by Al Maxey
Issue #871 -- August 27, 2023
Not she with traitorous kiss her Saviour stung,
Not she denied Him with unholy tongue;
She, while apostles shrank, could dangers brave,
Last at the cross and earliest at the grave.
Eaton Stannard Barrett [1786-1820]
Washington Irving (1783-1859), the noted American author, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early 19th century, wrote, "There is in every true woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity." Much like his contemporary, the Irish poet Eaton Stannard Barrett, whose poem appears at the head of this current Reflections, Irving could very well have had in mind the somewhat mysterious woman within the Gospel narratives known to us as Mary Magdalene. This noble woman of great faith and loyalty is all too often portrayed in the most ignoble of terms. Though much beloved by Jesus, she has come to be much maligned by His followers over the centuries. One of the tragedies of negative assertions against one's character is that, in the words of Thomas Grey Wicker (1926-2011), a journalist for the New York Times, "Denials never quite catch up with charges." The Jewish Talmud rightly states, "Slander injures three persons: the slanderer, the recipient of the slander, and the person slandered."
"Since medieval times Mary Magdalene has been one of the most maligned women in the New Testament" [Edith Deen, All the Women of the Bible, p. 203]. Frank S. Mead, the former editor of the Christian Herald, wrote, "We have had Mary Magdalene in the pillory 1900 years, flinging mud" at her [Who's Who in the Bible]. "Poor Mary Magdalene is made the patroness of penitent prostitutes, both by Papists and Protestants; and to the scandal of her name, and the reproach of the Gospel, houses fitted up for the reception of such are termed 'Magdalene Hospitals,' and the persons themselves 'Magdalenes'" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 417]. For centuries, Mary of Magdala has been characterized as an extremely sinful woman that Jesus befriended and redeemed, and yet her supposed harlotry is forever brought up in connection with her name. It is like a stain impossible to remove! One writer, by the name of Koetsveld, saddened by this fact, wrote, "All the water of the sea cannot wash off this stain from Mary Magdalene" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 518]. So, where did this view of this woman come from?! Why is her name seemingly forever linked with questions about her morality (or lack thereof)? To address this question, we must go back to the first mention of her in the New Covenant writings, and to a few inferences drawn from some of what is stated there (and some assumptions made by what is not stated in the text).
The first mention of this woman named Mary is found in Luke 8:2-3. Jesus and the Twelve "were going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God" (verse 1) during His early Galilean ministry. We are then told in verse 2 that there were also "some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses" who were journeying with Jesus and the Twelve on this preaching tour, and that these women "were contributing to their support out of their private means" (verse 3). These women who were healed of various afflictions were able to travel about freely and were clearly financially independent, for they had the means to supply support to Jesus and the apostles. Three of these women are named in the text by Luke: "Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others" (vs. 2-3; cf., Mark 15:41). Mary, who was listed first (which generally indicates a position of prominence), "was called Magdalene," which most scholars feel indicates she was "from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 268]. It was just three miles north of the town of Tiberias. Edersheim, in his classic work "Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah," wrote that the town of Magdala was famous for its dye works and its fine woolen textures. It was a trade city noted for "shipbuilding, fishing, fish curing, and agriculture," all of which "brought great wealth to the city. Its moral corruption was also notorious" [Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 105]. Thus, Magdala was, at that time in its history, a "flourishing but corrupt city" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1087]. There is very little left of this great trade city today, and "Rabbis later attributed the fall of the city to licentiousness (Midrash on Lamentations II.2), so bad was its reputation" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 288]. Some have made the assumption that because Mary "was called" by the name of this city (i.e., Mary Magdalene), that she must have previously embraced the morally corrupt and licentious ways of her town.
Adding fuel to this speculation is the fact that Luke identifies this Mary not only as the one "called Magdalene," but that she is also the woman "from whom seven demons had gone out" (vs. 2). The number seven may be either literal or figurative, the latter representing a "full and complete" possession of this woman impacting multiple areas of her life. "It was a specially aggravated form of possession, with paroxysms of delirious frenzy, like those of the Gadarene demoniac" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 281]. "The presence of seven demons in one person indicates special malignity - see Mark 5:9 and Matthew 12:45" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 164]. "Demon possession was at that time associated with both physical and moral-spiritual sickness. ... The reference to 'seven demons' probably emphasizes either the seriousness of her condition (Luke 8:30) or the recurrent nature of it (Luke 11:26)" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 288]. Dr. James Hastings writes, "In Jewish parlance, immorality was a form of demonic possession, and, just as the grace of the Holy Spirit is called 'sevenfold,' so sevenfold possession might signify complete abandonment to the dominion of unclean passion. It is possible that Mary had been a harlot, that Jesus had rescued her from her life of shame, and that she followed Him out of gratitude. ... Magdala had an evil reputation, and was destroyed for harlotry, so that Mary 'Magdalene' might be equivalent to Mary 'the harlot.' It is only fair, however, to add that many regard this as very precarious" [Hastings' Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 139-140].
