Apostles to the apostle

Daily Reading for July 22 • Saint Mary Magdalene

Identified both as apostle to the apostles and as a redeemed prostitute, perhaps no other biblical saint has been the subject of as much interpretation and misinterpretation as Mary of Magdala. Although her commemoration was added to the Western church calendar only in the Middle Ages, a number of patristic writers comment on the biblical texts about her. Noncanonical Gospels and other literature discovered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly material found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, have shed new light on her role. Scholarship since the 1980s has emphasized her authority and leadership in early Christianity, while literature, film, and other artistic expressions continue to focus on her sexuality.

In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene has a prominent place at the cross and the empty tomb. . . . Of particular importance is her encounter with the risen Jesus and his command for her to announce the good news to the disciples (John 20:11-18). Accordingly, she became known as “apostle to the apostles,” a title given by the third-century bishop Hippolytus as well as Augustine of Hippo and John Chrysostom.

Apart from the passion and resurrection narratives, Mary Magdalene receives only one brief mention in the New Testament. Luke introduces her as one of a group of women who traveled with Jesus and “the twelve” and “provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3). Magdala was a prosperous town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, known for its exports of salt fish and fish oil, and Mary’s ability to provide material support for Jesus and the disciples suggests that she may have been involved in the fishing industry or some other trade.

What has captured Christian imagination, however, is Luke’s description of Mary as one “from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8:2; cf. Mark 16:9). . . . Western Christians have identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, then kisses and anoints his feet (Luke 7:36-50). The sensual nature of this scene and a tendency to identify women’s sinfulness with their sexuality has resulted in the identification of this woman as a prostitute. . . . In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I declared in a homily that Mary Magdalene, the sinner of Luke 7, and Mary of Bethany were the same person, an identification that has persisted for centuries. . . .

New understandings of Mary began to emerge as manuscripts of noncanonical texts were discovered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [These] documents . . . depict Mary Magdalene as prominent among early Christians. She speaks boldly, sometimes questioning the earthly or risen Jesus. She comforts and encourages the disciples, correcting them and urging them to believe and to act. She experiences and interprets visions, and she is praised for her insight. She also meets opposition from the male disciples, especially Peter, who object to a woman’s presence and leadership. Some scholars propose that these texts reflect a struggle in the ancient church over the authority and leadership of women.

From “Mary Magdalene, Apostle” by Ruth A. Meyers, in New Proclamation Commentary on Feasts, Holy Days, and Other Celebrations, edited by David B. Lott (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2007).

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