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Mary Magdalene: Gnostic Apostle?


Mary Magdalene is a tantalizingly enigmatic figure in all four New Testament gospels. Little is said of her, but all of what is said is fascinating. The same can be said of various other characters of whom the New Testament provides only glimpses, such as Priscilla, Aquila, Agabus, Apollos, Junia, etc. Mary Magdalene, we discover, was one of a number of wealthy female disciples of Jesus, who traveled with his entourage and paid for their food and accommodations (Mk.15:40‑41; Lk. 8:1‑3). Though this would be common enough in Hellenistic Mystery Religions, the situation is really unparalleled as far as we know in Judaism.  Mary Magdalene seems even to have been the leader of this group of women since she is always mentioned first when any of their names are listed, and hers is the only name appearing in all such lists (Mk.15:40­ 41, 47; 16:1; Matt. 27:55‑56, 61; 28:1; Lk. 8:‑3; 24:10). What does it mean that the group of women had a leader? Also, Mary is said to have been a recovered demoniac, healed by Jesus. Christian legend makes her into a reformed prostitute as well, while Christian speculation all the way up into nineteenth century Mormonism and Jesus Christ Superstar has made her Jesus' (at least would‑be) lover. Some gospel accounts have her as the first witness of the risen Christ. Yet all these are only intriguing scraps. One receives the impression that these details are the lingering after‑echoes of some great explosion.

           In the rest of the New Testament and in orthodox Christianity  of the next few centuries Mary Magdalene has been tacitly relegated to president of Jesus' "ladies' auxiliary." But the situation is strikingly different when we turn to Gnostic Christian documents which were not  included in the New Testament, various gospels and related writings of  the first few centuries C.E. Suddenly we find Mary Magdalene as a, or even the, prime revealer of the gnosis of Jesus, his closest disciple, and the greatest of the apostles! I will endeavor to show what these two starkly contrasting bodies of evidence have to do with one another and, if possible, with the historical Mary Magdalene. To anticipate, I will suggest that Mary Magdalene did receive visionary revelations and became the apostle of an egalitarian, celibate Christianity which preached spiritual marriage with Christ. I will suggest that other currents of earliest Christianity reacted to her radical gospel by minimizing and distorting her role in the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian  community, and that her apostolic role was preserved in Gnostic circles  and their sacred texts.


The Gnostic Texts

First let us review the relevant Gnostic texts and see what we can make of them. Perhaps the most famous text is the concluding logion (114) of the Gospel of Thomas (first1 or second century C.E.). "Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.'  Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven."  In the Gospel of Mary (second century C.E.), Mary Magdalene is the chief revealer to the other disciples, telling of a post‑resurrection vision in which Jesus showed her the course of the liberated spirit on its way back to the Aeon. She encourages the male disciples to take up the missionary task Jesus has assigned them. "Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, 'Do not weep and do not grieve or be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us (and) made us into men"' (9:13‑21). Peter and Andrew scoff at the revelation that Mary recounts. Peter says "'Did he really speak privately with a woman (and) not openly to us? Are we to turn about and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" Then Mary wept and said to Peter, 'My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?’ Levi answered and said to Peter, 'Peter, you have always been hot‑tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect  man..."'2 (17:16‑18:1‑16). (Note the parallels to the Thomas logion:  Jesus has made her "worthy" and made them all "men.")

          The Dialogue of the Savior (second or third century C.E.) also presents Mary Magdalene as a preeminent revealer, eliciting revelations by her astute questioning of the risen Christ. "This word she spoke as a woman who knew the All" (139:11‑12). "Mariam said, 'Tell me Lord, why I have come to this place, to benefit or to suffer loss?' The Lord said, 'Because you reveal the greatness of the revealer"' (140:15‑18).  Similarly, the earlier of the two documents comprising the Pistis Sophia (200‑250 C.E.) depicts a group interview of the risen Christ by the disciples, and again Mary is prominent. "Peter said: 'My Lord, let the women cease to question, in order that we also may question.' Jesus said unto Mary and the women: 'Give opportunity to your men brethren, that they also may question"' (vi:146).~Lt  The later, lengthier section, the main documentary basis for the Pistis Sophia (250‑300 A.D.) is clearer still on the primacy of Mary, who asks fully thirty‑nine of the forty‑six questions addressed to the living Jesus. "It came to pass then, when Mary had heard the Savior say these words ["Who hath ears to hear, let him hear"], that she gazed  fixedly into the air for the space of an hour. She said: 'My Lord, give commandment unto me to speak in openness.' And Jesus, compassionate, answered and said unto Mary: 'Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of these of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren"' (i:17).3

          Peter is affronted. "And Peter started forward and said unto Jesus: 'My Lord, we will not endure this woman, for she taketh the opportunity from us and hath let none of us speak, but she discourseth many times"' (i:36). After Peter says his piece, "Mary came forward and  said: 'My Lord, my mind is ever understanding, at every time to come  forward and set forth the solution..., but I am afraid of Peter,  because he threatened me and hateth our sex"' (ii:72). The Gospel of Philip (250‑300 C.E.) contrasts Mary with the heavenly Wisdom, mother of the angels. "And the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] by it [and expressed disapproval]. They said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The  Savior answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they  are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who  sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness ..."' (63:34‑64:9).4

