Last week Christians all around the world celebrated the feast day of one of their most misunderstood saints, Mary of Magdala. In popular culture Mary Magdalene is depicted as a former prostitute turned repentant sinner. One only needs to look at Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ to see this role fleshed out.
There is one key problem: the Bible neither explicitly states, nor implies that Mary Magdalene is prostitute.
So what does the Bible actually say about Mary Magdalene? Quite a bit. She becomes a follower of Jesus during his ministry in Galilee after he exorcises seven demons from her (Lk 8). She travels with and ministers to Jesus and his other disciples. Not only does she mourn his crucifixion at the cross, she is the first to find the empty tomb, she is told to proclaim his resurrection to the other disciples, and she is the first to witness the risen Jesus (Matt 28, Jn 20, and Mk 16). Jane Schaberg notes,
“In short, Mary Magdalene is the primary witness to the fundamental data of early Christian faith.”
In what follows, I would like to share an overview of an excellent article by Jane Schaberg titled, “How Mary Magdalene Became a Whore?”, where Schaberg addresses three key questions: how did Mary come to be known as a prostitute, when did this happen, and why?
How did Mary Magdalene come to be associated with prostitution?
Schaberg suggests that the main culprit in this erroneous association is the conflation in Early Christian interpretation of three different women: Mary Magdalene, the unnamed woman in Luke 7, and Mary of Bethany. Mary Magdalene goes to anoint Jesus at the tomb (Mk 16 and Lk 24). Early Christian interpreters began to identify many of the unnamed women in the gospels who anoint Jesus as Mary Magdalene, specifically the unnamed woman who repents of her sin and anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50. This woman is identified in John as Mary (Jn 12), but this is Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister) not Mary of Magdala. That the women shared the same name was all many Early Christian interpreters needed. Since it is implied that her sin was sexual in nature (Lk 7:37), later tradition moved toward connecting Mary Magdalene to other unnamed women who had committed sexual sins—like the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 7:53-811) and the Samaritan woman with five husbands (Jn 4:8-29).
Apparently the logic follows that since Mary Magdalene went to anoint Jesus, all unnamed women who anoint Jesus are Mary Magdalene…and…since one of those women had a sexual sin (Lk 7), Mary Magdalene must be a prostitute. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t.
When did this happen?
Schaberg is quick to point out that we do not know how early this “legend of Mary Magdalene’s whoredom,” as she calls it, starts. She cites Origen (c 185-254 CE) and John Chrysostom (c 347-407 CE) who had commented that Mary Magdalene was an unsuitable witness to the resurrection. Pope Gregory the Great (6th century) made this erroneous conflation between the unnamed women and other Marys during one of his homilies. Many others uncritically followed suit. Schaberg’s article goes into more detail on the development of the legend, citing many other examples of this poor biblical interpretation.
Perhaps the why question is the most difficult and scandalous question to answer. Schaberg admits “the initial motives behind this conflation may have been benign, even creative,” however, that doesn’t address why it persisted for so long. Schaberg cites Marina Warner, who suggests that this legend was “brought into existence by the powerful undertow of misogyny in Christianity, which associates women with the dangers and degradation of the flesh.” Schaberg adds, “the legend-making process also reflects a Christian reaction against female power and the authority of this major witness to the crucial data of Christianity, especially the resurrection.”
Schaberg is right. Mary Magdalene brought the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples who spread it to the world. This woman represents incredible female power, and this power is the very thing that threatens patriarchy. At a time when the church sought to relegate the roles of women, Mary Magdalene’s important role needed to be tarnished.
Schaberg points out that Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox doctrines have now correctly distinguished between Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed “sinner” in Luke 7. However, the negative ad campaign set out to degrade this woman over 1800 years ago is seared into our minds and even into our suggested Google search options. It is quite sad that the third result for this woman, who first proclaimed the resurrection, is “Mary Magdalene prostitute” even before “Mary Magdalene bible.”
Key Takeaway: Question popular depictions of biblical figures because they are probably more popular than they are biblical.
For more information on Mary Magdalene: