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Did Mary Magdalene Preach and Do a Miracle?

I put a poll on social media asking, "Have you heard the tradition that we paint eggs at Easter because Mary Magdalene appeared before Emperor Tiberius and showed him an egg that miraculously turned red as she testified that Jesus rose?"


The result: 100% No.


I wondered why this story is largely lost to Western Christians. What rationale might there be for the Church to hide or discredit the story of Mary Magdalene's miracle before the emperor? I wrote about the lost story of Mary Magdalene's miracle in an article published by CBE International on April 4, 2024:


What does the Evidence Say?

After scouring the internet, I found many articles about this event as a story or legend, but could not find sufficient evidence to prove the story is true history. Even without full proof, I can outline evidence below that leans toward the story's possible veracity.


Consistent with Biblical Record

Firstly, the story of Mary Magdalene before the emperor does not contradict the biblical portrayal of Mary Magdalene. While her activities after the resurrection are not outlined in the Bible, the Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as a prominent disciple, patron, and first witness to the resurrection.

Claire Pfann, academic dean at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem says Mary Magdalene was an "independent woman who has discretionary time and wealth from the city of Magdala, not identified by a father or a husband" (a) Perhaps her freedom from a male guardian and her independence and wealth to travel indicate she was of the rank or status of the patrician or equestrian class. In the Roman Empire, the class system dictated your freedom and authority (b) . The Senatorial class was involved in politics and not permitted to operate a business. Those of the equestrian class, originally retired from the calvary, were most often wealthy business-owners. Those of the patrician class typically were wealthy landowners who offered financial support to lower-class freedmen or plebians (commoners).


Mary Magdalene
Samples of widespread art portraying Mary Magdalene with a red egg

Consistent with Ancient Art

Often it is art that preserves history, even when manuscripts are destroyed. The tradition of handing out red eggs at Easter originated among Eastern Christians in Apostolic times[i].

Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman of some importance who became a travelling evangelist. The tradition of handing out red eggs at Easter is one that originated among Christians shortly after the time of the Apostles[ii]


It is possible that Mary Magdalene was of the patrician rank, indicating the status and wealth to travel. The egg had already been honoured in the spring festivals of other cultures, but after Mary Magdalene's miracle, Christians used the red egg at Easter to symbolize the blood of Christ and his resurrection [iii]


The Church of St Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem contains a painting above the chancel that illustrates the widely known story of Mary testifying about Jesus before Emperor Tiberius[iv]. However, this Church was built in 1888 [v] so does not proove the story comes from ancient times.


The story of Mary Magdalene’s miracle was well-known and widespread in the early church as evidenced by many Eastern Icons of Mary Magdalene holding a red egg [vi]. Most of the earliest art icons of Mary Magdalene represent her holding a red egg in her hand[vii]. While the story goes back to ancient times, I looked at many ancient art and icons, it was difficult to find images or icons that dated to ancient times.


Mary Magdalene and Emperor Tiberius
The Monastery of St Mary Magdalene shows Mary Magdalene preaching to Emperor Tiberius

Consistent with Ancient Manuscripts


Ancient texts refer to Mary Magdalene’s determination to go to Rome and appear before the emperor:

"Mary Magdalene said, weeping: Hear, O peoples, tribes, and tongues, and learn to what death the lawless Jews have delivered Him Who did them ten thousand good deeds. Hear, and be astonished. Who will let these things be heard by all the world? I shall go alone to Rome, to the Caesar. I shall show him what evil Pilate hath done in obeying the lawless Jews." - quote from Acts of Pilate (later called the Gospel of Nicodemus) [viii] and [ix].

The Acts of Pilate is an ancient text that was not accepted into the canon of the Bible. One of the criteria for a text to be included in the Bible was that it was in harmony with the orthodox position and teachings of the church fathers [x]. Traditional church orthodoxy held that only men be priests.


It appears Mary Magdalene did go to Rome and testify before the emperor because the 3rd-century historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote that it was Mary Magdalene's preaching to Tiberius that caused Tiberius to propose to the Senate that they include Christ in the pantheon of Roman Gods [xi]


It is possible that Mary Magdalene delivered the Report of Pilate to Tiberius, also called the Anaphora Pilati, in which Pilate casts himself as innocent and the Jews as guilty of Jesus’s death[xii] The 2nd-century theologian Tertullian stated that Pontius Pilate and Emperor Tiberius both eventually "believed in Christ" and that Tiberius "held to his opinion" and threatened to punish anyone who persecuted Christians [xiii].