          The preceding text is probably cautiously euphemistic. "Kissing" was often employed to stand for sexual intercourse,5 and this same gospel  elsewhere says that "it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth" (59:2‑3). Later still we are assured that the implied sexual intercourse is purely spiritual and metaphorical in nature (76:6‑9; 82:1‑10). Finally, one more depiction of Mary Magdalene as the special recipient of post‑Easter revelations occurs in the Greater Questions of Mary, yet another Gnostic dialogue. The text, as that of the Lesser Questions of Mary, is not extant, but orthodox heresiologist Epiphanius  preserved a particularly juicy tidbit: "they assert that he gave her a revelation, taking her aside to the mountain and praying; and he brought  forth from his side a woman and began to [sexually] unite with her, and so, forsooth, taking his effluent, he showed that 'we must so do, that we may live'; and how when Mary fell to the ground abashed, he  raised her up again and said to her: 'Why didst thou doubt, O thou  of little faith?"' (Panarion 26.8.2‑3).6 A striking and clear pattern emerges from these texts: Mary Magdalene, an especially close disciple of Jesus already in his earthly lifetime, is specially favored with post‑Easter revelations of a Gnostic character. She is opposed by Peter, though neither he nor the other male disciples can deny her privileged position. Her revelations entail equality between women and men, thanks to the enabling grace of the  Savior who has made women as men, i.e., eliminated gender‑based  subordination by transcending sexuality altogether.This enlightenment is symbolized as sexual union with Christ.

          Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza7 shows how virtually the same "becoming male" terminology familiar from Gnostic texts occurs in Philo where it is more fully explained, and in such a way that it makes sense of the Gnostic use of the terminology in the manner I have suggested.  For instance for Philo, spiritual development by ascetical effort is "becoming male" because Philo denominates the rational soul as "male," the irrational soul (i.e., emotions, appetites) "female." A person who thus finds God's grace to grow spiritually has "become one." Cf. the Gospel of Thomas: "They shall become a single one" (logion 4).8  What "becoming male" might mean for an early Christian woman  apostle is clear from The Acts of Paul, where Thecla shaves her hair and "sewed her mantle into a cloak after the fashion of a man." Paul then charges her "Go, and teach the word of God" (11:25, 40, 41). This gospel is a gospel of celibacy: "Blessed are they that abstain (or the continent), for unto them shall God speak" (11:5).9 Here is a woman who becomes an apostolic preacher by renouncing sexuality and becoming as a man in appearance!10

          Recent discussion of these Gnostic texts has centered on the question of whether they reflect a pro‑women polemic directed by Gnostics against the orthodox church and its bishops. Mary Magdalene, it is suggested, was chosen as the mouthpiece for pro‑women Gnostic views because she was known by all as a prominent female gospel character and was not one of the Twelve, who were already claimed as figureheads by the orthodox. She is female and a "leftover" character. Elaine Pagels seems to imply that Mary Magdalene is used simply as a literary figment  when she suggests that the "secret texts use the figure of Mary Magdalene  to suggest that women's activity challenged the leaders of the orthodox community, who regarded Peter as their spokesman."11 Pheme Perkins rejects this contention as arbitrary. "We are skeptical of those who use this picture of Mary to claim that Gnostics upheld community leadership by women in opposition to the male dominated hierarchy of the orthodox Church... Mary is the hero here not because of an extraordinary role played by women in Gnostic communities, but because she is a figure closely associated with Jesus to whom esoteric wisdom may be attached."12  Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza sides with Pagels: "The debate  between various Christian groups on primacy in apostolic authority is reflected in various apocryphal texts which relate the competition between Peter and Mary Magdalene." "Those who claim the authority of Andrew and Peter... argue against the teaching authority of women...," while their opponents "appealed to the women disciples as scriptural precedents and apostolic figures."13

          The common assumption in this debate is that Gnostics merely  "used" Mary as a symbolic figure, a "precedent," much as modern Christian  feminists14 do when they argue that Mary Magdalene was in a manner of  speaking an "apostle" since "apostle" means "sent one," and she was "sent" to proclaim the news of the resurrection to the Twelve. Those who argue thusly seem to mean that solely on the strength of her activity  on Easter morning she can now serve as a kind of literary precedent for  women in ministry. I would suggest that, however one answers the question of  an intentional pro‑women polemic underlying the Mary Magdalene texts, those  texts should be recognized as strong evidence that Mary Magdalene did in fact carry on an apostolic ministry in circles receptive to her, circles  which eventually contributed to the great Gnostic movement of the early  Christian centuries. On the face of it, the texts surely suggest this. Peter is the mouthpiece for the ideas of orthodox authorities in these texts, as also in non‑Gnostic texts both inside and outside the New Testament canon; obviously we can seldom be certain Peter said the words or espoused the ideas attributed to him in 2 Peter or the Apocalypse of Peter or the Pistis Sophia, but does anyone doubt that Peter was an apostle? He is chosen as an appropriate mouthpiece precisely because he had really been an apostle in some of the circles which contributed to orthodox Christianity. It certainly seems strange that Mary Magdalene would have been viewed as an analogous and appropriate choice for a mouthpiece for Gnostic ideas if she had not been remembered as an apostle in that stream of tradition.

          As is well known, Gnostics also made very specific claims to have derived tradition from some within the circle of the Twelve, and this claim is made even in some of the texts which prominently feature Mary.  Even those who oppose her are often pictured as Gnostic male apostles! 15  The point is that the male apostles could be used and were used as  figureheads for Gnostic teaching; since they were readily available, why would Gnostic writers feel forced to concoct an apostolic Mary out  of sheer imagination? Even other prominent male New Testament figures  were readily available and employed (e.g., Barnabas, Paul, Judas), so one needn't create an apostle Mary. The texts we have been considering are not the sole Gnostic evidence that Mary Magdalene actually was an apostle to the (proto‑?)Gnostics rather than just a later literary mouthpiece for them. The Carpocration Gnostics of Egypt made explicit appeal to Mary Magdalene together with Salome and Martha as the original teachers of their traditions. Salome appears in the Gospel according to the Egyptians quoted by Clement of Alexandria and elicits from Christ teaching about the transcendence of sexuality. "When Salome asked, 'How long will death have power?' the Lord answered, 'So long as ye women bear children"' (Stromateis, 111.45). Clement also tells us that Epiphanes, son of Carpocrates, taught the equality of female and male (Stromateis, 11.2.6), a doctrine, as we have seen, elsewhere associated with Mary Magdalene's revelation.

