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In the first of a two-part series, I’ll be discussing whether Mary Magdalene was actually a former prostitute or immoral woman as commonly thought.
Part 2 is here.
The new Mary Magdalene biopic by Garth Davis was released in cinemas this week. It stars Rooney Mara in the title role and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus.
While there are some parts that are definitely dramatised, there’s one particular aspect that is not. It’s one of the rare times a director isn’t portraying Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute or sinful woman.
The film is advertised as her untold story. Rooney Mara seeks to portray her not as the prostitute that everyone knows, but as something more faithful to the gospel stories. It’s a story not about Mary the prostitute but Mary the disciple, to paraphrase actor Tahar Rahim who plays Judas in the film.
However, it may come as a surprise to some viewers.
One of the first things people think of when you mention Mary Magdalene’s name is that she was a former prostitute who left behind her life of sin to follow Jesus. Unfortunately, this is a view that many Christians still hold and promote today.
As director Garth Davis says, she is one of the most “misunderstood spiritual figures in history.”
I recall hearing a sermon preached on Easter Sunday a few years ago in a major London church on how the cross redeems our pasts. The speaker cited Mary Magdalene as an example of someone who was a prostitute who went on to be the first one to witness the risen Jesus.
It’s a nice idea and would be a great testimony. Unfortunately, Mary as a prostitute is not remotely true or biblical.
Read on to find out why.
WHO ARE THE OTHER CHARACTERS WITH WHOM MARY MAGDALENE IS FREQUENTLY IDENTIFIED?
Susan Haskins writes in her book Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor
“We know very little about Mary Magdalen [sic]. The predominant image we have of her is of a beautiful woman with long golden hair, weeping for her sins, the very incarnation of the age-old equation between feminine beauty, sexuality and sin. For nearly two thousand years, the traditional conception of Mary Magdalen has been that of the prostitute who, hearing the words of Jesus Christ, repented of her sinful past and henceforth devoted her life and love to him.”
Since the Middle Ages, Christians and non-Christians alike have frequently identified Mary Magdalene with several other Biblical figures. There are a number of different theories, but we only need to be concerned with the most popular three.
Who are they, and what do we know about them?
Theory 1: Mary Magdalene is the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50
I’ve created a graphic novel Bible version of Luke’s gospel over the past few years. One of the illustrations is of the sinful woman anointing Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50.
Almost every time I show this to people, particularly Christians, without fail they will ask me “Is that Mary Magdalene?”
When I explain that it isn’t, they usually give me either a puzzled look or one of scepticism.
Surely I must have it wrong?
Well let’s see what the passage actually says.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus dines at the house of Simon the Pharisee along with other guests. While they are sitting there, a woman carrying an alabastar jar enters. Luke describes her as having led a sinful life.
Filled with remorse, her tears fall directly onto Jesus’ feet. Immediately, she wipes them with her hair and then anoints them with the perfume from the alabaster jar.
Simon looks upon this act disparagingly. He mutters under his breath that if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would know who the woman is touching him, and that she is a sinner.
Jesus responds by telling him a parable. Two people owed money to a moneylender. One owed five hundred denarii while the other fifty. Neither were able to pay him back. So he forgave them both their debts. Jesus then asks Simon which one will love him more.
Simon replies that it is the one who has had the bigger debt forgiven.
Jesus agrees, and then draws his attention to the sinful woman, comparing her behaviour to Simon’s lack of hospitality.
For whatever reason, Simon avoided all the common courtesies to make his guest feel welcome. It was customary for a host to wash his guest’s feet of the dust from outside. Simon neglected this, yet the woman wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Similarly, a host would normally greet his guest with the kiss of peace, but Jesus received none of this treatment. However, since the time the woman entered she had not stopped kissing his feet. And guests would normally be anointed with olive oil. Simon didn’t have the decency to make Jesus feel at home. Yet the woman poured perfume on his feet.
It was as though the Pharisee had an underlying contempt for his guest, and wanted Jesus to know it by treating him worse than a stranger.
Jesus concludes “therefore her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Jesus then forgives the woman’s sins and tells her to go in peace.
Many people often assume the woman in this passage is a prostitute. However, there is nothing explicitly stated here.
