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:
[This was a creative writing assignment in a course on the synoptic gospels that I [Colleen Ryan] took during the 2013 fall semester with Dr. Kelly Wilson. Students were asked to write a 5-6 page gospel from a particular point of view and to a particular audience. I’m not particularly religious, but if I was this is the type of religion I’d be drawn to. I chose to write a gospel for an LGBT audience. After the course, the professor and I worked on refining the message so that it could be shared with others. Here’s the final product. -Colleen Ryan]
The Gospel for Those Who Love
By Colleen Ryan and Kelly Wilson
In the beginning was love, and love was with God, and love was God. Love was in the beginning with God. In the spirit of that love, many couples began planning their nuptials, including Mary and Addison. Mary and Addison had been in love for over twenty-five years but never had the legal option of getting married until same-sex marriage was made legal in Minnesota. For the couple, walking down the aisle was not only a legal victory, but a personal one as well. About fifteen years before the wedding, Mary discovered she was pregnant; when Addison heard the news, she was ready to end the relationship and dismiss her quietly. That night, lying awake in her hotel room, Addison heard God’s voice. God informed Addison that Mary had been chosen by her to bear a son. God instructed Addison to name their son Jesus. The next day she returned to support the woman she loved.
Nine months later, while traveling in Florida, Mary went into labor. They immediately drove to the nearest hospital where they encountered hostility from the medical staff. The ER nurse told them the hospital did not treat their kind here. They left and encountered a nun who invited them back to her convent. Mary gave birth to a baby boy, named him Jesus, and raised him with the love of her life, Addison. Fast forward to September 2013, on a beautiful fall afternoon, Jesus was overjoyed to see the legal wedding of his two mothers in Minnesota.
In the months leading up to the statewide legalization of same-sex marriage, there were widespread protests citing its harmful effects it would have on traditional marriage. For the first time in Jesus’ life, he began hearing that his mothers were a detriment to society, children, and the institution of marriage. He heard that their marriage would threaten existing marriages between a man and a woman. Jesus was shocked and thought, “If only those people knew my moms, they would not say those things.” He took note of these protesters and tried to understand their motives. Seeing the pain they caused his moms, he realized his mission was to bring the message of love, compassion, and inclusivity to all.
After graduating from high school in Minnesota, Jesus ventured east to Georgetown University; he would study political science to help elect political candidates that supported same-sex marriage and equality for LGBT Americans. As the semester progressed, his roommate, Nathan, confessed he was struggling with his sexuality. While Nathan had always supported the LGBT community, he was angry and bitter once he realized that he, himself, was a gay man. He told Jesus that he did not believe he deserved to be happy and feared revealing this closely guarded secret to family and friends. Nathan continued to voice his frustrations about his sexuality, his fear of being rejected, and his desire to remain in the closet where he could hide from others and himself. He confessed he had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism; he would get drunk to quiet the storm inside his head. Nathan admitted that even just saying the words “I’m gay” aloud still struck fear and shame in his heart.
As Jesus listened to Nathan, he remembered Claire, his friend from high school. He shared with Nathan her story of being mercilessly bullied and verbally abused to the point of wanting to commit suicide and how her friends lovingly reached out to her and helped her speak her truth without shame. He turned to Nathan, grabbed his hands, and said, “Nathan, what Claire realized, and what you will realize someday, is that your sexuality is a gift from God—you are made by God, and God doesn’t make mistakes.” Tears began to stream down Nathan’s face. “Will it ever get better?” he asked Jesus. “Nathan,” Jesus said, “both of my moms struggled to accept themselves when they were younger; they struggled with being open about their relationship, and look at them now. It will get better. You deserve to love and be loved by another, and I cannot wait to meet the man you want to spend the rest of your life with.” Nathan cracked a smile. “I’m serious,” Jesus said. Jesus’ compassion and acceptance led to Nathan becoming his first disciple. Nathan dropped his fear and self-hatred and followed Jesus. Throughout college, Jesus became friends with other gays, lesbians, and transgender students, along with straight allies, feminists, and religious classmates. This core group of diverse young acolytes would follow him beyond college, as his disciples, to help him promote his message of acceptance and love to all Americans.
As marriage equality legislation moved at a furious pace in state legislatures across the country, Jesus and his disciples traveled to Chicago to witness the first day of legal same-sex marriage in Illinois. When they arrived at city hall, they noticed people from the National Organization for Marriage, One Million Moms, the Family Research Council and other organizations picketing with signs that read “One Man + One Woman = Marriage,” “Marriage should be reinforced not redefined,” but the one that caught Jesus’ eye read, “Children need a mom and a dad.” He pointed it out to his moms and grabbed their hands. Others, standing in support of marriage equality carried signs that read “Love is Love,” “Gay Rights are Human Rights/Human Rights are Gay Rights,” and “Proud Child of Two Dads.”