Although a good many scholars are reluctant to embrace these assumptions as fact, nevertheless a significant number of biblical scholars over the centuries have accepted and even promoted this view of Mary of Magdala, and from that view it is but a short leap to identifying her as the "sinful woman" Luke had previously mentioned in Luke 7:36-50, who came into the house where Jesus was dining and "began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with perfume" (vs. 38). This unnamed woman was obviously well-known in the city as "a sinner," which generally indicated, at that time, a prostitute. "The word is clearly used as pointing to the special sin of unchastity. The woman was known in the city as plying there her sinful and hateful calling" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 279]. It is popularly thought today that Mary Magdalene and this "sinful woman" were one and the same person, and that she was, by the fact of her being healed and forgiven by Jesus, a "rescued social derelict." This connection, however, was not immediately raised in the early church, but came much later. About this, "the earliest Fathers of the Church are silent. Origen discusses and rejects it. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine are doubtful. It first gained general acceptance through the authority of Gregory the Great" [ibid]. Gregory (540-604) was the Bishop of Rome, and later became Pope Gregory I. It was largely through his efforts that this narrative of Mary's life was embraced by the Western Church (although it was later rejected by the English reformers).
Was this "sinful woman" the same as Mary of Magdala? Some believe they were the same person; some are adamantly opposed to this view as little more than baseless slander. "It is impossible to decide the question positively. One modern commentator of distinction quaintly pleads for Gregory the Great's rather arbitrary theory, by suggesting that there is no sufficient reason to disturb the ancient Christian belief which has been consecrated in so many glorious works of art; but, in spite of this, the opinion which considers 'the woman which was a sinner' the same person as 'the Magdalene,' is really based on little else than on a medieval tradition" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16 - Luke, pt. 1, p. 176]. The British Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762-1832) stated, "I conclude therefore that the common opinion is a vile slander on the character of one of the best women mentioned in the Gospel of God" [Clarke's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 5, p. 417]. The majority of modern scholars would probably agree with this position. "These unfair aspersions have become popular, but they are not at all accurate" [Edith Deen, All the Women of the Bible, p. 204].
Outside of the four gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this particular Mary, who was from Magdala, is never mentioned. Yet, she is one of the most notable of the women who followed Jesus during His years of ministry, and perhaps the most notable of them all during the time of His death, burial, and resurrection, for upon her was bestowed a favor by Jesus that none of the others received (more about that in a moment). When we next meet Mary Magdalene, it is at the crucifixion of Jesus. "There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome. When He was in Galilee, they used to follow Him and minister to Him; and there were many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem" (Mark 15:40-41; cf., Matthew 27:55-56; John 19:25). Notice again that she is almost always mentioned first in any list of these women (with the exception of the John 19:25 passage, where Mary the mother of Jesus has that distinction). "This emphasis on Mary Magdalene suggests that she was highly revered in the memory of early Christians" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 865].
After the grueling experience of watching the brutal execution of Jesus, at the side of the Lord's mother, and the crowd dispersing, this woman saw Joseph of Arimathea coming to claim the body of Jesus. He took Jesus and placed Him in his own new tomb, and then rolled a stone against the entrance (Mark 15:42-46; Matthew 27:57-60). Mark informs us that two of the women (Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses) remained with Joseph this entire time, "looking on to see where He was laid" (Mark 15:47). Then, once Joseph entombed Jesus "and went away," we find "Mary Magdalene there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave" (Matthew 27:61), keeping watch over the site. This loyal woman whom Jesus had redeemed from demonic possession, followed Him faithfully, stood at the cross through the horrible ordeal of His crucifixion, remained with His body until it was buried, and then, along with the other Mary, sat opposite the grave keeping watch after everyone else had departed. What devotion!!
