What the Spirit tells us clearly about her in all four Gospels (a rare honor) is that she was present at Jesus’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25–27) and at his burial (Matthew 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47). And then she was the first of Jesus’s followers to see the tomb empty, the first to see and speak to the risen Jesus, and the first to witness to others of his resurrection (Matthew 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:10–12; John 20:1–18). This is one of the important truths I believe the Spirit wants us to see: a woman with a troubled past, perhaps the kind of past that we might have, was granted the gracious honor of being first.
Mary Magdalene is, I believe, the most misunderstood and historically distorted of Jesus’s followers recorded in the New Testament. Consider this.
Mary is only mentioned by name in the New Testament twelve times (by all four Gospel authors). Eleven out of those twelve mentions are the accounts of her witnessing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The one time she’s referenced elsewhere, we find the only biographical tidbits the Scripture provides: she had been delivered from seven demons (by Jesus, we assume, given the context) and, along with some other women, was accompanying Jesus’s itinerant cohort, and perhaps contributing financially to its support (Luke 8:2–3). That’s it.
And yet Mary Magdalene’s Wikipedia page offers more content than that of the apostle Peter, the apostle Paul, or the Virgin Mary. Wikipedia is by no means the measure of a biblical character’s significance, but given her sparse coverage in the Bible, it is reflective of the strange historical phenomenon that is Mary Magdalene — or rather, the legends of Mary Magdalene.
Sexually Scandalous Past?
Many in Western church traditions have somehow gathered the impression that Mary was either a former prostitute or had some kind of sexually immoral past (the Eastern traditions never bought in). Since this is not in Scripture, where did that impression come from?
Though it probably originated earlier, this idea likely gained the most traction after Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) gave a homily in AD 591, in which he claimed that the anonymous sinful woman in Luke 7:36–50 (he assumed the sin was sexual) and Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus’s feet in John 12:3–7, both referred to Mary Magdalene. Though there is no textual ground for this conclusion, it became a dominant interpretation for many centuries, creating a narrative about Mary that took hold in the popular imagination.