The Mystery of Mary Magdalene


(Helen Bond) Just a small plug for a TV progra.mme tomorrow (Good Friday). Melvyn Bragg, well-known in the UK for ‘thinking persons’ programming, is presenting an hour-long show in search of ‘the real’ Mary Magdalene. Prof Joan Taylor from King’s London has been keeping him on the straight and narrow as historical consulatant, and I think it promises to be a cut above some of the (pretty dire) documentaries that have been made about Mary lately.  Melvyn takes his search to Israel, and meets a number of scholars along the way (including Tom Wright, Joan Taylor, Kate Cooper and myself).

You can catch a glimpse of it here:

and the programme itself airs at 12 noon on BBC1 (and will be available afterwards on iPlayer).

For what it’s worth, my own view of Mary M is that she was probably a wealthy widow (hence her relative independence and the lack of any mention of a husband). I also suspect that she and other female disciples played an important role in getting the message to women, though that’s not something our gospels are particularly interested in telling us. The very fact that her name was remembered at all presumably suggests a greater role in the early Jesus movement than is obvious from the texts . . .


6 responses »

    • Hi Jens, yes, that’s true. She’s in John’s Gospel, too, but of course the fourth evangelist may have known about her from Mark. Like all historical reconstruction in the gospels, it depends where you want to draw the line between historical reminiscence and the way the traditions are adapted by the early church. Mark is only interested in the women at the end in so far as they can form a link between the cross, the burial and the empty tomb. You could argue that the names of the women are made up to give the account an air of verisimilitude, but I tend to think that the names are traditional. Best wishes, Helen

  1. I have a few questions based on your assumption that Mary was a wealthy widow. What age do you suppose her to have been during Jesus’ ministry? What were the accepted social protocols of the widow Mary associating with a (younger?) single itinerant preacher? If she was from Galilee, can you characterize her travels as an unmarried widow from Galilee to Jerusalem? What was the typical life of a self-supporting widow then? Thanks.

    • Hi Rick,
      It’s not an ‘assumption’ – only a suggestion that I think makes some reasonable sense of the evidence. We have no idea of what age she would have been, but it’s curious that she’s never named as the wife of anyone, or the mother of anyone. Only her home town is mentioned. It’s at least possible that her huband had died and her children grown up, and in Galilee (where her family were in any case unknown) she may have been known simply as the Mary from Magdala. Luke also suggests that women like Mary and Joanna were able to offer financial support to the Jesus movement; of course, this may be part of his attempt to show that Christianity attracted well to do ladies, but if it’s true it’s again at least possible that she had some inheritance (perhaps from her husband?). Widows were notoriously vulnerable in ancient Israel, especially if they had no sons to protect them, but if she had some kind of independent means, she may have had a greater degree of freedom than most women. I offer this only as a suggestion – we don’t know how unusual it would have been for women like Mary M and Joanna to travel around Galilee with a band of men (though Mk 15 does seem to suggest a reasonably large group of women). Certainly there were mixed groups of people on their way to Passover, not all of whom would necessarily have been related to one another. We don’t know if the criticism over Jesus’ eating companions extended to those he travelled with too. So I don’t know, but seeing her as a widow gives a rather different spin to her relationship with Jesus.

  2. Thanks for the response. ‘Suggestion’ rather than ‘assumption’ works for me as well. If she was a widow, then an age of similar or a little older than Jesus would work. A husband deceased long enough to not warrant mentioning, yet she was not identified as a ‘widow’, which status if she was significantly older seemed to have been semi-venerable. Not mentioning children seems ‘suggestion-worthy’ 🙂 as well. She was not identified as barren, and children close to a majority age or older, it seems, might have been identified as believers or non-believers. Young children probably would have precluded her travels and/or association with Jesus. I am curious about her daily living situation. If very wealthy it seems she would have had a husband-to-be pursuing her; if only somewhat wealthy then I’d wonder if those resources would be finite and she wouldn’t have the luxury of presumably supporting/financing Jesus. My suggestion is that she was moderately wealthy and under some association with her well enough to do family, yet well enough to do in her own right to do as she pleased with the Jesus movement. Of course, these are wild guesses on my part as in any culture there exists the possibility of striking non-conventionality, which to me Mary seems to have. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s