Sabbath had come, however, so at some point that evening they returned to their fellow disciples. "Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave" (Matthew 28:1). Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene was accompanied by "Mary the mother of James, and Salome," and that they "brought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen" (Mark 16:1-2). Luke 24:10 informs us that "Joanna and Mary the mother of James, and also the other women" were with Mary Magdalene as they came early to the tomb. John 20:1, however, only mentions Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb "on the first day of the week, while it was still dark." Thus, there are some differences in the recounting of the event among the four writers, which has led to some interesting attempts by biblical scholars to explain and reconcile these differing details. The most likely explanation, it seems to me, is that in the early morning hours, a number of the women followers of Jesus, perhaps at varying times (some just before sunrise, some just after), made their way to the tomb to minister to the body of their Lord. The primary focus of each writer, however, was on Mary Magdalene.
What they all discovered upon their arrival was that the stone had been rolled away. John seems to indicate that Mary Magdalene may have been the very first to arrive (since it was still dark), and that when she saw the stone rolled away, she immediately ran and told Peter and John that someone had come and taken away the body of Jesus, and she didn't know where they had taken Him (John 20:2). Peter and John ran to the tomb and found her report to be true: Jesus was gone! "So, they went away again to their own homes" (John 20:10; cf., Luke 24:12). At this point, they were all confused. They didn't know what to think. So, they just all left. It may have been at this time that some of the other women (named by the other writers) came along, just after the sun had risen. They too discovered what Mary Magdalene had found: an empty tomb. But now something else occurred: they were told by an angel (or two angels, although it appears only one spoke) that Jesus had risen, and that they were to go tell the apostles the good news. This, of course, they hastened to do! Interesting that it was women who first proclaimed the Gospel (Good News) that Jesus had risen!! However, at this point, none had yet actually seen Him. Jesus reserved that for one person alone: Mary Magdalene!
"Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons" (Mark 16:9). The account of this first appearing is found only in John's gospel record (John 20:11-18). This is a beautiful story of a loving Savior comforting His loving and beloved disciple! Volumes have been written about this encounter, and each sentence has been examined in great depth by commentators. Yet, a simple reading of the passage with a sympathetic heart is enough to bring tears to our eyes and joy to our hearts! It is to her that He first shows Himself, and it is to her that He gives the charge to inform the others of His impending ascension to the Father (vs. 17). It is she who first physically embraces the risen body of Jesus (vs. 17a). After this blessed reunion, "Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord,' and that He had said these things to her" (vs. 18). "Mary Magdalene had a more significant role at the time of the Resurrection than any other woman. ... Her long watch by the grave in the early morning had been an evidence of her faith. Because of her faith she became the first witness to the Resurrection" [Edith Deen, All the Women of the Bible, p. 202]. "No woman ever ran to deliver a more triumphant message!" [ibid, p. 204]. "Mary Magdalene was the first to tell the story of the resurrection" [David Lipscomb, A Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 311]. Dr. Robert Hawker (1753-1827), a famous Anglican Vicar, theologian, and author, wrote, "She was the first, we are told, that had the honor and holy joy afforded her, to have an interview with Christ after He arose from the dead. It was not Peter, nor James, nor John, no, nor any of the whole college of the apostles, to whom Jesus first showed Himself. A woman is marked out for this peculiar privilege, yea, and such a woman as one might have supposed would have been not the first upon the occasion; for we are told that Jesus had cast out of her seven devils!" [Poor Man's Commentary, e-Sword]. "To a woman was this honor given to be the first that saw the risen Redeemer, and that woman was NOT His mother!" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 986].
At a time in history when women were considered to be lesser than men, and that would be putting it graciously, Jesus made no such distinction. Indeed, He boldly declared by His actions just the opposite. One would have to be blind not to see the powerful place of women throughout Scripture as they actively and faithfully served their Lord and His cause. Those who would diminish the service of women in the church, or restrict that service, have clearly failed to perceive the will of the Master! "Christian women have at all times counted it an honor to be able to serve their Master with their substance and with their service. We see here (in the story of this woman) an emancipation of woman in the noblest sense of the word, and the beginning of the service of women in the Church of Christ, and at the same time a decided triumph of the evangelical spirit over the limitation of Jewish rabbinism" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible - The NT, vol. 1, p. 307]. "St. Luke, in several places, especially notices the love and devotion of women to the Master. The present position of women is owing to the teaching of the Lord and His disciples. Fellow-heirs with men of the kingdom of heaven, it was obvious that they could no longer occupy on earth their old inferior and subordinate position. The sex, as a sex, has made a noble return to the Master" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16 - Luke, pt. 1, p. 200]. Jesus Christ proclaims their liberation from societal and sectarian shackles! Oh, that more of us today in the church would do the same!!
