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Knowing the real Saint Mary Magdalene

Unfortunately, understanding Mary Magdalene is a bit more complicated than it might appear.

Detail from "Repenting Magdalene" (also called "Magdalene and Two Flames", c.1638-43) by Georges de la Tour (

Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene, the Magdalene: whatever you call her, she has been one of the most beloved Catholic saints for almost two millennia.

Artists have painted her portrait. Well, since she probably died in the first century AD, artists such as El Greco and Georges de la Tour have used their imaginations and the traditional symbols associated with her—a skull and less-than-modest clothing—to portray the sort of woman they think she might have been. Artists have also depicted her in paintings of the Crucifixion, where she generally appears weeping and penitent at Christ’s feet.

As is the case for many of the other people described in the Gospels who were Christ’s followers and traveling companions, churches have been dedicated to Mary Magdalene all over the world, from Rome to Arizona. An eighth century tradition that her remains had been discovered in France led to the building of a church which still contains her relics—even if it took a few centuries to finish the construction of the church and even if the relics had to be removed during the French Revolution for their safety.

Writers have written about Mary of Magdala over the centuries too. From Gnostic versions of the Gospels in the early days of the Church to pious legends of the Middle Ages and now to modern fiction, many authors have tried to bend her life story to match their own paradigms. For example, the followers of Gnosticism created their own versions of the Gospels to promote the idea of a “secret knowledge” that only their pantheistic sects possessed, and they put their heretical theology in Mary Magdalene’s mouth. The hagiography of the High Middle Ages embroidered the Gospel narrative with fanciful details about her, as well as other Gospel characters, in a pious but somewhat exaggerated style.

As for modern literature, a faithful Catholic would be better off reading The Da Vinci Hoax for an accurate understanding of her character than wasting time with the popular portrayal of the Magdalene in recent books and movies.

But what do we really know about Mary Magdalene? In the only book we can truly trust, the Bible, she is only explicitly named in a few incidents in the Gospels:

  • She is described as the woman out of whom Jesus cast seven demons (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2).
  • She is listed as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ burial (Matt. 27:56-61, Mark 15:40-47, John 19:25).
  • She is listed as one of the witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:1).
  • She is the first person named in the Gospels to see the Risen Christ (Mark 16:9, John 20:18).

Unfortunately, understanding Mary Magdalene is a bit more complicated than it might appear because she has often been conflated with other women who appear in the Gospels. For example, is Mary Magdalene also the sinful (but unnamed) woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair in a Pharisee’s house in Luke 7:36-50? Is Mary Magdalene the same Mary who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as described in Luke 10:38-42 and John, chapter 11? People have been arguing about whether these passages and the ones explicitly naming Mary of Magdala describe one, two, or three separate women for centuries.

Perhaps the problem is that we want to know more about this mysterious woman who went from being possessed by devils to valiantly standing at the foot of the Cross, remaining until Christ’s burial, and rushing to His tomb on Easter Sunday morning to perform Jewish funeral rites. Her presence in all these events is not trivial. The Romans did crucify women, and executing any and all followers of a convicted traitor was a not uncommon Roman practice.

Many Christian apologists have pointed out over the centuries how inconvenient it was that the first witness to Jesus’ greatest miracle—His Resurrection—was a woman. If the Twelve Apostles had been lying about Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, the last person they would choose to identify as the witness to the event would be a woman, much less a woman who had been possessed. Yet Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose to appear to her first. (There is an ancient tradition that He appeared to His Mother first, but that is not recorded in the Gospels. This would not be surprising since a mother’s testimony would hardly be considered objective.)

This raises an important question: why did God allow Mary of Magdala to become the first witness to the Resurrection? Would it have made a difference if Saint Peter could claim that distinction? Or Saint John? Or anyone else?

