There are too many Marys in the Bible, although of course, not one of them was called Mary in real life – that is our translation of the Hebrew Miryam, Maria or Miriam – one of the most common names given to girls in the Holy Land. It is so common that, ironically, it has led to some confusion. In my meditations for Holy Week here, done on the Ignatian model, I have had to make some choices as to which Mary was which. This is ironic because St Mark (14:3-9) has Jesus tell us that whenever the story of the anointing of his feet was told, people would remember Mary who did it; it tells us something that the Church has not remembered this and, for a long time, and even now, there is some confusion.
It was Pope Gregory the Great who, if he did not begin the confusion (we can see as early as Ephrem the Syrian that Mary Magdalene was being conflated with Mary the sinner at Bethany), consolidated it, in 591 when he identified Mary of Magdala with Mary of Bethany in a sermon:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?
That set the poor Magdalene’s fate until modern times. Despite there being no Biblical evidence she was a fallen women, she became one posthumously. As one scholar has put it, Mary, a powerful woman who helped support the ministry of Jesus became:
the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.
The Orthodox Church, like some Western monastic orders, never accepted the ‘composite Mary’, and continued to identify Mary of Bethany as being separate from Mary Magdalene, and that is the tradition I have preferred for my meditations, although, with the latter, my meditation cannot free itself entirely from 1500 years of identification of her with fallen women. In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church caught up, making it clear the two women were not the same.
Jesus wanted us to remember the name of the woman who anointed his feet, and we have forgotten her – which some women think reflects the attitude of the patriarchal societies in which the Bible was written – women were of lesser importance than men, as we can see from the horrid story in Judges 19 of the Levite’s concubine, and the way Suzannah was treated.
We can, of course, identify Mary, the mother of Jesus, and if we accept the separate identification of Mary Magdalen, her too, but who were the others at the foot of the Cross? I have written before about this, so won’t repeat what I said then, but for those interested, the posts are here and here. Mary of Clopas seems to have been the sister of the Virgin Mary, but is, of course, identified for us only by reference to her husband. She stood with her sister in solidarity, and it may well be that Salome was another sister. It gives us some idea of how close to Jesus the Magdalen was that she was allowed to stand there with the mother of the Lord and her sisters.
None of that, of course, should be taken as giving the slightest credence to the Dan Brown like stories, although they are based on ancient and non canonical texts. Brown, and others, have an agenda which, to my mind they push too far. But where they do have a point, is that we have not done what the Lord wanted, we have not remembered these women aright. Modern scholarship sometimes gets a bad name, but here, in disambiguating the plethora of Marys, it has done us all a favour.
My final meditation will be tomorrow, and again, has the Magdalene as its subject. Thank you to everyone who has liked the posts – it is very encouraging. A happy and joyous feast of the Resurrection for tomorrow to all our readers.