The Gospels tell us that several women followed Jesus, along with the twelve men known as the apostles. These women included “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna…” (Luke 8:1:3). When Mary anointed Jesus near the end of his life the other disciples were angry with her (Mark 14:4-5). But Jesus defended her. Just as human life could be transformed by the inflowing of Spirit, so death itself could reveal God’s presence. Jesus said, ‘Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of in memory of her’ (Mark 14:9).
Mary Magdalene is one of the few people named in all four gospels, being present not only at the crucifixion of Jesus, but also being one of the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. She was, in a sense, the first apostle, because she was the first sent to tell the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples.
While there was a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, there is no suggestion in the four Gospels that she was either a prostitute or the wife of Jesus. The ‘seven demons’ do not imply that Mary had led an immoral life. Mary Magdalene had neither a husband nor a father, in a culture where women were expected to live under male protection. When Jesus said that prostitutes had a better chance of entering God’s Kingdom than his opponents did (Matthew 21:31), some people came to the conclusion that Mary Magdalene belonged in that category. At some point in tradition, possibly because the Church did not take the role of women as seriously as Jesus had done, Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from Luke’s gospel (7:36-50), both of whom wash Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the Sixth Century, Pope Gregory the Great declared in a sermon that these three women were actually the same person.
Even today Mary Magdalene remains the centre of irrelevant popular speculation that would best be set aside. Instead, she should be revered as a person of generous love, a holy woman, a disciple of Jesus, and an apostle of the resurrection.