You might know Mary Magdalene best as the repentant whore whom Jesus converted to his teachings in the canonical Christian Gospels. Or you may be familiar with her from Dan Brown's international conspiracy bestseller The Da Vinci Code, which postulated that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married, had kids, and propagated their secret bloodline, which was protected by a secret society for two millennia. But who was Mary Magdalene really?
For starters, was Mary Magdalene married to Jesus? Was Mary Magdalene an apostle? Was she depicted in one of the most famous paintings of all time? Who was this woman, what did she mean to Jesus, and what might have happened to her after his death? We'll This list investigates the true story of Mary Magdalene.
The theory of Mary Magdalene marrying Jesus comes from the wonderfully weird religious conspiracy featured in the intended-to-be-nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, later co-opted by Dan Brown into the novel The Da Vinci Code. But Mary Magdalene probably didn't say "I do" to Christ, despite theories to the contrary (including one archaeologist's argument that Jesus was a rabbi, and it was tradition for all rabbis to get married, and "if Jesus wasn’t married, someone would have noticed.") All four Gospels are silent on the question of whether or not Jesus was married.
But as exciting as shipping Jesus and Mary Magdalene would be, they likely didn't tie the knot. Scholars of ancient Christianity maintain that the evidence just isn't there to support such a theory. As scholar Bart Ehrman noted, one of the other most famous Jewish men in antiquity was also a bachelor - St. Paul (formerly Saul). And Jesus himself said that, in the Kingdom of God, there would be a marriage-less, sort-of-sex-less existence, so it wouldn't be surprising if he believed the same thing on earth... and didn't have kids because of it.
Where did the idea of Mary Magdalene being a whore come from? Not actually from the Gospels themselves (which were written decades after Jesus himself would have lived). The Gospel of Mark said, "When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons" (NIV 16:9). Some understood this to mean she was a repentant sinner. The sixth-century Pope Gregory (later dubbed "the Great") conflated her with several other women in the New Testament (including a woman who wiped Jesus's feet with her hair) and turned her into a whore.
In 591, Gregory delivered a speech that claimed the "seven devils" driven out of Mary Magdalene were the seven major vices of a sinner. He declared that, while she once used perfume in her naughty places and once bowed at men's feet to do dirty things to them, now she turned her pursuits to higher causes - bowing at Jesus's feet and anointing him. In his mind, she went from shameless hussy who loved sex to repentant prostitute who loved God.
As previously cited, the Gospel of Mark stated that Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus when he rose from the dead. That placed an immense amount of importance on her as a disciple, because he chose to appear to her first, rather than one of the dudes. The Gospel of John echoed this, saying that Mary was weeping by his tomb when Jesus appeared to her and told her not to cry; Mary Magdalene, not Paul, Peter, and co., was the one to tell the apostles Jesus had risen. So she was pretty much his right-hand woman.
Was she technically an apostle, though, since she's not traditionally counted amongst their number? A spiritual successor, at the very least, since she carried his literal message to his other followers. But even if the early Church didn't regard this woman as such, she was probably as much an apostle as the guys.
Following Mary Magdalene's trail throughout the south of France has become a veritable cottage industry of spiritual tours. Legend has it that Mary, her siblings, and friends were exiled after Jesus's death, and they were cast out to sea in a rudderless boat, winding up in France. Mary spent the rest of her life in the Marseilles area, converting people to her new faith. The final thirty years of her life came in a desert, where she lived as an ascetic, repenting.
Like the remains of many other early Christian leaders, Mary's body parts are revered as relics. Her skull and bones supposedly reside in a church in a French town called Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, where they're still revered. A gorgeous Renaissance Italian reliquary supposedly contains one of her teeth.