By Margaret Starbird

For two millennia, Christian traditions have honored several women from the gospels of the Greek New Testament who bear the same name ─Maria. Their shared name in Hebrew is Miriam, or Mariam, derived from the name of King Herod’s Jewish Queen Marianne, the last princess of the Maccabean lineage, beloved of her people. The name Mariam was especially popular in the early first century, so popular that the gospels mention five or six women who share the name, which has caused considerable confusion among identities and roles of the women closest to Jesus.

From the earliest childhood, Christian children are told stories of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, including her acceptance of the message delivered by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Son of the Most High and call his name Jesus. Children hear about the birth of her special baby boy in the stable at Bethlehem, and about the shepherds and kings who paid homage to him there. As they grow older in the Christian faith, children learn of other Marys mentioned in the gospel stories about Jesus. Of these, the two most prominent are the sister of Martha and Lazarus from Bethany and a woman called the Magdalene who supported the ministry of Jesus from her own personal wealth and was his most ardent and faithful disciple.

While the Mary who is the mother of Jesus has received robes of honor in Western civilization and titles commensurate with the exalted dignity of her role, the Mary who was the beloved companion of Jesus was sadly stripped of her rightful robes of honor and relegated to enforced exile. Symbolically in the ancient Near East, stripping a woman of her mantle or veil dishonored her. It was the equivalent to ─even a metaphor for─ rape. This second Mary was denied her true identity; her story became distorted and her voice silenced by the ugly epithet prostitute, and, like her people in Diaspora, she was consigned to the wilderness. In this role, scorned and vilified, she embodies the mythologies of both the Greek Sophia and the Jewish Shekinah. In her, Holy Wisdom ─who reveals the feminine face of God and is his mirror and his delight─ now becomes the abandoned one, the desolate and forsaken bride. She is the bearer of the archetype of feminine consciousness, likewise denigrated and reviled, relegated to second-class status. Like the bride in the Song of Songs, she serves in bondage to the masculine principle. The bride in the Song of Songs is black, swarthy from her labor in her brothers’ vineyards. Her own, she has not kept (Song of Songs 1:5-6). The woman in the Christian story who in person embodies this principle is the beloved of Christ, the woman called the Magdalene, now reemerging to claim again the robes of her long forgotten glory.

Already in the first century, in the early hours of the Christian story, Mary of Bethany became mingled with Mary Magdalene in the eyes of Christian believers. So inextricable intertwined were their stories that in Western European art, the two are traditionally identified as the same woman. In numerous altarpieces, Mary Magdalene holds the alabaster jar ─her identifying icon─ in one frame and in an adjacent panel she attends the raising of her brother Lazarus. So ubiquitous was this tradition that in old missals of the Roman Catholic liturgy, the Collect of the Mass for the Madgalene’s feast day, celebrated on July 22, contains this short prayer: “We beg, O Lord, to be helped by the patronage of Mary Magdalene, whose prayers obtained from Thee the restoration to life of her brother Lazarus when already four days dead.”

Since 1969, however, the Roman Catholic Church has disavowed its long-standing identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and has tried to extricate them from each other, following the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox churches and modern Protestant Bible scholars, thereby repudiating nearly two thousand years of Western lore concerning Mary Magdalene.

The tradition needed to be corrected. Nowhere in the scripture does it state that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. On that point, scholars agree. But I believe this recent revision of the centuries-old tradition identifying Mary Magdalene as Mary of Bethany is a mistake. In an effort to set the records straight on the identification of the preeminent Mary in the Christian gospels, it is important to realize that combining Mary of Bethany with another woman mentioned in an earlier gospel is not the result of a sermon delivered by Pope Saint Gregory I in 591, but rather first occurs in the Gospel of John, probably written between A.D. 90 and 95. The various stories of Mary were braided together early in Christian tradition. The question we must ask is “Why?” The earliest Christians apparently knew of only three Marys: The Virgin, the Magdalene, and the wife of Cleophas. Clearly this was the belief of the Johannine community from which the fourth gospel stems, and is, therefore, indigenous to the canonical New Testament. Perhaps we need to reexamine the evidence for commingling the Marys favored by the earliest exegetes of the Christian story.

