Who was Mary Magdalene?
She is known today as a follower of Jesus during his ministry and depending on who you believe or talk to, she played a founding role at the beginning of Christianity. During the first century near the sea of Galilee, there was a city named Magdala of which Mary is presumed to have gotten her name. Although it has been said that Magdalene itself is a title and that Mary is in truth Mary of Bethany. This is something that has been subject to much debate over centuries. What will be presented here is a short summation of the theories around the life of the person we have come to know today as Mary Magdalene. We don’t for sure how Mary and Jesus came to know each other but in Luke 8:2 we get an interesting glimpse into the kind of person Mary was.
Whether she was actually possessed or if Jesus offered her some sort of counseling to deal with what would be her personality disorder we can’t be certain, but we do know that it has been speculated that Jesus and Mary might have had some sort of relationship outside of just his ministry that would suggest a deeper connection between the two. According to the biblical tradition, Mary was one of the three women at the cross during the crucifixion and even took part in the ritualistic ceremonies that took place after his death preparing the body to be placed in the tomb. Whether or not this is true we don’t know with certainty, but it does indicate a special relationship that they might have had considering such an intimate closeness to the body after death.
In the bible, Mary was the first person to see Jesus after the resurrection at first mistaking him for a gardener. It was then that Jesus said her name at which point Mary then understood that it wasn’t just a gardener but took it as a sign that Jesus had been resurrected. There are several medieval depictions of this moment and it is also recounted in John chapter 20 verses 17-18.
Verse 18 is interesting because we see here that Mary is clearly represented as a sort of messenger figure at which point the apostles are left to debate what she has said. They would then even question if there was validity to the claim that she had seen him and if her words could be trusted. Mary starts this tradition of claiming to have seen Christ and thus starts this tradition of a Christian revelation. Whether or not this was a mental vision, the true resurrection, or if she in fact seen a man that had possibly faked his own death is unknown. We do know for certain that this started a tradition of revelatory experiences where Christ appears to someone and gives them some sort of message which then perpetuates this idea that he never truly died.
It’s now commonly accepted that Peter was the founder of the Christian church but it wasn’t so clear during the era of the first century. In 1945 there was an Arab that was thought to have been digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt that found ancient texts inside of a clay pot, some that are now known as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. These are not considered canon nor are they included in the Bible, but they are from an early gnostic sect of Christians that held Mary in higher regard than what would be to come in the centuries that followed.
Although it’s not mentioned directly, the texts as they are interpreted in a general sense paint a picture of Jesus having been married to Mary and possibly even having a child. Some say one of the texts even reads “Jesus said to them, my wife”. Instead of making a dynastic storyline out of the family, it’s thought that the Church fathers omitted this information possibly for the safety of the family or possibly just discredit Mary altogether. Regardless, Jesus was of the House of David so there could be some weird dynastic things going on here.
From that point, we enter into speculative territory. One can wonder what really happened to Jesus or if he actually was ever real at all. Some might suggest that he indeed was alive but died on the cross and was buried in a secret or now lost tomb somewhere in Israel. For the sake of this article, we are going to make a bit more of a speculative leap. We won’t go as far as to say that Jesus faked his death in some conspiracy with Pontius Pilate, but we will speculate about his relationship with Mary Magdalene.
It was Joseph of Arimathea was the one that was able to negotiate with Pontius Pilate for the rights to be able to bury the body of Jesus. As his uncle, he was a follower of Christ and was rather wealthy in his own right. It is even thought that he had connections in the tin trade that led to the English isles during Roman times. It was through these connections that some believe that he was able to spirit away the children of Jesus along with Mary Magdalene to a port city near the Marseilles region of France. This connection is also linked to an earlier story about Joseph and Jesus going to Glastonbury during the lifetime of Jesus to introduce the teachings to the area. Another theory is one that Mary was set adrift in a boat without a sail in a sort of exile after the execution of St. James and ended in this region of France. This legend would later be revived in the middle ages to claim a similar connection to the King of Kings.
From here the suggestion would be that Mary was able to start an early gnostic Christian church in the Southern region of France. This would go on for a number of years and it’s thought that one of the two children of Jesus and Mary would have a lineage of their own that married into the bloodline that would eventually become the Merovingian dynasty. A dynastic line unlike other Anglo-Saxon royal lineages, they never claimed to be of any divine descension or rite, nor is it known that they ever were regarded as a sacred family. This is interesting because one could wonder if it was a kind of bond in silence. That they never needed to make the claim because it was known. The classic ‘if you know you know’.
Being that Jesus was descendent of the House of David it could be assumed that Joseph and Mary on this trip to France might have had royal guards accompanying them. Although the Knights Templar wasn’t officially a thing until 1119, could it be that it was these royal guards that started the Templar tradition as it was known in France along with the legends of them guarding the bloodline of Christ?