         Finally we may mention Irenaeus' lament that Marcosian Gnostics were active in his own district of the Rhone Valley (Adversus Haereses 1.13.5). One may wonder if the late medieval Greek life of Mary has just possibly preserved genuine tradition when it records a missionary journey of Mary Magdalene to Marseilles.16 Admittedly any connection here is  wholly speculative. 


The New Testament Easter Traditions

Next we will consider some of the features of Mary Magdalene's  portrayal in the canonical New Testament documents to see whether we  may follow our "trajectory" further back into first‑century Christianity.  To anticipate, we will see how a number of hitherto‑puzzling points are newly elucidated on the hypothesis that an actual apostolic claim by Mary Magdalene underlies and conditions the various New Testament treatments of her.

          We may begin with the most confusing complex of New Testament material dealing with Mary Magdalene, the stories of Easter morning.  It is at this point that the tenuous agreement between the gospels collapses. In the four gospels, the traditions underlying them, the Markan appendix, and Paul's traditional list of resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3‑8, we have a wide range of statements or implications about Mary Magdalene's role in the events of Easter morning. At one extreme, Jesus appears to Mary and to no one else (as I hope soon to show). At the other extreme Mary plays no role whatever.  For most of Christian history the Easter morning material has been interpreted according to the apologetical needs of the Church as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Since most Christians read the stories with a view toward buttressing or even corroborating faith in Jesus' resurrection, the assumption long prevailed that the texts were written with exactly that intent. Even Bultmann sees it so when he castigates Paul for trying to prove the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3‑8 .17  Conservative scholars viewed all the Easter materials as strong  evidence and tended to argue that the gospels' empty tomb and resurrection  stories were compilations of eyewitness testimony (whether at a near or  far remove) and as such bore the customary marks of eyewitness testimony such as inconsistency in detail and accidental omission due to limited observational perspectives.18 The great test all such theories had to pass was to reconstruct a plausible composite from which all versions  might derive. No one appears to have solved this puzzle very convincingly, at least without paring away sizable chunks of that supposedly strong evidence.

          As to why Mary Magdalene and the other women do not appear in Paul's list, the conservative suggestion is that since women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the Hellenistic world, to have adduced the testimony of Mary and the others would have weakened, not strengthened, the case for the resurrection.19 On this understanding we must suppose that this caution occurred only to the framers of Paul's list, since all other Easter accounts give Mary and the women at least some role. Critical scholars who take a dimmer view of the evidential value of  the Easter materials explain the differences in various ways. The various empty tomb stories, as well as most of the resurrection appearance stories, are held to be late compositions originally of a liturgical, theological, or  polemical character, and so historically worthless as evidence for the  resurrection.20 They are judged late by comparison with the list in 1 Corinthians 15 which Paul seems to be quoting as the normative tradition in a form fixed by the early Jerusalem apostles, James the Just and the Twelve. The appearances of the risen Christ listed there are not stories, only notices of the fact of Christ's having been seen by this individual or that group. As the context shows, Paul himself understood  the risen Christ to have become "a life‑giving spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45)  with a "spiritual body" (v. 44) not a "natural body" (or "physical body"‑- RSV). Of course the gospel resurrection accounts show the risen Christ with a flesh‑and‑blood body (Matt. 28:9; Lk. 24:39‑40; John 24:27).  Since Paul's discussion is demonstrably earlier than the gospel accounts, it can be assumed that the latter are later in date and conception. On  this understanding any Easter accounts involving Mary Magdalene must be  late and inauthentic since she and the other women are not mentioned in  Paul's list.

          A newer understanding of the Easter morning materials refrains from retrojecting onto the texts the worries of later Christian apologetics and approaches the text more inductively with an eye toward the internal purpose‑clues of the texts themselves. Seen this way the resurrection appearance stories and notices have to do with inaugurating the apostolic mission of the church and establishing the apostolic credentials of individuals.  I n three of the gospels, plus the Markan appendix, the risen Christ commands the disciples to go preach his word to the nations (Matt. 28:19; Lk. 24:47‑49; John 20:21; Mk. 16:15). Luke makes much of the resurrection appearances as credentials for true apostles (Acts 1:2‑3, 21‑22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:31‑32; 10:41‑42; 13:30‑31). Paul no sooner lists the appearances to Peter, the Twelve, James, all the apostles, and himself than he adds "so we preached and so you believed" (15:11). In another place he defends his authority with the same credential: "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor. 9:1).21

          I suggest that if this "apostolic commission/credential" model is to be preferred, then the wildly varying place of Mary Magdalene in the traditions can be intelligibly explained. The differences among the traditions are not just a random jumble. Some systematic sense can be made of them if we see that at issue in all the stories is how much, if any, apostolic authority is to be granted to Mary. The various traditions represent a range of responses to this question. Demonstrating this will entail a brief survey of all seven basic stages of the evolution of the tradition. (In what follows I do not mean that the canonical texts discussed were written in the order in which I are considering them, but rather that the New Testament writers/redactors have severally preserved various stages of a tradition which evolved in the order I am reconstructing here.)

