Jesus Christ is famous for never having married, but he had some close lady pals, including alleged repentant sinner Mary Magdalene. Dan Brown's novel-turned-blockbuster film The Da Vinci Code brought the idea of Mary Magdalene marrying Jesus and having a secret love child to the masses.
But this popular notion isn't really based in real scholarship... or is it, especially in an era of people looking for archaeological evidence of biblical stories? Was Mary Magdalene a real person? Historically, who was Mary Magdalene, and what evidence is there for her existence? Although there is no physical archaeological evidence that either Jesus or Mary Magdalene existed - it's all literary - most scholars believe that these two really did exist. What's up for debate, then? The exact nature, actions, and sayings of the people depicted in the Gospels and other early religious documents vary, depending on the text.
What is this ancient proof of Mary Magdalene? Mary Magdalene appears in a few of the canonical Gospels - the four big ones, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - where she is one of Jesus's most important followers. She witnesses the Crucifixion and receives divine direction to spread the Good News. In later legends, she is said to have kissed Jesus and traveled to France or Turkey to spread Jesus's message, and some sources even claim her skeleton still survives in a church in southern France or in Israel. Tracking down her whereabouts is almost as exciting as a Dan Brown novel.
Medieval legends tell the tale of Mary Magdalene fleeing Israel after Jesus's death and traveling to what is now France. Dan Brown and the scholars whose theories he co-opted - authors of the pseudo-historical book Holy Blood, Holy Grail - posited that she left with her kid or kids by Jesus and she raised them in France, creating what would become an early French dynasty.
Either way, a body reportedly belonging to Mary Magdalene resides at the Church of Saint-Maximin in the south of France. Recently, scientists and artists reconstructed the skeleton's face; the woman, whoever she is, has high cheekbones and a round face. Of Mediterranean descent, the lady was around 50 when she died. Future DNA tests could tell us where she came from.
Biological anthropologist Philippe Charlier told National Geographic:
“We are absolutely not sure that this is the true skull of Mary Magdalene. But it was very important to get it out of anonymity.”
In most of the four canonical Gospels - Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke - Mary Magdalene is one of Jesus's most important disciples. In fact, in John, she is the first to see the door of Jesus's tomb rolled back; when she's crying in front of his tomb, Jesus reveals himself to her first, ahead of any of the apostles. She went to Peter and the rest to spread the Good News and share the Word. In Luke, a number of women, including Mary Magdalene, heard important words from angels, which they related to the rest.
So it's established Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus's most important confidantes after his Resurrection, someone he trusted intimately, in the Gospel tradition. As an editorial in Biblical Archaeology noted, Mary Magdalene was "an influential follower of Jesus" and a sort of female apostle - but there's no evidence in these texts of her being his wife or anything more than part of his entourage, albeit an important one.
Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, contrary to modern perceptions. But why do we think she was? The Gospel of Mark mentions Jesus cast seven demons or devils out of a woman named Mary; the Gospel of Luke calls her "Mary, also called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out." And later Christian commentators conflated these two women, along with a mysterious woman with a bad reputation who anoints Jesus with ointment from an alabaster jar. There are a few other minor figures tied in here, too.
Originally, the ailment - personified by "demons" - cast out of Mary Magdalene might have been physical, but Christian commentators interpreted these ailments as moral failings, as James Carroll noted in Smithsonian. The sixth-century Pope Gregory I (later known as "the Great") typified the early Christian impulse to demonize or cast down some female figures in the Church. He delivered a series of speeches that not only rolled all the above female figures into one, but deemed Mary a repentant sinner from whom Jesus cast out all the bad things (AKA demons).
He got into the idea that Mary had once perfumed her private parts with the unguent and was a sex worker, but then wiped Jesus's feet with her hair and repented. Bart Ehrman, a prominent scholar of early Christianity, goes into great detail on his blog about why this is factually impossible in the Gospels - not to mention misogynistic!
What else do the Gospels tell us about the Magdalene? We know her name was Mary, but that's not unique. The aforementioned religious studies professor Bart Ehrman, an expert on early Christianity, wrote:
"[Mary] ...was one of the most popular names among Jewish women in the first century. Just within the New Testament, we know of six women who bore the name, including, for example, Jesus’s own mother. And this is out of a total of just 16 women named in the Gospels, so that six out of 16 are called Mary! In the first century, nearly one out of four Jewish women from Palestine whose names are known were called Mary."
"Magdalene" means "of Magdala," a town in Galilee, Jesus's home base. Magdala was a town known for its salted fish, which even Rome loved. Alternatively, Magdala is a reference to "migdal," or "tower" in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the town of Magdala might have originally been known as the "tower of" something.