Clinton E Arnold and David E Garland write in their Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
“Readers are left in the dark about the nature of her sin. Is she guilty of adultery or prostitution, or is she simply married to a notorious sinner? Her unrestrained expression of emotion might lead the modern reader to think the worst. What kind of sinner she is, however, is irrelevant. Peter identifies himself as a “sinful man” (5:8), and a paralytic has his sins forgiven (5:23), but Luke has no interest in identifying the nature of their sins. We should not try to guess the nature of her guilt. Jesus’ parable makes clear that it makes no difference.”
Luke never mentions Mary Magdalene here, nor identifies her with this woman at any point.
Theory 2: Mary Magdalene is Mary of Bethany
Many Christians confuse the two, and with valid reason. I’m not going to go into the differences between them at the moment. This will be a much larger discussion later on.
Mary of Bethany is the same Mary who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She is the one who sits at Jesus’ feet in Luke 10: 38-42 while Martha is busy getting things ready. She is also there along with Martha when Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-44.
Most relevant to the discussion, John specifically identifies the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair in John 12:1-8 as Mary of Bethany.
People often assume that John and the ones in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 are parallel passages with Luke 7:36-50. Because they can’t recall what the gospel actually says, they simply remember it involves someone named Mary. They often assume this is Mary Magdalene because of the association already made between her and the sinful woman from Luke’s gospel.
But no gospel writer ever identifies the woman who anointed Jesus as Mary Magdalene.
We’ll see where this idea comes from later on and the source of the confusion. If you want to compare the above passages, you can read more about it here.
Theory 3: Mary Magdalene is the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11
Another common opinion is that Mary Magdalene is the adulterous woman from John’s gospel.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching in the Temple where he has amassed a large audience. Suddenly the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring out a woman caught in adultery for Jesus to judge. They force her to stand before the whole crowd while awaiting Jesus’ response.
Instead of replying, Jesus bends down and begins writing in the sand with his finger. Then he responds “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Those who hear Jesus have no answer to this. They know they are all guilty of some kind of sin. How can they possibly stand in that position of judgment when they have fallen short themselves? So they leave one at a time, until only Jesus is left, with the woman standing there alone.
Then Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?”
“No-one sir,” she replies.
Jesus speaks words of forgiveness to her. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Mary Magdalene is never mentioned here at all.
But nevertheless, even though it’s a complete stretch, people have still linked her to this passage as we’ll see in the various examples below.
MARY MAGDALENE IN FILM
In her book, Jesus of Hollywood, Adele Reinhartz, a Canadian Professor of Classics and Religious Studies discusses how Jesus and other characters in the Bible have been portrayed in Hollywood.
In a number of Jesus biopics, it is typical to find Mary conflated with one of these characters mentioned above. Reinhartz writes:
“One reason for this persistence may well be its usefulness. The view that Mary Magdalene was sexually immoral serves both to spice up the Jesus story, and to make it fit for moral instruction. Jesus biopics of all eras were as eager as other film genres to satisfy the public’s appetite for the sexually suggestive. Mary Magdalene provides the only opportunity for a female sexual and love interest within the otherwise chaste story of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Other reasons for this I’ve identified are that first, it’s what filmmakers already believe about her anyway. They don’t know any different. Second, it has become part of pop culture and people expect to see this. Thirdly, it’s for the purpose of dramatic storytelling. Audiences can see a life that has changed as a clear character arc. And fourthly, it’s for simplicity’s sake. It’s a lot to have to deal with too many different characters. Sometimes it’s easier to merge them into one. Other films do this all the time such as many in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Here are a selection of films which showcase the way Mary Magdalene has been portrayed throughout cinematic history. The image of prostitute or penitent adulteress is the one which always dominates in one form or another:
In Cecille B De Mille’s silent epic The King of Kings (1927), Mary Magdalene is a scantily clad courtesan who looks like a cross between a flapper girl and Mata Hari. After we have to suffer through prolonged scenes where she entertains her pet leopard and searches for her lover Judas, she finally meets Jesus. He actually drives seven demons out of her (which is one of the only Jesus films to do this). However, they are the seven deadly sins.
In Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), gone are all the over-the-top features of the earlier film with the similar name. Instead, Mary is more troubled and views herself as a woman of sin who has done much evil.
In George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Mary Magdalene is the woman caught in adultery.
Dressed in scarlet with long dishevelled hair, she looks more like she wandered in from the set of a Hammer Studios film. Her flowing dress is strategically positioned to disguise the fact that actress Joanna Dunham was actually pregnant at the time in real life. Director George Stevens remarked in an interview with Variety,”Well, that Mary Magdalene always was a troublemaker.”
