The Mary Magdalene Controversy

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In the last few years, there has been a resurgence in interest in Mary Magdalene fueled in part by the repopularisation of old myths and legends. Behind all the stories though, is a real woman who was a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. The Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches consider her a saint and celebrate her feast day on July 22nd.

Who she was

Mary’s name probably means “Mary of Magdala,” after a town located on the Western shore of the Lake of Tiberias.

What follows is the Gospel account of Mary:

  • She was a woman “out of whom Christ cast seven demons” — a sinful woman who was probably a prostitute. 
  • She repented of her sinful past and followed with the women who ministered to Christ (Luke 8:1-3).
  • She was with His mother and the others at our Lord’s Cross and was one of the myrrh-bearing women who went to anoint our Lord’s dead body. 
  • According to Matthew’s Gospel they were greeted by the angel who told them He was risen and sent them to tell the disciples.
  • In John’s account Mary is met by the risen Lord Himself, Who greeted her by name and sent her to announce the resurrection to the brethren. For this she is sometimes referred to as “apostle to the apostles”.

Mary greatly loved the Lord Who had forgiven her sins and given her new life. It is said that she later went to Ephesus to proclaim the gospel there. 


The suggestion that Mary Magdalene married Jesus is based on material derived from Gnostic gospels, describing their affection (Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Mary) but there is no mention of marriage. Gnosticism was a heresy, which came into prominence in the 2nd century A.D. The word “Gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word for knowledge. Belief in secretly revealed knowledge of God was a mark of Gnosticism. There were elements of elitism, peculiar rituals and weird stories. The material world was seen as inferior to the secret teachings. The flesh was seen negatively, as a prison for the soul and God was not worshipped as Creator.

Gnosticism is now enjoying a new popularity, partly because it was a religion in which women held leadership roles. This was consistent with its rejection of the flesh, which made sexual identity unimportant. The Gnostics did not accept the incarnation of Jesus and treated Orthodox doctrine as being too literal-minded, a common view today. According to the Gnostics, the gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings.

Thus it was possible to write new gospels, since the Gnostics were not bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. Mary Magdalene could become Jesus’ intimate, and the New Testament could be dismissed as false. (Modern media commentators imply that the Gnostic gospels are recorded history, but they have missed a vital fact: that to the Gnostics themselves it was irrelevant what actually happened when Jesus was on earth in the flesh, and if He ever was!)

By contrast, the early Church Fathers drew people’s attention to the plain sense of the Scriptures, as interpreted by the traditions of the Church, which had been handed down by a chain of teachers reaching back to the Apostles. They insisted on the identity of the Creator as the supreme God, on the reality of the earthly life of Jesus, with special attention on the Crucifixion and the Resurrection because of man’s need for redemption from evil. To the early Church Fathers salvation was available to all and not just to some select group with secret knowledge.

Gnosticism Today

For around 150 years now people have been questioning the historical reliability of the New Testament. But now, ironically, the Gnostic gospels, which were written later and were never taken as historical documents, are treated as at last giving us a true picture of the early Church! For example, Elaine Pagels, a scholar of Gnosticism, theorises that Thomas is presented as a doubter in the New Testament in order to discredit the Gospel of Thomas (a Gnostic gospel)!

The aim of this “revival” of Gnosticism is clearly to present Christianity as having been a deliberate fraud almost from its beginning, that the true story of Jesus was suppressed, and that only now are we finally learning what really happened. If such an understanding had triumphed two millennia ago, Christianity would be nothing but a footnote in the history books today.

How the Gospels were written

We might ask how we can be so sure which gospels are true and which are heretical. Actually, the canonical gospels were written down during the lifetime of one or more of the eyewitnesses, beginning about 35 years after Jesus’ death. The Church, which already existed in the first century A.D., began to critically evaluate such sources early on. Luke 1:1-4 makes this evident:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

The Church evaluated all such documents carefully, and by the second century A.D. there was a collection of the four canonical Gospels circulating as Holy Scripture. The Gospel of Thomas has a very different character compared to the canonical Gospels. Also, there is no good historical evidence that this gospel was written by Thomas, a member of the Twelve.

The Church was concerned that the Gospels included in the canon be either written by an apostle, or be written by those who, like Luke, had close ties with eyewitnesses and the apostles. Obviously gospels produced in the second or third centuries A.D. would not meet these criteria.

The Bride of Christ

One final thought on the topic of Christ and marriage. The scriptures clearly indicate that the Church is to be the bride of Christ. The final union between Christ and His bride, the Church, is yet to come in the grand and glorious celebration of the Wedding Feast. Rev.19: 7-9 “Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to Him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she may be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he said to me ‘write: blessed are they which are called to the marriage of the Lamb. And he said to me, these are the true sayings of God.’”

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

— 2 Timothy 4:3–4


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