Possessed of Seven Devils: Images of the Magdalene in the New Testament, The Apocrypha, and Gnosticism
West, Emily Blanchard
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We have now seen how a minor biblical figure, that of Mary Magdalene, has been vastly reinterpreted by no less than four major religious traditions, all associated with the Western Church. There is the popular Mary Magdalene, the voluptuous penitent, a contribution from the Church Fathers, who used her as a symbol of the beauty of repentance and conversion. Such an alluring image easily overshadows the New Testament evidence for the 'historical' Mary Magdalene. In the biblical figure upon which the popular tradition rests, we find little evidence for the Magdalene's supposed youth, beauty, or past sinfulness. The New Testament portrait of Magdalene was probably meant to be one of an older woman of independent means who experienced a religious conversion after being healed by Jesus. Her place in the Bible is really only significant in John, but she was important enough to be mentioned in all the gospels. As a satellite to the canonical Magdalene, there is the Magdalene who occasionally appears in the Apocrypha, but generally as a minor character brought in to fill a position, not as a central figure. Finally, there is the Magdalene of Gnosticism. The Gnostics seemed to have found that in the Magdalene of the Gospel of John they had found a representative of their faith, an allegory for their own struggle with the rest of Christianity, and their search to achieve gnosis. In addition to this, the Gnostics may have allowed women a larger place in their movement, and relieved them from some of the stigma of original sin. The Gnostics had more of a feminine presence in the theology, and in their dialogues they make use of many forms of sexual imagery. All the above Gnostic traits combined to make the Magdalene described in the Gnostic gospels a very rich and intriguing character. Doubtless, if all of the Marys, along with their biblical predecessor, were to somehow become incarnate and be introduced to one another, it is unlikely that they would even be able to recognize themselves. Each group and system has created their own version of the woman, and used her to represent certain aspects of their faith or view of the world.