A European theological scholar, Elisabeth Moltmann -Wendel, in differentiating between Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus, writes, "The early Christian Church fathers, e.g. Irenaeus, Origen, and Chrysostom, were still unfamiliar with the identification of the three women of the Bible."
The Greek Orthodox church celebrated three feast days in commemoration of Mary of Bethany, Lazarus' sister, the unnamed woman who was labeled a sinner, and for Mary Magdalene, the first witness to Christ's resurrection. The Western church followed the interpretation of Pope Gregory the Great and combined these three feast days under the name of Mary Magdalene and celebrated one feast day in honor of the "passionate penitent" on July twenty-second, and this is still held in the Catholic church to this day, but a number of Protestant scholars have criticised it..
The person of Mary Magdalene was conflated with those of Mary of Bethany and the anonymous sinner of Luke who anointed Jesus' feet. With that in mind, it
is often assumed that the "sinner" who anointed Jesus' feet was a prostitute, and the connection is made. This conflation also occurs in "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar" where there is the same mistaken assumption, for there is no evidence in the text for it.
As a result , as Moltmann-Wendel puts it, "the image of Mary Magdalene has been distorted by Western theologians who have "located sin one-sidedly and
clearly in human corporeality, and specifically in woman."
And of course, populist accounts, such as the pop-opera Jesus Christ Superstar, have fed into this picture.
While Biblical scholars have, for more than eighty years, agreed that Mary Magdalene's story is one which has been distorted, there is still little accuracy to be found in writings about her. The definitive exception to this can be found in the writings of Elisabeth Moltmann -Wendel.
What did this Mary, whose distorted story became one of aberrant sexuality, look like? There is no way of knowing from the references to her in the Bible. But the projections of the collective imagination are evident in the following: "We can be confident she was a woman who walked erectly, even to the tomb, one who was young and pretty, well-favored and warmhearted. The master painters depicted her with auburn hair, a woman beautiful of face and form." (Edith Deen, All the Women of the Bible).
The above description is typical in its presumptive notions regarding Mary Magdalene's youth and beauty. But Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel disagrees with these assumptions, stating: "In male fantasies she usually seems to be unmarried, young and beautiful. But perhaps she was already aged, had a marriage behind her which provided the means with which she was able to help the Jesus movement, and showed traces of the illness which she had overcome. We do not know."
There is no sign of any marriage of Mary to Jesus, even in the Gnostic gospels; people often cite these as "proving" that Jesus was married, but it is notable that they never give any quotations, simply because there are none! That is to be expected, because the Gnostics had a violent antipathy to anything material, and any notions of sex would have been repellent to them. The idea that Jesus married and had children is a modern fantasy.
Whatever her appearance, Mary Magdalene is depicted as a woman who truly loved Jesus, who was present at the cross (when the other apostles had run
away), who came to anoint his body, and who was first to see the Risen Jesus - not something that would be made up - as women had no status as witnesses in Jewish law.
André Maurois knew the problem - Maurois was a quotable French author of the early 20th century. One quote of his that came very much to mind on a couple of occassions last week is (in...
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