Almost everything we think we know about her is speculation. Except, we do know her name. But what’s in a name? And where did it come from anyway?
Magdala was a fishing village about ten miles south of Capernaum, where Jesus stayed for a while after leaving Nazareth. Many scholars believe her name refers to this village being her home. But it was more common at the time to refer to a person with an “of” between their name and their place of residence (Jesus of Nazareth, Simon of Cyrene).
However, the Hebrew word migdal refers to a tower or enclosure to hold fish underwater. It was also used to refer a tower in a vineyard or shepherd’s field for spotting danger. Both uses stress the notion of holding together and strength. Which presents a more interesting possibility for her name.
It was Pope Gregory I (the Great) who named Mary Magdalene a prostitute. This may come from the encounter written in Luke 7 where the Pharisee Simon invites Jesus to his house and an unnamed woman of dubious repute anoints his feet. It was probable that because she was a woman that her sin was almost seen as one of sexual impropriety.
The assumptions are: 1) that the sin is sexual 2) that this woman is Mary Magdalene even though Luke does not name her. And this has remained the case in popular imagination despite Pope Paul VI confirmation that she was a disciple who came with Jesus from Galilee and stayed with him at the cross when most of his followers had left.
On the other hand, we do know that Jesus liked word plays and giving his followers new names; nicknames if you like – Simon became Cephas/ Petros meaning “rock” – we know him as Peter; James and John became known as the “Sons of Thunder”; Thomas is called “the twin”. So, Magdalene meaning “strong tower” might be Jesus’ way of esteeming her by suggesting that, “here is a disciple that can hold all of us together”.
But how has John understood Mary Magdalene in the Resurrection text of his gospel (John 20: 1-18)?
Clearly there are two stories combined in this resurrection appearance. The first is about Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the second, introduces Peter and the other unnamed disciple. We will hold our focus on Mary Magdalene.
John gives her name, Mary, and her appellation, Magdalene at the beginning of the Resurrection narrative in John 20. Jesus, mid-way through the chapter, calls her “woman”, the same word that is used for the companion/ partner of the human in Genesis 2 and also by Jesus of his mother at the Cana wedding in John 2.
The author of the Gospel tells us that she mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener, echoing that original garden for which the man and the woman were to care. Lastly, John gives us Jesus using the same words that he used at the beginning of his ministry when the first disciples began following him, “who are you looking for,” thereby making her a disciple on equal terms to the men he had called in John 1.
Jesus then calls her by her name only, “Mary”. The Gospel writer gives us two possible hints of the depth of their relationship. Firstly, she has asked for Jesus’ body and it is most often family that asks to have the body. Secondly, “Rabbouni” is a word used only by the closest students or the family of a rabbi.
John then gives us Jesus’ words about not holding on to the past, to what was, but to know that “I am ascending.” Note the present tense, as though he is in the process of returning to the Father, and now Mary is part of that process too. Jesus directly commands her to inform the others. It is only now that the writer again gives us her name and appellation, Mary Magdalene which is strengthening the understanding that she is the tower that will hold the others together by what she has experienced.
Mary Magdalene shows us what staying with Jesus means. It is about her dedicated “presence” which allows her, in the end, to experience – to “see” – Jesus resurrected – and for her to become the “Bride of Christ,” a term the Church uses to represent our relationship to Christ.
Mary Magdalene is one of our best examples of how to live this out. Mary Magdalene becomes the voice of those in urban life who are caught in the myriad of troubles that life gives, urging them to find rest and new strength in Jesus.
Now more than ever, it is important that women continue to maintain an active presence as did Mary Magdalene who was, in a very real way, the Apostle to the Apostles. Inspired by her example, we too must to hold the precious truths of our faith secure, while at the same time spreading the good news of Jesus risen and glorified. In this way then, with Mary Magdalene as both inspiration and guide, women can be the towers of strength for our faith.
The feast of Saint Mary Magdalene is celebrated in Roman Catholic Church on July 22 each year.
Dr Debra Snoddy BATh (Hons: Maynooth, Ireland) MSc, PhD, STD (KULeuven, Belgium), is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.