          First, we must deal with the originally independent pericope preserved now in John 20:1, 11‑18. Scholars have long realized that this tradition has no integral connection with the rest of the chapter in which it appears.22 It has been clumsily worked into its present context by the insertion of vv. 2‑10, as can be seen from several considerations. Verse 2 has Mary Magdalene run and tell the male disciples that the tomb is empty, whereupon two of them return without her, yet she is somehow  "back" at the tomb in verse 11! Also verse 11 would open the question of why the two male disciples missed seeing the two angels, since all there was to be seen in the tomb in verses 6‑7 was the discarded grave clothes. Did the angels hide at first? Or arrive late? Also, if the story were originally of a piece with its present context, why is Mary told not to touch Jesus in verse 17, while Thomas is told in verse 27 to touch Jesus? And in the section 20:2‑10 Mary had visited the tomb with the other women (v. 2) as in the other gospels, while in the section 20:1, 11‑18 she is alone.23 The most significant point is perhaps that verse 17, despite its other difficulties, at least means that the ascension is imminent, though instead of ascending Jesus goes on to make several other appearances in  the next chapter and a half!

           It is the imminence of the ascension which is the clue to the meaning of this pericope in its original form before the evangelist used it (and co‑opted it) by incorporating it into his gospel. I suggest that here we  find an approximation of the original version of the Mary Magdalene Easter tradition and the starting point of the trajectory I traced through the later Gnostic texts. According to John 20:1, 2‑10 Mary Magdalene sees the risen Christ, and no one else does! This remarkable fact has been ignored because of the habit of readers unconsciously to harmonize this Easter story with the others in which Mary is told to tell the Twelve to anticipate a meeting with the risen Christ. In this pericope Christ most assuredly does not give Mary this message. Instead, he tells her that he is now about to ascend to the Father and for her simply to inform the Twelve that he is going. If the text is read on its own, it is clear that the Twelve will not see Jesus but are only relayed Jesus' farewell. Reading this pericope in the light of those later Gnostic texts, it is hard to avoid  the conclusion that we have discovered one version of the original claim that Mary received unique revelations from the risen Christ.24

          Of course it is no accident that the text has not been thus recognized since John has, so to speak, removed the sting from the original pericope by making it the first in a series. Even in its present, canonical form  the story runs counter to the Petrine tradition attested elsewhere in the  New Testament that Peter was the first to see the Lord (Lk. 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5). It may be that the fourth evangelist was himself oblivious to the  implication of the story in its original form, that he, too, unconsciously  harmonized it with the other appearance stories he had heard and which  he used in the chapter. But it may also be that he was trying to de‑fuse the explosive story.  The second stage in the evolution of the tradition is preserved in the Markan appendix (Mk. 16:9‑20), added by a later hand to supplement the rather abrupt conclusion to Mark's gospel. Here, too, we find the first appearance of the risen Lord to Mary who tells the Twelve that she has seen him and nothing more (vv. 9‑10). She does not predict further appearances, but the narrator does go on to recount more appearances.  It does not occur to him that Mary was vouchsafed more than chronological priority.

         The third stage is represented by Matthew 28:1‑10. This time, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by other women disciples, visits the empty tomb and sees first an angel, then the risen Christ, but Christ merely reiterates the charge of the angel, that the women are to bid the Twelve to meet him in Galilee. We must be careful here: Matthew has used Mark who, as we will see, had no appearance of Christ to Mary (perhaps because he omitted it‑‑see below). But on our hypothesis, Matthew knew from oral tradition that there had been a reported appearance to Mary, so he supplies it (just as he goes on to supply the appearance to the Twelve in Galilee which his source Mark predicts but does not recount!). But why does Matthew make his risen Christ merely parrot the angel's message? He only knew that Christ was supposed to have appeared to the women at the tomb. Matthew did not know what Christ had said, or if he did know Christ had said what he says in John 20:17, a simple farewell to disciples who would not see him, and judged it safest to have Christ merely echo the angel's words. Thus the appearance of Christ to Mary is restored, but for Matthew Mary receives no special revelation, nothing beyond what the angel said.  Again, Mary's temporal priority is preserved, itself a significant fact, but her revelational priority is lost.

           Luke 24:1‑12 preserves the fourth stage in the evolution and domestication of the Mary tradition. Now Mary and the women see the angels who direct them to tell the Twelve to await the risen Christ, but they do not see Christ himself. Nor does Luke even in Acts say or imply that anyone but the Twelve "ate and drank with him after his resurrection" (Acts 10: 41; 1:3‑4). Mary Magdalene simply cannot have received any special revelations, much less of a Gnostic (or proto‑Gnostic) character.25  But Mary and her sisters do carry out their instructions and tell the male disciples (vv. 10‑11).

Mark's Easter account (16:1‑8), so abrupt that both Matthew and  Luke who used it felt compelled to add to it, preserves the fifth stage in  the logical progression. In his version, not only do Mary and the other women never see Jesus, but they pointedly disobey the injunction of the angel to tell the Twelve of the resurrection! The gospel ends with these stark and strange words: "And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."  For a long time the abruptness of this ending led scholars to propose that Mark had written more, but that the autograph manuscript had become damaged and the ending lost after Mark's departure or death and before a single copy could be made.26 Or that Mark himself had keeled over dead in midsentence! But if either (inherently unlikely) circumstance had obtained,  surely the lack would have been immediately supplied by an amanuensis or disciple, just as second century Christian scribes later began adding  spurious endings, found in various later manuscripts. The fact that Mark circulated for a long time with nothing after verse 8 (both Matthew and Luke, writing in the late first century, knew Mark's text in this form) certainly means it was regarded as a complete text. It was only much later, when readers of the more ample Easter narratives of Matthew, Luke, and John had become dissatisfied with Mark's abrupt version, that scribes concluded by  comparison with the other gospels that Mark must be incomplete.

