Mark Stevens acknowledges Mary Magdalen as one of the saints of the church but finds the use being mad of her as one of the principal pretexts for women’s ordination both silly and unbibilcal

We know very little about Mary Magdalen.’ So Susan Haskins begins her book, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor [Harper Collins, 1993; and recently reissued in paperback]. Despite this frank admission, the modern bibliography of ‘Magdalen Studies’ is extensive: Helen Garth, Victor Saxer, Marjorie Malvern, Katherine Jansen; the list goes on.

Down the ages, the woman about whom little is known has been accorded a rich and complex biography. In art she has been represented variously, from the frankly lascivious (Peter Paul Rubens) to the heart-rendingly tragic (Matthias Grünewald).

The Magdalen, like the Beloved Disciple – elusive and mysterious, part person and part symbol – has generated a devotion in the affective piety of Christians which cannot be ignored. But Haskins is undoubtedly right: we know very little.

Paucity of information notwithstanding, the Magdalen has most recently become a feminist icon. No less a figure than Bishop Tom Wright has been cited as a Magdalenite; one whose supposes, on the precedent of the ‘apostola Apostolorum,’ that women should be bishops.

It is time, then, to look again at what the Bible says about this shadowy figure, and at what we can conclude from it.

Biblical accounts

Our first, though rather negative, witness is Paul. In a list of various resurrection appearances (which do not include women) [1 Cor. 15.5], Paul is quite clear that the first to see the Risen Lord was Peter [cf. Luke 24.34].

In Mark’s gospel (now usually thought to be the earliest), Mary of Magdala is first mentioned by name at 15.40 where, together with Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome, she is singled out from a wider group of women who watch the crucifixion from some distance.

The same trio go to the tomb (no spices for the anointing of the body, note!); they find the stone rolled away and are addressed by a young man dressed in white who gives them a clear charge to inform the disciples and Peter (i.e. the apostolic college with its appointed head) that the risen Lord will meet them in Galilee. But the women are disobedient: they depart in fear and tell no one.

Matthew clings closely to Mark. Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary,’ (probably the ‘Mary the mother of James and Joses’ at 27.56) come to the tomb without spices. They receive the same message as in Mark, this time from ‘the angel of the Lord.’ On their way joyfully to inform the disciples, they encounter Jesus himself, who gives them a similar instruction. They worship the risen Lord and clasp his feet (cf. the noli me tangere of John). These same women presumably give a message from Jesus to the eleven, who go to meet him in Galilee at a pre-ordained rendezvous.

Luke and John

It is Luke who mentions Mary of Magdala earliest in his narrative. She is one of a group of women who have been healed by Jesus and who provide for him (and the disciples?) from their private resources [8.2–3]. Luke gives us brief details of two of them: Mary, ‘from whom seven devils had been driven out,’ and Joanna, ‘the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza.’ Much was made in the long centuries of medieval tradition of the Magdalene’s original infirmity. In our own day Richard Bauckham has single-handedly graced Joanna (alias ‘Junia’) with a legend quite as rich and fanciful.

In Luke an unspecified group of women go to the tomb to anoint the body. They see two men in shining garments, who remind them of the prophecies of Jesus about rising from the dead. Mary Magdalen, Joanna and Mary the mother of James are then named as among a group of women who tell the apostles of the apparition and the empty tomb. The disciples are incredulous; but Peter (less so, perhaps, than the rest?) goes to the tomb and verifies the testimony of the women. According to Luke, the first disciples actually to see the Risen Lord are Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road (or Peter [24.34], if the appearance to him preceded theirs).

John’s is the fullest account; but it is difficult to reconcile it with the Synoptics. In John 20, it is Mary of Magdala alone who comes to the tomb in the dawn darkness of the first day of the week. She finds the tomb empty, and runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. She does not tell them that the Lord is risen – a fact of which, at that point, she remains ignorant. She tells them rather: ‘They have taken the Lord away from the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. The first to see the displaced grave clothes is the Beloved Disciple; but the first to enter is Peter. The first testimony to resurrection faith is that of the Beloved Disciple. ‘He saw and he believed.’

The encounter of Mary with her risen Lord, beautiful and compelling as it is, with its solemn charge to tell the brethren that ‘I ascend to my Father…’ is subsequent to the revelation of the resurrection to Peter and the Beloved Disciple. That presumably is why it is a declaration by the Lord about his Ascension, not about his rising from the dead.


Modern feminist legend ignores most of these facts.

Paradoxically their story is based on the long ending of Mark [16.9ff], which most modern scholars agree to be a later interpolation. It goes like this:

When, during the Passion, the Twelve and the other male disciples deserted Jesus, the women, including Mary, stood by him. It was to Mary that Jesus first showed himself after the Resurrection. She took the resurrection message to the cowardly men, who at first refused to believe her because she was a woman. But you cannot keep a good woman down.

The criteria set out in Acts for a valid apostleship make it clear that the Magdalene was a true apostle (more than that, she was ’apostola Apostolorum,’ the first of the Apostles). So the Church of England ought to have women bishops.

Almost none of this is sustainable.

Lack of evidence

In the Synoptics, Mary is not alone at the tomb, and in only one of them (Luke) is it explicit that the three women are messengers of the Resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Even there they are bidden by men in dazzling apparel, not commissioned by Jesus himself. It is true that Luke indicates incredulity on the part of those who have not yet seen the evidence; but some manuscripts (borrowing, perhaps, from Paul or John) mitigate this by the eagerness of Peter to go to the tomb and see for himself. There is, in any case, no suggestion that the other disciples (why are they assumed to be exclusively male?) disbelieved the women because they were women, but rather, as the text makes clear, because their story seemed incredible.

Matthew does, it is true, record a commissioning of the women by Jesus himself. But context establishes beyond question that, by comparison with the Great Commission at 28.19, theirs is a limited task. The women are sent to the disciples (‘my brethren’). It is the brethren (‘the eleven’), by contrast, who are sent to all the world.

The Magdalen’s role

Mary, of course, is famously the lone figure at the tomb in John’s account; but John does not make her the messenger of the Resurrection to the Twelve. The message she gives to Peter and the Beloved Disciple is her own surmise from the disturbance of the stone; it is conjecture, not kerygma. The Risen Lord later gives her instructions to tell ‘my brethren’ about his forthcoming ascension – but not the resurrection or the empty tomb, about which they already know.

The end of John’s gospel contains an interesting trope about the relationship between seeing, touching and believing. This reaches its denouement with the saying at 20.29 (’blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’). A pattern emerges: the Beloved Disciple believes, but has not seen; the Magdalen sees the Risen Lord, but at first does not know him. Later she is forbidden to touch him; Thomas sees, touches and believes. In this pattern, priority, in every sense, is given to John and not to Mary.

None of this, I am afraid, is any help at all to the modern Magdalen enthusiasts. Nor do ingenious deductions from Acts 1.21–22 carry much weight. Those who think Mary uniquely qualified for apostleship need to ask themselves why the lot fell on Matthias.

The facts speak for themselves: As far as we know Mary was not the first to see the Risen Lord, nor the first to proclaim the resurrection. And when it came to choosing a successor to one of the Twelve, she was not even on the list.

Any attempt to claim her as an authority for women bishops can only be characterized as mythopoeic fundamentalism.