Saint Mary Magdalene

There is, alas, an immense amount of nonsense written about St. Mary Magdalene, some of it of quite venerable vintage. For example, one strand of western Christian tradition identifies her with the sinful woman whose story is told in Luke 7:36-50 and therefore asserts that in her pre-conversion days Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or (in the quaint vocabulary of our immediate ancestors) “a fallen woman”.

Thus “Magdalene asylums” or “Magdalene laundries” were (as the oracular Wikipedia tells us) “institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house ‘fallen women’, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution”.

This interpretation is exegetically impossible, since the Lukan text upon which it is based goes on to describe Mary Magdalene in the next breath in 8:1-3 in terms which clearly introduce a new figure. This proves that Luke did not have Mary in mind when speaking about the sinful woman in the preceding story.

Contemporary interpretations of Mary Magdalene are even more bizarre, including the one which makes her Christ’s wife. One suggestion along this line asserts that the wedding in Cana at which Christ was present was His own wedding to Mary Magdalene.

The stupidity of this view is revealed in the very text in which the wedding is described: “On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to marriage, with His disciples” (John 2:1-2).

If Jesus was in fact the groom it was odd that John would say, “Jesus also was invited”. In that case He would not be “invited” since He was the one giving the wedding and issuing the invitations. The suggestion would be comic if it were not blasphemous. Given the amount of verbiage pouring from the pens of those who oppose Christianity, I suppose Mary Magdalene should take such things as a back-handed compliment.

What can we know about the historical Mary Magdalene? I suggest at least three things.

First of all, she was one out of whom Christ had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2). Demon possession in those days manifested itself in obvious and violent ways (compare Mark 8:14f). If alcoholism makes one’s life unmanageable (in the words of AA’s Twelve Steps) then one can imagine that having seven demons would make one’s life quite unmanageable, and this alone would account for the absence of a “Mr. Magdalene” or a husband for Mary of Magdala. Who would want to be married to a lunatic?

Yet when she came to Christ He cast out all seven of her demons and restored her to sanity and to peace. It was in gratitude for this that she did not return to her life or resume her search for husband, family, and respectability, but followed Him around the countryside, supporting Him as best she could out of her own resources, which seem to have abundant.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the primacy of hope. One must never despair and lose hope, however far one has fallen into sin and insanity. The Enemy is always at hand to whisper into our ears that all is lost, that our sins, addictions, past history, and brokenness all mean that we are beyond fixing and utterly without hope.

It is a lie, and Mary Magdalene’s life proves it. If Christ could heal and restore Mary Magdalene with her seven demons, He can heal and restore anyone. Mary Magdalene might well be considered the patron saint of the hopeless.

Perhaps she has something to say to prostitutes after all, as well as to the drug and alcohol addicted, the porn addicted, and any who feel despair dogging their every step. Her story tells us not to despair! No matter how broken one’s life is, Christ can put you back together again, provided you give Him all the pieces.

Secondly, Mary Magdalene was a myrrh-bearer. That is, she was one of the women who looked on from afar and watched as their beloved Lord died in pain (Mark 15:40-41) and made plans to anoint His corpse after it had been laid in the tomb.

It was, frankly, a mad plan. She and some friends bought or brought the spices with the intention of anointing Him, hastening to the tomb before dawn on the assumption that a few Jewish women could persuade hardened Roman soldiers to open a tomb which had been closed and sealed by Imperial authority and roll the sizable stone away from its mouth so that they could perform their women’s work of anointing a body which had already been properly buried (John 19:39-40).

What were the odds of success? They would be lucky if they escaped with a mere cuff on the cheek from the surly and cynical soldiers. Yet they refused to be deterred. They said to each other as they hastened through the breaking dawn, “Who will roll the stone for us from the door of the tomb? (Mark 16:3), showing that they were hardly able to face the unreasonableness of their plan. But such was their love for Jesus that they refused to acknowledge the unlikelihood of success, but pressed on through the morning light.