In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), which isn’t exactly known for its Biblical accuracy, Mary Magdalene is a former prostitute. Judas criticises Jesus for associating so heavily with her kind. Mary sings the emotional ballad “I don’t know how to love him”. Providing us with too much information, she belts out the lyrics “He’s a man. He’s just a man. And I’ve had so many men before in very many ways – He’s just one more.”
In Franco Zeffirelli’s epic mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Anne Bancroft, who played the seductive older Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, is still up to the same tricks as Mary Magdalene, an older and world-weary whore. We see her as the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet from Luke’s gospel.
In Martin Scorcese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), this time Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey) is identified both as a prostitute who’s open all hours for business, and as the woman caught in adultery. While Jesus is on the cross, he goes through a bizarre series of temptations. He not only fantasises about Mary Magdalene sexually but also marries her. When she dies suddenly while expecting their child, Jesus later decides to double up on his chances of an offspring by taking both Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus as his wives.
In Roger Young’s Jesus (1999), Mary Magdalene (played by Will & Grace star Debra Messing) is a former prostitute whom we first encounter after she’s spent the night in the company of one of her clients. Once she starts to follow Jesus, for some reason she still dresses exotically. Why no-one thinks to give her something more modest to wear, we’re never told. It’s almost like a big red arrow to remind us that this is still the former prostitute, lest we forget. However, Debra Messing portrays her as a separate figure to the woman caught in adultery, whom we see in a different scene.
In Rafael Mertes’s Mary Magdalene (2000), former cigar-smoking Bond girl Maria Grazia Cucinotta plays the title role. She’s a woman who falls on hard times after her husband kicks her out for being unable to bear children. She goes through a series of further hardships and eventually resorts to prostitution out of sheer desperation. She’s a bit like Fantine in Les Misérables, except there’s no singing or dreaming a dream. When she takes a friend’s dead son to Jesus, she witnesses him raising the boy from the dead and decides to follow the Messiah.
In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Gibson identifies her as the woman caught in adultery from John’s gospel.
We see a slow-mo flashback to the former life of Mary Magdalene (played by Monica Bellucci). As Jesus writes in the sand, the teachers of the law and Pharisees drop their stones and leave. Cut to a scene of Mary lying at Jesus’ feet in gratitude as he helps her to her feet. She has narrowly escaped death.
Now it would be a great character arc if Mary Magdalene were either of these two women. But it’s simply not the case.
Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene (2018), on the other hand, takes a completely different approach.
Mary Magdalene (2018)
In this film, Rooney Mara portrays her as a young woman from the fishing village of Magdala. She doesn’t see herself as cut out for married life, and therefore brings shame upon her family for refusing to take a husband. Her family accuses her of being possessed by demons but hears a sermon by Jesus. Inspired by him, she leaves behind her simple lifestyle to become one of his disciples, providing for the group out of her own resources. It seems to leave some ambiguity as to whether she was actually demon possessed or possibly psychologically ill.
However, in no way does the movie portray her as a prostitute. The film even puts a message at the end over the closing credits to say that her depiction as one throughout history was inaccurate.
Iain Canning, one of the producers of the film says:
“There’s no evidence in the Bible that Mary was a prostitute… We wanted to set the record straight — and about time… I think so often in film-making, women are defined by their sexual relationship with a man and we decided that we were absolutely clear that wasn’t the case here.”
He also discusses it further in the video below:
The film takes as its inspiration the New Testament gospels, but also draws on a Gnostic text known as the Gospel of Mary. This is an incomplete apocryphal manuscript scholars believe is the work of Mary Magdalene. It establishes Mary as more of a leader of the disciples with a rivalry between her and Peter.
However, the Gospel of Mary is not included in the canon of scripture. Scholars question whether it can be considered a gospel in the strict sense of the word. The problem with it is its theology. The emphasis is on his teachings as the saving message rather than Jesus’ death and resurrection, which seem to be almost peripheral. This goes against the rest of the New Testament’s central message, particularly passages like 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. Also, this so-called gospel mentions beings known as “Archons”. These are effectively servants of an evil “creator god” called “the demiurge”, who stands between this world and another transcendent, unknowable god.
And at once, my mind wanders back to all my theology lectures on the Gnostics, and I feel a demi-urge to do this:
Garth Davis and the movie’s producers were clearly not theologians and have even admitted as much.
