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The Truth about Mary Magdalene

by Bart Ehrman

Ehrman_ppmm_9780195300130The 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.

Recent Comments

  1. adamgarrigus

    The non-canonical Gospel of Mary might be worth mentioning here. It contains a story of a confrontation between Mary Magdalene and Peter which also appears in three other non-canonical texts. Check out earlylchristianwritings dot org.

  2. The Editor

    Interesting website, Adam. Thanks for sharing.

    Please note: to learn more about Mary and how she’s represented in non-canonical texts you could read Ehrman’s book. He goes beyond this excerpt to talk about the Mary we DO KNOW from those early christian writings.


  3. agus_elex_2005

    That is very true fact. There are three women who really is not related to Mary Magdalene but still said as her. Mary of Bethany is not Mary Magdalene. The prostitute is also not Mary magdalene. And there also was one othe Mary, that is Jesus Christ sister by the union of Mary and Joseph, the woldy parents of Jesus.

  4. Somewhere in Kansas

    I don’t think Dan Brown accidentally misrepresented facts. My opinion is that he knew them all too well, which enabled him to exploit history. I can imagine Brown saying, “But people know it’s only fiction,” and looking around innocently when he knows full well how easily (too) much of the general public will take his story to heart. As he laughs all the way to the bank.
    He is a brilliant marketer, I’ll give him that.

  5. Dove Kin

    We need to distinguish two levels, the literary character and the person on whom that character is based. As literay characters, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are distinct (perhaps) but that does not mean that they were not both based on the same person. In Great Expectations, Dickens tells us about a prisoner helped by Pip and separately about his benefactor, revealing that they are but one person only at the end. Similarly the evangelists might have reasons unknown to us for portraying one woman as two characters, making it impossible to conclude that the two are not based on a single person.

  6. Steve Jopling

    I don’t think we will ever know the truth, at the end of the day you believe what you believe, it is a personal thing.

  7. trisha

    I believe that the reason y nobody knows the truth is because it’s probably none of our concern, Jesus was on this earth like the rest of us,(human) and his personal business is really not 4 us to know or judge, we should respect that and leave it alone-gossip is also a sin.

  8. Selima

    I really enjoyed your analysis. I was also reading an article where they said the word “prostitute” does not mean what we think of it.
    You’ve asked a god question though. Where is the man? It’s funny how they conveniently left that part out.

  9. Ariadne Green

    There needs to be a continued revival of discussions on the identity of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ companion, disciple and soulmate. The Da Vinci craze has vained, but there is much more to discover. We cannot merely focus the investigation on the Gospel narratives, but must look further to some of the legends of the early Christian missionaries in Gaul to discover the later story. I discovered through my research for my latest book, Divine Complement, that there is even physical evidence of her connection to Jesus in Glastonbury Abbey in England–a stone engraved and simply reading “Jesus Maria,” venerating two who were joined as one, brother and sister bridegroom and bride, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Some might argue that it commemorated Mary, his mother, however the legends do not support his mother being venerated in early Christianity.

  10. Kristen

    I think it’s possible that Mary Magdalene was the daughter of Mary and Joesh. I don’t recall reading where she was actually born. But, who knows.

  11. Steve Jopling

    Ariadne’s comment about the two who were joined as one (Glastonbury Abbey), could be interperated as the 5th sacrement (mystery) which is the bridal chambre. This does not necessarily mean that they were married. It could indicate that they both had a great spiritual understanding, a spiritual togetherness with the pleroma and inner peace.
    Some of the non-canonical gospels indicate that Mary Magdalene was much further advanced in spiritual understanding than the other disciples.

  12. John

    Does this not clear it up a bit?

    John 8:2-11

    And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

  13. Rich

    Jesus had 4 brothers:

    1) James
    2) Joseph
    3) Judah
    4) Simon

    Jesus had 2 sisters:

    1) Salome
    2) Miriam

    Jesus had 2 children:

    1) Judah
    2) Miriam

  14. telson

    Many syncretistic religions formed gnosticism. Gnosticism was rivaling against Christianity and gnosticism held itself better religion as Christianity was. Word gnosticism comes from Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism was various effects, for instance, some Gnostics taught that divinity can be achieved through unity of the man and woman. This thought led some Gnostics to reach for divinity through sexual intercourse between the man and woman. There existed also some Gnostics, who abstained from sexual intercourse. When we know the fact that Gnostics held Christians as their enemies and that Gnostics held themselves better as Christians and that Gnostics wanted to show in every way that Gnosticism was better as Christianity, so Gnostics made so called gnostic gospels were they twisted, slandered and misrepresented the real gospels. Gnostics went so far in this misrepresent that they wrote “new gospels” by faking the real gospels. In these faked gospels Gnostics wrote that Jesus Christ was an ordinary man who has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.


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