Centuries of devout Christians have honored the memory of Mary Magdalene as the repentant sinner saved by Jesus from her sins in a scene from Luke’s gospel, believing her to have been the woman who anointed Jesus at the banquet at the house of Simon, though that woman is unnamed in Luke’s gospel and in the other synoptic gospels ─Mark and Matthew. And yet, John’s gospel ─written about ten years after Luke’s─ clearly identifies the woman who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. She is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, from the town of Bethany (John 12:3). In this passage, the author of John appears to believe that we already know Luke’s version of the story; he is deliberately correcting the account in Luke regarding the identity of the woman who anointed Jesus. John’s account also corrects the story with regard to the location of the banquet. Luke places the dinner far away in Galilee, but John, following the earlier and very similar narrative found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, restores the scene of the banquet to Bethany, situated on the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem. This location across the valley from the Holy City has powerful prophetic associations from the Book of Zechariah: “On the day of the Lord, his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which will be cleft in two” (Zechariah 14:4). Jesus’ anointing at Bethany proclaims his kinship on the prophetic Mount of Olives and must have had immense symbolic associations for Jews eagerly awaiting the coming of a Messiah to save them from the oppression of Roman occupation.

In numerous artistic representations of the anointing scene, Mary kneels distraught, crying over the feet of Jesus, waves of unbound auburn hair streaming over her bare shoulders and down her back. This image of Mary Magdalene, promoted in Western art and legend, has served well as a model for passionate devotion to Christ and for the transformation of a sinful life into one deserving of sainthood. Always in the traditional rendering of the gospel story, Jesus is the Savior, Mary the supplicant kneeling at his feet ─at the banquet at the house of Simon or at the garden tom attempting to embrace him after his resurrection. The carnal nature of Mary’s alleged sinfulness was thoroughly established in tradition as well, derived solely from the account in Luke’s gospel of the anointing by a sinful woman. Because she loved much, much was forgiven her (Luke 7:37-40).

Although the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman occurs in all four canonical gospels, only Luke calls her a sinner. And yet very early in Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene was conflated, or confused, with Luke’s unnamed woman from the streets if Nian; she was assumed to be a prostitute, although on closer examination, the scriptural texts that mention her never supported the slander implied by this tradition.

The Greek word Luke used for “sinner” (àmartólos) is not synonymous with “prostitute” (porin). It has a more general meaning, and would have been used to characterize someone who avoided an obligation or was dishonest in a business transaction. But the sexual connotation of her ill repute flourishes nonetheless. Everywhere in medieval art, we encounter the ravishing, sensuous Magdalene, often wrapped in a scarlet or crimson mantle, her sad face framed by waves of deep auburn or strawberry blond hair so often associated passionate temperament, as in a famous painting by El Greco. As the story is repeated over the years, and the portrait painted, gradually her mantle is stripped from her in artistic expression, often leaving a shoulder exposed or, now and again, her bosom. In many Renaissance paintings, Mary Magdalene represents the temptation of the flesh ─the sinful, carnal woman in need of forgiveness and redemption. This portrayal is apparently in keeping with the view of Christianity’s Church fathers ─Saint Augustine outspoken among them─ that women, like Eve, who tempted Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, were a temptation and distraction drawing men away from their spiritual path.

What does the historical record establish about the woman scriptures calls the Magdalene? Like the face that launched a thousand ships, hers sends us forth to reassemble her many images , the extraordinary faces of the one woman who was renowned throughout Christendom as the most beloved and most faithful disciple of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile (Excerpt)

By Margaret Starbird

Bear & Company, 2005

Rochester, Vermont