I’ve had the privilege of living in Magdala, the ancient first-century hometown of Mary Magdalene, for three years, where we have received more than 200,000 visitors. And with that comes a multitude of opinions about Mary Magdalene. I have read every theory under the sun about this woman, and marvel that every year, the social media continue to discuss this enigmatic figure. I ask myself: if she could come and do this interview or call the shots on the movie scenes, what would she say? What essential message would she leave her viewers? And from that, what would be our take away? I believe she would tell the story of dignity restored. And from her own story, we could paint her as an icon of hope.
Our starting point is the scriptural record that she was possessed by seven demons. Interpretations of this abound, from a real possession to a psychological illness. Considering the human person as an entity of body and soul, can we assume that the influence of evil spirits becomes manifest in the corporeal and psychological realm? Scriptures testify to a real battle taking place between the Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. Jesus preaches repentance for the Kingdom of God is at hand. How were these words received by Mary Magdalene? What was the soil of her soul upon which these words fell?
Walking around the ruins of her hometown conjures up images of the first century ambience in which she lived. A strong religious presence can be imagined as one walks around the first century synagogue with a Temple model (The Magdala Stone) set inside the synagogue. Rabbinic literature mentions a synagogue and famous bet midrash, even naming a scribe and Rabbis Isaac and Judah. One of the 24 priestly families had its seat in Magdala, possibly the order of Ezequiel. What influence did this religious environment have on Mary Magdalene? Did she subscribe to it? Or rebel against the strictness of Pharisaical law enforcing leadership?
On the other hand, art work reveals a Greco-Roman influence dominating the cultural milieu at the time of Jesus. Galileans in the first century had already seen the crumbling Jewish Hasmonean dynasty usurped by Roman political domination. Most Galileans were rural dwellers, farmers and fishermen. Magdala is a town where they can prosper from their livelihood. It was a commercial trade center with a thriving fish industry, particularly a pickled fish market exporting its goods to Rome. As a religious, cultural and economic center, the Jewishness of the town comes face to face with the Greco-Roman influence. The Talmud, second-century Jewish writings, recognizes Magdala as a prosperous city with an immoral reputation. Its demise in 67 AD by Roman troops is seen as a punishment for its wickedness. How does this cultural context influence the imagination of young fanciful girls of the first century? Are young woman, such as Mary Magdalene, enticed by the pagan Roman culture?
Up until the mid-twentieth century, Mary Magdalene was traditionally described as a prostitute. Some authors associated her with “Miriam Megaddlela” or Miriam with the braided locks, named in the second-century Talmud. This title refers to a woman’s hairdresser, which connotes “prostitute”, or someone involved in a non-reputable occupation. Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2 refer to Mary as the one from whom seven demons were expelled, leading to a conclusion that she was a woman in need of restored dignity. Luke 8:3 also alludes to her wealth, naming her first among other woman who cared for Jesus out of their own sustenance. One of the women in her company was Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and possibly a woman involved in the court life. Was Mary Magdalene among those women as well?
Amidst the obscurity of her life, one fact is certain. Her life radically changed upon meeting Jesus of Nazareth, so much so that she followed Him to the foot of the cross (John 19:25) when many of his closest followers fled in fear. The “before and after conversion” of Mary Magdalene are juxtaposed with two gospel stories: the adulteress woman (John 8) and Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus with expensive nard (John 12). Early Church Fathers of the East and West debated whether these “three women” were one and the same. The Eastern church predominantly stating they were three different women, while the Western Church remained steadfast in identifying them as one and the same woman, Mary Magdalene.
This debate resurfaced during the Protestant reformation and once again among biblical exegetes in the mid-twentieth century. Around the same time, feminist movements in North America attempted to liberate Mary Magdalene from her “prostitute stigma”, only to be counteracted by a refocused approach in the Catholic church on her restored dignity through “New Life in Christ”. On June 3, 2016, Pope Francis initiated a “liturgical upgrade” to offer Mary an honored position among the celebrated apostles in its liturgies. The decree offers renewed reflection on her story in light of God’s mercy and the testimony of an authentic promoter of the Good News.
Magdala’s contemporary worship center, Duc In Altum houses a chapel with a mosaic depicting the moment of Mary Magdalene’s transforming encounter with Jesus. Her hand is extended towards Jesus as His finger points at her. Seven demons are cast out as her other hand rests over her heart. All viewers can reflect on the healing balm of one look, a look of unconditional love and acceptance that penetrates the false fortress of a broken heart and restores peace of mind at the realization of the truth of one’s dignity. A Christian onlooker sees this and beyond. They see “the finger of God that drives out demons and the Kingdom of God coming upon them” in the very Person of Jesus (Luke 11:20).
Mary was certainly a curious onlooker, as so many were in Jesus’ day as he went about the towns of Galilee teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News and healing all kinds of illnesses (Matthew 4:23, Mark 1:39). She heard Jesus’ invitation: “Repent and believe in the Gospel, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Her final unguardedness let the love of Jesus become effective in her heart. And it was rewarded with a growing passion to follow Him and be the privileged first to announce the Good News that Jesus rose from the dead and truly lived. It is an invitation that continues to echo today to all who wish to experience a true transformation of the deepest kind. And that is good news that brings hope to the brokenhearted.
The inspiration for the Magdalena Institute comes from Mary Magdalene and the significance of this site as her hometown. Mary Magdalene was one of several women who followed Jesus and supported his work. She was the “first apostle” in that the resurrected Christ commissioned her to tell the good news of his resurrection to the disciples. It is this sense of following Christ and telling the good news that provides the vision for the Magdalena Institute.
The Magdalena Institute provides seminars, retreats, presentations, and cross-cultural events. Focus will include programs based on the lives of women from the Old and New Testaments.