FAQ

Believe it or not, there are some frequently asked questions about Mary Magdalene. Hard to believe, right? Good thing someone invented the FAQ.

Who was Mary Magdalene?
Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married?
Didn’t the Gnostics believe Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married?
Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have children?
Did Mary Magdalene travel to France?
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?
Did Mary Magdalene have long, red hair?
What does the name “Magdalene” mean?
Why is Mary Magdalene called “apostola apostolorum?”
Why is Mary Magdalene pictured in caves?
Why is Mary Magdalene pictured with a jar/book/skull?
Was there really a Gospel of Mary Magdalene?
Are The Magdalene Diaries real?
Are Mary Magdalene’s bones really in the Louvre?
Is Mary Magdalene really in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper?
Do we know who Mary Magdalene’s parents were?
Do we know when/where Mary Magdalene was born and died?


Who was Mary Magdalene?

St. Mary Magdalene is one of several women named Mary who appear in the four canonical Christian gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. She is said in the Gospels to have been relieved of seven demons, to have supported Jesus’ ministry financially, and to have witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection. She was a saint before saints began to be officially sainted in the 11th century. Mary Magdalene was also important to the Gnostics, a category that collectively describes several early Christian sects that placed an emphasis on salvation through knowledge. She appears in several texts that are classified as “gnostic” as a favorite disciple, visionary, and leader. Today, due to publications since the early 1980s culminating with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, many people are convinced that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and had children that went on to start a dynastic royal bloodline.


Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married?

This is a complicated question that could best be answered, “there is no evidence that they were married.” A great deal of circumstantial evidence has been gathered to that effect, but one must pretty much toss out much of the known history of the last 2000 years in order to accept it. It is entirely possible that they were married, but we just don’t have reliable, credible evidence to that effect.


Didn’t the Gnostics believe Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married?

There are a lot of people saying so, but that doesn’t make it true. Basically, in the Gnostic text the Gospel of Philip, there are two passages that can give that impression:

  • There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

and

  • As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.

There are a few things to know about these passages. In the first one, the word translated as “companion” can have conjugal overtones. But it can have many other connotations as well, and the conjugal context is almost unprecedented in contemporary texts. In other words, nobody knows for sure if “companion” means “wife” or “consort.”

In the second passage, it seems pretty clear on first glance. Why would Jesus kiss Mary Magdalene on the mouth if they weren’t romantically involved? Actually, there are a few reasons. The first thing you need to know is that the word “mouth” isn’t actually in the text. There is a hole in the manuscript where that word goes, so scholars have placed “mouth” there as their best guess. The way that they came up with this guess was based on a passage that preceded the one about kissing Mary Magdalene:

  • It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment. [...] him from the mouth. And had the word gone out from that place, it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

In this context, the kissing seems a lot more spiritual and a lot less romantic. That said, it is very possible that the author of Philip was hinting at a deeper, more “earthly” relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in order to illustrate some of the other teachings contained in the gospel. It has been suggested that by pairing Mary Magdalene with Jesus that she was reflecting the Gnostic Sophia and the Holy Spirit in the physical world.

As with most things in Gnosticism, there is no real easy answer. If you remember anything, just remember that the two passages in the Gospel of Philip really don’t come right out and say “Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.” It’s just not that simple.


Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have children?

Please see the answer above. If they did, we don’t know about them. There aren’t even any legends in European folklore that they had children. The modern speculation that they had children is based on extremely liberal understandings of what are assumed to be “veiled” references to such a bloodline. Again, it is always possible that they did have children, there just aren’t any reliable sources that say as much.


Did Mary Magdalene travel to France?

Probably not. There are some very old legends that say that she did travel to France, but they are from the 11th century. That’s about a thousand years after it would have happened. (If you consider the fact that we’re separated from the First Crusade by almost a thousand years you can get some idea of how much distance they would have had from the original events.)

These legends appear to have been manufactured at least in part by the abbey at Vezelay, France, whose abbot wished to validate the relics in his posession as belonging to Mary Magdalene. There is a very clear progression of these legends indicating the evolution of the French myth, culminating with a competition between Vezelay and another basilica further south that claimed her relics in the 13th century.


Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

Well, we don’t know for sure, but probably not. There is nothing in the Gospels, or anywhere else for that matter, that says that she was a prostitute, a fallen woman, a harlot, or a sinner. Nowhere. Nothing. Nada.

Her reputation as a redeemed prostitute has two likely origins:

1. She was associated with Mary of Bethany, who performed the anointing of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The woman who performed the anointing in the Gospel of Luke was an anonymous “sinner” from the city. It is assumed that the sinner woman was a prostitute, but even that is an extrapolation. So if Mary Magdalene was Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Bethany was the anonymous sinner from Luke, and if the anonymous sinner from Luke was a prostitute, well, there goes Mary Magdalene’s good name.

2. Mary Magdalene was relieved of seven demons. In the Middle Ages, there were seven cardinal sins, and Mary Magdalene’s seven demons were often thought to be related to them. Primarily, Mary Magdalene was associated with the sins of lust and vanity, but the correspondence of seven demons with seven sins was just too good for the medieval mind to pass up. This association contributed to Mary Magdalene’s sinful reputation.


Did Mary Magdalene have long, red hair?

Probably not, but the truth is, we really have no idea what she looked like. She was Jewish, so the odds are overwhelmingly strong that she looked like other Jewish women from Palestine, which means she probably was not a fair-skinned European with red or blonde hair, as she appears in most paintings.

Mary Magdalene probably became associated with long hair through the assumption that she was the woman who performed the anointing on Jesus in the Gospels. That woman was said to have washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and to have wiped them dry with her long hair. Wearing her hair loose would have been considered scandalous at the time, so this particular characteristic was to follow Mary Magdalene throughout time. Even today Mary Magdalene is portrayed with long, uncovered hair in the movies (see Monica Bellucci’s Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ compared to the Virgin Mary, who kept her hair covered at all times).

The color red is another issue entirely. Red has long been associated with desire, the flesh, and sin, so perhaps it’s only natural that Mary Magdalene would have been associated with that color given her shady reputation.

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. [Isaiah 1:18]

What does the name “Magdalene” mean?

The root of the name “Magdalene” is the Hebrew word “migdal,” which means “tower,” “fortress,” or “stronghold.” St. Jerome suggested that there was something about Mary Magdalene that was strong and “tower”-like that earned her the nickname.

The more common interpretation of “Magdalene” is “woman from Magdala,” which is entirely possible. It has been suggested that since we have no records dating back to the first century that a place called Magdala even existed that it couldn’t possibly refer to her place of origin, but most scholars, almost without exception, accept this as the most likely origin of the name.

Margaret Starbird, author of The Woman With The Alabaster Jar, suggested in her second book, The Goddess in the Gospels, that the epithet “the Magdalene” was chosen for its numerical value, 153, in order to associate it with the geometrical shape of the vesica piscis (see figure). The vesica piscis, which was described by the number 153 to indicate its proportion based on the square root of 3, Starbird assures us, was associated at the time with the sacred feminine. Therefore, “the Magdalene,” by way of its numerical value, was an epithet given to Mary to identify her as the bride of Jesus.

(Please check back at Magdalene.org in the future for an upcoming article on these two ideas about Mary Magdalene’s name.)


Why is Mary Magdalene called “apostola apostolorum?”

“Apostola apostolorum” is Latin for “apostle to the apostles.” Mary Magdalene was first suggested to have fulfilled this role by Hippolytus in his commentary on the Song of Songs, because she received instructions at Jesus’ tomb to go tell the other disciples about the resurrection. This effectively made her the “apostle to the apostles.” The actual Latin phrase “apostola apostolorum” wasn’t used until the Middle Ages.


Why is Mary Magdalene pictured in caves?

In the French legends of Mary Magdalene, she was said to have retired to a grotto in the St. Baume mountain range for thirty years, where she lived a life of solitary contemplation. Here she was visited by angels who carried her into the air and fed her spiritual sustenance to keep her alive. The French legends were well accepted for several hundred years and many paintings of Mary Magdalene are set in her grotto.


