Mary Magdalene and Her Journey as a Woman in Christian Leadership
Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity
Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity was only a battle to prove because of her gender identification of woman. Unraveling Mary’s role in various stories of Christian reading demonstrates not only her challenges of being a woman in leadership but can paint a picture for the obvious sexism that Mary faced while being one of Jesus’ most important apostles.
When looking at the Greek texts of Acts of Philip in comparison to the Coptic version of Acts of Philip we see a clear contrast in the power of Mary’s role and the importance in her status in her relationship with Jesus shift as well. In the Greek texts of Acts of Philip, Mary is seen baptizing women, told by Jesus to follow Philip on his mission, an active participant in ending an exorcism ritual, and is an active agent of assisted liberation (Brock.) Mary is depicted as a very powerful force in this version of Acts of Philip. Mary is even told that she is “…courageous and blessed among women,” (Brock) by Jesus after being requested to be Philip’s supporter on his mission, which is considered to place Mary in a higher position of importance out of the two apostles with Jesus’ acknowledgment of flaws in Philip’s character. On the contrary, in the Coptic version of Acts of Philip, Peter and Philip travel together on Philip’s mission (Brock.) The Coptic version virtually follows the same events as seen in the Greek version, but with the complete removal of Mary and her disciple position thus filled with Peter. This outward switch between Mary and Peter can delegitimize Mary’s credibility in her disciple position depending on which version of Acts of Philip is told. The Coptic version makes it harder to actively support and raise awareness of Mary’s importance as one of Jesus’ apostles. Peter’s replacement of Mary not only demonstrates a possible sexist twist on the story of Acts of Philip but also explains why it is difficult for Mary to receive respect in women’s Christian leadership.
In efforts to support Mary Magdalene’s validity to her role in the apostle position, when looking at the Gospel of Mark there is a reference to a group of twelve women as possibly being disciples as they partake in following Jesus and practicing his requests (Boer.) It is also believed that Mark’s concept of discipleship conforms to the Jewish model of discipleship (Boer) in which when it is mentioned that the four women were serving and preparing the twelve disciples’ food, it may be an indication of a discipleship role. Both of these situations mentioned by Mark in the Gospel of Mark can be used to argue validity in Mary’s role as an apostle by portraying equality between gender when it comes to apostle positions. These references to women in possible apostle positions in the Gospel of Mark can conflict with the depiction of the Coptic version of Acts of Philip in efforts to prove that Peter was not the disciple that went with Philip on his missions, but rather Mary.
In relationship to validating Mary Magdalene’s role as an apostle, the verbiage that revolved around Mary’s use of feminine gender language must be analyzed. In Dialogue of the Savior and Apocalypse of James, the authors reference the negative connotations that surround feminine words during Mary’s time (Marjanen.) In Apocalypse of James, Mary is mentioned as taking part in the “obliteration of ‘the works of womanhood’” (Marjanen) meaning that she aided in the negative description of womanhood. This could allude to the idea that Mary could not take the role of an apostle if she was contributing to possible negativity around women in the Christian society during her time. Although, in Dialogue of the Savior it is suggested that Mary would not have been seen “undermining the positive impacts of her own role…on furthering a new ideology of women’s position in society and religious life” (Marjanen.) Knowing that Mary would have gained nothing out of adding negative connotations surrounding feminine words during her time serves as further proof in validating Mary’s role as an apostle as she was the main contributor in trying to change negative feminine language to positive feminine language. Also, the fact that Mary had relations with Jesus is further proof in dismissing the idea of her aid in anti-feminine expression as it is believed that Jesus would not have carried a relationship with an apostle that was working with negative outlooks (Marjanen.) Knowing that there are conflicting viewpoints in regards to how Mary spoke about women is crucial to understand since these contradicting ideas can prevent total comprehension of Mary’s total effect as a woman in Christian leadership.
Mary not only struggled with proving her position as an apostle due to conflicting stories about her, but she also faced attacks directly on her position in Christianity through the Gospel of Paul and the Gospel According to Luke (Hooper.) In the Gospel According to Luke, Mary is attacked as Luke seemed to have been obsessed with Mary’s popularity and potential influence. He worked to rewrite her story by removing her from the resurrection narrative, challenging her mental capacity, and changing her immediate proximity to Jesus (Hooper.) These actions taken by Luke directly affect Mary’s position in Christian leadership and validity in her role as an apostle as it creates a false narrative. Similarly, in the Gospel of Paul, Paul produces a list of apostles, and Mary’s name does not appear on that list. Instead of interpreting this action as Mary not functioning as a true apostle, it is determined as a possibility that Paul had a history of rather “vicious, anti-feminist rhetoric” and had “inherent patriarchal bias” (Hooper.) Knowing that Paul exhibited these qualities exemplifies the possibility that he could have not included Mary’s name on the list of apostles for these reasons.