The film doesn’t go into any of that fortunately. However, it still places too much emphasis on Mary as the one able to grasp Jesus’ teachings and mission over all the other disciples and provide him with moral support. This seems like secret higher knowledge available only to a select few, which is clearly inspired by Gnostic thought.
If you don’t know the background, it probably won’t affect your enjoyment of the film. It may have some Gnostic influences, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not like other Jesus biopics don’t have their share of non-gospel influences too.
The movie still has its merits. Mary’s depiction as a woman without a sordid sexual past is a breath of fresh air compared to the way that all the other films above paint her. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, at least on this front.
But as it stands, many Christians seem to know Mary Magdalene more from how most Hollywood movies portray her than what the Bible actually tells us.
MARY MAGDALENE IN THE GOSPELS
What do we actually know about Mary Magdalene from the Gospel accounts? Does it say or imply anything about her being a prostitute?
The four gospels mention Mary Magdalene at least 12 times. This is more than any other woman apart from Mary the mother of Jesus, and more than most of the twelve apostles.
In most of these, she only shows up around the time of the crucifixion and resurrection. However, when Mark (the first gospel to be written) introduces her in 15:40-41, he writes:
“Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs.” (NIV)
The Galilee incident he is referring to is something for which Luke 8:1-3 provides more detail.
“After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Luke refers to her specifically as “Mary (who was called Magdalene)” rather than “Mary Magdalene”. Scholars believe she came from the village of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of Lake Galilee. However, in Aramaic, “Magdala” means “tower” or “magnificent”. This may refer to her faith or financial status. In Hebrew, “Migdal” means “tower” or “fortress”.
Marianne Sawicki suggests in her chapter on “Magdalenes and Tiberiennes” in Transformative Encounters: Jesus and Women Re-Viewed that the town of Migdal may point to Mary’s background as a salt fish exporter. This would lead to various commercial connections and provide a source of revenue for her.
Other women mentioned here are Joanna the wife of Chuza (the manager of Herod’s household), Susanna and “many others”. These women were helping to support Jesus and his disciples out of their own means. They were the ones providing money and finances.
Scholars note that whenever the gospel writers mention Mary Magdalene, they never refer to her as the wife of someone else. This is usually common practice in the gospels. We see this with Joanna the wife of Chuza above, or Mary the wife of Clopas in John 19:25. Mary Magdalene mentioned on her own suggests that she was single and independent. Of course, Luke lists Susanna without reference to any husband.
Mary Magdalene was a former demoniac not a prostitute
Luke 8:2-3 tells us very specifically that Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her. While this is probably the exact number that afflicted her, the number seven is also symbolic. Seven in the Bible usually represents the number of perfection or the number of completion. So when Luke makes reference to this number, he is also telling us that she was full of demons. They had completely dominated Mary Magdalene’s life.
Mark 16:9 also supports Mary Magdalene’s background given in Luke. It says
“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons.”
Now some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20. The gospel simply ends at verse 8 with the women running away frightened from the tomb. It’s not my intention to discuss whether the ending of Mark’s gospel belongs in the book or not. It doesn’t take away from the fact though that Luke specifically mentions Mary Magdalene’s demon-possessed background.
It’s interesting to note that this follows immediately after the passage with the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. Luke specifically introduces Mary as a former demoniac, not as a sexually immoral woman.
I’ve heard the argument before that these were demons of lust. It’s as if some are clinging desperately to the idea of Mary as a prostitute, determined to read that into the text at all costs. However, there’s nothing in either passage to suggest something sexual. Certainly not any more than other instances in the gospels where they mention a demoniac.
For example, in Luke 8:26 – 39, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes, across the lake of Galilee. When Jesus asks his name, the demoniac responds that it is Legion, because many demons had gone into him.
Now is it possible that some of these demons were demons of lust? Sure. With a whole legion of them, it’s not out of the question. And yet we don’t infer from this passage that this is evidence that Legion was a male prostitute or adulterer. No Hollywood film ever describes or portrays Legion in this manner either.
The same goes for the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter in Matthew 15:21-28, the man with the evil spirit in the synagogue in Luke 4:31-37 or the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:14-29 whose father said “I do believe – help my unbelief”. No-one in their right mind thinks of these demoniacs as the Syro-Phoenician’s minx, the gigolo in the synagogue or the little rent boy!
