episode from Jesus’ ministry that seems to make it into every Hollywood version of his life—it is a story that did not originally occur in any of our Gospels. Today you will find it in your English Bible at the beginning of John chapter 8. But almost all modern translations will place the story in brackets. That’s because it does not occur in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John. It was evidently added to
John’s Gospel—as were other verses, just as yet other verses were deleted—by scribes who had heard the story and wanted to include it in their gospel accounts, even though it was not originally there. In any event, there is nothing in the story about Mary Magdalene: the woman caught committing adultery is unnamed. (By the way, if she was caught, where’s the man she was caught with? Jewish law condemns them both, not just the woman, to death.)
An excerpt from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene by Bart Ehrman.