Roman Catholics traditionally rejected giving the Mary Magdalene the title of apostle to the apostles. In 1517, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples argued against the Catholic teaching that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute, and the theological faculty of the Sorbonne condemned him[xiv]. The Roman Catholics largely taught that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus and went with them to France where she lived in penitence in a cave [xv] In 2016, the Catholic Church acknowledged Mary Magdalene as an apostle to the apostles [xvi].


The Orthodox Church has always taught that Mary Magdalene was a virtuous disciple, an apostle to the apostles and while Mary Magdalene laboured in Rome, Paul greeted her in Romans 16:6 [xvii].


Abdu'l-Baha, head of the Baháʼí Faith in the early 1900s placed Mary Magdalene preaching to the emperor, saying that she "loosened her tongue in the city of great Rome" [xviii]. He agreed with the Orthodox tradition that Mary ministered in Rome and later Ephesus, where she died. While Abdu'l-Baha was not a Christian, he did state his belief that the custom of giving each other painted eggs at Easter came from telling Mary Magdalene's story. He also acknowledged an ancient Christian liturgy referring to the coloured eggs as a tradition passed to us from the apostles.


An ancient Greek document in the St Athanasius monastery, near Thessalonica, provides a liturgy for Easter where the officiant prays a blessing over eggs. This text indicates that the priest says the holy fathers preserved this custom from the apostles, and holy equal to the apostles Mary Magdalene showed the importance of this joyful offering.[xix].


Conclusion

We will never know for sure whether it's true that Mary Magdalene's preached to Emperor Tiberius and performed a miracle as a sign. However, the story is not inconsistent with biblical, art, or secular historic records.


The story provides a powerful sign that God anointed women as evangelists and miracle workers testifying to God's word. It confirms that women taught and preached to men and women in the early church. It is foundational to how we see women in ministry today.


This Easter, I hope you will remember Mary Magdalene and the other women apostles as you trade painted eggs and spread the word, saying, "Christ is Risen" and reply, "He is risen indeed".


 


Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with historical fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


 

(a) Alon Bernstein, Isaac Scharf, "Mary Magdalen was not a prostitute but a devoted disciple who supported Jesus financially and spiritually, scholars say", 1 April 2019, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/mary-magdalene-feminism-metoo-jesus-disciples-apostle-christianity-judaism-pope-francis-vatican-a8281731.html



[i] Filz, Gretchen, “The Story of Mary Magdalene and the First Easter Egg, April 5, 2017, https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/mary-magdalene-first-easter-egg-6029



[iii] “The Story of the First Easter Egg” Monastery Icons  https://www.monasteryicons.com/product/story-of-the-first-easter-egg/did-you-know




[vi] Jacobus of Voragine, “St. Mary Magdalene & the Red Easter Egg”, Tradition In Action, May 6, 2023, https://www.traditioninaction.org/religious/h243_Egg.htm


[vii] Hellwig, Marion, “Mary Magdalene and the Red Egg”, Magdalene Sacred Journeys, May 5, 2022, (minute 17) https://www.magdalenesacredjourneys.com/mary-magdalene-and-the-red-egg/


[viii] Kirby, Peter. “Gospel of Nicodemus: Acts of Pilate.” Early Christian Writings, www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelnicodemus-roberts.html.


[ix]  Translated by Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/08071b.htm


[x] Draper, Richard, “The Earliest ‘New Testament’”, Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Centre,  2006, Accessed March 17, 2024, https://rsc.byu.edu/how-new-testament-came-be/earliest-new-testament#_note-28


[xi] Archimandrite Makary (Veretennikov), “Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene,” trans. Nun Cornelia (Rees), Orthodox Christianity, https://orthochristian.com/122857.html. First published in Alpha and Omega Magazine, August 4, 2022, https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Makarij_Veretennikov/svjataja-ravnoapostolnaja-marija-magdalina/.

[xii] Fowler, Kimberley. “Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History II.2.1-4.” Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History II.2.1-4, 25 Feb. 2017, www.judaism-and-rome.org/eusebius-caesarea-ecclesiastical-history-ii21-4


[xiii] “Apology of Tertullian,” Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0301.htm>.


[xiv] Jane Schaberg, “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore,” Bible Review, October 1992, https://library.biblicalarchaeology.org/article/how-mary-magdalene-became-a-whore/.



[xvi] “St. Mary Magdalene, Disciple of the Lord,” Vatican News, July 22, 2016, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/saints/07/22/st–mary-magdalene–disciple-of-the-lord-.html.

[xvii] Makary (Veretennikov), Archimandrite. “Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene.” OrthoChristian.Com, Alpha and Omega magazine, 4 Aug. 2022, https://orthochristian.com/122857.html



[xix] Hellwig, Marion, “Mary Magdalene and the Red Egg”, ibid



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