Of seven women named “Mary” in the New Testament, one—called “Mary Magdalene”—has evolved into a figure of great mystery. Once assumed to be a repentant prostitute, she was otherwise cast as a probable madwoman then invented in turn as Jesus’s favorite disciple, his wife, and even the mother of his child—portrayals so fascinating they have apparently inspired multiple forgers.
Now we will attempt to divine the real woman—using an approach that is both minimalist and analytical. We will sift through the proliferating portrayals looking for telltale clues, and we will not hesitate to use psychology as a modern tool to achieve a profile that is as accurate as possible—a new look at an old character.
The Biblical Passages
Mary, it is usually assumed, came from Magdala (originally a Hellenistic city of the second century BCE) on the northwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Because Magdal in Aramaic (or Migdal in Hebrew) means “tower,” Mary’s name could be interpreted as “Mary who is like a tower,” with various accompanying speculations.1 For instance, some think her name could mean that she was “a stately woman, tall and self-possessed,”2 or possibly even like a “lighthouse, … a beacon at night … a visionary.”3
The Bible establishes Mary as a Galilean follower of Jesus. She is mentioned just fourteen times (Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; and John 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18). Specifically, two passages (Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2) tell of Jesus driving out “seven devils” from her. Then she accompanies him during his mission in Galilee. But other passages are specific and crucial: she attended his crucifixion, watched to see where he was buried, and—of greatest significance—was first to witness his resurrection (Mark 16:9 and John 20:11–18).
Otherwise, Mary has been confounded with the unnamed “sinner” in Luke (7:37–50) who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears of repentance and wiped them with her long hair. Therefore, since a homily that was delivered by Pope Gregory in 591,4 Mary Magdalene was long believed to have been a prostitute. Other such confusions, and worse, have cropped up.
We will return to discussing the status of Mary Magdalene when we take up her role as the first witness to the resurrection and at the same time assess her true nature. But first let us consult some other possibilities about her identity.
In addition to the New Testament Gospels, there are also several Gnostic Gospels, in some of which Mary Magdalene is featured. These include Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene], the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Thomas. Interestingly, Philip describes Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s Koinonos—Greek for “companion,” “consort,” or even “wife.” And Thomas portrays her, observes Michael Haag, “as a visionary, as the woman who ‘knows all’ and as the ‘inheritor of light.’”5
Closer to us in time are verses in a highly questionable Secret Gospel of Mark that supposedly prove (as other sources had suggested) that Mary Magdalene was from Bethany, indeed was a sister of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:1–44). That partial Gospel was “discovered” by Morton Smith at Mar Saba, an isolated Greek Orthodox monastery near Jerusalem, but several scholars (including me) believe it is a probable modern forgery.6
If that is so, the work is betrayed by a lack of provenance (historical record) coupled by the fact that the text is only available by photograph. Thus, neither the ink can be tested nor the handwriting examined properly by stereomicroscope for evidence (say of being slowly drawn or suspiciously retouched—possible signs of forgery). Moreover, the verses of Secret Mark (as it is nicknamed) were copied onto the endpapers of a seventeenth-century printed book. Because forgers typically lack suitable paper (or papyrus, parchment, etc.), they often resort to the trick of “discovering” a text penned on a book’s blank pages. As if to underscore use of this suspect method for Secret Mark, the volume in question is now conveniently lost.7
(Among such writings I have exposed as fakes are alleged “Charles Dickens” notes on the flyleaf of an 1825 dictionary; amateurish “W. H. Bonney” [Billy the Kid] writings in a sheriff’s office book, improvised from a used autograph album; and a purported “Jack the Ripper diary” penned in an old scrapbook, with its previously used leaves crudely excised. See my book Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication.8)
There is also a popular conspiracy theory involving Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It was spread by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2004), which drew heavily on the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail.9 The latter, a work of pseudohistory, argues that Jesus was not only married to Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a child, but even that he may have survived the crucifixion. The book claims the marriage thus began a bloodline leading to a French dynasty that ruled what is today France from 481 to 751.
Evidence of the holy bloodline was supposedly found in a trove of parchment documents discovered by Bérenger Saunière, the priest of Rennes-le-Château in the Pyrenees. The secret had been kept by a shadowy society known as the Priory of Sion. Alas, however, the parchments were part of a hoax perpetrated by a man named Pierre Plantard. He commissioned a friend to create fake parchments that he then used to concoct the bogus priory story in 1956.10
Then there is The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. On September 18, 2012, Harvard history professor Karen L. King presented a papyrus fragment penned in ancient Coptic that is the only known such text to quote Jesus referring explicitly to having a wife. Alas, once more, however, this “Gospel” fragment has many highly doubtful elements.
