MIRIAM OF MAGDALA: WITNESS AND DISCIPLE…

Carmen Bernabé Ubieta has a doctorate in Biblical Theology. She is at the present time a professor at the Jesuit University in Bilbao

(Interview by Javier Pagola / DEIA – BILBAO)


How has the memory of Mary Magdalene been preserved?

-The four canonical gospels are very sparse in data. They are texts which do not narrate everything that happened but only that which, at the time of the written recording, was considered necessary for the faith of the communities. They were a collection received from various traditions and were applied to the new moments in which they are written. The writings are narrated from the point of view of the men and, thus, women are, for the most part, invisible or only appear in very significant and important situations. Therefore, what the Gospels tell about Mary of Magdala is little, but very important.

Where do the Gospels speak of Magdalena?

-Magdalena appears in the final chapters of the four Gospels, in the passion narratives, which are very old, and in those of the resurrection. Apart from that, she is only mentioned in chapter 8, 3 of the Gospel of Luke, where she appears, along with the Twelve and other women, accompanying Jesus who is walking from town to town and announcing the Good News.

What is said of her?

-Various fundamental things: that she was a disciple since the beginning of the mission of Jesus in Galilee, who witnessed his death and burial; that she was the recipient of an apparition of the Risen One and sent by Him to announce His new way of living; and that she was preeminent among women disciples.

What does all this contain in meaning?

-The things which are said about the disciples affect her. There are two verbs which summarize the attitude of the disciple: to follow Jesus, and to serve. She shared with Jesus and the other disciples his charism and bore the stigma, the “sanbenitos” which was attributed to the countercultural group of Jesus, among them, being drunkards and gluttons (eating a lot??). Because she is a disciple from the beginning, she turns her eyes to the principle of Jesus’ pretension, revises everything she heard and learned from him. Women, in that society and time, could not testify before the courts, but Magdalena was a witness to the community of the death of Jesus and the fate of his body which was taken down from the cross. Being a recipient of an appearance of the Risen One gave her authority. Thus, Mary Magdalene has community relevance and preeminence in the group of women, and appears to be the first one on almost all the lists in which women are mentioned. Magdalene was an apostle, sent to announce that Jesus had conquered death and that his cause should be continued. Rábano Mauro, bishop of the ninth century called Magdalena “apostle of the apostles” because she received the first apparition of the Risen One and was sent to announce the news to Peter and the disciples.

Where was Jesus buried? Why do Magdalena and the other women appear near his grave?

-There is discussion among several exegetes about what happened to the body of Jesus. Crossan assures us that he was not buried; his body, that of a person executed outside the city, was eaten by dogs and his bones thrown into a common grave. There are those who affirm, based on the references to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, that the Sanhedrin had a grave where they could deposit the bodies of the executed to avoid legal contamination. But in the four gospels there is an unanimous tradition: the one of the early visits of women to the place where Jesus had been lain. It is a story which attempts to capture in a plastic way the faith of the communities. The form of that text derives from the ancient —and still current—custom, of performing mourning rituals, which as well are known for those —especially women—talking with the deceased loved ones. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, of the second century, says that “they would do what women do”, that is, cry, remember, grieve and console each other. The issue of grief became dangerous in antiquity and there were laws that regulated it. It is in that climate, that in our story the angels convince the women that there is no need to mourn for Jesus. They, in their mourning activity, ()experience that Jesus is not dead. And they assume a fundamental role: they are going to tell it. This expresses the faith of the community, the experience that Jesus was not a prisoner of death.

What happened to the memory of Magdalena after the second century?

The apocryphal gospels and other later writings do not say much about historical figures. Rather, they reflect the attitudes and the search of the different groups which formed the primitive Christianity. Symbolization processes occured. And, as the public presence and the institutionalization of the communities advanced, within them alluded, and even confronted, the authority of Pedro and Magdalena in rivalry, to resolve conflicts, in favor of men and women.

Are there some more expressive texts of all that?

  • Women’s authority to preach and speak their word in the assemblies was soon discussed, using terms from philosophy, Stoic, Neoplatonic or Gnostic. In the early Gospel of Philip appeared, in a symbolic way, Jesus giving Maria Magdalena a kiss on the mouth, not with erotic motivation, but as a way to communicate his spirit and, with it, the authority to speak and teach. In the second century, the so-called Gospel of Marycompiled dialogues of disciples, among them Magdalena, with the Risen One. Mary transmits the words of the Lord, but Peter asks: “How could the Lord tellthe women what he has not told to us?” And Magdalena cries, while Leví defends her authority. And in the same second century, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the latter being founded on the authority she had received from Paul, is baptized and teaches (to?) herself. In the book Pistis Sophia of the third century, about 70 questions are asked of Jesus, most of the time by women, until a man says: “Lord, tell the women to be quiet, so that we may speak” and Jesus defends the right of women to question and teach. At the bottom of all these texts is clearly evident the definitionof gender roles in those formative moments of Christianity.

When does the replacement of the figure of Magdalena with others, begin?

-It was something progressive, from the 4th century onwards. First, the figure of Magdalena was replaced with that of Mary of Nazareth. And soon all the feminine figures of the New Testament were mixed, in an indiscriminate plural: they were all called Mary. The lack of creativity with respect to the feminine names did not happen only in the Jewish area, where Mary or Miriam was the most common name, but also among the Romans, who did not spend much time to give different names to women, but rather nicknames to distinguish them.

With whom among the other women has Mary of Magdala been mistaken?

– Mary Magdalene was identified with Mary of Bethany, and then she with the woman who anointed Jesus with a perfume, of whom Luke says that she was a sinner. In the seventh century, Gregory the Great identified Magdalene with the repentant sinner of Luke. The Golden Legend of Jacobo de Vorágine, in the thirteenth century presents Magdalena arriving in France and starting to preach, but very soon places her retired away to a cave to do penance. For centuries, that was a recurrent theme both in preaching and in the visual arts. Then, much of the recent literature, without any basis, has created a Magdalena which moves from the position of prostitute to that of the “Lady of.” I do not consider it a big problem if Jesus had been married; there are arguments for and against it. But the gospels do not care about that aspect, nor do they say anything about it. Only in passing do we know that Pedro(Peter) was married.

What effects did the confusion of characters have?

-Her memory was perverted and tamed and with it the legitimation which it supposed for the equality and authority of women in the church. But it must be said that the Eastern Churches never changed the original image of Miriam de Magdala. In the West, it was necessary to wait for the Second Vatican Council. At the Feast of the Magdalene, which is celebrated on July 22, the biblical texts, antiphons and prayers of the liturgy have restored the image of disciple and witness of Jesus, a woman with authority in the church.

The Gospel of Luke says that “women who were cured of evil spirits and diseases accompanied Jesus,” among them “Mary, the so-called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had emerged”. Could the Master have healed or cured Magdalene?

-The ones who followed Jesus were not common women. What is certain is that finding him transformed their lives, even more if the origin of that relationship had been due to situations of difficulty. But Cultural Anthropology allows today to explain that of “the demons”. ‘Being possessed’ could be an unconscious way of protesting situations of suffocation, injustice or lack of freedom. Those women expressed with gestures their suffering, to such an extent that Celso, the Roman historian, calls them “hysterical”. Jesus and his movement offer another horizon of self-understanding.

Where was it located and what was the city of Magdala like?

– Magdala was a city on the shores of Lake Genesaret, the Sea of Galilee. Important archaeological findings of that time period have been made there, Hasmonean and Herodian. It has always been believed that he(WHO?) exaggerated when he said it had 40.000 people, but today it is thought that he did not say it. It was a big city, a crossroads of commercial and cultural routes. Streets and squares have been excavated, the lake port, public toilets and latrines and a synagogue. In a part of that place the Legionaries of Christ have built a church dedicated to the memory of Mary Magdalene. They have erected eight columns bearing the name of women of the gospel and one, without a name, is dedicated to all women “who are of their families and who transmit the faith”. But these columns are in the atrium, outside the Church. Inside it, the columns bear the name of the twelve apostles. The memory of Magdalena which is recovered is that of the caretaker, suffering woman, liberated from the demons represented as the serpent of Genesis, and is proposed as a model for the “young Catholic women”, seen as the support of her family. The memory of the disciple, witness, recipient of an apparition of the Risen One and apostle has disappeared.

Should we be careful, then, with historical memory?

-Of course, recovering a memory is not a naïve task. What memory? Which purpose? The memory of Magdalena has been used both to claim the equality of women in the Church and to seek their submission. I know something very different in Cali, Colombia: The Mary Magdalene group of the Cultural House “Tejiendo sororidades”. They are a group of women who help other women to empower themselves and gain authority. You should see how they handle(interpret? elucidate?) the Bible.

Will the role of women in the Church change?

-If Pope Francisco manages to change some things, it will help a bit. But his anthropology does not seem very different to that of the previous popes. I worry that he continues talking about “complementarity”. What women need is to be treated as and allowed to be adults, and to participate in the process of decision making. As of now women are not represented in the Church. Karl Rahner, the renowned theologian, said: “I do not find in the Scriptures any qualms for the ordination of women.” That is cultural and circumstantial. But, by being ordained, the power to consecrate entails the power to govern and to decide about the life of the church communities. We must go even further: the reform of administrative structures also requires the reform of the priestly ministry.

Translated by Magda Bennásar Oliver

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