There’s a mystery about Miriam

She is the woman of many faces and fascination with her continues more than two thousand years after her birth. Variously labelled saint and sinner, prostitute and preacher, temptress and teacher, disciple and demon-possessed, the woman the world knows as Mary Magdalene continues to be an enigma. Who was she? What was her relationship to Jesus? Why does the human imagination continue to re-invent her? Where did she come from and where did she go? Was she the victim of a male-dominated religion? Perhaps no other woman in history has been the cause of so many questions and controversy.


Her name was not Mary at all, but Miriam. There are several Miriams in the New Testament and one of note in the Old. In the Old Testament Miriam the prophet is a powerful woman, the sister of Moses. The Miriams of the New Testament appear to be strong women too, and there are a great many of them. Mentioned are: Miriam the Magdalene; Miriam of Bethany; Miriam the mother of Jesus; Miriam who was the sister of Jesus’ mother and also the wife of Cleophas; and Miriam the mother of James, to name just five. It would seem that Miriam was a common semitic name. It means ‘prophetess’ or ‘lady’ and author Jane Schaberg goes so far as to suggest that this multiplicity of Miriams are named after either the Prophet Miriam of the Old Testament or else after the historical figure Mariamme the Hasmonean, who was married to Herod the Great in 37 BCE and murdered by him eight years later.1 

This ‘overdose’ of scriptural Miriams was to lead to confusion of the part of those attempting to harmonise and reconcile discrepancies in the scriptures in later years. Modern scholarship points out that the gospels may have arisen from various oral traditions or preached narratives. So it is not surprising that differences and conflations of identity have taken place. Again, this raises the question as to whether the woman we know of as Mary Magdalene came at all from the town of Magdala, becoming known as ‘Mary from Magdala’. However, the word ‘migdala’ means ‘tower’ in Aramaic. It is interesting to note that preceding the time of Jesus, Herod Antipater had constructed a tower in memory of his wife Mariamme, becoming known as the Migdala Mariamme. And author and translator Jehanne de Quillan, in her little known but controversial translation of a text she claims is one treasured and preserved for centuries by the Cathars, goes so far as to suggest that Jesus honoured Miriam with the title of ‘tower’. ‘When all have abandoned me,’ Jesus says in the text, ‘only she shall stand beside me like a tower… she shall be as a tower to my flock.’2

In the end, however, the truth is hidden in the mists of time, although new and startling discoveries continue to be made. So in this article I will look briefly at some misconceptions of the past surrounding Miriam, as well as how recent discoveries might change our perceptions of her completely.


Although in the Old Testament there are notable leadership roles shown by strong women, as attested to by Miriam (Genesis), Deborah (Judges) and Abigail (Samuel), to name just three, there is no doubt Miriam was born into a deeply patriarchal world. In looking at the portrayal of women in the gospel of Luke, Schaberg points out that this is a gospel which is perhaps the most ‘dangerous’ in the Bible where women are concerned. While Luke is said to be a special ‘friend’ of women, according to Schaberg he deftly portrays them as models of subordinate service, excluded from both power as well as significant responsibilities. The female characters are portrayed as role models for women, ‘prayerful, quiet, grateful… supportive of male ministry’.3 Schaberg’s views are echoed by other authors. At the time of Jesus, woman was considered to be subordinate to man, not because she was less intelligent or less inspired, but because she was considered irresponsible and in need of protection from herself, says author Athalya Brenner.4 Supporting Brenner’s view, Donald Bloesch argues that the Hellenistic world, both Gentile and Jewish, was incurably patriarchal at the time of Jesus.5 Similarly, James Arlandson also states that under Roman rule Jewish women were typified as being domestic. Although wealth, as in the Gentile world, meant more freedom and could enable women to cross over traditional boundaries and enjoy more privileges, such as better standards of living and respect from poorer classes (at least on the face of it), no amount of money could enable them to occupy positions of political power.6

 Misconceptions about Miriam surface centuries later. In Easter week 591 Pope Gregory gave a sermon where he said: ‘She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark… And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?’ Here, Pope Gregory states that without a doubt the unnamed woman, the sinner, mentioned in Luke 7: 36-50 is, according to him, none other than Miriam, even though in Luke 8: 2 she is introduced for the very first time in this gospel.

Following on from Pope Gregory’s sermon, Miriam was to be variously cast as prostitute, possessed woman healed, and reformed penitent. Although Pope Gregory presented no factual proof as to her actual character, and although he seemingly had no intention of being malicious in any way, the damage had been done. Not only would future generations see her character as deeply flawed even though later reformed, but the claim that she was a sinner would affect women in adverse ways through centuries to come.

However, Pope Gregory does not bear the sole blame for the defamation of the character of Miriam. In the Middle Ages, following on from the typecast of Miriam as sinner, legends grew, the most notable being the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies published in 1267 by Dominican priest Jacobus de Voragine.7 Taking advantage of the medieval hunger for storytelling, compiling in an orderly manner numerous myths which already existed in haphazard style, and combining them with various gospel stories about women, Voragine wove a fanciful account of the wealth, life and times of Miriam. The more fanciful the existing myth, the more it was embroidered. In the process, Voragine created a medieval bestseller. The numerous legends which grew about Miriam would be seized on by authors and artists in the centuries which followed, and she would be variously typecast in numerous roles which would impact on both the perception and the ministry of women.