On the other hand, some scholars and medical experts argue that demon possession would be viewed today in terms of epilepsy or mental illness. The stop-motion animation movie The Miracle Maker (2000) actually takes this view where Mary Magdalene suffers from fits of madness. However, there are documented cases of demon possession. In the end though, it’s not pertinent to the discussion here which angle you’re coming from. The point is that people wouldn’t normally view demon possession, epilepsy or mental illness as sexual promiscuity.
Yet when it comes to Mary Magdalene, people are still wont to reading a sexual element into her afflliction. This idea actually is based in medieval theology, the source of which we’ll see later on below.
Could one of the seven demons afflicting Mary Magdalene have been a spirit of lust? Of course. It’s always possible. But even if there were, can we conclude that she is a prostitute or adulteress as a logical consequence of such speculation?
Well let me ask you bluntly. If you struggled with lust or pornography, could I logically conclude that this automatically makes you a prostitute or adulterer/ adulteress?
The answer is no. I can’t make that inference. And in a similar way, we can’t draw those kinds of inferences about Mary Magdalene either.
Darrel L Bock, in his Luke 1:1-9:50 commentary writes that
“She (Mary Magdalene) was not the sinful woman who anointed Jesus. Nor is it clear that she was immoral, for demon possession was not a sinful condition.”
All we know from Luke 8:2-3 is that Mary Magdalene was a former demoniac. She was also one of the women who travelled regularly with Jesus and the twelve, ministering and supporting them financially from their own means.
Luke does not identify Mary with the sinful woman in the previous chapter. There’s also no unspoken understanding that she is one and the same either.
Similarly, there is nothing linking her with the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11. It would be a stretch to even make that connection.
Mary Magdalene was one of the women at the crucifixion and tomb
The four gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene is one of the women at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41, John 19:25), and burial (Matt 27:61, Mark 15:47, Luke 23:55).
Mary is also present in the post-resurrection accounts. She brings spices to anoint Jesus’ body (Matt 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-11 and John 20:1-10). Then Jesus appears solely to her (Mark 16:9-11, John 20:11-18).
John 20:11-18 provides us with the most detail. On the Sunday morning, Mary stands outside the empty tomb by herself weeping. This is after Simon Peter and John (aka the Beloved Disciple) had gone to the tomb and did not see the body there. Mary Magdalene encounters two angels sitting where Jesus had laid who ask her why she is crying.
After explaining, she sees a man standing behind her whom she presumes to be the gardener. This is the risen Jesus. He too asks her the reason for her tears. She replies that if he has taken the body away, he should tell her where he has put it so that she can retrieve it. It is only when Jesus speaks her name that she recognises him.
As she tries to embrace him, Jesus tells her not to hold onto him, because he has not yet returned to the Father. Instead, he entrusts her with the responsibility to go and tell the other disciples. She goes back and relates everything.
Mark’s gospel reports that the disciples do not believe her (Mark 16:11). Luke’s gospel doesn’t have an individual account of Mary encountering the risen Christ on her own. He does note however, that the disciples don’t believe the women at the tomb in general when they come back to report that it is empty.
From the gospels then, we know that Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the risen Christ. She carried the privilege of telling the other disciples that he had risen.
Her portrayal in the gospels is a far cry from the way popular culture depicts her. Mary Magdalene was a faithful follower of Jesus who had once been a demoniac (like Legion). She was also one of the women who supported Jesus and the Twelve. And she was also present at the crucifixion, burial and the empty tomb. Jesus made a special appearance to her before anyone else.
WHERE DID THE IDEA THAT MARY MAGDALENE IS A PROSTITUTE ORIGINATE?
The backdrop of the early church
Research has shown that when the early church was still deciding which scriptures should be canon, various evidence existed that suggested Mary Magdalene should be a more central figure.
However, as the early church developed beyond the first century and morphed into the institution we know as the Catholic church, it became an increasingly patriarchal society. For a number of different reasons, they wanted to exclude women from ministry. Unfortunately, there were a few problems standing in the way.
The gospels established Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the risen Christ. She was also one of the few followers who stayed with Jesus at the cross while the other disciples scattered out of fear of arrest. This made her a more faithful disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. Being a witness was also one of the requirements to establish priestly succession. This was something that the church needed to downplay if they wanted to exclude women.
In Luke 8:3, the Greek word he uses when he describes how the women “ministered” to Jesus and his disciples comes from the verb diakonein. This means to serve or minister. However, it is also where we get the word “deacon” from – a leader in the church. Mark also uses this same Greek word in 15:41 in referring to Mary Magdalene as one of the women who followed Jesus and ministered or helped him in Galilee.