           Some have pointed out that it is grammatically irregular to end a  sentence with the conjunction ~ as Mark does in verse 8 (ephobounto gar--  "for they were afraid"), but Mark elsewhere shows himself no stickler for  grammatical perfection, and other such sentences are known in Hellenistic Greek Literature. If we may take it as most likely that Mark meant to end his text  where he did, we must ask why he concluded the events of his story where  he did. Why no resurrection appearances? As Charles H. Talbert has shown,27 the empty tomb by itself would have been recognized by an ancient Jewish or pagan reader as a fitting notice that Jesus had risen from the dead and been exalted to heaven. Of many religious heroes including Enoch,  Elijah, Moses, Empedocles, Hercules, Peregrinus, Apollonius of Tyana, and  Romulus the story had been told that after their disappearance searchers  could find no sign of their bodies and that (in some cases) a heavenly  voice had announced their ascension. An empty tomb narrative with its  angelic interpreter would be a perfectly adequate ending to a gospel,  especially as Mark's is the first known gospel, written when there could be  no convention that a gospel "must" end with resurrection appearances.

          As Reginald H. Fuller and others have shown, Mark probably took such a self‑sufficient empty tomb story from oral tradition and augmented it with the angel's prediction of a resurrection appearance to the Twelve in Galilee (v. 7).28 Ludger Schenke shows that Mark also added verse 8b, the puzzling conclusion that the women disobeyed the angel's order to relay  this news to the Twelve.29 Why would Mark thus risk obscuring the effect of the story? It must be admitted that once one adds predictions of an appearance, it is a bit abrupt to choke off the narrative without recounting the appearance. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues that Mark intends the reader to infer that Mary and the others did carry out their instructions. She sees verse 8b as parallel to Mark 1:44, where Jesus heals a leper and tells him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go show yourself to the priest..." The leper is not supposed to tell anyone else. Similarly, Fiorenza reasons, the women went straight to the Twelve and discharged their duty without stopping along the way.30 I believe that Fiorenza is unconsciously harmonizing Mark with the other gospels. Without reference to Matthew and Luke, Mark could not have expected his intended readers to assume any  such thing.

          Besides, Mark 1:44 does not mean that the leper was to tell the priest what he was not to tell others. He is simply to make the appropriate cleansing sacrifice, not to tell the priest that it was Jesus who cured him. Not only so, but Mark seems to have added a reiteration ("for they were afraid") to the statement of numinous awe original to the pericope ("for trembling and astonishment had come upon them"). The latter provides the women's reaction to the angelophany, so the former must intend to explain why the women subsequently kept quiet. They remained silent because they were afraid, not because of the urgency of their task.

Why does Mark have the women disobey the angel's instructions (instructions which he has pointedly inserted into the original pericope in order to have the women disobey them!)? It might be suggested that the silence of the women is a further instance of Mark's redactional Messianic Secret theme, of a piece with the instant silencing of the demons and warnings not to report Jesus' healings (Mk. 1:34, 43, 3:11‑12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30).31 But this cannot be, because as Mark himself clearly says, the secret is to be kept only until the resurrection (9:9), not afterward.

        Günther Bornkamm suggests that the disobedient silence of the women was an apologetical device intended to explain how the story was true even though late, not known when the 1 Corinthians 15 list was compiled.32 This is possible but as Fuller counters, it seems to retroject  the modern concerns of apologetics onto first century Christianity.33

I believe the true solution to this puzzle was finally proposed by Theodore J. Weeden, who demonstrated a thoroughgoing tendency in Mark's  gospel to discredit the disciples of Jesus at every opportunity. The idea is that Mark represented another faction in the early church than that (presumably the circumcision party) which appealed to the Twelve as their figureheads. Perhaps Mark represented Pauline Christianity as Ralph Martin suggests.34 Weeden sees the ending of the gospel as Mark's final opportunity to say that the disciples failed Jesus every time they had the chance.35 Weeden has shown the way but not followed out all the implications. Factional polemics are indeed the source of the story of the women’s  disobedience, but not polemics against the Twelve. As Weeden shows, the Twelve are Mark's favorite targets, as they bumble and misunderstand their way through the story, but Mark has other enemies as well. His  scorn for the relatives of Jesus (probably especially including James the  Just) is clear from his use of the pericope 3:19b‑21, 31‑35 (composed by Mark or someone before him as a reversal of Exodus 18, where Moses does receive his arriving family and accepts their advice on how to ease the  burden of his ministry), in which Jesus repudiates his natural family  because they think him mad, as well as Mark's redactional juxtaposition  of this text with the Beelzebul controversy with its "house divided"  saying (3:25).

           The third faction Mark repudiates is, I suggest, the women disciples of Jesus led by Mary Magdalene. Aware of the claim of Mary to have received Easter revelations, Mark suppresses any such appearance, having Mary see only an angel, and having her disobey the angel at that!  She is a mere third-hand messenger, and not even a good one. If Mark meant to end his gospel with a polemical blow against Mary Magdalene and her adherents, then his ending makes much more sense than it would on any other proposed reading. So, to recap, Mark preserves the fifth stage, in which Mary not only sees an angel instead of Jesus, but does not even obey the angel. Stage four at least had her obey the angel. 

Stage six occurs in the pericope (John 20:2‑10) the fourth evangelist has inserted into the originally distinct story of verses 1, 11‑18 discussed under stage one above. Here we have another version of the original, self‑sufficient empty tomb story underlying Mark 16:1‑6, 8a. Note that it is simply the absence of Jesus from the tomb and from his discarded grave clothes that convinces the Beloved Disciple, exactly the desired effect of such a story on its reader. But of course John has only picked up this originally independent empty tomb pericope to assimilate it to his composite whole. Mary Magdalene's role here is minimal. She does not even see angels in this version! We may wonder with Bultmann whether the story originally showed Mary, not the male disciples, wondering at the grave­ clothes.36 If so, the reason for the alteration is not far to seek: Peter's  primacy is restored. He, not Mary, is the first to see the interior of the empty tomb.37 But at any rate, Mary now receives no revelation at all, either from Christ or from an angel. Her role is merely to fetch the male disciples.