For nearly 2,000 years Christian tradition has revered the texts we know as the canonical gospels, while denouncing other texts as heretical. The writings we know of as the Nag Hammadi texts were first discovered in a cave in the deserts of Egypt in 1945. They appear to have been placed there late in the fourth century by the monks of some unknown monastic community. Even prior to the Nag Hammadi find, several other texts, discovered in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, mentioned Miriam by name. And in January 1896, a papyrus had been offered for sale in an antiquities market in Cairo. It contained the manuscript we know of as the Gospel of Mary, along with other previously unknown works. All these texts give Miriam a startlingly different role to that which is portrayed in the cannonical gospels.

According to these texts, Miriam was prominent among the followers of Jesus, and indeed exists ‘as a character, as a memory, in a textual world of androcentric language and patriarchal ideology’.8 She played a leadership role among the male disciples, speaking out boldly, but

also possessing vision and superior understanding. She is identified as an intimate companion of Jesus, which brings her into open conflict with at least two disciples, Peter and Andrew. Schaberg goes on to make the point that all these characteristics of Miriam are present in the Gospel of Mary.9 It is interesting to note, that in this gospel, rather than having seven devils cast out of her she overcomes seven ‘demons’ who would stand in the way of her attaining greater spiritual enlightenment. That Miriam was also a devoted disciple is testified to by her role in the Pistis Sophia. Here, in a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, she is an avid pupil and asks 39 of the 46 questions featured. She has been called the ‘woman who understood completely’, and one ‘possessing superior insight and vision’.10

The Miriam who emerges from these texts is also a very vulnerable human figure. For example, she is capable of tears as when in the Gospel of Mary she is dismayed by what would appear to be the jealousy and hostility of Peter. Peter says: ‘Did he [The Saviour] then speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’ Peter is supported by his brother Andrew, who states, ‘I do not believe that the Saviour said these things, for indeed these teachings are strange ideas.’ Miriam then weeps and asks if they believe she has made up the things she has told them and is telling lies about the Saviour. She is staunchly defended by Levi. It would seem that this little scene was to portray tensions which already existed in the early Church between the followers of Peter and those of Miriam.

The story of Miriam comes to represent women who have strayed from the straight and narrow everywhere. Her image was to vary from age to age, and she would be re-invented endlessly, pointing to the changing theology of each era as well as to questions about her identity and the legends which grew up around her. In art, the influence of Church teachings in medieval times showed her as penitent sinner and the embodiment of repentance.

Subsequently, artists also projected on to her their own fantasies, portraying her in a variety of images, from sensuous temptress to sober mystic. According to author Susan Haskins, her age-old association with fallen women has ‘made her a central figure in the examination of female sexuality with its connotations of sin and moral inferiority’.11 Similarly, Schaberg claims that if the Magdalene as a whore did not exist, she would have had to have been invented as a contrast to the patriarchal ideal of pure womanhood as seen in the image of the virgin Mother of Jesus.12

Author Karen King goes on to state that as a result of these diametrically opposed views of womanhood (whore or virgin) women were identified primarily according to their sexual roles and their relations to men, and used by a male hierarchy as a way to control and subjugate.13

Yet the commission given to Miriam by Jesus to ‘Go tell’ as in the Gospel of John (20:17) makes her the first preacher and indeed, she has in recent times been recognised by the Church as Apostle to the apostles. So how should we view the relatively recent discoveries of non-canonical texts, and their insights? Scholar Elaine Pagels argues that we need to see them as raising questions for the theologian and giving us a new perspective on Christianity.14

For example, in the Gospel of Mary, Miriam has a questing mind, she is valued for who she is, she is willing to learn and she rises through all that would oppose her to a greater understanding of the teachings of the Saviour. I would argue that this portrayal of her gives us a glimpse of the spirituality and insight she possessed. It shows a woman of courage, integrity and authority. Indeed, as Levi says in the gospel: ‘If the Saviour made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly, the Saviour’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.’15

In dealing with the real issues of the world we need to question assumptions about gender roles which have caused damage and suffering. Miriam walks alongside those who make this journey. As Haskins claims, Miriam ‘continues to travel with the times, once again a prototype for women… as a symbol of women’s right to resume their place and role’.16


About the Author:

Usha Hull is a retired journalist and Reader serving in the Team Ministry of Welwyn St Mary, St Albans Diocese. This article draws on research for her dissertation for a Masters of Theology degree focusing on the Mary Magdalene narratives.


  • Schaberg, , The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004) 66
  • de Quillan, , (trans and commentary), The Gospel of the Beloved Companion: The com-

plete gospel of Mary Magdalene, (Ariège: Êditions Athara, 2010) 60

  • ‘Luke’ in Women’s Bible Commentary, Schaberg, , eds. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe,

(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 363-380 (p.363)

  • Brenner, , The Israelite Woman: Social role and literary type in biblical narrative

(Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985),132

  • Bloesch, G., Is the Bible Sexist? (Illinois: Crossway Books, 1982), 94
  • Arlandson, M., Women, Class and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke – Acts

(Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 36-39

  • Fordham University, Vol 4 < Legend-Volume4.asp#Mary%20Magdalene>
  • Schaberg, 129
  • Schaberg, 129
  • Meyer, , de Boer,E.A., The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 551
  • Haskins, , Mary Magdalen: Myth and metaphor (London: HarperCollins, 1993) 365
  • Schaberg, 68
  • King, L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003), 152
  • Pagels, , The Gnostic Gospels (London: Orion Books, 2006), 154-155
  • The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, Gospel of Mary’ 18: 10-15, 745
  • Haskins, , 397