According to John 20:1, the first witness to the resurrection is Mary Magdalene, who visited the tomb very early on Sunday morning. Who is this Mary?

The name “Magdalene” indicates she was from a town in Galilee, Magdal about a mile north of Tiberias. The name means “tower” and is called “fish tower” in the Talmud, perhaps indicating that it was associated with exporting fish from Galilee. The town may have been as large as 40,000 in the first century and predominantly Gentile (ABD, 4:579).

According to Luke 8:2 Jesus healed Mary “from seven evil spirits,” otherwise she only appears in the resurrection stories in Matthew and Mark. Luke only says that demons went out of her, but it safe to assume that Jesus was the exorcist.

According to a sixth century tradition, Mary was the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50 (and Mary of Bethany, John 11:1-12:8, Luke 10:38-42). This is possibly due to the fact that Magdal had a reputation for as a sinful town in Midr. Lam 2:2. It is possible that a Jewish woman living in a Gentile town was there to work as a prostitute, although there is no reason to assume that is the case. There is nothing in the Bible to support the idea that she was a prostitute or adulterous, only that she had been demon possessed.

Mary has become popular in contemporary culture as a female disciple of Jesus on the same level as Peter and the Twelve. The real problem for this view is that the New Testament does not present her as part of the inner circle. These popular readings of Mary are based on Gnostic literature, include the Gospel of Peter and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (both date to about A.D. 200) and the Gospel of Philip (third century A.D.), which describes Mary as the disciple whom Christ loved more than all the others.

There is a longstanding Gnostic tradition that Jesus and Mary had a romantic relationship and that they were secretly married and had a child. This child begins a kind of “Jesus dynasty,” a secret line of Jesus which existed for centuries. This sort of thing turns up in the Da Vinci Code and other conspiracy-mined entertainment. There is little evidence for this, what evidence does exist is strained at best.

Still it is remarkable that this woman is the first to visit the empty tomb in John’s gospel. Since it is still early in the morning, Mary cannot see into the tomb, only that the stone has been moved away from the entrance. She assumes that the body has been disturbed, perhaps that the tomb has been robbed. She returns to the place where Peter and the others are staying, presumably the upper room) and reports that the tomb has been opened.

If one were to invent the story of the resurrection, Mary would be a poor choice for first witness to the empty tomb. As a woman her testimony would be questioned, and even in the story as we read it in John, she misunderstands what has happened and assumes (as most people would) that someone has moved the body of Jesus, likely to prevent the disciples from venerating the tomb of their prophet.

What are the ramifications of the “first witness” being a woman with a potentially tarnished reputation?