Books discussing the relationship of Mary Magdalene to the apostles and to Jesus Christ abound. Seldom covered, however, is how the authors established that the ancient literature from which they quote actually refers to Mary Magdalene as opposed to any other Mary.
Karen King is one of the leading academics in the study of Magdalene. As she points out in a footnote in her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (2003), Mary’s identity is based on an assumption. Carl Schmidt, one of the earliest editors of the Pistis Sophia (Faith Wisdom), a fourth-century Gnostic text discovered in Egypt in the late 18th century, concluded that any unqualified references to “Mary” were to Magdalene rather than the mother of Jesus or another Mary. His assumption has automatically been transferred to other unqualified references to a Mary, both in the Gospel of Mary and in the Gnostic literature found later at Nag Hammadi. It is on this basis that current writers construct their claims regarding Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus.
The problem is that, among all of these extrabiblical texts, only the Gospel of Philip identifies a Mary as the Magdalene. Outside that one text, it is impossible to make a definitive connection.
In the English New Testament, the name “Mary” is applied to several individuals. Yet the name derives from two alternative spellings of a Greek name: Maria and Mariam. These variations are used interchangeably for any of the Marys mentioned: the mother of Jesus is called Mariam 14 times and Maria 5 times, while Mary Magdalene is called Maria 10 times and Mariam 4 times. We can know which Mary is being referred to by the addition of terms such as “mother of Jesus” or “Magdalene,” or by the context.
In the Gnostic literature, the two names occur even more randomly. Add to this the fact that a third spelling is introduced: Mariamme. And almost without exception, no additional identification or context is provided from which to identify the Mary concerned. In particular, the words Magdalene and Magdala appear nowhere in the Gospel of Mary. Some scholars have therefore argued against Schmidt’s idea and have claimed that the Mary in Pistis Sophia is really Mary the mother of Jesus. But there is no consensus on either interpretation.
Today many scholars seem to be settling for another option: no particular Mary is identified, because the name is used as a literary device to portray a composite Mary. If that is the case, then to identify Mary as Mary Magdalene is obviously inappropriate. King herself remarks that the traditional approach of conflating the various Mary figures is “a fact that should incline us to see these Marys as literary portraits, not historical figures.”
With all of this in mind, it is surprising that King nevertheless titles her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. It seems quite misleading to do so, unless, of course, there is another agenda.
Given the Gnostic predilection for syncretizing ideas from different religions, perhaps Mary’s identity should not be sought in the pages of the Bible at all but would be better pursued in the pages of Greek mythology. In fact, the Mary Magdalene who has been conveyed to the world by the Gnostics and earlier by the Roman Catholics bears a striking resemblance to Helena, the companion of Simon Magus.