Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

Men are raised to be independent. We’re surrounded by role models who tend to go it on their own and rely only on themselves for strength and success. Independence is a prized trait in our culture, and it’s particularly so for men.

In many ways, Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians all over the world celebrate this weekend, is a role model for the independent and self-sufficient man. He never married, relied on a few other men who were not peers but “followers,” and spent extensive time in solitude and interior prayer. While his teachings emphasized reliance on God, his life emphasized reliance on no one else. He was an “only” child, the “only” son, the “only” one who could save his people, Israel. Jesus did it alone.

Except he didn’t.

We need look no further than the gospel accounts to see that far from being solitary, Jesus was actually a man of deep relationships who both gave and received the love of other men and women as the sustaining force of his life.

At no time in the story of his life was it more clear that he didn’t do it alone than at the very time most religious leaders emphasize as his solitude and abandonment: the crisis and tragedy of his death. Jesus enters or comes near to Jerusalem, withdraws with his friends to celebrate the Passover, predicts his betrayal at the hands of Judas, and finds himself abandoned by his most loyal followers, who scatter in cowardice.

With one exception. At the time of his death, one person appears in all the gospel narratives, and only one: Mary of Magdala. And, similarly, at the time of his resurrection, in all of the gospel narratives, one person and only one appears as the first to be with him: Mary of Magdala. In this man’s moments of his most extreme vulnerability, he was supported, sustained, and accompanied by one consistent friend: a woman, Mary Magdalene.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this narrative detail. For the gospel writers to give a woman this level of prominence in describing the crucial events of the formation of the Christian community indicates an inescapable concurrence: Mary Magdalene, not any of the eleven male apostles, was the closest friend of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, not the others, was his most loyal friend. Mary Magdalene, not the others, was the first to understand the idea of resurrection. Somehow, Mary Magdalene — and apparently no one else — stayed the course with him in the journey from life to death and back to life again.

Apparently, Jesus needed her — and she him.

Mary was a source of strength for Jesus as he passed from the pain of death into the triumph of life.

For generations, Christians discounted the obvious importance of Mary Magdalene’s role because she was thought to be a prostitute and moralizers felt it scandalous to associate her closely with Jesus. Others were surely motivated to overlook her because of an insidious bias against women. Still others, looking for shock value, tried to elevate her importance by claiming she was a sexual partner and possibly the secret wife of Jesus. (The craze around The Da Vinci Code a few years back is only the most recent example of a distortion of her character.) And because of these distortions, Christians have tended to move past her or, worse, ignore her.

But while the gospel accounts suggest that she was neither a prostitute nor a wife, they do show that she was the first among friends. Recent scholarship by the superb theologian Cynthia Bourgeault further corroborates this status using non-biblical sources from the period. In one, the Peter expresses explicit deference to her: “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not.”

Bourgeault also suggests that Mary was a source of strength for Jesus as he passed from the pain of death into the triumph of life. In the moments of his darkness, there was Mary — standing, holding his spirit and love in her own heart as he faced  agony. And there too was Mary on the other side of the “harrowing of hell” — on the other side of his descent into the abyss, awaiting his restoration into new life. Is it possible that “Holy Saturday” — the day between the pain of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter — is the day to celebrate that most human of journeys: the journey from loss to healing that is always nurtured by relationships of love?

None of us is independent — even the greatest among us need others to define and complete our lives.

Perhaps Jesus and Mary were trying to communicate a message about God that we are all too quick to dismiss: even God is not “independent,” but instead vulnerable, fragile, and in love with us. Perhaps God needs us just as much as we need God. Perhaps that’s the message of love that undergirds all religions — that in the mystery of consciousness and community, the universe is one giant experience of unity, and we’re all in it together.

As Christians around the world celebrate the liberating mystery at the center of their beliefs, it would be good to refresh our view of Jesus’ relationships and of his closest friend, Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he was not so “independent” after all.  Perhaps the two of them were in a relationship that was the center of their shared self-discovery.

