Apostle to the Apostles

Magdalene Penitent
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo – Florence

Did you know that Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the gospels, more than most of the Apostles. She was present at the crucifixion and was the first witness to the Resurrection (John 20 and Mark 16:9). She was the “Apostle to the Apostles”, an honorific that St. Augustine bestowed upon her in the fourth-century, and possibly he was but repeating a moniker already in use.

Mary Magdalene has long been confused with other women in Scripture also named Mary as well as an anonymous women, the unnamed sinner (commonly thought to have been a prostitute) in Luke 7:36-50.  In time, the identities of all these women were conflated into one in the person of “Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute.” The first written evidence we have of this conflation  of Mary Magdalene being a repentant prostitute comes from Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century.

Pope Gregory the Great, dynamic and reforming Pope contributed to the conflation, and in fact is credited with casting the image of Mary Magdalene, repentant prostitute, in concrete.  In a homily which endures to this day, he wrote:

She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance. — Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII, ca. 591).

One of the more striking images of Mary Magdalene is Donatello’s sculpture located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. Many other images can be seen in this video:

The misidentification of St. Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute was followed by many writers and artists into the 1990s. It is reflected in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

So, today when you celebrate the Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene, take note of the gospel (Jn 20:1-2, 11-18) and remember her true identity is the “Apostles to the Apostles”.

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