Just asking that question makes it clear why Mary Magdalene was the perfect person for God to choose. She was and is the ideal representative for all of us frail and imperfect followers of Christ. We don’t know whether she was poor or rich, famous or unknown, beautiful or ugly, brilliant or uneducated. All we know is that she was liberated from slavery to evil by Jesus Christ Himself, that she was willing to be known as one of His followers even when He was rejected, and that she had compassion for Him in His suffering. Every Christian can try to do as much, and every Christian can hope to become a saint, as she did.

Saint Mary Magdalen, pray for us!

(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted on July 22, 2021.)

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About Dawn Beutner 69 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at


  1. Very good point about Christ’s first appearance to a peripheral person – and a woman – tending to support the veracity of the Gospels. Likewise, as a priest in our parish used to like to suggest, if the Gospels were a work of fiction, the authors would surely have made themselves look better. Yet we see obtuseness, cowardice, insufficient faith, indiscipline etc. Also I might recommend the outstanding “Jesus of Nazareth” but Michael Hesemann, an archaeologist who reflects on many details of the geography and archaeology of the Holy Land that convincingly demonstrate the truth of the Gospels, especially many points that have long been contentious.

  2. I have long had a devotion to St. Mary Magdalene, asking her to pray for me to have a truly penitent heart. My wife and I named our first daughter Mary Magdalene. All of our 3 daughters have the Holy Name of Mary. It’s a custom that came from Spain to have 3 daughters named Mary after the 3 Mary’s who stood at the foot of the Cross. It even has its own feast “Las Tres Marias” on May 27.

    The article says about images of St. Mary Magdalene, “Pius but somewhat exaggerated style”. One must understand that artists are portraying Saints in their state of the Church Triumphant. Not as they looked in the Church Militant

    There is debate on whether St. Mary Magdalene was the woman caught in sin and the woman who washed the feet of Jesus. Tradition holds that the two were the one and same St. Mary Magdalene. The problem is today everything must be questioned negatively.

  3. The transforming power of True Love as gratitude and desire to reflect the holiness in being anointed in same , manifested as daring to anoint The Lord – most of the readers would be familiar that more details are in the writings of visionaries such as Bl.Emmerich and S.G . Cora Evens – in latter , how Magdalene puts trust in her power of seduction ( ? and the spirits behind such ) and how The Lord deals with same with compassion and patience . – Good reflection by the Holy Father , in his role as an agent of hope for situations that seem too far out , calling same back to the mission to convey goodness and gratitude all around , seeing the need that they too might need a bit more anointing of The Truth in charity , as intended by The Church , in Her Mission to be for all nations to the ends of the earth , as given more explicitly in Vatican 11 .

    St. John Paul 11 has mentioned how every contracepting marriage becomes like that of ‘user ‘ relationship , in line with the former life of Magdalene – her Feast Day having been raised now to be more in line with that of the Apostles , a fruit of The Spirit having moved the compassionate heart of our Holy Father .

    Interesting too how the Holy Father avoids mention of the Lord manifesting Himself in glory to His Mother , before appearing to others – The Mother too did not share same with the Apostles at first ; then again , in their Oneness in The Divine Will , same as what Adam and Eve had before The Fall , there would have been no need to mention same – He omitted The Mother , also on the occasion of the mention of not seeing faith in Israel like that of the Centurion , The Mother seen implicitly as part of The Lord Himself , in His Oneness with The Father and not of the adulterous Israel that is to be brought back to true faith and the Reign of the Divine Will .

    May the Spirit and His anointing bless and protect us all in all needy areas through prayers of all repentant holy lives too .