In this Mary Magdalene reveals the true foundation of Christian life. Our life in Christ is not based upon the cerebral acknowledgement of propositions and doctrines. We do not simply give intellectual assent to a Creed.

Before all that we love a Person, and love Him more than life itself. Many things are built upon this foundation (including assent to a Creed), but the foundation itself is one of love. St. Peter—dear impulsive Peter—got this: “Without having seen Him, you love Him” (1 Peter 1:8). There are many good things and necessary tasks in the Christian life, but none are more important than personal love and devotion to Jesus. Social justice (whatever that means) is very fine.

The poor we always have with us, and whenever we will, we can do them good (Mark 14:7). But more important is our love for Jesus—a love which transcends reasonableness, and which defies anything which stands in the way between us and our Lord.

Finally, Mary Magdalene was isapostolos, “equal to the apostles”. A few people were honoured with this title in the Church’s history, people responsible for the conversions of nations and multitudes. Nina of Georgia was so honoured, as was Constantine the Great, to whom the Church showed its gratitude with a generous bestowal of liturgical honour.

But Mary Magdalene? Which nations or multitudes did she ever convert? (Stories of her speaking with the Emperor with an egg in her hand and of travelling into France are more devotional adornment than reliable history.) In fact she was honoured with this title because she obeyed when Christ sent her to the apostles, the “sent ones” (apostolos means “sent”).

And note: the apostles did not believe her (Mark 16:11). Did she therefore fail in her mission? No: for she was not commanded to persuade them, but simply to tell them, and in that she obeyed and succeeded. She was given this one simple task, and this she carried out in perfect faithfulness. She went as one sent to the sent ones, and was isapostolos, the first one sent out with the Good News of the Resurrection.

In this she encourages us also in our little lives and small obediences. We may never achieve great status in the Church as did the apostles, or do great exploits which assure us of a place in history books or on icon-screens. Christ may not command us to convert nations, or walk in the ecclesiastical lime-light.

The tasks He gives us are comparatively tiny and seemingly insignificant. We may only be commanded to go bring a word to others who then go on to achieve great things and win high status. But if we humbly obey and carry out His will, this will assure our reward as well. Christ does not measure as the world measures.

Success and fame are not the issue or the prize—obedience to Christ is. Mary Magdalene was isapostolos because she fulfilled the little task Christ gave her, and we will win our rewards for similar obedience.

In this day of confusion over gender roles, Mary Magdalene may well point the way home, revealing what true strength looks like, acting as a counter-weight to the image of the angry, strident feminist often appearing in the news. St. Mary is thus the true feminist, the authentic woman of strength.

She shows that true strength comes from repenting before Christ, from loving Him with one’s whole heart and soul, and from obeying whatever tasks He sets us. Mary Magdalene is pre-eminently a saint for our times, and we have never needed such a feminist more than we do today.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Mary Magdalene Reading,” by Cosimo de Piero, painted ca. 1500-1510.

How Should We Read And Interpret The Bible?

How should one interpret the Bible? What rules should govern our exegesis? One approach is to tow the party line, a kind of exegetical “be true to your school” approach. This approach looks not primarily to the Biblical text itself, but to one’s ecclesiastical confession, and then reads what that confession says into the text.

For example, a Lutheran might approach the Biblical text of Romans through the confessional lens of the Augsburg Confession and conclude that Paul is there teaching justification by faith alone, exactly (and coincidentally) like Martin Luther would later teach.

Scholars today are unanimous that this is not an adequate or respectful way of dealing with Holy Scripture. Of course one believes what one’s church teaches and of course nothing like complete objectivity is possible. But one should nonetheless strive as best one can to set aside or at least turn down the volume of (say) the Augsburg Confession while one is exegeting the Biblical text and try to read the text on its own terms.

