The Apostle to the Apostles

“The apostle to the apostles”, The one whom Jesus loved more than the disciples, The first witness to the resurrection of the Christ. – These are all identities given to a woman so deeply ingrained in christianity that the amount of falsehoods about her life far outnumber the facts. Though only mentioned briefly in the gospels, she has sparked countless stories, doctrines, and ideologies that the church has tried to suppress and mould but have yet been unable to. Who is this woman that held such esteem with Jesus Christ Himself? 

Her name is Mary. Mary of Magdala but we most likely know her by the simplified name, Mary Magdalene.

Who was Mary Magdalene? Was she a prostitute? Was she Jesus’ wife?

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Around 30 AD, if you were to travel up the western coast of the Sea of Galilee you would soon come into a village by the name, Magdala Nunayya, that is, the tower of the fish: A name was given most likely due to the large fish processing plant it held in its walls. At one point along His journey, Jesus found Himself right here in this very village. Maybe he had a good day out fishing for men and needed to process his current haul…okay, I know. That joke was terrible.

We don’t quite know when along the journey Jesus came to Magdala or when he met the woman, Mary. But we do know that when upon meeting her there was a great work in need of doing. Given the other accounts in the gospels, I can only assume that someone came to Jesus and asked that He would heal this woman who scripture says was “plagued by seven demons.” Some scholars speculate it took seven exorcisms to finally have it stick, though I’d be hard up to believe the Son of God couldn’t do it with just a simple command. The Roman Catholic church once touted that the seven demons were, in fact, the precursors to the seven deadly sins and they lived inside her. Others hold to the belief that Mary was plagued by depression and panic attacks. No matter the cause, it is said that these demons were cast out of her and because of her new found freedom, she dedicated her life as a companion to Christ: A companion that would become closer than any other disciple. A companion that made the others, especially Simon Peter, one of the closest of Jesus’ disciples, ripe with jealousy. Leave it to a woman to stir up the hearts of man.

We don’t know much about Mary’s backstory other than her hometown, her possession, and that she was most likely loaded. I mean, like seriously wealthy. It is said that she and a few other women of faith funded Jesus’ entire ministry. Modern churches would change their doctrines to appease someone of this much wealth. It would be like someone handing you a blank check to fund your life’s work, no strings attached. Obviously, this was a woman of stature in society. But that’s sadly not how many of us view her.

When most of us think of Mary Magdalene we think of a reformed prostitute. A Proverbs 5 turned 31 kinds of a woman if you know what I mean. But that’s not who she was at all. That’s a falsehood worked up through the many efforts of misinterpretation, confusion with the other, similarly-named Mary of Bethany, a bit of misogyny thrown in for good measure, and a speech by Pope Gregory made in 591 AD that finally put the misidentification in writing. So how did such a huge mischaracterization happen?

Well, Mary is a common name even in this time, but in the ancient Jewish culture it was THE most popular name given to women. We know of three Marys that were directly involved in Jesus’ ministry alone. I’m hopeful that it was a simple mischaracterization with the other Mary mentioned above. That coupled with the desire to identify with a woman who won over the heart of the Christ after turning from such a dark past can inspire a new sense of hope and longing. But if we took a moment to look at things a bit more simplistically we would quickly find the truth. With so many Marys running around the writers of the gospels had to characterize this one a little differently. They had to give her a title to help her stand out from the crowd… so that is exactly what was given to her. You see, as we stated earlier, Magdala means “tower” and that is what Mary was, a tower over the waters that was meant to stand tall for all to see. Think, John 3:16. Sadly we often glance over titles in favor of names and before you know it rumors become so ingrained they are seen as truths.

We talked about how Mary was a leading financial contributor to the ministry of Jesus, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Mary was so much more than just a deep wallet. She was a disciple – even though we might not officially give her that title. Though she is only mentioned briefly, she is the only one of Jesus’ disciples to stay by His side through His ministry, his crucifixion, and His resurrection. Even when all the other Disciples turned away and went back to their normal mundane lives as if nothing at all had happened, she still remained ever faithful by the tomb. Its as if the disciple’s candles all burned out but Mary still sat there holding her torch. And that’s good for us because, without her, there is a good chance that the most compelling part of the gospel would not exist today. It was she that Jesus chose to reveal Himself upon the resurrection. It was she that took that hope, that flame, and ignited a revolution that would sweep the world over. It is said that an angel first came to Mary because she knew Jesus’ teachings better than anyone and trusted Him in a way the rest could only hope to one day achieve. She knew His ways well and she adored Christ. You see, Mary and Jesus were as close as two people could be. Some might say they were even a bit, too close for comfort.

If you have ever read Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code, you might already be familiar with the seemingly heretical notion that Jesus had a wife. It is commonly believed that Jesus, having no sin, would never have had sexual relations and that it would have violated the principles of redemption. And let’s not even get started on the idea of a lineage of people that are of direct decent from the bloodline of Christ Himself. There are enough people in the world who think they’re better than someone else. Let’s not give them any extra ammo. But to fully explore Mary of Magala’s story, we have to at least understand where such claims come from.

In the Gospel of Philip, it is stated that there are three who walked with the Lord regularly: Mary, His mother, His sister, And Mary of Magdala, His companion. This is where things start to get a bit muddy. The word, companion translated from its Greek roots can have two possible meanings. It seems to be primarily used for the paring of a man and woman in marriage or sexual intercourse but it has also been used metaphorically to show a form of spiritual bond.

And then we can look at John 20 when the now risen Savior asks Mary by the tomb, “Woman, why are you still weeping?”. The word used for a woman can also mean “wife”. Then she reaches for Him and cries out to Him and He responds by asking her not to hold onto Him at that time.

