Mary MagdaleneHanging in our basement, next to a Lego model of the Apollo 11 lunar lander, is the front page of a Chicago Tribune, dated July 21, 1969. The headline: “GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.” Last year, the United States celebrated 50 years since that incredible day when Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface and announced, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Having majored in journalism, I collect famous front pages of newspapers. But if someone were to ask me what was the greatest news headline ever, I wouldn’t say the moon landing…or the victory over Germany in World War II…or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If someone asked me what the greatest headline of all time might be, I’d go with the news delivered by Mary Magdalene.

Okay, so Mary Magdalene wasn’t a reporter in the traditional sense. She didn’t work for a major news organization, and she didn’t make a living as a first-century journalist. But let’s face it, there weren’t any news organizations in Israel at the time. In Rome, news was announced on posted notices or proclaimed orally by criers of sorts.

I pick Mary Magdalene’s announcement because she declared that Jesus had risen—the greatest news scoop in the history of world. In fact, Mary Magdalene was also the first person in the world to speak with the risen Lord, which is why some call her the First Herald of the Risen Lord.

Not bad for a woman who was once controlled by seven demons. She came a long way.

Mary Magdalene has gotten a bum rap over the years. For two thousand years, rumors and stories about Mary Magdalene have run rampant. But here’s what we know about her from the Bible:

  • She was delivered from seven demons. (Luke 8:2-3)
  • She stood at a distance and watched Jesus die on the cross. (Mark 15:40)
  • Accompanied by Salome and Mary the mother of James, she brought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body, but they found an empty tomb and an angel instead. (Mark 16)
  • She ran like the wind to the disciples’ house to report that Jesus had risen. (John 20:1-2)
  • She ran back to the tomb with Peter and the “other disciple.” After the two men left, she lingered behind, weeping. That’s when she saw and talked with the risen Jesus. (John 20:3-18)
St. Peter's fish, a tilapia, is a common dish along the Sea of Galilee.
Saint Peter’s fish, a tilapia, is a common dish along the Sea of Galilee.

She is known as Mary Magdalene because she came from the city of Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and nestled at the foot of Mount Arbel. Some scholars connect Magdala to an ancient village known as Taricheae, which means “the place of salted fish.”

Magdala was all about the fish. The area still is very fishy today, as my wife, Nancy, and I discovered when we dined near Magdala. For the first time in my life, I ate a fish that could wink at me. The fish kept its eye on me the entire meal. The Sea of Galilee is famous for its tilapia, known as Saint Peter’s fish, so Nancy and I savored this delicious meal, although I lost the staring contest with my food.

The Magdala stone may have been a podium used to teach from in synagogues.
The Magdala stone may have been the base of a podium used to read the Torah from in synagogues.

Strolling through the archaeological ruins of Magdala, we saw the remains of a synagogue that Jesus had most likely been to—a synagogue with the remains of a gorgeous mosaic floor. We also saw the famous Magdala stone, a block of engraved stone that is believed to have served as the base for a reading table, from which the Torah scrolls were read..

The Magdala archaeological site is known for several wonderfully preserved mikvehs, a short series of steps leading into a small ritual pool—a holy swimming pool you might say. Many laws governed the construction of a mikveh, which men and women used to become ritually purified.

This mikveh in Magdala was once used for purification rituals.
This mikveh in Magdala was once used for purification rituals.

For instance, the water had to be deep enough to completely immerse a person’s body, and the water must come from a natural source, such as a spring. Every part of your body, including the hair, must become saturated with water. This sparked some controversy about whether you should immerse yourself when your hair is still braided. Some believe you must comb out your hair before immersing yourself in a mikveh, so that every strand gets wet.

Which brings us back to Mary Magdalene.

The Bible says nothing about Mary using a mikveh for purification. But it does make clear that Mary was spiritually purified when she was delivered from seven demons.

Jesus purified her life, and He didn’t need a mikveh to do it.

Jesus constantly rebuked the Pharisees for being more concerned about cleansing the outside, ignoring the spiritual cleansing from within. In Luke 11:37-41, Jesus dined with Pharisees, who criticized him for not washing his hands first. He shot back that “you Pharisees” are more concerned about cleaning the outside of the body than cleaning the inside, which is full of “greed and wickedness.”

Mary Magdalene probably knew from experience that being cleansed from the inside is vastly more important. This isn’t to knock the mikveh. It’s still a poignant ritual, as long as you understand that an inner purification goes deeper. After her purification from demons, Mary Magdalene’s life changed forever. She followed the Nazarene all the way to the foot of the cross and then to an empty tomb.

At first, Mary didn’t recognize the risen Jesus outside of the tomb. Maybe she had her head down because she was weeping. Or maybe her eyes were too filled with tears to focus. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” the Book of John says she turned to look at him and cried out, “Rabboni!”—which means “teacher.”

Mary swiftly carried this news to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she shouted.

So, there’s your news headline—the greatest headline in history. I HAVE SEEN THE LORD! The moon landing headline pales in comparison. When Mary ran to the disciples carrying this glorious news, you might even say, “That’s many small steps for a woman. One giant leap for mankind.”

Also…one giant leap for womankind. Mary Magdalene reminds us of that.

By Doug Peterson

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