Let me close this study of Mary of Magdala with a quote from a beloved leader in our own Stone-Campbell Movement: Guy N. Woods. He wrote, "What a magnificent woman she was! She lives in history as one of the most devoted disciples the Lord ever had. She is representative of that class of women - and may their tribe increase - who always put the kingdom of God first in their hearts and lives and who make all else subservient and secondary to its interests" [A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 423]. As Edith Deen noted, Mary of Magdala is "characteristic of woman at her best" throughout Bible history [All the Women of the Bible, p. 204]!! Amen!
From a Minister in South Carolina:
Sir, I have recently been introduced to your writings, and I find them fascinating and one of the most accurate body-of-teaching within our beloved Church of Christ brotherhood. Would you please add me to your mailing list?! Thank you!
From a Reader in Tennessee:
My preacher said that I could receive your Reflections articles free by email. If that is possible, I would like to begin receiving them. Thank you ahead of time for adding me to your subscription list.
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Al, I've just read your article "A Giving God of Ahavah: Questions on the Nature of Love as Perceived from Biblical Greek & Hebrew" (Reflections #870), and you have given me a semi-truck's worth of food to chew on!! Thank you, brother! May our Father give you the health to continue to bless us. I really appreciate you!
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Al, what a great article ("A Giving God of Ahavah")! We can all show our love by giving - and not necessarily just money. Encouraging people is also a gift of love, and a few kind words can work magic!
From a Reader in Alaska:
Your clarifying of the difference between action and emotion really hit home, as it is an issue that I've periodically wondered about and struggled with along a continuum, trying to "like" as much as I practice "loving" someone, especially those who actively seem to do their best to harm me. Also, the giving aspect of "love," from the Hebrew concept of the word, surely must have been clear to those first disciples, but I concur with you: I'd also missed that foundational aspect of the love dynamic. One unexplored implication of this is how that OT concept actuates the second part of the Greatest Commandment - i.e., to "love" others is to "give" to others, no matter what. Once again, the multi-layered simplicity of Christ's teachings defy easy understanding, even among those seriously trying to "get" them and to "live" them out. Thanks so much for your ministry, Al. I have forwarded this particular issue of your Reflections ("A Giving God of Ahavah") to other believers, as it is key to our response to all that Jesus commanded. I don't know if you keep track of your all-time, most-read Reflections articles, but this one surely must eventually rank among the TOP as being among the most widely-applied challenges for those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and Master!! Blessings to you!
From a Minister in Nebraska:
Dear Al, I appreciated your thoughts about the shades of meaning between "phileia" and "agape" in Greek from your article "A Giving God of Ahavah." It seems to me that these words are sometimes used almost interchangeably, especially in the Gospel of John. I looked up that exchange between Jesus and Peter on the beach in John 21 in the Syriac version, and found that the translators used the same word for "love" in their language throughout (just as we do in English), even though the Greek of that text uses two words: "phileo" and "agapao." Two things occur to me after reading your article: FIRST: The Hebrew language, while having fewer words for all the shades of love, focuses more on stories and concrete examples or illustrations to express what love is like. They were less analytical and more about "story," if I could put it that way. To understand God's love, one would tell the stories of how God expressed that love. Hosea 1-2 and chapter 11, with the analogies of undying love for a wayward wife and the undying love for a child, describe God's love in the form of story.
SECOND: I don't know if you are aware, but a unique word for God's love in the Old Testament writings is "Hesed." It says that Yahweh's "hesed" endures forever. This is what God declared about Himself when He stated at Sinai that the iniquities of the fathers are visited to the third and fourth generations, but His steadfast love (hesed) is to the thousands. What a contrast! I have learned that this word has no exact equivalent in our language. It can be rendered "steadfast love," "loyalty," "covenant hope," or even "mercy." When the Gospels quote the OT phrase, "I desire mercy over sacrifice," the word used in Hebrew is "hesed." God's everlasting "hesed" is what keeps Him from giving up on His whore of a bride (Israel). He was angry due to His love ("ahavah"), but He was also faithful due to His love ("hesed"). Thank you, Al, for sharing your insights!