  4. Dawn you score well on your exegesis as does Thomas Ryder. The obvious Gospel inconsistencies lend to their authenticity. Crooks get their story straight to avoid arrest, truth tellers tell it as perceived. Dawn’s four Gospel references are all we can rely on the rest is as she says is conflation. Especially the bizarre tale of her floating in an oarless boat to France. Her choice by Christ however as the first to witness the resurrection does have telling significance. We don’t know if she was a sinner since possession by demons doesn’t require sinfulness. The innocent are also susceptible. Although the tone of Mary’s relationship to Christ, the apparent depth of her love speaks to the kind of love that is typical for the converted sinner, not simply one exorcised. Love is the sole doorway by which to enter the domain of the incomprehensible divinity. Why did he not choose his grieving Mother infinitely more worthy? It’s because the Magdalene was a sinner entrapped in evil until she encountered Christ. This interpretation is consistent with the entire purpose of the Christ event, his passion and death, his rising from the dead.

    • SOL,
      I’ve never heard that distinction. I don’t doubt you, but I’m interested to know where you learned that.

    • SOL is correct, and in this regard unfortunately it seems the Western tradition has done Mary Magdalene a disservice. While it’s at least plausible that the unnamed “sinful woman” of Luke 7 could be Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus (there are clues pointing both ways), exegetically it’s very clear that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany must be regarded as two different women. (Jimmy Akin makes this case very persuasively; I’ve written about this topic myself as well.) Thus, the Eastern tradition is preferable on this topic.

      The Western suspicion that Mary Magdalene must have had a promiscuous sexual past is probably partly based on the fact that Mary Magdalene (unlike Mary of Bethany and pretty much every other woman in the New Testament who is given any kind of identifying information) is never identified in any kind of domestic or family connection: She is never said to be anyone’s wife, mother, or daughter. Instead, she is known only by her toponym, Magdalene (i.e., of Magdala, a fishing village in Galilee). A single woman who is free to travel about as she pleases may be hard to account for in a traditional patriarchal culture.

      As a result, another iconographic tradition around Mary Magdalene (in Western and Western-influenced art), along with the skull and the ointment jar, is long, flowing hair and an uncovered head. The Blessed Virgin Mary and other New Testament women and Christian saints are traditionally depicted with heads covered, a traditional sign in many cultures of modesty. Mary’s uncovered head in Western art thus alludes both to the wiping of Jesus’ feet and to Mary’s alleged history of sexual shamelessness.

      Some images go so far as to portray Mary Magdalene’s hair flowing over her whole body as her only covering, or even growing over her whole body like a yeti—imagery connected with a legend that, after Jesus’ resurrection, Mary became a desert-dwelling ascetic whose unearthly spirituality made her apathetic toward mundane concerns like clothing, and so of course her clothes wore out and fell apart, and her hair covering her body was God’s miraculous way of safeguarding her modesty. This “modesty,” though, didn’t always prevent the artist from showing her bare arms, legs, or breasts. (This legend also seems to conflate Mary Magdalene with yet another Mary: Saint Mary of Egypt, a fourth-century sexual profligate turned ascetic hermit.)

      The artistic emphasis on Mary’s hair, in contrast to the covered heads of other women saints, sexualizes her, an implication particularly evident in the tradition of depicting Mary clad only in her hair, especially when this didn’t prevent the artist from showing her bare arms, legs, or breasts. In doing so, it implicitly relegates her to second-class status among New Testament women and Christian saints—a far cry from “Apostle to the Apostles” or “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

  5. Mary Magdalene is important to the Church on Easter morning, because she is absolute and eternal proof of what Jesus said: He truly came not for the healthy and virtuous, but for the sick. The Magdalene was unwell and further, she was among the sickest of the sick. Seven demons are symbolic of almost complete possession. Notice it is not eight demons, which being the number of completion and perfection (i.e. The Father), would mean she would have been unreachable. [Perhaps Heaven allows no one to suffer total possession.]

    Her sickness was of a kind where she was highly adapted to her sin. Long-term, physical, psychological and spiritual illness: chronic addiction, obsession-compulsion, involuntary vice, decades disfigured internal flesh. That speaks to a lot of misconfigured folks today (such as the same-sex attracted and gender dysphoric and others, many of whom do not even know what or where they are).

