Mary Magdalene and Female Authority in the Early Church

By Kate Daley-Bailey

Mary Magdalene

In her article Vatican Smokescreen Maneuver: The Dreaded Delicta Graviora, Heather Abraham writes compellingly about the unusual pairing of the ordination of women with sexual abuse of children under “delicta graviora” in the Catholic Church:

What is surprising to many, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is the Vatican’s renewed and intensified condemnation of the ordination of women.  The new norms will declare any attempted ordination of women to be comparable to sexual abuse of children or delicta graviora.  This decision is more than a little suspicious given its timing and the fact that excommunication is already automatic for any woman who attempts ordination and any priest who may assist in said ordination.

Abraham’s article awoke anew many concerns I have had with the Catholic Church’s’ ardent fear of the possibility of allowing women into positions of authority in the church.  As Abraham so astutely pointed out, the linking of female ordination and sexual abuse of children is startling.  Is the Catholic Church launching a preemptive strike against what they fear will be a renewed interest in allowing women into the priesthood?  This overreaction led me to investigate the origin of the Church’s fear of women in leadership roles.

Where, when, and with whom did this fear originate?  According to various scholars of early Christian history, one of extraordinary features of the early Jesus movement, was its radical egalitarian nature.  John Crossan’s theory of the historical Jesus is described as follows:

The historical Jesus proves to be a displaced Galilean peasant artisan who had got fed up with the situation and went about preaching a radical message: an egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God present on earth and available to all as manifested in the acts of Jesus in healing the sick and practicing an open commensality in which all were invited to share. (

This radical egalitarian ethos attributed to the early Jesus movement is thought to have been tempered over time as Christianity gained popularity among upper-classes.  This was especially the case with regard to women in roles of authority in the early Church.  Elizabeth Clark, Professor of Religion and Graduate Program director at Duke University, writes:

What seems to happen within the first few centuries is that whatever limited activities women might have had in the beginning begin to get curtailed as you have the development of a hierarchy of clergy members with bishops, presbyters and deacons, and it’s pretty firmly established that women should not be either bishops or priests.  Many church fathers write about this.  So that women tend to get excluded from those functions, [though] they do have some roles, [such] as joining a group called the widows or deaconesses in the fourth century.  We have good evidence of an order of deaconesses, but they are excluded from the priesthood.

While some scholars, like Gnostic Gospels scholar and professor of Religion at Princeton University Elaine Pagels, are skeptical of claims that early Christianity was completely egalitarian in nature, they do mark a transition in the movement regarding the roles of women.  Pagels comments on the fluidity of the early Jesus movement:

Some people suggest that the early Christian movement was an egalitarian one.  I’m not so sure of that.  It does seem to me that when it was a marginal movement, when it was dangerous to belong to it.  [In his letters] Paul speaks of women as his fellow evangelists and teachers and patrons and friends, as he does of men. So it seems that the movement took anybody that it could get, and depended on them in ways that much more established groups, like for example, the Jewish community of a wealthy town like Sepphoris, might not have allowed.

Pagels also addresses how some church fathers attacked various women leaders in the church:

We know that Tertullian, one of the leaders of the church in Africa, spoke about a woman he called simply, ‘that viper,’ because she was baptizing people.  And he said, ‘These heretical women, how audacious they are. I mean they, they teach, they baptize, they preach, they do all kinds of things they shouldn’t do. It’s horrible, in short.’ And so we know that there was a great deal of ferment in these communities about the role of women.

