But who and what was she really? Some historians regard the quest for fact - the search for what is really or actually the case - as simplistic and naive. But such tired skepticism about historical knowledge is receding, and researchers are once more willing to ask about what happened.
The intense interest in Mary of Magdala arises in part exactly because of the lack of certain details about her life. The ambiguities make her fascinating. This is nowhere more evident than in popular culture. From medieval passion plays to popular stage musicals of the twentieth century - like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell - she has been the focus speculative narrative. Darrell Bock writes:
Mary Magdalene has always possessed a certain mystique. In the 1960s she was often the key figure in musicals about Jesus. Interest in her has not waned and reflects a curiosity that has belonged to her almost from the beginning. Part of the reason for such interest is that there are actually so little data about her. One element of a story like Mary's is that where there is very little information, there is a desire to round out the picture. Proving or disproving what is speculated about her is hard to do.
Naturally, readers are interested in the more flamboyant questions about her life: was she married? was she a prostitute? had she been possessed by demons for some segment of time? But sober historians begin with the mundane, knowing that the mundane, when carefully examined, can sometimes become rather exotic or interesting.
Magdala, where she lived, identified her. So Mary Magdalene was Mary from Magdala. Magdala is probably modern-day Migdal, located near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Jesus' main ministry took place in the Sea of Galilee area.
Mary's named is derived from either her place of birth or place of residence - or both - which simply happens to be in the region in which Jesus did some of His major work. So an accident of geography places her on the stage of world history. Had she been born in Egypt or Syria - or in India or America - we would probably have never heard of her. As to the allegation that she was a prostitute,
none of the texts we have surveyed referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. The idea is popular in some sections of the church and in the culture at large. So where did this tradition come from?
The first mention of Mary as a prostitute comes from a homily (or sermon) delivered by Pope Gregory the Great in A.D. 591. In all likelihood, this notion resulted from confusion concerning passages in the gospels of Luke and John.
The notion that Mary Magdalene may have been a prostitute appears over 500 years after her death, and over 500 years of the first written texts describing her. The late date of the allegation alone makes it unlikely to be true, and the fact that the allegation seems to have arisen from a conflation of unrelated texts greatly increases the probability that the charge is not true.
At the other end of the spectrum of speculation is the notion that somehow Mary Magdalene and Jesus were secretly married, and even had children together. This legend appears only centuries after the events, and appears to be a conflation of medieval courtly love and the post-modern embrace of pure narrative in place of historical data-driven narrative. Professor Paul Maier, of Harvard University and Switzerland's Basel University, writes:
In sober fact, Jesus never wed anyone, but for years sensationalizing scholars and their novelistic popularizers have played the role of doting mothers trying to marry of an eligible son. Now, if there were even one spark of evidence from antiquity that Jesus even may have gotten married, then as a historian, I would have to weigh this evidence against the total absence of such information either in Scripture or the early church traditions. But there is no such spark - not a scintilla of evidence - anywhere in historical sources. Even where one might expect to find such claims in the bizarre, second-century, apocryphal gospels - which the Jesus Seminar and other radical voices are trying so desperately to rehabilitate - there is no reference that Jesus ever got married.
Evidence from across the spectrum - from the most orthodox and canonical texts to the iconoclastic and unchristian texts - contains zero evidence that Mary Magdalene ever married anyone. The desire to see her in a romantic relationship has overridden reason in the case of those who manufacture such narratives. It is a tribute to the power of human imagination, and to the mystique surrounding Mary of Magdala, that otherwise rational scholars have been tempted to generate utterly unfounded speculation, and generate speculation which actually contradictions the little solid data and evidence we have about this Mary, in order to satisfy the psychological desire to see her in a satisfying romantic relationship. It is a warning to future historians about the need to calm logic and strict reasoning.