First, its provenance is not only missing but suspicious: the current owner desires to remain anonymous—a fact that raises the alarm of possible forgery or theft. Next, because the fragment contains the words “Jesus said unto them, ‘My wife … ,’” what is the chance that a Gospel—whose existence is proved only by a single small fragment—would include those most remarkable words? Surely the odds would be astronomical. And then, among other problems, there is the erroneous radiocarbon date (off by some eight centuries) and the incredible (as in not credible) calligraphy: the letter formations are unbelievably amateurish, while the lines of text unaccountably ramble, sometimes veering apart, sometimes crowding close.11 (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Papyrus fragment dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
These problems add up—no, they should be multiplied: suspicious provenance times astonishing wording, times troublesome dating, times unbelievable calligraphy. “Pssst. Hey mister! You want to buy fantastic Gospel? Guaranteed incredible!”
Jesus and Mary Magdalene
“And Jesus,” wrote Matthew, “went about all Galilee,” teaching and preaching the gospel.
And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. (Matthew 4:23–24)
Among his growing retinue of those he had healed was “Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils” (Luke 8:2).
Now, demon or spirit possession flourishes in societies where ignorance about mental states prevails. In Jesus’s time, people believed that demons were able to take over an individual and control his or her behavior. Some early notions of possession may have been fomented by three brain syndromes: epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and migraine, but psychiatric historians have long attributed the manifestations to such aberrant mental conditions as schizophrenia and hysteria, noting that—as mental illness began to be recognized as such after the seventeenth century—demonic superstitions declined.12
However, psychologist Robert A. Baker and others have pointed out that such diagnoses do little more than label the behavior. Their view rejects the interpretation of demon possession as mental illness. Instead, they argue it is a learned role that fulfills certain important functions for those claiming it. As Baker explains, adopting the demonic role allowed one to protest his or her lot and to take out frustrations—including sexual frustrations—on others. “Other advantages,” he says, “included escape from unpleasant duties and responsibilities, … flaunting constrictive rules and regulations, as well as getting sympathetic attention … .”13
If being possessed by devils or demons is due to unconscious or conscious belief leading to role-playing, then it is not surprising that someone in the role of a holy person might well succeed in the contrary role-playing of driving them out. Could this explain the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus? Might it also explain why she thereafter “when he was in Galilee, followed him and ministered unto him,” like many other women “who came up with him unto Jerusalem” (Mark 15:41)?
The Empty Tomb
Even more significant than the exorcising of Mary Magdalene’s devils was her relationship to Jesus after his resurrection. Mark’s Gospel (the earliest written) has a late addition to the text, an ending (Mark 16:9–20) that tells us “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” The other three Gospels give slightly divergent accounts, but in John, Mary Magdalene discovers that the stone that had covered the entrance has been rolled away. She sees Jesus but mistakes him for “the gardener.” Then “Jesus saith unto her, Mary; she turned herself and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, ‘Master’” (John 20:16).
The Gospels relate several sightings of Jesus after his death. Instead of an actual account of the resurrection, however, we are mostly given the appearances—that is, apparitions or ghost sightings. Those narratives are what folklorists call “belief tales,” those intended “to give credence to folk beliefs.”14 In the account involving doubting Thomas especially, Jesus actually invites contact with his wounds (John 20:27). He emphasizes the reality of another encounter, saying that “a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:37–39).
But if the disciples need some convincing, Mary Magdalene does not. When she sees Jesus in the presumed dark of the tomb, she yet recognizes him once she hears—or imagines—him say her name. And, in her visionary mode, she also “seeth two angels in white” (John 20:12). Again, in Luke, she is surely among the women who came “early to the sepulchre” and “had also seen a vision of angels” (emphasis added; Luke 24:22–23).
When we put together what we are told about Mary Magdalene, we can see that she had special qualities. I suggest that she had what today would be called a fantasy-prone personality—a concept we will now examine.
Past attempts to understand the motivations of visionaries such as Mary Magdalene (as well as those of psychics, faith healers, and other mystics) often focused on a single difficult question: Were they mentally ill, or were they instead charlatans? Increasingly, evidence has shown that this is a false dichotomy, that many of the most celebrated mystics may in fact simply have had fantasy-prone personalities. Called “fantasizers,” such individuals fall within the normal range and represent an estimated 4 percent of the population.
In a pioneering study in 1983, Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber, characterized this personality type. For one thing, the study provided a broader understanding of people who were excellent hypnotic subjects. Wilson and Barber stress that such individuals experience a reduced orientation to time, place, and person that is characteristic of hypnosis or “trance” whenever they are deeply involved in some fantasy.
