Published on 20th December, 2013, in The Speaking Tree.
We all know Mary as the mother of Jesus Christ. But the New Testament of the Bible speaks of many Marys. Three of these witnessed the Passion, as Jesus carried the cross on which he was ultimately crucified. These three were also the first to witness the empty tomb guarded by an angel, indicative of the Christ’s resurrection. Who were these three Marys? There are many theories about their identity.
The first Mary was in all probability Mary of Nazareth, wife of Joseph, who immaculately conceived Jesus and is described as the Mother of God.
The second was probably Mary, wife of Clopas, cousin of the first Mary, mother of James. In some tales, she served as midwife when Jesus was born.
The third Mary was probably Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus had brought back Lazarus from the dead and Mary had become a close disciple, one who paid attention to all that Jesus said, unlike Martha who was more interested in household chores.
But attention then turns to Mary of Magdala or Mary Magdalene, the most popular of Marys, after the Virgin Mary. Much has been speculated and written about her, making her at once mysterious and fascinating.
In popular Christian lore, Mary was a harlot, or a woman of loose morals, who was cured of seven demons (sins?) by Jesus Christ, who wiped his feet with her tears and her hair, who stood by him when most of his male followers abandoned him when he was arrested, who watched him being crucified, who anointed his corpse that was put in a tomb and who was the first to see Jesus Christ after his resurrection three days later.
Of course, scholars have now declared that this is a ‘composite’ Mary, created by merging the stories of different Marys. Yes, there was a prostitute who changed her ways and became the disciple of Jesus. Yes, there was a woman who wiped his feet with her hair. Yes, there was a disciple called Mary, cured of seven demons, who stood by him when he was crucified, anointed his body for burial and witnessed the resurrected Christ. But they were in all probability three different women.
The last Mary became the companion of the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion. In some tales, after the Virgin ascends to heaven, she moves to the desert where the dry heat vaporized her clothes and she walked wearing nothing, her nakedness covered with nothing but her long hair, and was fed manna by angels until it was time for her to rise to heaven too. Then there are tales where she travels first to Rome then to Southern France to spread the word of Jesus. In Rome she meets the emperor Tiberius holding an egg in her hand. The emperor laughs that the story of resurrection is as improbable as the egg in her hand being red. As soon as he utters these words than the egg in Mary’s hand turns red. The first Easter egg! In art, she is often shown holding the red egg, the red colour sometimes attributed to the blood of Jesus that dripped as he hung from the crucifix.
In the Gnostic tradition are stories of how many of the apostles were jealous of how close Mary Magdalene was to Jesus, leading to speculative theories that this Mary was probably the wife of Jesus and she was declared a prostitute and her name wiped out of all chronicles by an increasingly patriarchal Church that preferred visualizing Jesus as celibate thus enabling them to deny priesthood to women.
It is interesting to contrast the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Mary is visualized as pure and unsullied, her head always covered with a scarf. Mary Magdalene is visualized as cleansed from a soiled state, her hair loose. Mother Mary is associated with Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. Mary Magdalene is associated with Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mother Mary is shown as poor, gentle and humble while Mary Magdalene is visualized as rich, confident and intelligent. Both women are dear to Jesus, but only one is eventually celebrated, the other side-lined.