When reading Romans, one listens for the voice of St. Paul, not for the voice of Martin Luther. It is important to realize that “reading the text on its own terms” involves reading the text in its original cultural context. Thus one reads Romans knowing that it was written by a first-century Jew, not a sixteenth-century Catholic.

The task of turning down the volume of one’s confessional statements while exegeting the Bible is easy if one has no such confessional allegiance to those documents. The task is correspondingly difficult the more one gives one’s allegiance to those documents and confessions.

In the case of Orthodoxy, it can be difficult indeed, because our documents and confessions—the Church Fathers, or the consensus patrum—are the lens through which we read the Scriptures. This does not mean that we cannot or should not try to read the Scriptures on their own terms. It just means that for us the exegetical task is more complicated.

For some people, fidelity to the Fathers seems to mean effectively junking the idea of a scholarly reading the Scriptures in their original context and taking the “be true to your (patristic) school” approach. It is certainly an easy way to go. It saves one the work of investigating the cultural background in which the Scriptures were set and allows one to jump straight to the patristic conclusion.

I don’t need to determine how ancient Israelites would have read the text; I just need to read what St. Basil wrote (or perhaps Seraphim Rose’s take on what St. Basil wrote). But fidelity to the Fathers means more than simply agreeing with their exegetical conclusions.

It also means participating in their spirit and phronema, and reading the Scriptures with the same trembling respect that they did. It is this trembling respect that we bring to our exegesis when we insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural context.

Perhaps an example might be helpful. Take what is arguably one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). One asks, “Given the monotheism presupposed in the Book of Genesis, why the plurals? Why did God say, ‘Let us make man in our image’ rather than ‘Let me make man in my image?’ What do such plurals mean in the Old Testament?”

If we read Scripture on its own terms, we must begin by asking the question, “How would the original readers/ hearers of this passage have understood by it?” A refusal to ask this italicized question constitutes a refusal to situate the Scriptures in its own cultural context. It is true that for Christians this context cannot be the place we finish (Christ is where we finish, since He is the telos of the Law; Romans 10:4), but it must be the place from which we start.

As Orthodox in our exegesis we must end with Christ and the Fathers, but we cannot begin there. Exegetically we begin with the original hearers of the texts.

So, beginning in the time in which Genesis was written and read, we must ask, “How would the original readers of this text have understood the plurals? Are there any other times when God found Himself (as it were) not alone in heaven?”

There are indeed a few instances of such plural usage. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (The Greek Septuagint was apparently a little embarrassed at the plural, for it rendered it, “Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?”) Who was God addressing here? Was it simply that He was using what is called “the plural of majesty”, as Queen Elizabeth once did when she famously said, “We are not amused”?

We can begin to find an answer by looking at other passages in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah said that he “saw Yahweh sitting on this throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left, and Yahweh said, ‘Who will entice Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’”

This reference to Yahweh’s divine council is reflected in other Old Testament passages as well. In Job 1:6 we read of the “sons of God” (i.e. the angels) coming to present themselves before Yahweh and Yahweh conversing with them, and in Job 38:7 we read of the sons of God cheering when He first made the world. These “sons of God” are exhorted to ascribe glory and strength to Yahweh in Psalm 29:1.

In Psalm 82:1 the Psalmist says that God has taken His place “in the congregation of God [Hebrew el], in the midst of the gods [Hebrew elohim] He holds judgment”. These “gods” (Hebrew elohim) were clearly His angels, the “sons of God” (Hebrew bene ha-elohim) Job 1:6. In Psalm 89:5-7, we read the same thing: “Let the heavens praise Your wonders, O Yahweh, Your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the sky can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of gods [Hebrew bene elim] is like Yahweh, a God [Hebrew el] feared in the council of the holy ones?”

The idea that a god acted in council and concert with the other gods was common in Mesopotamia. What we have here in the Old Testament is the monotheistic transformation of that cultural commonplace. There is no other deity except Yahweh. His council consists not of fellow-deities, but simply of lesser beings, angels, “sons of gods”.

