Was Mary Magdalene an apostle?
There seems to be some question about whether or not Mary Magdalene really qualifies as an apostle of Christ. During the Middle Ages she was called apostola apostolorum, which, as far as I know, can be translated in two ways: “apostle TO the apostles,” and “apostle OF the apostles.” This might seem like a minor distinction, but to many people, the “devil is in the details,” as they say. Before we look at apostola apostolorum, though, it might be constructive to discuss what it takes to be an apostle in the first place.
An apostle (apostolos) is defined by Liddell and Scott in A Greek-English Lexicon as a messenger, ambassador or envoy. An apostle is someone who bears an important message.
In Christianity, there are, to my knowledge, two sets of criteria by which one could be considered an apostle. Because his are the earliest writings in the New Testament, the first definition comes from Paul, who says:
- An apostle must be a witness to the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1)
- An apostle must have received a commission from Christ (Romans 1:1)
The second set of criteria is much more restrictive, and is given in Acts 1:21,22:
- An apostle must have been part of Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, when he was baptized
- An apostle must have been a witness to the risen Christ during the time before his ascension
- An apostle must be a man
Mary Magdalene qualifies as an apostle by Paul’s criteria, as do other women, such as Junia (Romans 16:7). She most definitely wouldn’t qualify by the second set of criteria, but then again, neither would Paul. He wasn’t with Jesus’ ministry from the beginning, and he wasn’t a witness of the resurrection before Jesus’ ascension. So it seems to me that we have a logical quandry on our hands; I’m not a theologian, but strictly speaking, it appears that we can either include Mary Magdalene or exclude Paul.
Back to apostola apostolorum.
The title apostola apostolorum indicates that Mary Magdalene was accepted, at least by some, as an apostle. This could have enormous implications; if Mary Magdalene was called to be an apostle, wouldn’t that mean that women could be ordained as priests? Here is where the slight difference in translation starts making a difference.
When translated as “apostle OF the apostles,” Mary Magdalene is placed in a position of leadership, of some exaltation, sort of a “more equal” member of the group than the rest. If you think about this kind of phrasing in other contexts, say, “war of wars,” or “doctor of doctors,” you come away with a sense that one member of each group is distinguished in some way.
When translated as “apostle TO the apostles,” however, the scope of Mary Magdalene’s commission is vastly diminished. Her task takes on a rather “secretarial” connotation as a messenger to only one group of people, specifically, the male followers of Jesus. The men, in turn, had the responsibility of carrying Christ’s message to the rest of the world.
Two organizations cite Mary Magdalene’s apostleship in their lobby for the ordination of women: Women Priests, and FutureChurch. FutureChurch has done much in the last ten years to encourage a reawakening within Christianity to Mary Magdalene’s role as apostle, sponsoring and assisting in organizing Mary Magdalene feast day celebrations each July 22. (If you watch the religion section of your local newspaper around July 22, you’re likely to see announcements for such celebrations.)
All of this is based on Mary Magdalene’s identity as apostola apostolorum, and the belief that her role in announcing the resurrection was more than an empty gesture by Christ, that he chose her to carry the news. And really, even if she wasn’t specifically chosen, then she, by virtue of her love, was still the first person to be honored with such an important message. That has to count for something.
Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle, by Ann Graham Brock
Mary Magdalene: The Image of a Woman Through The Centuries, by Ingrid Maisch