Today is the feast day of Mary Magdalene sometimes called Mary of Magdala. She is one of the most important figures in early Christianity although, being a woman, her role can be overshadowed by contemporary men. We need to make sure we have a more balanced perspective. Reading the earliest texts carefully, notably certain passages in the Greek Bible, it is clear that the ministries of Jesus and Paul could not have succeeded without the support of women. In other words, women ensured the survival and development of the early church, but the part they played goes virtually unnoticed nowadays. Mary Magdalene was pivotal in that role.
Her name in the Greek Bible is “Maria the Magdalene (of Magdala) (ἡ Μαγδαληνή).” Her given name, Maria, is the Latin form of the Greek name Mariam, which, in turn, represents the Aramaic/Hebrew name Miriam, a very popular name in Jesus’ time – hence the need to add “of Magdala” to distinguish her from other Marys. I think it is unfortunate that so many names in the Greek Bible have come down to us as English transliterations of Greek attempts to spell Hebrew words. The Greek and Hebrew alphabets are so different that the Greek versions of Hebrew names are virtually unrecognizable. Jesus, for example, is the best the Greeks could do with the Hebrew version of Joshua, Yehoshua. So Mary Magdalene would have been known in her day (in Aramaic) as “Miriam from Magdala.” Magdala is believed to have been located on the Sea of Galilee near modern Khirbet Medjdel.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the gospels which is more times than most of the apostles (the exceptions being Peter, James, and John). For a woman to get that much air time in a patriarchal world means that she was very significant. Key passages in the gospels indicate, first, that she was a leading follower of Jesus (all citations from NRSV):
“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” (Luke 8:1-3)
Second, that she witnessed the crucifixion:
“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25)
Third: that she witnessed the burial of Jesus:
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61)
Fourth, that she was the first of the disciples to see the tomb on Easter morning:
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18)
We can argue endlessly about the accuracy and intentions of Biblical stories, obviously, but we cannot escape the fact that if we take nothing else from these passages we can at the very minimum conclude that Mary Magdalene was a vital member of the earliest Christian community. Even if we strip these quotations down to the barest bones and eliminate those parts that require an element of faith, I think it is reasonable to conclude that Mary was one of a group of women who followed Jesus and took care of certain basic needs such as food and shelter, that she was not only loyal to Jesus, but had the courage to stand by at dreadful moments, and that she had an important evangelical role to play after the crucifixion. These are the kinds of fundamental details that would not have been reported of a woman unless they were grounded in some kind of historical fact.
A great deal of speculation and historically questionable folklore has grown up around Mary Magdalene, and is remarkably persistent despite utter lack of evidence. For centuries she was branded as a reformed prostitute, even though there is nothing in the gospels to support this notion. If anything she appears to be a woman of means. Prurient modern minds want to make her into Jesus’ lover or even wife. That is the modern mind at work. Even wilder is the attempt to cast Mary as the mother of Jesus’ child, a fantasy that began in the 13th century and which has become part of a growing tradition in modern literature and film. The idea undoubtedly sells books, but it is totally without merit.
More measured scholarship suggests that Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and possibly the leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women’s leadership. At the very least she was a powerful supporter of Jesus after his death. As such she deserves a more prominent place in Christian history than she receives. Mary’s position within the development of the early church cannot be emphasized enough, and should not be cheapened with silly innuendo about a relationship with Jesus. Without women such as her, Christianity (by which I mean the gospel of love) would have died.
The French madeleine and the Spanish cupcake, the magdalena, have often been associated with Mary Magdalene purely because of the names — both being variants of Magdalene. It is probable that madeleines are named for a pastry chef but there is no agreement on this matter. Some sources say they may have been named for a 19th century pastry cook, Madeleine Paulmier, but other sources have it that Madeleine Paulmier was a cook in the 18th century for Stanislaw Leszczynski, whose son-in-law, Louis XV of France, named them for her. Whatever the origin, the link between madeleines and Mary Magdalene has stuck.
Madeleines are also famous because of a well known reference in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (sometimes called the “madeleine episode”):
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
To make madeleines you will need a madeleine pan or two. These give the cakes their distinctive scalloped bottom. They are easily found in good cooking stores or online. Typically one pan has 12 molds.
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup butter, melted and cooled (clarified but liquid)
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Grease and flour 24 Madeleine molds.
In a medium bowl beat the eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar. Beat for 5 to 7 minutes or until thick and satiny.
Sift together the flour and baking powder. Sift ¼ of the flour mixture over the egg mixture, gently fold in. Fold in the remaining flour by quarters. Then fold in the melted and cooled butter.
Spoon the batter into the prepared molds, filling ¾ full.
Bake at 375°F (190°C) for 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges are golden and the tops spring back.
Cool in molds on a rack for 1 minute. Loosen the madeleines with a knife and then invert them on to a rack and cool.
Sift confectioners’ sugar over the tops, or melt semi-sweet chocolate chips and dip the tips in the chocolate.
Store in an airtight container.