The truth about Mary Magdalene

Dr. Nicola Denzey Lewis pulls together the story of Mary Magdalene based on the gospels, the gnostic gospels and early Christian literature. What she finds just might surprise you.
Dr. Nicola Denzey Lewis peers over the Gospel of Philip, into the space that follows the controversial line "Jesus kissed her often on the [...]".

She is one of the most well-known women from the Bible, but it turns out most portrayals of Mary Magdalene get it all wrong. The best way to debunk those long-held misconceptions? Take a careful look at ancient texts.

As a scholar of the ancient world, Dr. Nicola Denzey Lewis, a Professor of Religion at Brown University, has done just that. Here are some of the things she says are known or very probable about Mary Magdalene's life and rank…

Why is Mary Magdalene remembered for being a repentant prostitute when she was no such thing? Dr. Denzey Lewis says that it all stems from a deliberate smear campaign launched in a sixth-century sermon by Pope Gregory I. In an attempt to quell early Christian groups that looked to Mary as a potential leader in the church, Pope Gregory I decided to group all of the unnamed women that had contact with Jesus together and attribute their stories to Mary Magdalene.

So who was she exactly? Denzey Lewis draws clues from the Canonical and Gnostic Gospels, and early writings of the church. In particular, she points to two Gnostic Gospels in which Mary Magdalene received special insight into Jesus' teachings, further suggesting she may have been poised to be a leader in the early church.

The Gospel of Philip features a line which helped inspire the controversial theory that Mary and Jesus were companions, or even married. This idea was popular in the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, but it is a notion Dr. Denzey Lewis rejects based on the ancient literature. The line says that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene "...more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her ..."  Unfortunately, there is a hole in the manuscript at this precise location, causing much debate about the real relationship between Mary and Jesus. However, based on her study of ancient texts, Dr. Denzey Lewis refutes that the two were married, saying there is just not enough evidence to support this idea.

The Gospel of Mary was discovered in the late nineteenth-century in Egypt. Fewer than eight pages of the ancient papyrus text survive. In what remains of The Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene recounts a vision she had of the resurrected Christ, in which Jesus shares what happened to him after he died. Peter can't believe that Jesus would appear to Mary - and not to one of the male apostles - with such information and a fight breaks out among the group.

For more on Mary Magdalene and the nuances of piecing together stories from ancient literature, click Listen.