Outside of continuous contradicting perspectives in regards to what Mary was given credit for in what she may or may not have done in an apostle position can be dismissed as it is proved that Mary is potentially an “apostle of the apostles” (Dunning.) Mary rightfully earned her position as an apostle by her presence at the tomb and crucifixion of Jesus as seen in the Gospel of John. Mary’s immediate presence in this situation not only validates her title of the apostle because of trust in Jesus’ resurrection and sacrifice but can also “increase(s) her prominence significantly” (Dunning.) Following Mary’s presence at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary also delivers the “good news” (Dunning) in regards to Jesus’ return and deems her “a disciple of the Lord” (Dunning.) These words that were used to describe Mary were incredibly powerful, and work to strengthen Mary’s right to her leadership role and emphasize her contributions to women’s leadership in Christianity.
Mary Magdalene is most famously known as being a “redeemed prostitute” (Dunning) when her position in Christianity is referenced. In the Gospel According to Luke, Luke references Mary’s “many demons” (Chilton) which worked to help encourage the Western tradition that paints Mary as a prostitute. Interestingly enough, after the development of the New Testament, stories emerged depicting Mary as a prostitute without any clear evidence (Chilton.) The only argument of Mary possibly having a reputation of holding the title of a prostitute is when she is referenced as “sinful,” although this idea can quickly be dismantled since there are other instances where apostles are seen as “sinful” and not sexualized. Peter calls himself sinful in the Gospel According to Luke, yet he is not assumed to have been a man in prostitution (Chilton.) As a woman in Christian leadership, Mary Magdalene is often referenced as the prostitute in contrast to the apostle. This accusation is incredibly incorrect and is only based on the origin of her gender. Luke’s continuous reference to Mary is nothing less than marginalization as he pushes her into the category of “sinful” woman only due to her gender identification (Chilton.) The Gospel According to Luke, caused immense confusion in the West in how he references Mary and how he introduces her into the story — giving little to no background about Mary and describing her as merely a prostitute.
Mary Magdalene is a very crucial individual in not only Christian leadership but also paved the way for women’s representation in Christianity. The way that critical scholars interpreted Mary’s role in Christianity and then translated that into the Western conception of Mary Magdalene easily doomed how she should have been perceived from the beginning. Unfortunately, we see many different versions of Mary — Greek and Coptic versions of Acts of Philip — serve as an example of how Mary’s importance in Christianity could have been tampered with to concentrate out her importance. Not only is there a complete removal of Mary from one text to another, but the false assumptions made about Mary greatly affected how she was perceived. If Luke had not made it a point to create the conception that Mary was a prostitute through his marginalization of Mary, then Mary would have had a much easier time maintaining respect in her apostle position. The uphill battle that Mary continues to take in today’s society is prevalent since the argument has to be made that she indeed had a right to her title of an apostle.
Mary Magdalene’s religious representation in Christianity is incredibly misconstrued in terms of today’s interpretation of her role even though it can be proven that she deserves every right to her title of apostle. Mary is an incredibly powerful figure as seen by her delivery of Jesus’ return (Dunning,) her baptizing of women (Brock,) her aid in Philip’s mission (Brock,) and many other actions Mary was responsible for. Mary Magdalene paved the way for women’s leadership in Christianity as she faced sexism at its finest and fullest strength. Many different sources had worked against her in terms of allowing proper acknowledgment in her position of apostle and despite these warped writings and references, there is clear proof validating Mary’s position as an apostle. Mary Magdalene is a source of inspiration for women’s leadership in not only Christianity but also all religions due to the battles that she had to and continues to have to face.
Boer, Esther de. The Gospel of Mary beyond a Gnostic and a Biblical Mary Magdalene. T&T Clark International, 2004.
Brock, Ann Graham. Authority, Politics, and Gender in Early Christianity: Mary, Peter, and the Portrayal of Leadership. Harvard University, 2000.
Chilton, Bruce. Mary Magdalene: A Biography. Image Doubleday, 2005.
Dunning, Benjamin H. The Oxford Handbook of New Testament, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Hooper, Richard J. The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene: The Historical Tradition of the First Apostle and the Ancient Church’s Campaign to Suppress It. Sanctuary Publications, 2005.
Marjanen, Antti. The Woman Jesus Loved Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents. Brill, 1996.
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