Nun defends Mary of Magdala’s role as a respected disciple

MYRTLE BEACH — Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) was a respected and powerful woman of her time, not a prostitute, according to St. Mary of Namur Sister Mary Thompson.

Sister Thompson, an acknowledged Biblical scholar, visited St. Andrew Church on May 5 to present educational programs to parishioners. She holds a master’s degree in theology from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sacred Scripture from McMaster University. She is on the faculty of the Catholic Biblical Studies Program in Buffalo and has written books on the Gospel of Mark and Mary of Magdala.

Biblical scholars have identified three distinct stages in the formation of every Gospel. The first stage was when Jesus walked the earth. The second stage was 45 to 50 years later when disciples were carrying the message of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. The third stage was when the Gospels were actually written, which was between 70 and 90 years after the crucifixion.

Sister Thompson said, “Mary of Magdala was the first human to understand what resurrection was all about.”

She emphasized that Jesus chose Mary of Magdala to be the first person he revealed himself to after the resurrection. Each Gospel places Mary of Magdala at the empty tomb, but the Gospel of John indicates that she was alone.

In ancient times, people were listed by order of rank. In the Gospel of Luke, he lists Mary of Magdala before Joanna. Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, and would have been a very powerful woman in her time and place. The third verse of this passage also documents that Mary of Magdala was a woman of financial means who provided monetary support to Jesus and his disciples.

Mary of Magdala was mentioned 11 times in the Gospels. Ten times, she was referred to as “Mary, woman of Magdala” in direct translation from Greek. The fact that she was identified by name — in what must have been years after her death — confirms that she was well-known when the Gospels were written.

Mary of Magdala’s role was understood and well-documented for the first 300 years of the Christian church.

St. Jerome and St. Augustine both defended her status. The place of women in the church gradually changed by the fifth and sixth centuries, however, and the concept of celibacy began to evolve.

By the year 500, clericalism was well-established, and something Sts. Jerome and Augustine warned about in their writings began to happen: Mary of Magdala’s role was changing.

Sister Thompson said, “The picture of the repentant sinner grabs us.”

She theorized that Mary of Magdala was portrayed as a prostitute to illustrate the conversion process. Mary of Magdala was definitely not a sinful woman and was probably not the woman who washed the feet of Jesus in Gospel of Luke. Neither was she the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

Sister Thompson explained the passage in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8 verse 2, that said seven devils were cast out of Mary of Magdala. This text would have been interpreted differently in ancient times. People of that time would have understood “seven devils” to mean a serious physical illness rather than a mental illness or moral depravity.

Realization that Mary of Magdala’s role had been incorrectly understood began to take shape in the early 1980s. Her place in the Gospels was very important. She stood with Mary and Mary’s sister at the crucifixion. In a 1967 decree on the formation of the Gospels, the Pontifical Biblical Commission designated Mary of Magdala as a disciple. Documents created by scholars of the Pontifical Biblical Commission carry the pope’s signature.