In that time it was common for Rabbi’s to have spouses. It would not have been out of the ordinary if Jesus did, in fact, take Mary Magdalene as His bride. In all honesty, I don’t think it would even water down the gospel. There is no sin in taking a wife and despite Paul’s haphazard nudge toward celibacy, Jesus never gave us a reason to pursue a bachelor’s lifestyle. But all of this is speculative. For every ounce of evidence we have that might add some form of weight to the notion of Mary being the wife of Jesus, we have an equal, if not greater weight saying the opposite. I think it’s safe to say that Mary was most likely not Jesus’ bride and if she was, it’s not that big of a plot twist to throw off the story but for now, we will give bride-to-be status to the church and let that one rest.

As we’ve seen thus far, Mary Magdalene has inspired quite a few other writings throughout history. Though she is only briefly mentioned in the gospels and then her accounts seem to abruptly stop in the book of Acts, that doesn’t mean her influence stopped there too. If we allowed our minds to explore beyond the words and actually place ourselves back to the early formation of the church, I’m sure we could all agree that Mary didn’t just, disappear. Someone with such a closeness to the Savior would have a lot to say about His church. It’s safe to assume she was indeed still there carrying out His will after His ascension. And if we take a look at the apocryphal writings we might see just that.

It’s important to remember that what we are about to talk about are not considered cannon in most Christian theology. But I’m not for leaving any stone unturned so let’s take a look at some of these less known writings and see what they hold.

In the Gospel of Thomas, saying number 114, Simon Peter, the one who was most jealous of Mary, declared to the others that Mary should be dismissed from them for women are “not worthy” of eternal life. Jesus followed saying, “Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you, males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Scholars do believe some of what is said in the gospel of Thomas is in fact truthful words of Jesus and before we get too worked up, let’s remember that Jesus wouldn’t have been saying that women need to become men, He was merely stating that in Christ all people can come to have eternal life and are equal in the eyes of God. It’s safe to say Jesus was a bit more egalitarian than Paul.

There’s another Apocryphal text that I feel needs to be looked at a bit further and that’s the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Mary is the only surviving gospel ever named after a woman. And while Mary Magdalene herself didn’t pen this document considering it was written a century or so after her death, it is written about Mary. The author of this text remains anonymous but it openly states its intent to give account to Mary’s life, not impersonate her writings.

The main surviving text comes from an ancient Egyptian Coptic translation conserved within a fifth-century manuscript. Most of the document has been lost to us but we are fortunate enough to have a few of the original greek fragments to give the translation a bit of validity.

In Mary’s gospel, it speaks of her joy in becoming “truly Human”. When hearing this, Peter asked her to share what the Lord had revealed to her in private. She then spoke to them of her visions shared with her from the Lord and exclaimed how the inner self is composed of a soul, a spirit, and a third mind that rests between the two. Peter upon hearing this rebuked Mary for spreading teachings that were far from what Jesus had previously taught. He angrily rebuked her, mocking the idea that Christ would share such information behind their backs. But it is said that Levi, one of the other disciples came to Mary’s defense and that Peter raged with jealousy.

Gnosticism, that is the early Judeo-Christian belief in a lesser God of creation and that all physical is bad and all spiritual is good, actually pays tribute to Mary Magdalene in many of its beliefs as a founding figurehead of the movement. Rooted in ancient Egyptian beliefs of creation and trickling down through its Jewish descent, it’s easy to see how a woman as close to the savior as Mary would influence an entire sect of people and how some of what was written about her could influence so many minds.

But despite these books containing so much about Mary, it’s hard to know what’s the truth and what’s fabricated. This was a time when a religious boom was at the cusp. Most of these texts contradict not just our Bible, but themselves as well. And while it’s good to know the other views of Mary, it’s just as good to know that not everything we see can be taken at face value.

But Mary didn’t just influence the Gnostics, she influenced the Christian church as well. And to me, that’s where her true Character shines through.

Think about it. This is a woman who due to her faith ushered in the news of a resurrected savior. Unafraid, she was willing to proclaim what could only sound like madness to most. Her willingness to stay with Jesus until His final breath, her sorrow and reverence to sit by his tomb. Her joy to proclaim His new life. These are all the characteristics that the disciples would go on to preach and without Mary, many of them would’ve just went back to their daily grind. It’s truly amazing how quickly we can forget, isn’t it? But not Mary. She was faithful till the end and helped drive the final nail into death itself fulfilling the prophecies of old and ushering in a time of forgiveness and grace for all. If Jesus’ death was the wind that would push the church forward, Mary Magdalene was the mastman raising the sails. And she fulfilled her destiny flawlessly, just as the Creator knew she would.

There are even some texts that state after the resurrection she might have even traveled to Rome to minister to Emperor Tiberius on the church’s behalf. It is said that she approached him holding an egg in her hand and declared “Christ is risen!” to which Tiberius laughingly replied, “Christ rising from the dead is as likely as that egg in your hand turning red while you hold it!” but before the emperor could finish speaking, the egg did, in fact, turn red and Mary went on to proclaim the good news to the entire household. In the Eastern Orthodox church, they actually have a folk festival where they dye eggs in remembrance of this very occasion… Especially on Easter, the day Mary proclaimed first the good news.

She’s deemed a saint in the Roman Catholic church. She’s the apostle of the apostles. She is the foremother to all missionaries And her story teaches us the importance that every person plays in the heart Christ. She was a beacon showing the early church that women and men are equals, even in a society that viewed women as lesser than to men. she showed the love of our Savior and how God steps outside of our prejudices. And She showed us that we can be set free from our burdens and be used in a big way.

Mary Magdalene will forever be an inspiration in the hearts of Christians around the world.

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