Friday, June 12, 2015

Mary Magdalene in the Orthodox Church

Mary Magdalene in the Orthodox Church
By Dimitris Salapatas
(This article was published in the Orthodox Herald, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, April – May – June 2014, Issue 307-309

            Who was Mary Magdalene? Why has she been misjudged by so many? Mary Magdalene has been misunderstood, especially in the West. However, the Orthodox Church has always retained its belief in her sainthood. The Greek Fathers deeply appreciated and respected her. This is evident through the exegeses given to the Gospels by many Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom.
            In the Bible we have various indications of who she was; however, our full perception of her is an amalgam of Scripture and Tradition. In the Gospel we are unaware of her early years; nevertheless, Tradition dictates that she was a pretty woman, leading a sinful life. In Luke’s Gospel we read about a number of women who followed Jesus: “Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8: 1-3). Therefore, here we are informed of Jesus’ relation with Mary Magdalene.
Tradition states that she travelled to Rome, where she requested and achieved, by directly speaking to Emperor Tiberius, the death sentence of the three main culprits in regards to Christ’s crucifixion, i.e. Pontius Pilate, archpriests Anna and Kaiafa. She later returned to Palestine, where she lived close to the Mother of God. She was then persecuted by the Jews and was eventually exiled to Marseille, together with Apostle Maximus (one of the 70 Apostles). She collaborated with the Apostle Peter; she was also involved in missionary work in Egypt, Syria and Phoenicia and finally died in Ephesus, near St. John the Evangelist, where she was buried. Her relics were later transported to Constantinople in 890 A.D. by the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise, as were the relics of St. Lazarus from Cyprus.

            In the West, the most famous version of who she truly was coincides with the repentant prostitute, a theory alien to the Bible, which remains unidentified in the Holy Tradition and exegesis of the Orthodox world. Unfortunately, many in the East follow the Western belief, which was never adopted in the East. Even St John Chrysostom has examined the prostitute woman who repented; stating that she is an unknown person, whose name we do not know. On the other hand, the story of the sentencing of Pilate is most likely false, since this event would have been found in a number of Roman manuscripts. Also, Eusebius of Caesarea explains how Pilate was exiled by Caligula and he later committed suicide. Nevertheless, it is believed that she truly did travel to Rome; thus reinforcing the hypothesis that she played a significant role in founding the Church of Rome.
The Orthodox Church has always believed in the sainthood of Mary Magdalene. In the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra, on Mounth Athos, a female hand has been preserved for centuries, having a natural living body temperature; this hand is believed to belong to Mary Magdalene, who by her miracles, is considered the co-founder of Simonopetra. In 1747 the hand was stolen by pirates. However, it was later bought back by Abbot Ioasaf in 1765 in Tripoli, Libya. Unfortunately, the archives of the monastery were burnt in 1891, which is why we are unable to know more about this important relic.
            In contrast to the Orthodox belief, the West has transformed Mary Magdalene into a prostitute. This though had begun with the dialogue that took place right after the resurrection of Christ (John 20: 11-18 and Mark 16: 9-11). The fact that Jesus addressed her in a loving manner, i.e. ‘Maria’, gave rise to sensual fantasies in people’s minds. Maybe this was the case in the West, and not in the East, due to the fact that the first has imposed celibacy, whilst the latter has only imposed this on the Bishops. Moreover, because of the obligatory celibacy of the clergy, the sins associated with love were overemphasised.
A further confusion on the true identity of Mary Magdalene was evident after her relics were transported from Ephesus to Constantinople in 890 AD by Emperor Leo VI the Wise, alongside the relics of St. Lazarus from Cyprus. Both of these excavations were co-celebrated by Western Christianity on the 4th May. This consequently resulted in the incorrect identification of Mary Magdalene with Lazarus’ sister; however, the first was from Magdala, whilst Lazarus and his sisters were originally from Bethany. Additionally the two Marias are also confused within the Gospels. In John’s Gospel (12, 1-8) we read:
“Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always”.
This event is also identified with the instance of the sinner found in Luke’s Gospel (7, 36-50) where we read: “Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And he went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner’. And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you’. So he said, ‘Teacher, say it’. ‘There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered and said, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more’. And He said to him, ‘You have rightly judged’. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little’. Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sin?’ Then He said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace’”.    
            Mary, from John’s Gospel, and the sinner (prostitute), from Luke’s Gospel, have brought a misunderstanding, resulting in the birth of a certain ‘myth’, whereby Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and the sinner are the same person, i.e. Mary Magdalene. However, these claims are very insecurely grounded. According to the Orthodox Church, Mary Magdalene was cured of certain evil spirits and illnesses. She later followed Jesus, whilst also being with Christ during his Crucifixon. According to John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene was the first one to visit the empty tomb, “Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1).
The significance of St Mary Magdalene for the Orthodox Church is evident not only in Scripture but also within its hymnographic tradition[1], which points out her role and place during the life, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. An example of this are the following hymns, chanted during Matins (mode 3), where Mary Magdalene seems to play a protagonistic role, in regards to the first sighting of the empty tomb. The hymns proclaim:
“All things have been filled with joy on receiving proof of the Resurrection. For Mary Magdalen came to the grave, found an Angel seated on the stone and dazzling in shining raiment, who said, ‘Why do you seek the living with the dead? He is not here, but he has risen, as he said, and goes before you into Galilee.’
On the first day of the week Mary Magdalen came to the grave and sought you. When she did not find you, she lamented and cried out with grief, ‘Alas, my Saviour, how have you, the King of all, been stolen?’ But a pair of life-bearing Angels from within the grave cried out, ‘Why do you weep, woman?’ ‘I weep’, she said, ‘because they have taken my Lord from the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him’. But when, turning back, she saw you, at once she cried out, ‘My Lord and my God, glory to you!’”[2]
Mary Magdalene is further misunderstood within the apocryphal tradition, i.e. the books not accepted within the Church’s Scriptural Canon. An interesting example of this is to be found in the Gospel of Philip, where we read:
‘And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her?’[3]
            We identify here that the apocryphal tradition emphasises the existence of an intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. However, these sources cannot be trusted in regards to the faith and the practice of the Church, since these books have been side-lined due to their gnostic and heretical origins, alien to the Christian tradition, and due to their questionable authorship. Nevertheless, they do maintain an academic interest. Therefore, it is significant to identify the importance of Mary Magdalene during the first centuries of Christianity, with the existence of the so called Gospel of Mary Magdalene[4]. Even in this Gospel we read gnostic ideas on the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, for example:
 ‘Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of woman.’ (Chapter 5, 5) ‘But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said.’ (Chapter 9, 8-9).
What these two gnostic Gospels wish to promote is foreign to the Tradition of the Church and to the exegesis of Sacred Scripture, given to us by the Holy Fathers of the Church. Jesus, the Son of God, did not become man to marry, to merely live a human life. He came to save the world, as is claimed in the Creed: ‘For our sake and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.’ Therefore, the Orthodox faithful should disregard these apocryphal sources, which are not part of the ecclesiastical tradition of the Orthodox Church. 
St Mary Magdalene is honoured as an equal to the Apostles and as a Myrrhbearer. She is celebrated on the 22nd of July and on the 4th of May, the day her holy relics were found. She is also remembered on the Third Sunday after Easter, the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers.

[1] To read the whole service from the festivity of St Mary Magdalene, please visit:
[2] Lash, Ephrem, Anastasis,, accessed 20/09/2013, 16.43 
[3] Translated by Wesley W. Isenberg, Gospel of Philip,, accessed 08/08/2014, 12.34. 
[4] The Gospel of Mary Magdalene can be found in the following link:

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