According to Karen Jo Torjessen, the early Christian communities, which had been ridiculed and persecuted over the first couple centuries of existence, were trying to survive.  However, this gradual assimilation to Hellenistic cultural views limits the role of women in the early Church:

…Christian communities had gradually begun to assimilate themselves to Hellenistic culture. Jewish communities had done the same.  In their increasing desire for credibility and legitimacy, the church leaders no longer resisted the tide of culture.  Gradually they adopted Greco-Roman conventions regarding women’s proper place and behavior.  Both Jewish and Christian writers, like their pagan counterparts, argued that it was inappropriate for women to hold positions of authority in the public sphere.  For both Jewish and Christian theologians, as for pagan philosophers, the good woman was a chaste woman.  In their view, female promiscuity posed the greatest threat to women’s character.  Every aspect of female deportment should evince a concern for shame, expressed through reticence, deference toward men, and sexual restraint. (When Women were Priests, page 38)

If reticence and deference to men was symbolic of female chastity, then the flip side would also be the case: unrestrained, communicative women who did not defer to male authority were viewed as sexually promiscuous. Given these connections, it is not terribly strange that Mary Magdalene, whom some scholars believe was a teacher in her own right, was later associated with sexual scandal.  Here are some interesting notes on the how the image of Mary Magdalene became the symbolic representation in the argument over women in leadership roles in the church.

James Carroll, in his article Who was Mary Magdalene? illustrates how the New Testament only tells its readers a few things about this Mary.  She is from Magdala, a prosperous trade center on an international route, near the Sea of Galilee.  The canonical gospels inform us that Mary Magdalene was one of many Marys that followed Jesus and was the only Mary not associated with a family (for example: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, etc.).  Jesus was said to have exorcised seven demons from Mary Magdalene and, according to the text, she is also present at the crucifixion.  Intriguingly, Mary Magdalene was the first follower to see the risen Christ.  Most importantly for this discussion, Mary Magdalene is never associated, in the New Testament, with sexual deviance, prostitution, or adultery.  These associations come later.  But why?

Carroll presents us with some compelling information about how three unnamed women in the gospels (the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with perfume, the Samaritan woman at the well, the adulterous woman), all with unsavory reputations, get conflated with the image of Mary Magdalene.  The textual proximity between stories of Mary Magdalene and these unnamed women is part of the association.  The story of the woman with the “bad name” who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume in the Gospel of Luke is only one chapter away from the introduction of Mary Magdalene to text.  The Gospel of Matthew presents another version of this story but this time associates the anointing specifically with Jesus’ preparation for burial.  Jesus’ burial is usually associated with women who followed him, especially Mary Magdalene.  Carroll points out that these stories emphasize a woman with a “bad name” who owns expensive oils and perfumes which she uses, along with her uncovered hair, to wash Jesus’ feet.  The common themes here are sex and money.  However, is this enough to explain how Mary Magdalene became associated with this scandalous unnamed woman?

It was not long before the church was depicting Mary Magdalene, not as a female disciple of Jesus, but as the penitent prostitute who turned from a life of sin to follow Jesus.  Pope Gregory the first (540c.e. -604c.e.), in a famous series of sermons on Mary Magdalene, melds a series of unnamed women in the gospels into the image of Mary Magdalene.  Carroll presents us with some excerpts from Gregory’s sermons:

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?…

It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.  What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.  She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears.  She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet.  For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself.  She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.

These passages from Pope Gregory have etched an image of Mary Magdalene in minds of parishioners which is hard to erase… regardless of how many times we revisit the text.  If we return to Karen Jo Torjessen’s quotation which describes the church’s view of outspoken women as promiscuous women, we can reverse these associations here. If women were considered chaste to the extent that they were reticent, deferential toward men, and sexually restrained, then women, in this context, who are associated with promiscuity can be read as outspoken, dismissive of standard social roles, and perhaps sexually liberated.  Was Mary Magdalene conflated with these various scandalous women because she was a woman in a role dominated by men?  Was the image of penitent prostitute assigned to her, not because she was once a prostitute, but because she did not defer to the social standards of historical context?  And, would her memory have survived, if she had not been blended with these memorable, albeit scandalous, unnamed women?

Extending this to the Catholic Church today, I wonder if the Church’s reassertion of the ordination ban, with regard to women, is yet another example of the Church’s fear of females with authority?

Resources for further inquiry:

Banner picture: The Feast of the Magdalene,

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