This kind of gnostic Christianity was not accepted by the early church for various reasons. Perhaps another odd synchronicity that is centered around Southern France is the tradition of the Cathars. It has been suggested by others that they had secret teachings of this narrative that were passed down in their tradition. Oddly enough Pope Innocent III waged the Albigensian Crusade in Southern France that has been considered genocide against the Cathars in 1209. Why?
Landing in France sometime during the first century, Mary would then go on to be a founding member of Christianity in the region. One of the first churches that would have been built in this time was in Aix-en-Provence where today we see a cathedral that is on the original site of a Roman temple that was dedicated to Apollo. Originally as a humble chapel that was destroyed during the Moorish invasions, this could be considered one of the first Gnostic Christian Churches of France.
According to legend, it was founded by Saint Maximinus of Aix, who was himself a disciple of Jesus and an associate of Mary Magdalene. Together they would embark on a sort of evangelization during this period in the first century after the death of Christ in the Southern region of France. After this initial early period, Mary is thought to have gone off on her own to practice her religion and seemed to have settled in a cave in the region on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume. She would then live out the rest of her life in relative solitude in the mountains.
According to the legend on the day she was to die she came out of the mountains to ensure that Maximinus could give her communion and then arrange her burial. It is from this point that we get some contradicting stories.
Officially as the story goes it seems like Saint Maximinus arranged for her body to be buried at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume which again is built upon the ruins of a 1st-century Roman foundation which is thought to have been a villa. This became known as a cathedral dedicated to Mary Magdalene and is today the location where you are able to see the bones that are alleged to be hers.
The skull & bones are shrouded in very controversial theories and speculative origins. It is in this first 500 years or so that we can assume a kind of “Cult of Mary” began to form throughout the region. During the time of the Moorish invasion of Spain, Saracens were capturing territory on behalf of the Umayyad Caliphate between 719 and 759. It was around this period in time that all of the Holy relics of France were hidden away to be protected from the Moorish invaders. This included the bones of Mary Magdalene.
It seems to have been this period of hiding that is the source of the controversy that we see arise after the invasion by the Moors. The first church monks to actually claim to have these bones officially around the year 1050 come from Vézelay. They began to claim that they hold the relics of Mary Magdalene in their church which they had acquired from the Holy land sometime during the 9th century.
This church again is built upon the ruins of first-century Roman architecture and would have its own unique contribution to the mythos. Later on, a monk from Vézelay began to claim that he had detected a crypt at St. Maximin that seemed to have an empty sarcophagus that had inscriptions indicating it was of Mary of Bethany, who in the Middle Ages was considered to be Mary Magdalene. Where it gets weird is that this church does indeed have relics of whom they claim is Mary Magdalene but it appears to just be a shin bone. Although it has been noted elsewhere that among the bones that are located at St. Maximin there is indeed a missing bone from the lower leg. This leads one to wonder why or how this church acquired the bones from the Holy land sometimes during the 9th century.
It’s this weird gap in history that could be the source of some of the issues that we would see the Cathars face along with some of the people that were part of the early gnostic sects. It could be that they were worshipping relics that weren’t Mary’s or that this controversy of the bones led to zealot-like behavior which resulted in the Cathars being labeled as a sort of cult. Nevertheless, it seems that the Catholic church’s way of handling the Cathar issue was genocide.
It was bout 70 years after the Albigensian Crusade that a well-published account of the finding of the bones of Mary Magdalene spread throughout medieval Christendom at around 1279. This seems to come as a kind of propaganda from the King of Naples, Charles II of Anjou. The find was located at the crypt of the original church where they unearthed the burial spot of Mary by direct commission of the King. After which he would order the new Cathedral to be built which would then again be a blow to the claims of Vézelay. But it does still lead to the question as to why they ever thought their claims to be legitimate.
In the crypt there was also a note explaining the reason it was hidden:
The year of the birth of the Lord 710, the sixth day of December, at night and very secretly, under the reign of the very pious Eudes, king of the Franks, during the time of the ravages of the treacherous nation of the Saracens, the body of the dear and venerable St. Mary Magdalene was, for fear of the said treacherous nation, moved from her alabaster tomb to the marble tomb, after having removed the body of Sidonius, because it was more hidden.
The construction of this new basilica comes after the Cathar crusade in 1295 when it seems they can align the narratives of Mary with the Catholic church. It is completed in 1316 and finished the funerary decor that is made tribute to Mary. What is interesting about this part of the story though is that when the tomb was “rediscovered” it was found with the jaw bone missing. According to legend, the jaw bone had been sent to Rome around 710 AD where it was venerated in safety from the Moorish invasions. Apart from the jaw, the only other portion of the bones that were missing was the part of the lower leg, the shin, which indeed may have ended up at Vézelay. But how? With the news of the 1279 discovery, Pope Boniface VIII returned the jaw bone to St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, and on April 6, 1295, and it was reunited with the skull of Mary Magdalene allowing once again for the relics to be venerated in safety and peace.