Why Mary Magdalene Is Missing
Some feminist theologians have suggested that Mary Magdalene posed a problem for the emerging church. The fledgling Christian church survived through unification and organization based on a hierarchy of male clergy who wielded ecclesiastical power to varying degrees.
Because of her role as eyewitness to the risen Jesus, so central to Christian doctrine, Mary Magdalene was too important and well known to be completely edited out of the canonical gospels. However, the writers and possibly later editors or scribes may have marginalized her story to serve the patriarchal orthodox bias, according to some religious scholars.
It is unlikely that a faith with a woman at the center (as its founding mother) would have appealed to the patriarchal religious men of that time, and it might have posed a problem for recruiting new converts. Mary Magdalene's story was further shifted in an erroneous portrait painted by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century as a penitent prostitute. From that time on, she embodied the “fallen woman” with its resonance back to Eve and the Original Sin.
In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, the Savior warns his disciples to be on their guard for error and to know that he is within them. It seems that they must first understand those important ideas before he will commission them to preach the good news.
Mary Magdalene in the Canon
The canonical gospels mention Mary Magdalene a total of fourteen times, mostly as a name in a list. When she is included in lists of other women, her name often appears at the beginning of the list, or behind Mother Mary, an indication of her stature and importance. Those texts also say that Jesus healed her by casting out seven devils. She became his faithful follower and with other women provided for him and his entourage, out of her means.
She stood at the base of his cross with his mother Mary. She and some of the other women followers went to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body with spices and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Mary Magdalene witnessed the transcendent form of Jesus and bore testimony to it. She obeyed Jesus' commission to find the other disciples and tell them the good news. Following that, she disappears from the New Testament.
Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels reveal that Mary Magdalene was recognized as the closest female disciple to Jesus, his companion and confidante. Jesus praised her brilliant understanding of his teachings and told her he would “complete her” in the mysteries of the Divine. He defended her when Peter asked that she be made to leave them because she was a woman. Jesus loved her more than all the other women (according to Peter in the Gospel of Mary), and kissed her often, much to the consternation of the other disciples (according to the Gospel of Philip).
After the Resurrection, Mary shared a secret vision with the Peter and the others in which she saw Jesus, who praised her for not being afraid and explained how it was possible for her to see him. She did not back down as Peter challenged her secret teaching. She had proximity to the Savior, a reputation for understanding his teachings, and an ability to eloquently articulate his ideas, and she proclaimed the good news in integrity and boldness. Many would naturally flock to her after Jesus' death. Some may have considered her Jesus' heir apparent and mother of the church, an assertion that most assuredly would have been hotly disputed by the dominant orthodox branch of Christians.
The word presbytera has been found on some ancient tomb inscriptions. Since a presbyter in early Christianity was the term used for priest, some say this proves that the tombs belonged to female priests. However, others point out that the term was also used to designate an office bearer such as an administrator or teacher. In later centuries, it meant a priest's wife or an abbess.
Mary Magdalene's tradition survived centuries, emerging especially in places where Gnosticism flourished. Although she embodied the perfect apostle, the writers of the New Testament gospels did not call her one. Today, however, the Roman Catholic Church refers to Mary Magdalene as “Apostle to the Apostles” and the Greek Orthodox Church calls her “Equal Unto the Apostles.” Modern Gnostics continue to revere her, and many modern women and men see in her the perfect spiritual exemplar. There is a speculation, although it is highly disputed, that she may have been the Beloved Disciple and perhaps wrote or served as the eyewitness source for the Gospel of John.