Luke also lists them as “following” Jesus. It’s possible they might have been full disciples in their own right. Whether they had the same responsibilities as the other disciples, such as preaching, healing the sick or going on short-term missions is not clear.
One primary issue was whether Jesus commissioned only male disciples, or whether he commissioned everyone, both male and female. Various theologians have argued that Jesus also had women disciples. These were not necessarily part of the Twelve, but were among his wider circle of followers. Some have even argued for Mary Magdalene even being an apostle.
Richard Hooper writes in his book The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene: The Historical Tradition of the First Apostle and the Ancient Churches Campaign:
“If we look at each Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus carefully, we will realize that Mary Magdalene meets all the criteria for being an apostle. She is someone who was chosen. She is given a special commission. And she has the authorization of the sender. That authorization comes either from a heavenly messenger, or from Jesus himself. Mary’s credentials couldn’t be better.”
In addition, the Gnostic Gospel of Mary was floating around. That appeared to place Mary Magdalene on at least the same level as Simon Peter. While not a canonical text, it was still problematic for the church.
The idea of having Mary Magdalene as an apostle let alone a disciple wouldn’t fly. Having Mary as a church leader in her own right was a threat to the early male-dominated church. Something needed to be done to nip this in the bud.
Celibacy became a mandatory requirement for priests from about the fourth century onwards. Thus, the clergy viewed women as a distraction and temptation. The church associated women with the sin of Eve in giving the apple to Adam (even though Adam was responsible for his own sin). They also wanted to distinguish Mary Magdalene from Mary the mother of Jesus. The antithesis of the Virgin Mary would’ve been a “temptress” like Eve. This would’ve found its ultimate form as a prostitute.
Because Mary Magdalene was an unmarried independent woman of financial means, people began to speculate about her background. Why was she single (which was unusual at the time) and where did she get her money from? And didn’t “Magdala” in Aramaic also mean “tower” or “magnificent”? This may point to either her stature or faith, or possibly her wealth.
Instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt that she chose to remain single, and that she earned her own money legitimately, various church figures began making assumptions that she could have been a promiscuous woman, albeit one who was repentant.
For example, Augustine of Hippo wrote:
“For how could it be otherwise than carnally that she [Mary] still believed on Him who she was weeping over as a man?”
It was far easier for a male-dominated church to handle a woman who was a repentant sinner than a faithful follower of Jesus who was a disciple in her own right.
Unfortunately, instead of leaving it as that, others added fuel to the fire and sullied her reputation for centuries to come.
The legacy of Pope Gregory I
The source of greatest damage and confusion came from Pope Gregory I. He was also known as Gregory the Great. It’s from him we get the musical liturgy known as “Gregorian Chant”. It is the myth he promoted that has been the most influential throughout history.
Around 591 AD, he gave a fateful sermon in which he combined Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman from Luke 7:36-50 and also Mary of Bethany.
In Homily XXXIII, which you can read here, he said:
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?”
Pope Gregory equated the seven demons that Jesus drove out of Mary with the seven deadly sins or vices rather than literal demons. This is something that continues to influence people today who are intent on introducing lust into Mary’s affliction.
He continued in somewhat over-dramatic fashion:
“It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with early eyes, but through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she hath had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance, for as much as she had wrongly held God in contempt.”
Richard Hooper observes that Gregory doesn’t use the word “prostitute” explicitly. However, his attentive brothers in the basilica would’ve understood him to mean exactly that from his vivid description.
When he couldn’t find evidence in Luke’s gospel of this, he had to invent a way for it to work via creative exegesis. Gregory’s reasoning for combining the sinful woman with Mary went as follows. If Luke mentioned Mary Magdalene in the passage directly after he mentioned the sinful woman, Mary must have therefore been that sinful woman! This is an extremely weak inference if ever there was one!
I don’t personally believe this was Luke’s intention at all. You’d really have to be wanting to see it in there in the first place to infer that. Any decent student of either law or Biblical exegesis would not logically come to this conclusion.
And so, Gregory the not-so-Great-at-exegesis made basic exegetical errors that not even a first year theology and Biblical studies student should make.
The Myth of the Composite Magdalene
Pope Gregory did another great disservice to Western Christianity. In his sermon, he said
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark”
It is the phrase “whom John calls Mary” that is of particular significance here. By this, he’s referring to Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
Gregory combined Mary Magdalene with this separate character. He didn’t care that Mary Magdalene came from Magdala while Mary of Bethany came from…
… wait for it…
You’d think that would be a clue.
