The only problem is that it turns out that she wasn't bad, just interpreted that way. Mary Magdalene (her name refers to Magdala, a city in Galilee) first appears in the Gospel of Luke as one of several apparently wealthy women Jesus cures of possession (seven demons are cast from her), who join him and the apostles and "provided for them out of their means." Her name does not come up again until the crucifixion, which she and other women witness from the foot of the cross, the male disciples having fled. On Easter Sunday morning, she visits Jesus' sepulcher, either alone or with other women, and discovers it empty. She learns-in three Gospels from angels and in one from Jesus himself-that he is risen. John's recounting is the most dramatic. She is solo at the empty tomb. She alerts Peter and an unnamed disciple; only the latter seems to grasp the Resurrection, and they leave. Lingering, Magdalene encounters Jesus, who asks her not to cling to him, "but go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father...and my God." In Luke's and Mark's versions, this plays out as a bit of a farce: Magdalene and other women try to alert the men, but "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." Eventually they came around.
Discrepancies notwithstanding, the net impression is of a woman of substance, brave and smart and devoted, who plays a crucial-perhaps irreplaceable-role in Christianity's defining moment. So where did all the juicy stuff come from? Mary Magdalene's image became distorted when early church leaders bundled into her story those of several less distinguished women whom the Bible did not name or referred to without a last name. One is the "sinner" in Luke who bathes Jesus' feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with ointment. "Her many sins have been forgiven, for she loved much," he says. Others include Luke's Mary of Bethany and a third unnamed woman, both of whom anointed Jesus in one form or another. The mix-up was made official by Pope Gregory the Great in 591: "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary (of Bethany), we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark," Gregory declared in a sermon. That position became church teaching, although it was not adopted by Orthodoxy or Protestantism when each later split from Catholicism.
What prompted Gregory? One theory suggests an attempt to reduce the number of Marys-there was a similar merging of characters named John. Another submits that the sinning woman was appended simply to provide missing backstory for a figure of obvious importance. Others blame misogyny. Whatever the motivation, the effect of the process was drastic and, from a feminist perspective, tragic. Magdalene's witness to the Resurrection, rather than being acclaimed as an act of discipleship in some ways greater than the men's, was reduced to the final stage in a moving but far less central tale about the redemption of a repentant sinner. "The pattern is a common one," writes Jane Schaberg, a professor of religious and women's studies at the University of Detroit Mercy and author of last year's The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, "the powerful woman disempowered, remembered as a whore or whorish." As shorthand, Schaberg coined the term "harlotization."
In 1969, in the liturgical equivalent of fine print, the Catholic Church officially separated Luke's sinful woman, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as part of a general revision of its missal. Word has been slow in filtering down into the pews, however. (It hasn't helped that Magdalene's heroics at the tomb are still omitted from the Easter Sunday liturgy, relegated instead to midweek.) And in the meantime, more scholarship has stoked the fires of those who see her eclipse as a chauvinist conspiracy. Historians of Christianity are increasingly fascinated with a group of early followers of Christ known broadly as the Gnostics, some of whose writings were unearthed only fifty-five years ago. And the Gnostics were fascinated by Magdalene. The so-called Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), which may date from as early as AD 125 (or about forty years after John's Gospel), describes her as having received a private vision from Jesus, which she passes on to the male disciples. This role is a usurpation of the go-between status the standard Gospels normally accord to Peter, and Mary depicts him as mightily peeved, asking, "Did (Jesus) really speak with a woman without our knowledge?" The disciple Levi comes to her defense, saying, "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered....If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely, the Savior loves her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."