From an Author/Evangelist in Florida:
Brother Al, If you were asked to preach a sermon on "Passion," how would you outline it? I'm looking for ideas for a lesson I've been asked to give on Sunday, August 20th at the 40th Anniversary Reunion of the South Pacific Bible College in Tauranga, New Zealand. Thanks for any thoughts you may have on this as I make my preparations. Al, you are truly one of God's precious and passionate servants, and I wanted to let you know that I have been educated and blessed by reading and studying your book "From Ruin to Resurrection: Reflections on the Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny."
I know people approach topics in different ways, a lot of which depends on what they want to convey, their own background and understandings, their audience, their own style, etc. If it were me presenting this lesson, especially given that it is in the setting of a Bible college reunion, I would begin by briefly reviewing the Hebrew and Greek terms employed in Scripture, and then noting that this term (which describes an intense emotion) can be applied in many ways, both positively as well as negatively, depending upon what one is passionate about. The sufferings of Jesus are often referred to as "The Passion of Christ." The word "passion" may also bring to mind strong sexual feelings: a passionate kiss or embrace, etc. Sports fans are often so passionate about their teams that fights erupt in the stadiums. This would all be introductory in nature, however. What I would stress is that the Lord desires us to be passionate people -- but about the right things! If we are passionate about the things of this world, we distance ourselves from Him. If we strive to be passionate about the things of His Kingdom, then we must increasingly distance ourselves from the lures of the darkness around us. I guess my primary focus for the sermon would be: What does GOD want us to be passionate about in our lives? I would choose several things (keeping in mind your audience and their circumstances) and show how they can be practically and intensely emotionally devoted to those items, all to HIS glory and to the upbuilding of OTHERS. [Note: these were just a few thoughts I shared with this brother prior to his departure for NZ. I also thanked him for his kind words about my book, and thanked him for his own writings, which have been helpful to me personally over the years.] -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Al, I am now 90 years old, and have been a member of the "Churches of Christ" for 70 years. My favorite local congregation, which I thought was already "liberal" enough, has gone and done it - they have women serving the Lord's Supper, leading prayers, leading singing, and now they are installing "deaconesses." I know, I know - I probably can't find any "Scripture" against these things, but I don't like it. My traditions are difficult to change! Tell me if I'm wrong!
This brother is right: one's cherished traditions are indeed very difficult to change, if, in fact, they need to be changed (as many do). Change is hard; quite often we "don't like it." That is a natural response. More than just changing what we do, though, is the reality that we need to change the way we view what we do, and why we do it. Our traditions, although they may in time come to be cherished, are NOT in themselves the substance of our faith and worshipful expression. How one manifests one's love and faith CAN change from culture to culture; indeed, such changes must take place to make the expressions of our love and faith relevant to our own time and place. The Lord constantly calls us to reconsider our "traditions" and to embrace TRUTH instead. Jesus did this constantly with the religious of His own day ... and they "didn't like it" either! Aligning our attitudes and actions with Truth can be very, very uncomfortable, especially for those who have spent their lives aligning them with the rigid traditions of a particular religious denomination, or some sect or faction thereof. Part of the mission of the Messiah was to move people away from the countless rigid laws and traditions of a religion, and bring them into the loving, gracious freedom of a relationship with the Father! In such a Family of Faith, nobody is excluded from expressing love and devotion to the Father, or limited in how they may encourage one another. And yes, that Family includes male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, young and old, etc. We are ALL part of One Body; we are all part of that royal priesthood; servants in His Sanctuary: indeed, we, individually and collectively, ARE His Sanctuary! This reader in Oklahoma is right: there are NO Scriptures that prevent women from being active servants of the Lord and their fellow disciples. In point of fact, their service is encouraged and validated in Scripture! I have written extensively about this over the years, but since he mentioned serving the Lord's Supper, let me share what I have written about that particular practice, as I know some struggle with it (due to their traditions). That article is titled "The Trespass of the Tray Pass: Is Serving Communion Gender Exclusive?" (Reflections #646). For further studies dealing with the other issues this brother mentioned, I would refer him to the 21 articles I have under the heading "Role of Women" on my Topical Index page for my Reflections. I pray these studies will prove helpful and encouraging to this reader. -- Al Maxey
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