           The final stage, the seventh, is preserved in the I Corinthians 15 list. All mention of Mary Magdalene is omitted, and not by Paul but by these Jerusalem Christians who delivered the list to him. Mary has been omitted because her claim to apostleship has been denied.38  The hypothesis of increasing denial of Mary Magdalene's claims to  apostolic credentials thus provides a paradigm for explaining much of the  bewildering confusion in the Easter materials vis‑a‑vis Mary Magdalene.  It might be objected that there was a much simpler way to dispense with Mary's apostleship: if that was really their intent, why did not all the gospel writers do as the compiler(s) of the 1 Corinthians 15 list did  and omit her altogether? Simply because she was too well known as an  associate of Jesus. We have a parallel in Luke's (admittedly less severe) treatment of Paul in Acts. Except for failing to correct his source in Acts 14, Luke scrupulously avoids calling Paul an apostle and relegates  Paul's Damascus Road experience to the status of a post‑ascension vision 39 rather than as Paul himself claims, a resurrection appearance.~ Even  Paul's opponents cannot ignore him, so Luke must redraw the picture to  make Paul acceptable to them. Similarly Mary Magdalene could not be completely censored, and significantly, the later Gnostic texts considered  above bear this out. In those traditions the male disciples are shown objecting to Mary but as unable to gainsay her claims. I suggest that these traditions preserve the historical truth of the matter. Mary was remembered as a prominent figure by all segments of the Christian movement  but in orthodox circles her claims were ignored and the reasons for her  obvious prominence were forgotten. 


Demoniac and Prostitute

The orthodox polemic against Mary Magdalene has left its mark in two other places in the canonical gospel tradition. I will briefly consider these. First, Mary is said (Lk. 8:2; Mk.16:9) to have been possessed at one time by seven demons. Of course, whatever we think about the actual nature of demon‑possession, this tradition is certainly plausible. Jesus exorcised demons aplenty, and if Mary's affliction had been healed by Jesus it would certainly explain her devotion to him. But there is another way to view it. Demon‑possession was a favorite charge to level against someone perceived as a heretic. In the Gospel of John Jesus' opponents cry out "You have a demon!" (7:20) and "Are we not right in saying that you are  a Samaritan and have a demon?" (8:48) and "He has a demon, and he is mad; why listen to him?" (10:20). Similarly, the author of I Timothy stigmatizes Gnostics (those who espouse "what is falsely called knowledge," or gnosis, 6:20) as "giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons" (4:1) For the author of I John, docetic Gnostics prophesy by "the spirit of the antichrist" (4:3).         Was Mary Magdalene supposed by Luke and the author of the Markan appendix to have been demon‑inspired in this sense? Or had the canonical  tradition which these two writers embody garbled earlier polemics that Mary's  heresies were demon‑inspired, misunderstood Mary as one more afflicted  demoniac (perhaps an epileptic), and retrojected the "possession" into the  days of Jesus' public ministry? If she was possessed of seven devils but was a disciple of Jesus (so went the later inference) Jesus must have cured her, which is how she came to follow him. At any rate, it is hard to see how being tagged with the reputation of sevenfold demon‑possession would not seriously undermine one's credibility as an apostle. Mary Magdalene's reputation grew more unsavory still. As is well known she has always been assumed to have been a prostitute, usually on the tenuous basis of gratuitously identifying her with both Mary of Bethany (John 12:1‑3) and the "sinner" of Luke 7:36‑38, both of whom are shown anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. While such a mingling of characters is a late harmonization, we may actually find the root of the prostitution slur in the gospels.

         We know that Jewish anti‑Christian polemic ridiculed the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus by claiming that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary of Nazareth by a Roman soldier named Pandera. It seems obvious  that "Jesus son of Pandera" is a cruel pun derived from "Jesus son of the parthenos (virgin)." Similarly, hostile scribes confused Mary of Nazareth  with Mary Magdalene and punned that "Magdalene" meant not "of Magdala," a village in Galilee, but rather m'gaddla, "the hair curler," a euphemism for  a madam, since elaborate hairstyling was regarded as the mark of a  prostitute. If "Mary the hairdresser" was Jesus' mother then he was the son of a Roman soldier and a Jewish prostitute.40 In this pun we most probably have the starting point of the tradition  of Mary as a prostitute. But it is hard to see how Christians would have picked up a hostile rabbinic jibe at Jesus and his mother and then reapplied it to Mary Magdalene. If, however, the pun originated among early Aramaic‑speaking Christians who meant to aim it at Mary the disciple, not Mary Jesus' mother, then its persistence in the Christian tradition is easier to understand. I suggest that early followers of the Twelve began this slanderous interpretation of "Magdalene" to discredit the rival apostle Mary. (The rabbis picked it up from there. )         

A very similar attack was made by John of Patmos on the probably  Gnostic prophetess "Jezebel, " whom he accuses of "beguiling my servants  to immorality" and of "commit[ting] adultery" (Revelation 2:20‑23).41  Compare also the claim that the Gnostic Simon's consort Helen had been  recruited from a brothel, a distortion of Simon's claim to have delivered  the fallen Sophia (incarnate in Helen) from the brothel of this world.42 Why would Mary's orthodox opponents sink so low as to label her a  prostitute? Remember how in the Gospel of Philip and the Greater Questions of Mary, Mary Magdalene is closely associated with sexual intercourse  imagery. Of course Gnostics and orthodox Christians alike spoke of a  "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9), with the church as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:7; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:31‑32) or of the  initiatory sacrament of the "bridal chamber" (often in the Gospel of Philip),  but it is always easy to take one's opponents' imagery literally while  understanding one's own figuratively if it serves one's polemical purposes.  Slanderous reports of the supposed orgiastic revels of Gnostics by the orthodox (as of the orthodox themselves by their Roman enemies) are so  well known that they need not be rehearsed here.  So the longstanding identification of Mary as a prostitute may originate in the epithet "Magdalene" as slanderously reinterpreted by her apostolic rivals. And again, later tradition misunderstood the original  polemical nature of the prostitution charge and assumed Mary was a  reformed harlot, converted by Jesus from her life of sin.43  