If they shared the same first name, then they must’ve been the same person according to him. Nevermind that the name Mary was extremely common at the time and Luke’s gospel mentions several, even within the same passage!
Mary of Bethany was a homemaker who lived with her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus. Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, spent her time on the road travelling around from village to village with Jesus, the disciples and a bunch of other women.
That didn’t matter to Gregory though. As long as it fit with and promoted his own theory.
The Pope had already merged Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany in his own mind. It wasn’t a jump therefore, to see Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. It seemed as if he scriptural support too. He assumed that the passage in Luke 7:36-50 was a parallel passage with the ones in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8.
This is something I’ll follow up in part 2 of this series as it goes beyond the scope of my article here. Suffice to say right now, if you read John 12:1-8, you’ll see it was Mary of Bethany not Mary Magdalene who anointed Jesus’ feet. So we can’t connect Mary Magdalene to the sinful woman in this context.
Susan Haskins writes that
“A close examination of these figures will show clearly their very different individual character traits, their actions and their significance, and that, in the case of Luke’s sinner and Mary of Bethany, their only point of convergence with Mary Magdalene is the association with anointing Christ.”
Gregory succeeded in creating what scholars have referred to as the “Composite Magdalene”. This is where he cobbled together everyone named Mary and anyone else vaguely related. In doing so, he fashioned a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster of a caricature bearing no resemblance to the real gospel character. Unfortunately, this creature is reanimated every few years with each new film adaptation, hoping lightning will strike for them.
Susan Haskins writes
“And so the transformation of Mary Magdalen was complete. From the gospel figure, with her active role as herald of the New Life – the Apostle to the Apostles – she became the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”
While the Eastern Orthodox church never accepted the “Composite Magdalene”, her reputation as the penitent prostitute became the enduring image that pervaded the Western church and culture for the centuries that followed. She’s the one that appears in religious art, literature and most Biblical movies made until this day.
As such, the “Composite Magdalene” may be the person you know, and not the actual Mary Magdalene from the gospels.
Life or death in the power of the tongue
Why would the Pope do this? Richard Hooper questions whether Gregory was dishonest or simply poor at exegesis.
A prime motivation is the backdrop of the early church with its patriarchal society and attempt to suppress women in ministry. However, we don’t know what drove Pope Gregory personally. Yes, his predecessors would’ve influenced him, and maybe he had his own agenda. But attempts to pinpoint his precise thought process would only be speculation.
In the end, his exact motivation isn’t really important. We’re not trying to establish whether he did this or not, or whether there were any extenuating circumstances. Pope Gregory’s sermon is there on record. What matters more is that his exegesis of the Biblical passages is in error and misleading. It is through his words which you can judge his actions yourself. You can read it here in Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies.
Pope Gregory went to great lengths to portray her in a certain way. Go back and re-read his words. He went beyond simple exegesis and added all the other not-so-subtle comments and innuendos. All of these could be construed as defamation of her character. They had the effect of causing any reasonable person who heard the sermon to think worse of her, regardless of whether Gregory did so negligently or maliciously.
The Good News translation of Proverbs 18:8 says:
“Gossip is so tasty. How we love to swallow it!”
Pope Gregory was already influenced by all the rumours and speculations of the day. This clearly steered the direction of his exegesis and sermon. In turn, his own words were like gossip which spread like wildfire.
As the pontiff, and as the leader of the church, he had a responsibility not to mislead. Because he was Pope, he was considered infallible. People would accept his word as truth at the time rather than slander. No-one would’ve questioned his theology and exegesis.
However, unless he was completely naive, he surely would have been aware of his actions and loose words, and the effect it would have in exacerbating the rumours.
Gregory’s sermon became highly popular during the eighth and ninth centuries. It passed into homiletic literature “to become stock-in-trade during the Middle Ages,” thereby setting the course of history for centuries to come.
Pope Gregory got away with perpetrating one of the worst injustices on a woman of the Bible in history. He maligned her character by turning her from a faithful follower of Christ to a penitent whore, whose rampant sexuality seemed to continue beyond her conversion – a stigma she has retained to this day.
And it’s not like Mary was there to speak up and say #MeToo.
Most people have a vague idea of who Mary Magdalene was. Their image has filtered down through art, literature, films and the church itself, and half-remembered recollections of the various gospel stories.