    Two of the greatest catholic private revelations (Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich and Maria Valtorta) give the independent, identical and dovetailing portrait of Mary Magdalene as what is today known as the high-class call girl. Lust but wed to greed and power. Pretty bad.

    She is also proof that such souls escape, by the grace of prayer and fasting and Divine Mercy. If she can turn all-wrong around, anyone can. But she did it only by clinging tenaciously to Jesus Christ. People like her today go to Mass daily, confession weekly, receive deliverance prayer, minor exorcism, formal exorcism, maybe multiple times, become profoundly, even excessively religious: who sit at Jesus’ feet continually.

    Here is a Litany to her composed with help from these two revelations. She has her own feast now!

    Litany of St. Mary Magdalene for private use
    Lord have mercy
    Christ have mercy
    Lord have mercy
    Christ hear us, Christ graciously hear us
    Saint Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
    Blessed Virgin, Daughter of the Eternal Father, pray for us
    Maria Most Faithful, Bride of the Holy Ghost, pray for us

    Mary of Magdala, pray for us
    Sister of Martha and Lazarus, pray for us
    Mary of Jesus, pray for us
    Penitent woman, pray for us
    Sincere contrition, pray for us
    Enlightened faith, pray for us
    Receiving the parable, pray for us
    Believing in mercy, pray for us
    Willing transformation, pray for us
    Rejecting vanity, pray for us
    Renouncing vice, pray for us
    Abandoning lust, pray for us
    For whom Jesus came before all others, pray for us
    Washing His Feet with tears, pray for us
    Weeping unto salvation, pray for us
    Cleansed by repentance, pray for us
    Cleansed by love, pray for us
    Cleansed by seraphic fire, pray for us
    Certain of the Savior’s forgiveness, pray for us
    Rising in prayer, pray for us
    Desire to understand the light of God, pray for us
    Anointer of the Christ, pray for us
    Rendering last honor to the Body of The Shepherd, pray for us
    Greeting first Grace Risen, pray for us
    Apostle to the apostles, pray for us
    Messenger of Resurrection, pray for us
    Patroness of preachers, pray for us
    Seraph of confidence, pray for us
    Seraph of courage, pray for us
    Seraph of modesty, pray for us
    Seraph of humility, pray for us
    Seraph of adoration, pray for us
    Seraph of discernment, pray for us
    Cured by the Divine Hand, pray for us
    Redeemed chastity, pray for us
    Revived dignity, pray for us
    Flesh become soul, pray for us
    Heart reborn to grace, pray for us
    Triumph of conversion, pray for us
    Helper of the lost, pray for us
    Minister to the addicted, pray for us
    Advocate of the possessed, pray for us
    Cherisher of the One Only Thing, pray for us
    Contemplating Silence, pray for us
    Who loved much, pray for us

    V. Saint Mary Magdalene, intercede for us with thy Divine Master we beg,
    R. That we may come to share thy happiness in Heaven.

    Let us pray

    St. Mary of Magdala, whose homage of charity
    was graciously accepted by the Rabbi of Nazareth,
    pray that we may be instilled with that persevering love
    with which thou clung resolutely to Christ the Master,
    Who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit one God forever and ever.

  6. Hey. What’s going on? Nobody remembers what blessed Anna C. Emmerich Has describen? Three was fiut very very reach siblings. Lasarus Martha Mary and Mary from Magdala. She was some kind of celebrity. Very beauty and filthy and reach. She spend all time for fun all kind of fun and her siblings were worry. But Jesus said that there will be time for her metanoia. First after she tears of Lord feets she returns to sinful life. But then after preaching at mountain she was freed from seven evil and commits no single sin to the end od her life

  7. Since Mary was a common name in Jesus’ day, one can assume that there were many Marys in the Gospel stories. However, since Mary of Magdala was known, it seems obvious that any stories referring to her would have included “of Magdala.” So, what we know about her specifically would be limited to those accounts that include “of Magdala.”

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