Featured Reviews, VOLUME 12

Margaret Arnold – The Magdalene in the Reformation [Feature Review]

[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0674979990″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/41DG5MtQozL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”221″]An Army of Eloquent Magdalenes
A Feature Review of

The Magdalene
in the Reformation.

Margaret Arnold.

Harvard University Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Mary Magdalene is one of the most paradoxical and puzzling characters in the gospels, four books admittedly filled with paradoxical and puzzling characters. She is admired and vilified, held up as a model of faithfulness and denigrated as an exemplar of women’s sexual sinfulness. Much contemporary and historical interpretation of her role, though, depends on readers conflating Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) and with the repentant sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Such conflation is understandably tempting, given how little the Bible says about any of these women, if not entirely logical. In The Magdalene in the Reformation, Margaret Arnold provides an excellent analysis of interpretations of Mary Magdalene from the end of the medieval period through the Reformation.

The common assumption has been that like most saints, Mary Magdalene receded in importance among the reformers who eventually became Protestants. Arnold devotes her opening chapter to a summary of the place of Mary Magdalene within theology and devotional practices during the middle ages. Subsequent chapters demonstrate that she continued to receive significant attention throughout the Reformation, perhaps because the stories that concern her are ambiguous enough to provide not simply readings of her but also many readings onto her. Two early chapters trace shifting interpretations of her actions within Lutheran and evangelical reformers. Then Arnold explores how the Catholic Counter Reformation responded to Protestant readings of the Magdalene—not surprisingly, the distinct emphases of Protestant and Catholic responses mirrored their debates on the meanings of faith and work. In an additional chapter, Arnold discusses how Catholic women specifically responded to this character. The book continues with two additional chapters analyzing later Protestant responses, including Calvin and his descendants, Anabaptists, and Quakers. Arnold’s conclusion summarizes the influence Mary Magdalene has had and continues to exert on Christian theology and piety.

In chapter one, “The Medieval Magdalene: Establishing a Cult of Personality,” Arnold explores sources of legends that had grown up around this saint, relying on sermon collections, the Gnostic gospels, medieval biographies, visual art, and passion plays, as well as other scholarly sources. Indeed, Arnold’s facility with such a range of sources is one of the book’s most prominent strengths. Some of these legends will likely seem far-fetched to 21st century readers, e.g. that the wedding at Cana celebrated the marriage of Mary Magdalene and John the apostle. A number of medieval saints pointed to the Magdalene as a primary influence on their lives, and the frequency with which she is discussed in written material of the period suggests that she exerted, even if primarily via priestly interpretation—influence on lay believers also.

One might wonder why this Mary, of all the characters in the Bible, retained such influence over Protestants and Catholics alike. The answer seems to be that it was Mary to whom the risen Christ first appeared, making her an apostle to the apostles and an evangelist in her own right. Various theologians and ordinary Christians would emphasize different aspects of her life, but no one could refute her significance given the resurrection narratives. As the medieval period shifted into the Renaissance and early modernism, interpretations of Mary Magdalene would reinforce not only debates between emerging Protestants and Catholics over the relationships between faith and works, as I’ve noted above, but also over the proper role of women within Christianity. If Mary Magdalene could preach to the apostles, couldn’t other women also preach to other men? Some reformers would eventually answer “yes” to that question, though most would reject such a proposition. In response to this question, reformers distinguished themselves not because they reached different conclusions, therefore, but by how they reached the same conclusion.

In chapter two, “Teacher of the Dear Apostles: Lutheran Preaching on Mary Magdalene,” Arnold focuses on the tendency of Luther and his followers to align the Magdalene’s role with a theology of “faith alone.” Whether discussing Mary as a repentant sinner or as a witness to the resurrection, Luther stressed her faith and grace as given rather than earned: “the Magdalene is a model for an evangelical kind of contrition, one that has been separated from any consideration of merit based on works of penance…An important distinction in the new theology of absolution makes it clear that forgiveness is not earned, but that gratitude could create a joyful response in the believer. Thus, the evangelical reading of Luke 7 does not portray Mary’s great self-humiliation as so impressing Christ that he forgives her, but rather his generosity summons her great love” (48). Chapter three examines how evangelical women specifically responded to Mary Magdalene, adopting her as a model and aligning her actions with Luther’s emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” in order to assert their own religious authority. Arnold includes a variety of specific women in this chapter, from wives of clergymen such as Katharina Schütz Zell to Elizabeth I.

Following a similar pattern, Arnold devotes two chapters to the Counter Reformation, one analyzing the renewed Catholic emphasis on the Magdalene’s repentance, followed by a chapter discussing responses by Catholic women who, because of the more rigid Catholic hierarchy, encountered a greater necessity of reconciling tensions between their own insights and the teachings of the male clergy. Arnold provides a particularly detailed discussion of Teresa of Avila, recognized today for her learning through her designation as a Doctor of the Church. In these chapters, Arnold relies more fully on visual art and poetry for insights into contemporaneous understandings of Mary Magdalene, and her readings of both are interesting and informed.

As the Reformation progressed, it became increasingly diverse, and more radical differences emerged between the Reformers and the Roman Church, as well as among distinct Protestant sects. These differences are predictably illustrated in their varying responses to Mary Magdalene, as Arnold discusses in the two chapters preceding her conclusion. Calvin interpreted the Magdalene’s actions less as a demonstration of what women could (and perhaps should) do than as a critique of how Jesus’ male followers had responded. In contrast to Luther, Calvin also discounted Mary’s tears, seeing them as a sign of weakness rather than sincerity. Arnold singles out one group, the Anabaptists, for their comparative lack of attention to Mary Magdalene. She finds their silence in response to this saint as consistent with their silence on many other theological matters; because they were so often persecuted, their silence was strategic rather than necessarily indicative of a lack of interest. Quakers, on the other hand, “adopted the Magdalene to argue boldly and openly for women’s religious leadership” (213). In the Quakers, we find more widespread agreement with the assertions women in other denominations had made, relying on Mary Magdalene’s preaching, about the appropriate role of women in the church.

Arnold concludes her book with a clarion call: “An army of eloquent Magdalenes has carried the message of the Gospel through the centuries, despite facing violence, oppression, insult, and mockery. The church owes them its life” (243). Many would argue that the Reformation isn’t over, and the interpretations of Mary Magdalene that Arnold analyzes can all be found within contemporary Christianity. The Magdalene in the Reformation provides a systematic explanation of these various and sometimes oppositional interpretations. The book is astonishing in its breadth and its depth. It is well researched without being pedantic, thorough yet concise, and quite simply enjoyable to read.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

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