But the idea that the king always has his council, whether an earthly king or Yahweh the King of heaven, was assumed in both pagan Mesopotamia and monotheistic Israel. It seems clear that it was to this council that Yahweh spoke and referred when making momentous decisions, whether those decisions involved enticing Ahab, sending a prophet like Isaiah to Judah, or creating man in His own image.

The picture of the divine counsel offering input is anthropomorphic, to be sure, as are pictures of Yahweh baring His arm in the sight of the nations, rolling up His divine sleeves before working to redeem Israel (Isaiah 52:10). It constitutes more a cultural backdrop to Yahweh’s acts than it does Scripture’s main message. But it is just this cultural backdrop that we find in Genesis 1:26.

That is where we must begin our exegesis, for that is how the original hearers, long familiar with the concept of Yahweh addressing His council, would have heard it. But although we begin there, we do not end there. All the teaching of the Old Testament forms a pedagogical trajectory, for the Law was a pedagogue to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).

Taught by our Trinitarian experience of the grace of Christ, we ask about the sensus plenior, the deeper hidden meaning of the text. Why did the Hebrew Scriptures preserve such images as God’s divine council, with the resultant use of plurals? Historically this was clearly a cultural vestige of the common Middle Eastern picture of deity. But prophetically it serves as a foreshadowing of the tri-personal God.

The richness of reality that led the ancient authors to speak of a divine council (and in Israel to also use a plural name for God, viz. Elohim) would eventually find fulfillment in our understanding of God as Trinity. If one follows this trajectory of divine majesty it leads us in the end to the insights of the Fathers—in other words, it leads us to Christ.

The ancient instinct was that Yahweh was too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad in the Middle Eastern sky. Just as a king must have his council to be a true king, so Yahweh was too glorious not to be attended by the council of His holy ones. This is why the Old Testament texts spoke of other gods (Hebrew elim) even when they asserted Yahweh’s unique monotheistic status. And this instinct was not wrong.

Later on we discovered that God is indeed too great, powerful, and transcendent to be a solitary Monad. He was Trinity, bursting the bonds of solitary personhood in the effulgence of tri-personal deity. And the roots of this concept found initial and faint adumbration in those Old Testament plurals, as well as in the mysterious references to “the angel of Yahweh”.

One need not therefore toe the party line and shrink from reading the Old Testament in its cultural context. Such a cultural reading is not preferring “Jewish interpretations” to Christian ones as some might think. It is only recognizing that Judaism came before Christianity and the Old Testament before the New.

It is also preferring scholarship to partisanship, for the scholars who recognize that the plurals of Genesis 1:26 refer to Yahweh’s divine council are Christians (e.g. John Walton who teaches at Wheaton, and the authors of the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible). It might be a Jewish interpretation if we stopped in the Old Testament and refused to see that interpretation as one stage in a trajectory that leads ultimately to Christ or denied the Holy Trinity.

But in fact we do not stop there, but go on from the Old Testament interpretation to find the richer sensus plenior in all the Old Testament. This fuller meaning of the text, so well expressed by the Fathers, is its highest meaning, and that which is of most use to us in our walk with God.

In this sense we must begin with the Fathers, in that they reveal Scriptures fullest meaning and the destination to which the Old Testament trajectories are leading.

But the highest does not stand without the lowest, and we must first understand the Old Testament as the message of God to Israel before we can understand it as the message of God to His Church.

If we insist on beginning at the end of our exegetical journey and confuse the sensus plenior for the original sensus, we are poor scholars and show unintentional disrespect for the Scriptures. Exegetical anachronism is not the way to go. If the Fathers teach us anything, they teach us that we must hear what the Scriptures have to say and that we must read them on our knees.

Fr. Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.
The photo shows, “The Magdalene Reading,” by Rogier van der Weyden, painted before 1438.