The Message of Mary of MagdalaJacob Prahlow 2022-04-13
People across the Christian West will celebrate Easter this coming Sunday. Which means, per usual, publications are offering their usual spate of think pieces about what really happened nearly thousand years with Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem.
My favorite (read: most snarkily consumed) of these pieces are those which provide some sort of alternative reading of Mary Magdalene’s role among Jesus’ followers. Whether Mary was an important follower cast aside by the patriarchy or some version of Jesus’ wife, it’s surprisingly popular to recast Mary’s role on the first Easter.
That’s perplexing to me, because Mary already plays one of the most important roles in the history of Christianity.
Who Was Mary Magdalene?
The historical record says relatively little about Mary. We do know she was from a little town in northern Israel called—and this may surprise you—Magdala, which is why we call her Mary Magdalene. We know that she was one of numerous women who followed Jesus and supported His ministry financially. And we know from the New Testament that Jesus cast out seven demons from Mary and healed her (Luke 8.2-3). But other than that, there’s not a whole lot that we know about Mary, other than what Scripture tells us about her being around during Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
If you’re not entirely familiar with that part of the Jesus story, that’s totally fine, let me get you up to speed. After Jesus delivered His message of God’s Kingdom and the importance of loving God and loving people for about three years, He ended up in the city of Jerusalem. While there, He was arrested, tried, and eventually sentenced to death by crucifixion by the Romans, who were ruling Judea at the time. Along with some other followers of Jesus, Mary witnessed the crucifixion and death of the man she thought was the Messiah, the King of God’s People. But Mary also happened to note which tomb Jesus was quickly buried in, on that Friday afternoon.
Mary’s Witness to the Resurrection
After resting from all work on the Sabbath (Saturday in Judaism), the Gospel of John records Mary’s story about what happened next.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb….
Then Simon Peter came… and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
~John 20.1-3, 6-18
Understanding the Easter Story
Chances are you have heard this story before, but it’s worth repeating again. Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb, likely hoping to perform the necessary burial rituals and grieve, but the tomb is empty. After a couple other disciples come and go, Mary finds herself alone in the garden cemetery, where she encounters—not the cemetery worker she expects—but the Risen Jesus Himself! The story of Jesus’ resurrection is paralleled in the other accounts of Jesus’ life, what we call the Gospels. And in all four Gospels, it’s the female disciples of Jesus who are the first to hear about and see that Jesus has risen.
In fact, Mary is the first person to see the Risen Jesus, and the first person to proclaim the news of the Risen Jesus. And that’s a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, many of us have become desensitized to this story, because we’ve heard it before. But the fact is that this story is the key moment in the history of the world. There’s literally nothing else in all of history that’s more important than what Mary sees here.
A dead man has defeated death and been resurrected from the dead! Jesus has died—but Jesus has risen. And that means all kinds of truly important things. It means that the brokenness and death all around us no longer have power over us. It means that we no longer are slaves to our selfishness and sin. It means that death is no longer permanent, that those who follow Jesus can be raised from the dead too! It means that Jesus is King—He’s in charge of things now—and that God’s Kingdom isn’t some abstract concept but a growing reality. It means that the structure of reality has been fundamentally transformed—and that the world will never be the same.
That is the message of Easter! And it’s first delivered to and by Mary Magdalene.
That news—that Jesus has died and Jesus has risen again—is the heart of what Christians call the good news or the gospel. That’s the message that Jesus tasks His followers to bring the world. Pay careful attention to verse 18: Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. Mary brought this all-important, world-changing news to Jesus’ other followers. In other words, she’s not only the first person to see the Resurrected Jesus, but she’s also the first person to share the good news of Jesus—with His disciples and with the Church throughout the ages through this story right here.
An Ancient Critique
Now, if we only look at this story with modern eyes and our contemporary concerns in mind, we actually miss one of the most critical parts of this story. Because the fact that Mary was the first person to see the Risen Jesus would have been downright problematic in the ancient world.
In the Roman Empire of the first century, what a woman said would have been viewed with skepticism, and would likely have been discounted as untrustworthy. Numerous Greek and Roman writers of this era criticized the intellectual capacities of women—often framing them as less rational than men, more easily swayed by emotion, more easily influenced, and prone to jump to conclusions.
