The first apostle was a woman

The twelve were with Jesus, 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

For centuries, popular portraits of Mary Magdalene made her out to be a prostitute. She more likely was a woman of exceptional character and conviction. Luke says “seven demons” had gone out of Mary, perhaps indicating that she was a survivor of mental illness, abuse or trauma. Christian imagination unfairly conflated Mary Magdalene with the woman of suspect reputation who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36–50).

The synagogue found at Magdala in 2009 had stone benches against the outside walls, and some floor mosaics survive.

The synagogue found at Magdala has stone benches against the outside walls (in the far room), and some floor mosaics survive.

Archeologists recently excavated a place that Mary Magdalene probably knew well: a first-century synagogue at the village of Magdala on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Discovered in 2009 when a hotel was under construction, the synagogue and adjacent buildings at last are open to the public. Only part of the floor and foundation of the synagogue are intact. But with just six synagogues from the biblical era remaining in all of Israel-Palestine, the place is priceless.

In the first century Magdala was a fishing village on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee.

In the first century Magdala was a fishing village on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was based at Capernaum during his Galilean ministry. Disciples Philip, Andrew and Peter came from Bethsaida.

We cannot be certain that Magdala was Mary’s hometown, but her name makes the connection probable. The Gospels tell of Mary’s extraordinary devotion to Jesus. She apparently was a person of some means who, along with other women, funded the itinerant ministry of Jesus and the twelve (Luke 8:1-3). Among the women financiers was none other than the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod Antipas! Did “that fox” know his steward’s household was helping to fund Jesus?

When the four Gospels name women disciples, Mary Magdalene usually comes first. She is the only disciple recorded as being present at the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels of Mark and John indicate that the risen Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene. She carried the news that Jesus was alive to the rest of the disciples in Jerusalem, an act for which Early Church authors called her the “apostle to the apostles.” Mary Magdalene was the first apostle.

It is possible that Mary Magdalene and other women in the disciple band had their profiles diminished by a patriarchal church. Nowhere is such devaluation more evident than in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (second century AD). When Peter asks Jesus about Mary Magdalene’s role in the kingdom of God, this Gospel has Jesus say, “I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Gospel of Thomas 114).

Let the church today repent of devaluing women as disciples and leaders. Let us restore Mary Magdalene to the position she deserves: the first apostle, the natural leader of the women who followed Jesus just like Peter was natural leader of the men.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************

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One thought on “The first apostle was a woman

  1. Interesting writing. But to call Mary Magdelene an ‘apostle” is that accurate? Isn’t an “apostle” one who establishes churches and then visits and writes to them to help encourage and solve any problems they are having? Is there evidence that she did this? I once visited Santiago de Compostela in Spain where the apostle James’ bones are said to rest just as an example of how far the apostles may have travelled to spread the gospel, but Mary? I’ve never heard her called an apostle or anything about her ever travelling as Paul did.

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