This is the second of a three-part series on breaking down the myths commonly held about Mary Magdalene and seeing what the Gospels actually say.
In part 1, I discussed how popular culture has seen Mary Magdalene over the centuries as a penitent prostitute. A number of films and paintings have associated her with other figures in the Bible.
However, as we saw, Mary Magdalene was actually a former demoniac from whom Jesus drove out seven demons. She was also the first one to see the risen Lord at the resurrection. There is no evidence in the gospels that she was of any immoral character.
In part 2, I’m going to be looking at where the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute came from.
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Where did the myth of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute come from?
At the time of the early church, they were still deciding which scriptures should be canon. Evidence existed suggesting Mary Magdalene should be a more central figure.
However, as the early church developed 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. Here, he refers 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.
Did Jesus only commission male disciples?
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. This was despite the fact that 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.
The church failed to give her the benefit of the doubt that she chose to remain single, and that she earned her own money legitimately. Instead, they speculated 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, 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 it, 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. 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 3 of this series as it goes beyond the scope of my article here. However, 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 Magdalene 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.”
The Eastern Orthodox church never accepted the “Composite Magdalene”. However, her reputation as the penitent prostitute became the enduring image. This has 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.
How Pope Gregory influenced generations to come
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. Their’s was a patriarchal society that suppressed 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. This happened regardless of whether Gregory did so negligently or maliciously.
Life and death in the power of the tongue
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. His loose words would have exacerbated 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.” This set 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. Her rampant sexuality seemed to continue beyond her conversion – a stigma she has retained to this day.
The effect of pop culture on Mary Magdalene
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. Unfortunately, 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 in part 1 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.
If that had indeed been in the gospels and she was actually a prostitute, then that is all well and good.
But it’s simply not true.
It’s not that if she really were a former prostitute that it would count against her or makes her any worse than other sinner. The Bible, as well as history since then, is full of people who were once sinners far from God but were saved and forgiven. No, it’s rather, it’s that we don’t want to perpetuate something that wasn’t even in the gospels in the first place. That is what is at the real heart of the issue.
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.
The Vatican has now recognised Mary Magdalene as an Apostle to the Apostles
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”. He recognised her as 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. They had correctly identified 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.
As far as Christians are concerned, it’s time to put to death this image of the “Composite Magdalene”. We must 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. They should 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 3. 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, are you surprised to learn how the early church and Pope Gregory promoted this myth?
Has your opinion of Mary Magdalene changed after reading this series or do you still subscribe to the popular view? If so, why?
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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.