In addition to being excellent hypnotic subjects, fantasy-prone individuals show up as mediums, psychics, and religious visionaries much more often than do non-fantasizers. They also have many realistic out-of-body experiences and prototypic near-death experiences. They are more likely than others to believe they receive messages from higher intelligences, adopt a fantasy identity, have an imaginary friend (or guardian angel, etc.), see ghosts or experience hypnagogic hallucinations (“waking dreams”), and so on. (More recently, fantasy-proneness has proven the most effective explanation for alien-abduction claims.16)
All things considered regarding Mary Magdalene, I recommend discarding the old characterizations for the much more likely and explanatory hypothesis of her having been fantasy-prone. Of course, there is no hard and fast line between fantasy and deception (including self-deception). The fantasizer is a role-player who believes—or seems to believe—his or her own imaginings. If one is delusional and out of touch with reality to the point of mental illness, then he or she is by definition not a fantasizer, because being sane is a requisite for that definition. It defines a group of excellent hypnotic subjects with unusual fantasy abilities.
With Mary Magdalene, the fantasy-prone hypothesis ties together the things we are told about her. First, she was someone who believed (or who could come to believe) that she was possessed by seven devils and thereafter was convinced they were cast out of her by Jesus (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). How perfectly this double action is both predicted and explained by suggestion, according to our hypothesis. (I think we can give a nod here to Occam’s razor for the effectiveness of a single two-in-one principle, that that which created the devils likewise got rid of them.)
Second, she is a visionary, surely one of the “certain women” who saw “a vision of angels” (Luke 24:22–23) and who is specifically mentioned as peering into the tomb (as one might gaze into a crystal) and seeing “two angels in white sitting … where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:12). (As mentioned earlier, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas develops this aspect of Mary.)
And third, Mary Magdalene could not only “see” an apparition of Jesus but was the first to do so (Mark 16:9). True, she initially mistook him for “the gardener,” but when he called her name, saying “Mary,” she responded and said, “Master” (John 20:15–16). All these actions are explainable by Mary Magdalene having the personality characteristics of a fantasizer, while yet being basically a healthy, sane, and socially aware individual. It goes without saying that modern psychologists understand—far better than Mary Magdalene’s contemporaries—what was happening to her regarding devils, angels, and ghosts. (As to Jesus’s appearances to the apostles, these may be seen as personal imaginative experiences, not unlike those of typical ghost sightings today. So afterward, “he vanished out of their sight” [John 24:31].)
Therefore, if we no longer keep Mary Magdalene at a distance, as, say, a stock madwoman or mythologized figure—or even merely as a literary device, a deus ex machina, to herald the risen Jesus and prompt others to do likewise—then she can seem more plausibly real to us. By making her more understandable by the new hypothesis of fantasy-proneness, we can invite her for comparison with many of our contemporaries (such as New Age psychics and seers), and thus meet her anew.
As over the past quarter century, I continue to be indebted to John and Mary Frantz for their generous endowment that has made much of my investigative work possible.
 Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene. New York, NY: Harper, 2016, pp. 10–17.
 Ann Spangler, Wicked Women of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, p. 191.
 Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, p. 17.
 Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, pp. ix–xi.
 Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, p. 202.
 See Michael Haag, The Quest for Mary Magdalene, pp. 141–144.
 Secret Gospel of Mark. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_Gospel_of_Mark; accessed June 16, 2021.
 Joe Nickell, Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009, pp. 41–52, 80–90, 96–100.
 Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. London, UK: Arrow, 1996.
 Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, The Da Vinci Hoax. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2004, pp. 223–239; Joe Nickell, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013, pp. 142–143.
 Joe Nickell, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: Fact or Fake? Free Inquiry, August/September 2016, pp. 32–35.
 Joe Nickell, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible, pp. 369–379.
 Robert A. Baker and Joe Nickell, Missing Pieces: How to Investigate UFOs, Psychics, & Other Mysteries. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992, pp. 192, 194–195.
 Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1978, pp. 108–109.
 Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber, “The Fantasy-Prone Personality: Implications for Understanding Imagery, Hypnosis, and Parapsychological Phenomena.” In Anees A. Sheikh, ed., Imagery, Current Theory, Research and Application. New York, NY: Wiley, 371–372.
 Joe Nickell, Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007, pp. 251–258.
 See Joe Nickell, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible, pp. 225–231.
Of seven women named “Mary” in the New Testament, one—called “Mary Magdalene”—has evolved into a figure of great mystery. Once assumed to be a repentant prostitute, she was otherwise cast as a probable madwoman then invented in turn as Jesus’s favorite disciple, his wife, and even the mother of his child—portrayals so fascinating they have …