Likewise, in Judaism at the time, the legal code discounted a woman’s testimony in many cases. Particularly common in the ancient Greco-Roman world was the idea that women were more gullible than men on religious matters, especially when it came to superstitious fantasies or excessive religious practices. Finally, there seems to have been an assumption of “the priority of men in God’s dealings with the world.” (Bauckham, 275) That is, many ancients assumed that since God’s past communication had largely come to men like Abraham, Moses, and David, that that was simply the way God spoke: to men. In short, many people would simply have discounted what Mary said about Jesus as a story not worth repeating, let alone believing.
Making Sense of the Story
But that’s not what happened. The disciples believed Mary—believed her enough to go see for themselves. And the Church believed Mary—enough to make it clear, despite all cultural pressure to the contrary—that she was the first person to proclaim the gospel of the risen King Jesus.
I think it’s reasonable to say that, given the inferior status of ancient women—especially a woman who was spiritually suspect as a former demoniac, and legally barred from being a witness by her own religion—that Mary Magdalene’s account of the resurrection of Jesus is what we’d call a “poor apologetic” in the ancient world. It’s an unconvincing argument, a poorly constructed story. From the ancient perspective, having a woman (or even several women) as the chief witness to a historically unheard-of event doesn’t instill trust and credibility. It’s just not something that you’re going to believe.
It would be like a band of teenagers biking around town convinced that their friend has been taken into the Upside Down by a mythical creature. No one’s going to believe that story, because that’s just not how reality works. In other words, recounting the story of Mary Magdalene encountering the Risen Jesus is not how you convince people in the ancient world that the resurrection has happened. In fact, the first known Roman critic of Christianity makes exactly this point. In about the year 175, a guy named Celsus wrote a book attacking Christianity. And in it, he specifically criticizes what the Gospels say about Mary first reporting the story of the resurrection, asking, “but who saw [this event]? A hysterical female.” He goes on to make clear that a woman witnessing the empty tomb hardly counts as useful historical testimony.
But because this story would have made such little sense in the ancient world, it has a particular ring of truth to it. Because let’s be honest: why would someone make up this story? If you’re going to make up a story about a guy rising from the dead, why not make it a little more credible? Why not have a male disciple first encounter Jesus? Why not edit out the story of the women, or conveniently sidestep the fact that it’s Mary freaking Magdalene of all people who sees and speaks to and touches the Risen Jesus first?
You don’t make up this story in the ancient world. You only tell this story because that’s what happened. You only tell this story because the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus was a woman named Mary. You only tell this story because Mary was the first person to talk with Jesus and to share that Good News with the rest of His followers. Now, this isn’t the last resurrection appearance of Jesus that Scripture records—there are plenty of others. But it is the first and the most significant. The Good News—the message that Jesus was dead but has risen for the remaking of our lives and the restoration of our world—first came to and was shared by Mary Magdalene.
Our Response to Mary’s Message
At this point, you might be wondering, so what? What am I supposed to do with what Mary says about the resurrection of Jesus? That was then; this is now, 2,000 years later. What do you want me to do with this? Well, I think there are a couple of practical things we can take away from this story about the resurrection of Jesus.
First, we should follow Mary’s example. She’s a model for those of us who already follow Jesus. Even in the midst of what could only be described as the worst weekend of her life, Mary’s faith persisted. She hoped, she encountered Jesus, she listened to Him, and she shared His news with others who needed to hear it. If you’re following Jesus, this is how you should be living. We should be hopeful—even in the midst of terribly frustrating, depressing, or painful circumstances—because the Risen Jesus brings us hope. We should be encountering and listening to Jesus through prayer and Scripture and the community of the Church. And we should be sharing the Good News of our Risen Savior with others—not as a “get out of jail free card” or out of guilty obligation, but as joyful people who’ve seen the Lord Jesus and the difference following Him can make in our lives.
The second thing we can do is trust Mary. We can hear her story about the resurrection of Jesus, and we can believe her. We can hear her news about Jesus being raised from the dead and we can trust her lead in following Him. So let me ask you, dear reader: Will you trust Mary? Do you believe that she was telling the truth about seeing Jesus? Because she’s either telling the real, unfabricated truth, or she’s not. In the words of Alisa Childers, “Jesus was raised from the dead, or he wasn’t. Christianity is true, or it isn’t. There is no ‘my truth’ when it comes to God.” Will you listen to Mary and believe her story about Jesus being raised from the dead?
Trusting Mary doesn’t mean that you have to turn off your brain. But it does mean that you might need to view the story of the first Easter a little differently. It might mean that you need to turn off the modern-day conspiracy theories and pay closer attention to the gospels. It might mean that you need to trust the message of Mary of Magdala.
Image courtesy of World Magazine