Mary as a prostitute has almost become tradition, albeit a false one. However, the Catholic church declared in 1969 that Mary Magdalene’s portrayal as a former prostitute was inaccurate, but this largely fell on deaf ears.
After all, how can you argue with pop culture which everyone knows is supposedly true?
Once there’s damage to a person’s reputation, it’s extremely difficult to repair. There will always be that question mark which will cause people to wonder. She may always have a woman following her around ringing a bell and crying out “Shame!”
People prefer the inaccurate yet iconic folklore depiction than the actual Biblical account. They like the familiar, whether it is true or not. There are certain elements they always expect to see, regardless of whether this was in the original version. Most of the films I listed were made post 1969. However, they perpetuated the myth, perhaps even more heavily since then.
Directors know it works already for film and storytelling purposes as a dramatic character arc. It also appeals to the public’s fascination with all thing sexual. Why mess with a “good” thing? As a Christian testimony, it works perfectly in a sermon to show that no-one is beyond redemption. It shows how Jesus can transform a sinful life so that Mary can go from being an immoral woman to someone anointing him for burial.
But it’s simply not true.
We know what the gospels actually tell us about her. Far from being a former prostitute, Mary Magdalene was a faithful follower of Jesus who had once been possessed by seven demons. She, along with other women followers, provided for Jesus out of her own means. She was the first to witness the risen Christ. Mary also carried the privilege of telling the other disciples that he had risen.
Was she a sinner before her encounter with Jesus? Most certainly – just as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But we can’t conclude that she was a former prostitute on that basis. Otherwise, should we infer something similar of Simon Peter when he says in Luke 5:8 “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man”?
This might not fit with our established picture of Mary Magdalene. However, we must question why we cling so tightly to that false image.
The Vatican has recognised the damage done to Mary Magdalene and the falsehood wrought upon her. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged she was “a disciple of the Lord who plays a lead role in the Gospels” and one of the women who followed Jesus from whom seven demons were driven out.
Nevertheless, in the years that ensued, that did little to change public perception. Indeed, 2006 saw the release of the film adaptation of The DaVinci Code. This probably garnered more attention for its suggestion that Mary Magdalene was actually the wife of Jesus.
In 2016, Pope Francis declared that the church recognised her as “an Apostle to the Apostles”. He also added that she was “an example of a true and authentic evangeliser who announces the central joyful message of Easter.”
Pope Francis also recognised the errors of Pope Gregory the Great. He noted how Gregory had created the “Composite Magdalene” that continued to influence western ecclesiastical authors, Christian art and liturgical texts. However, he assured people that a group of scholars and historians known as the Bollandists had made a detailed study to correctly identify the three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman) and had prepared a path for liturgical reform.
Whether this has any greater effect than the 1969 or 2006 declarations by the Vatican remains to be seen.
Maybe Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene film will have better success and create greater public awareness.
But that depends on how influential the film becomes, or whether it fades into obscurity and is forgotten. People may once again go for the more sensual and sensationalist version that titillates them.
As far as Christians are concerned, it’s time to put to death this image of the “Composite Magdalene” and see Mary Magdalene in a new light. It’s also time to read the gospel accounts and see what it actually says. It’s a responsibility Christians have to know and draw on the word of God and spread the truth about it, rather than buy into the myth themselves.
If over half the church don’t know the truth about Mary, how can they expect the rest of the world to think any differently?
Now I could stop here and would’ve said all I needed to say about her. But then people would bring up one major objection, which is….
WHAT ABOUT THE ANOINTING BY MARY OF BETHANY?
Usually after explaining to people why Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute nor the sinful woman in Luke, right on cue they’ll bring up John 12:1-8. This passage tells us that a woman named Mary anoints Jesus in Bethany.
Isn’t this the same passage as Luke 7:36-50 with the sinful woman? Maybe Mary of Bethany was the prostitute?
You can read about this in much more detail in part 2. I simply can’t fit it all in this post here.
My main purpose here was to clarify exactly who Mary Magdalene was and separate the gospel accounts from the myth. Whether Mary of Bethany might be the sinful woman is actually a separate issue entirely. Although you might think it is related, it’s only the case if you believe Mary Magdalene is Mary of Bethany.
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Finally, what have you always thought about Mary Magdalene? Did you grow up believing she was a former prostitute? Do you still think of her as a one? If so, why?
Does it surprise you to discover the gospel version is very different to the popular view of her?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.