In the gospel of John, Mary first understands that Jesus — like all of us — is not defeated by death when she hears him say one word: “Mary.” Take note: it is when she feels named and seen by another that she understands that life is eternal.

In a special way, men especially would be wise to recognize the importance of the relationships in their lives and see not only Jesus’ triumph but also the friends and relationships that sustained him. None of us is independent — even the greatest among us need others to define and complete our lives. It would be good and holy to begin to recognize Mary Magdalene’s love anew, and in so doing to recognize that all of us need to be held in our many passings from darkness to light.

Timothy Shriver
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  • Susan Senator

    I’m not Christian but I find this incredibly moving. I love hearing about what these important figures were like as people.

  • Carl Atteniese

    Nice article, Mr. Shriver. I have to say–however–that your glossing over of scholarship (which I dare say misleads), in your comment that mention of Jesus’ wife is just for shock value–is a point I resent. You make a gross and misleading generalization therein. Are you not aware of the recent scholarship from a professor at Harvard which indicates a passage of scripture I which Jesus is quoted as saying, “my wife should be able to serve…”? You may move to say this does not indicate he was married, or that he might have been in the midst of conjecture. However, that would not hurt my argument–as you will intellectually and honestly admit to yourself.

    • Doug Wilkening

      The main problem as I see it with the “Jesus’ Wife” manuscript is that there are numerous texts dating from the first century that are known to have been written as entertainment fiction, some of them including religious characters, and there were of course numerous heretical manuscripts written by apostates or opponents of the Christian sect who had various axes to grind. The text could easily be one of those.

      The challenge faced by the Wifeys is to somehow show that their text was recognized as non-fiction and as honest by persons who had some firsthand knowledge of either Jesus himself or his apostles or his first-generation disciples, or at least who had some acquaintance with the author or the source of the text. Absent that, all we have is a piece of writing that could have been a work of fiction or an opposition cult’s broadside.

      One of the reasons that conservative Christians consider the canonical works to be reliable and the non-canonical works to be less so is the record of the writings of the early Church fathers detailing their struggles with establishing the veracity of the early manuscripts. An early criterion for veracity was whether or not the manuscript was likely written by a person, such as a first generation disciple, who had the means to know whether his facts were true, and whether the source was generally believed to be credible – that is, the source’s contemporary reputation. The early fathers were best positioned in both time and geography to make these determinations, better positioned than we are, and that’s why we defer to their judgement if there’s no overriding evidence to the contrary, and why we accept the canon and reject the non-canonical texts.

      • Carl Atteniese

        Thank you for a very enlightening response. In light of your latter comments regarding textual accuracy, what do you think about the evidence presented in Dr. Ehrman ‘ s work showing discrepancies, inaccuracies, and forgeries–and perhaps more importantly–what do you make of his assumption that with so many, we may not be able to much stock in more of the Bible than that among its which has been proven to be in error?

  • Stephen Corbin

    Jesus was quite aware that making his disciples publicly prominent by assigning them formal and even hierarchical roles would ultimately put them at mortal risk before they would be able to spread the triuthof his resurrestion. No doubt, formal recognition of a woman like Mary Magdalene would have put her at that same risk, in addition to risk of resentment by the disciples, all male. Can we imagine that there were conversations between Mary and Jesus that went beyond what is in the bible? Questions and answers, truths and hope? Could she have been a confidant, as much as a human could be to the son of God? We will likely never know based on science or sholarship. But, there is some inkling of the special relationship from what has been recorded. Mary is an anchor who invites us to now discuss the sacred purpose that Jesus had for the siaints, including the female saints.

  • nwcolorist

    Interesting and thought-provoking article.

    It’s clear that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ most passionate female follower. She received the distinction of being the first person to see Him after the resurrection. A great honor, in light of the cultural bias against women. Claiming that Jesus valued her friendship above others might be more difficult to support.

    The thought that she would be praying for Him during the trial and Crucifixion, and that these prayers helped comfort Him, seems very human and reasonable. And other women might also be doing this also. He seemed to have a large number of women attending to His needs during tose last three years.

    The wife theory seems to have the no credibility.