Why is Mary Magdalene pictured with a jar/book/skull?

Mary Magdalene’s primary emblem in art is a jar. This jar is meant to remind the viewer of Mary Magdalene’s role as the woman who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus after the Sabbath, only to find him resurrected. To the extent that Mary Magdalene was believed to have been the woman who performed the anointing before the crucifixion, the jar was related to that scene as well.

A book and a skull often appear in the paintings of Mary Magdalene in her grotto. Typically these are seen as symbols of the contemplative life of reflection and penitence. The skull may also be related to her role as a witness of the crucifixion, which took place on Golgotha, the “place of the skull.”


Was there really a Gospel of Mary Magdalene?

Yes. The Gospel of Mary was discovered in 1896 by a man named Dr. Carl Reinhardt. Due to a series of unfortunate events, a translation wasn’t published until 1955, when it appeared first in German. It first appeared in English along with the texts from the Nag Hammadi Library in 1977.

The Gospel of Mary is, sadly, missing several pages, so our understanding of the text is somewhat incomplete. Enough survives, however, to draw the conclusion that at least one sect of early Christianity, sometimes classified as “gnostic,” held Mary Magdalene in high esteem as a visionary, apostle, and leader.


Are The Magdalene Diaries real?

In The Da Vinci Code, one of Dan Brown’s characters mentions something called “the Magdalene Diaries” as a suriving text that provides illumination on Mary Magdalene’s role in early Christianity. In fact, no such document or set of documents is known to exist.


Are Mary Magdalene’s bones really in the Louvre?

That would probably come as a surprise to the curators of the Louvre. And depending on how you define “bones,” it could be said that at least one of Mary Magdalene’s bones is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, where one of her teeth is believed to be encased in a reliquary.

Two places are the primary sites believed to claim Mary Magdalene’s relics: the basilicas at Vezelay, France and at St.-Maximin-la-Ste.-Baume, France. These two sites competed for tourism dollars in the Middle Ages by laying claim to Mary Magdalene’s bones, each of them boasting a full skeleton. During the various periods of political unrest, particularly during the French Revolution, many of the bones were lost. Today an arm remains at Vezelay and a skull at St.-Maximin-la-Ste.-Baume. No one knows if they really belonged to Mary Magdalene.


Is Mary Magdalene really in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper?

Art scholars insist that it is unlikely. The person sitting to Jesus’ right in The Last Supper is very feminine, without a doubt, but young men were often portrayed by Leonardo and other artists of the time in such a way. John was often believed to have been very young and beardless, so he, in particular, was often depicted rather androgynously.

The moment captured in The Last Supper is immediately after Jesus had revealed that someone present would betray him. The Gospels say that Peter got the attention of the disciple whom Jesus loved (traditionally assumed to be John) so that he could ask Jesus, on behalf of Peter, who the guilty party was. In the painting, we see Peter saying something to the figure at Jesus’ right, presumably asking him to convey this question.

There is no way to know for sure whether or not Leonardo da Vinci intended to paint the figure to Jesus’ right as a woman, but consider this: if the monks who commissioned the mural for one moment thought that Leonardo was painting something so scandalous and heretical in their dining hall, do you suppose they would have accepted it? The fact that there is no record of the painting being rejected, or of Leonardo being asked to fix it (or of being tried for heresy as a result of it) could lead one to believe that there was nothing terribly unusual about the figure at all.


Do we know who Mary Magdalene’s parents were?

No. Some of the French legends purport to record the names of her parents, but there is no indication that these legends were based on anything historical.


Do we know when/where Saint Mary Magdalene was born and died?

We don’t know when she was born, and really, we don’t know when she died. The earliest recorded legend of the end of her life says that she spent her last days in Ephesus, where she was buried near the tomb of the Seven Sleepers. French legends that came much later suggest that she died in Southern France, at least one even going so far as to pin the location down to St. Maximin’s oratory, where she was believed to have received last rites.