        I have tried to show how the second and third century Gnostic texts depicting Mary Magdalene as preeminent among apostles and opposed by Peter are later stages of a trajectory that can be traced plausibly back  into the New Testament documents. With the paradigm furnished by the noncanonical texts, several puzzling canonical texts seem to make new sense as reflecting polemics against claims for Mary's apostleship. If such claims and such polemics go so far back (e.g., the I Cor. 15 list), they would seem to stem from the lifetime of the historical Mary Magdalene herself.  Both canonical and noncanonical traditions seem to preserve the memory  that Mary claimed a privileged disciple relationship with Jesus both before and after the resurrection, that she received unique revelations after the  resurrection, and that these revelations included female equality with males  based on the transcendence of sexuality in a spiritual union with Christ. Whether she taught more specifically Gnostic ideas known to us from the later systems is unknown, but her ideas were embraced by early Christian  circles which eventually formed part of Gnostic Christianity in whose  traditions and texts the memory of her apostleship was kept alive, just  as the memory of Peter's apostolic leadership was preserved in orthodox  Christianity .



1. It is customary to date this gospel to about 150 C.E., still a very early date, but recently there have been attempts to show that Thomas may very well be a first century C.E. document. See especially Stevan L. Davies, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom (New York: Seabury Press, 1983). 


2. Unless otherwise noted, I using the translation of the Nag Hammadi texts collected in James M. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977).   


3. Here the translation is that of G. R. S. Mead, Pistis Sophia, A  Gnostic Gospel (Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984).         


4. The translation here is that of Wesley W. Isenberg in The Nag Hammadi Library, except that I have closed the quote later, after the saying on the blind and the sighted, which seems to answer the disciples' question about Jesus' preference for Mary Magdalene. Isenberg's punctuation makes it a comment of the evangelist. The conjectural words in parentheses are supplied differently in other translations. Bentley Layton leaves some of the lacunae empty: "The [... loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he used to] kiss her on her [... more] often than the rest of the [disciples] [...] they said to him, " etc. (Bentley Layton, ed. and trans., The Gnostic  Scriptures [Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1987], 339). R. McL. Wilson translates "[The Lord loved Mary] more than [all] the disciples, and kissed her on her [mouth] often. The others too.... they said to him," etc. (R. McL. Wilson, trans.), The Gospel  of Philip [New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962], 39). The result is much the same.      


5. D. A. Carson (Exegetical Fallacies [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984], 53) explains the conclusions of Robert Joly, Le vocabulaire chretien de l'amour est‑il original? [Philein] et ['Agapan]  dans le grec antique (Brussels: Presses Universitaires, 1968), who shows how the similarity between kuneo (to kiss) and kuno (to impregnate),  especially in their identical aorist form ekusa, led to all sorts of sexual puns. 


6. This passage is still so shocking to pious ears that M. R. James refused to translate it! "Epiphanius in Her xxvi. 8 quotes the Lesser Questions of Mary: but I must be excused from repeating the passage. "The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972), 20. James means the Greater Questions of Mary.


7. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, A Feminist  Theological Construction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1984),  276. Fiorenza is dependent on the work of R. Beor, Philo's Use of the Categories Male and Female (Leiden: Brill, 1970).      


8. The translation is that of A. Guillaumont, Henri‑Charles Puech,  Gilles Quispel, Walter Till, and Yassah 'Abd Al Masih, The Gospel According to Thomas (New York: Harper & Row, n.d.),


9. The translation is that of M. R. James.    


10. For sheer interest's sake, attention ought to be drawn to a striking parallel in the Mahayana Buddhist scripture Saddharma‑Pundarika (Lotus of the True Law). Sariputra says to the daughter of  the Naga‑king Sagora, who is seeking to become a bodhisattva, "'It  may happen, sister, that a woman displays an unflagging energy, performs  good works for many thousands of Aeons, and fulfills the six perfect  virtues (Paramitas), but as yet there is no example of her having received  Buddhaship..."' Contrary to expectation, however, she does receive  this distinction: "At that same instant, before the sight of the whole  world and of the senior priest Sariputra, the female sex of the daughter  of Sagara, the Naga‑king, disappeared; the male sex appeared and she  manifested herself as a Bodhisattva...." (Xl:51). H. Kern (trans.) Saddharma‑Pundarika, or Lotus of the True Law (New York: Dover  Publications, 1963), 252‑253.     

11. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House,  1979), 64.    


12. Pheme Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 136.        


13. Fiorenza, 304, 306.


14. E.g., Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, All We're Meant to Be (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1975), 59; Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,  1976), 169; Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Women, Men & the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 19.     


15. This observation might suggest a new perspective for the Pagels‑Perkins‑Fiorenza discussion: do the Mary vs. Peter Gnostic texts perhaps imply an intra‑Gnostic struggle over women's authority, since in these texts Peter, too, is a Gnostic spokesman?        


16. James, 157.


17. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), 82, 295.           

18. See, among many possible examples of this approach, George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975); J. N. D. Anderson, The Evidence for the Resurrection (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter‑Varsity Press, 1966); Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971); F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972).


19. James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 70; Clark H. Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 96; cf . R.T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire, A Portrait of Jesus (Downers Grove: Inter‑Varsity Press, 1976), 164; Norman Anderson, A Lawyer Among the Theologians (Grand  Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 133.


20. Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971), 52: "Attempts to combine [the resurrection traditions] by means of  inspired guesses and hypotheses, of which F. F. Morrison's [sic] Who Moved the Stone? has been for so long known as an outstanding and brilliant  example, are really defeated from the start. For what have to be combined are not a number of scattered pieces from an originally single matrix, but separate expressions of the Easter faith. Each of these is complete in itself; each has developed along its own line so as to serve in the end as a proper conclusion for an evangelist of his own particular version of the gospel.” C.F. Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament (Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1970), 128.


21. For the view of resurrection traditions as apostolic credentials see Evans, pp. 46‑47; Willi Marxsen,  The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 81 ff; Fuller, 49.          


22. See the discussion of Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 681.        


23. Some scholars doubt that the empty tomb stories could be historical since they seem to betray ignorance of conditions in Palestine, where the heat would make it futile even to try to anoint a body for preservation  as late as the third day. Others discount only this motive attributed to the women for their visit to the tomb (e.g., D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark  [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975], 443), supposing instead that they simply  went to the tomb to mourn, a natural enough circumstance. Notice that  the problematical anointing business is absent from the original pericope John 20:1, 11‑18, an important point in favor of the historical character of the story of Mary Magdalene's Easter revelation.


24. Raymond E. Brown (The Community of the Beloved Disciple [New York: Paulist Press, 1979], 154) suggests that it was John 20:1‑18, i.e., the appearance to Mary in its canonical form, as the first in a series, that inspired the use of Mary as a revealer in the later Gnostic texts. This is once again to make the link with Mary Magdalene a purely literary one. By contrast, we are suggesting that the link is a historical one, and that  the experience reflected in the original pericope John 20:1,11‑18, was the basis for Mary's actual claim to apostolic status, and that this claim continues to be reflected in the later Gnostic texts not because of literary  borrowing but because of historical memory. The very preservation of the original pericope John 20:1, 11‑18 presupposes a Sitz‑im‑Leben in which a  group of early Christians cherished and passed down the story of Mary's unique Easter revelation, thus a circle of Christians for whom Mary was the chief apostle. How else could the original, independent episode have survived long enough for the fourth evangelist to co‑opt it?


25. Thus Luke's downplaying of Mary Magdalene would be part and  parcel of his subtle but systematic polemic against Gnosticism, a key purpose of Luke's writings ably demonstrated by Charles H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966). Fiorenza errs, in our opinion, when she claims that Luke includes Mary Magdalene and other women among the "apostolic witnesses" (p. 321) because of Acts 13:31. She ignores Luke's clear restriction of this category of eyewitness‑apostles to a special group, "the eleven," within the larger number of disciples in Acts 1:15‑26.    


26. Fuller, 65. For more discussion of the theory that Mark's  hypothetical original ending was lost, see R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel  Message of St. Mark, chapter Vl I, "St. Mark's Gospel--Complete or  Incomplete?" (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 80‑97. 


27. Charles H. Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 25‑35. 


28. Fuller, 53.     


29. Theodore J. Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict [Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1971], 47‑51) discusses the argument of Schenke, Auferstehungs‑verkundigung und leeres Grab, Stuttgarter Bibelstudien,  no. 33 (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1969), 30‑35.


30. Fiorenza, 322, in dependence on D. Catchpole, "The Fearful Silence of the Women at the Tomb: A Study in Markan Theology," Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 18 (1977) 3‑10. Perhaps Catchpole and Fiorenza are unconsciously harmonizing Mark 1:44 with Luke 10:4 and its prototype 2 Kings 4:29?


31. Weeden, 50.


32. Günther Borkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper Row, Publishers, 1960), 183.


33. Fuller, 52‑53.


34. Ralph Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,1973).


35. Weeden, 50; see also Norman Perrin, The Resurrection according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 30.


36. Bultmann, Gospel of John, 682. 2


37. Even as the text now reads, the factional‑polemical implications of the pericope are clear, only the rivalry is that between Peter and the Beloved Disciple (or, rather, their later factions). See Bultmann, Gospel of John, 484, 685. Though Raymond E. Brown rejects any such polemical character for this story in his The Gospel according to John, Vol. II (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), 1006, he has come to embrace such an interpretation in his The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 84.


38. Fiorenza sees the I Corinthians 15 list, with Luke 24, as attesting the tradition of Peter as the first witness of the risen Lord, in contrast to Matthew 28, the Markan appendix, and John as attesting the primacy of Mary Magdalene, but she does not make clear that the two pro‑Peter texts may actually intend to suppress the pro‑Mary tradition, as we are suggesting. 1 Corinthians 15 reads as it does because of anti‑Magdalene polemics.    


39. See the convenient summary of the evidence for this now‑common reading of Luke's treatment of Paul in Fuller, 45‑46.          


40. The pun occurs in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah, 4b. See the discussions of Bernhard Pick, Jesus in the Talmud (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1913), 15‑16; F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins  Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing  Company, 1974), 58.    


41. Could "Jezebel" (obviously a cipher‑name) actually be Mary  Magdalene, tarred with the usual charges of Gnostic libertinism?              


42. For Simon's rescue of Helen from a brothel, see Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 1.23.2. John M. Allegro in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Devon: Westbridge Books, 1979), 143, 167ff, goes so  far as to suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene are actually Christian versions of Simon and Helen, all four being purely mythical characters! I of course do not follow Allegro here, wishing only to indicate parallel slanders directed toward prominent Gnostic women disciples.


43. An alternate possibility raised by Allegro (Dead Sea Scrolls, 168)  is that "Magdalene" is simply the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew for "hairdresser" (i.e., prostitute) and that only in later reinterpretation was the epithet first understood as meaning "of Magdala" by gospel readers  who no longer remembered the original meaning. This is possible, only I would suggest a polemical rather than mythical origin of the epithet and its intention.


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