As Jesus walked up the steps of city hall, some of the protesters shouted to Jesus, “This violates the natural order; God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” They expected Jesus to take up a sign in protest and stand alongside of them; instead, Jesus escorted loving and excited couples into city hall. When the protesters accused Jesus of supporting the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, he stopped, turned around at the top of the steps, and said, “You have heard it said that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality, but I say to you, that story is about gang rape and a violation of ancient hospitality codes. It’s ironic, don’t you think, that your inhospitality of homosexuals is actually the sin of Sodom.” Being overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continued, “You have heard it said, ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they have committed an abomination,’ but I say to you, do you not understand that this same book tells you that eating shellfish and pork and trimming your beards is an abomination? You have heard it said, ‘Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another,’ but I say to you, Paul was writing to a completely different culture and had no concept of sexual orientation and therefore has a limited view of humans. We’ve learned a lot in the last 2,000 years, not only about humans but also about the world. Did you know that people argued that the sun revolved around the world because the Bible suggested that the earth is fixed?” A protestor shouted from the group, “It seems like you are picking and choosing from the Bible, Jesus.” Jesus replied, “You are correct, and so do you. Deuteronomy 21 says you should stone your children for disobeying you. Do you? 1 Peter 3 says you should not wear jewelry. Do you obey this? Deuteronomy 22 says that if a man rapes a woman then he must marry her. Do you agree? Matthew 19 suggests that you should sell all you have and give to the poor. Have you done this?”
Then Jesus gestured to the whole crowd and loudly proclaimed so that even those at the foot of the steps could hear, “After God created the first person, God stated, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone.’ Why, I ask, do you think LGBT people should be condemned to a life of loneliness because they do not love whom you think they should? Do you really think that the God who liberates people out of slavery in Egypt wants people enslaved to the confines of the closet? I say to you love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” The crowd was stunned because Jesus was teaching with authority and compassion.
One day, when Jesus was visiting the sick in a Catholic hospital in Alabama, he came across a man dying of AIDS. The man’s partner of 30 years was denied access to his bedside. When Jesus questioned the hospital about this lack of compassion, the staff told him the man had committed a mortal sin. They brought Jesus to the man in order that he might pray for him. When Jesus entered the room and began to pray, the frail man opened his eyes. The man said, “I have not lived an especially religious life. I have not attended church in years, and at times have wavered in my beliefs.” The hospital staff rolled their eyes and groaned in a manner that revealed their obvious disgust. Jesus silenced the staff, looked at the man, and said, “My son, many have rejected you in the name of religion; therefore, it does not shock me that you have not found a home in church. These people around me want to judge you. In you they do not see a human being; they see a sexual act. They are misguided.” The man took Jesus’ hand, “My whole life I have been told by Christians that I am a sinner. Do you agree?” Jesus responded, “All people are sinners, my son, but you are not a sinner for loving and being loved by that man in the hallway. A wise man once said, ‘If you are pursuing God, who am I to judge?’ and I agree with him. Love God, and love that man in the hallway.” Jesus then instructed the hospital staff to allow this man’s partner to visit him. The staff, after witnessing his compassion, obeyed. Seeing Jesus’ understanding of his love for his partner, the man’s pain and suffering from the disease ceased. When the man touched his partner’s hand, tears streamed down both of their faces, and the staff truly saw the men for the first time and were able to witness their love.
After Jesus left the hospital, he asked his disciple Meredith what people were saying about him. Meredith said many believed he would become president and end suffering for LGBT people; others believed he was an activist bringing an end to the evil age of homophobia and transphobia. Jesus then asked Meredith, “Who do you say I am?” Meredith replied, “You are the messiah working to restore values of love, compassion, and inclusion to the country.” Jesus replied, “You are correct. This is not accomplished until every single LGBT person both young and old knows that they are a gift to the world and they deserve to love and be loved. This does not happen overnight. I will suffer, as will many of you. Hear me, love will conquer hate. But this does not happen by calling people bigots and engaging in heated debates; rather, we will overpower it with love. If a coworker calls you a fag, tell him he is acting out of fear. If a classmate calls you a dyke, remind her that she is created for a better purpose than dehumanizing her neighbors. If people work to strip you of your basic human rights, remind them of your humanity by treating them with respect.”
While he was traveling the country, those who did not accept LGBT people felt the growing threat of Jesus’ social and political engagement. When Jesus worked in Texas with the It Gets Better Project promoting acceptance among LGBT teens, a teen was bullied to the point of committing suicide. Enemies of Jesus conspired with law enforcement to frame him for the murder, and charge him with a capital offense. He was found guilty and was condemned to death after the jury was stacked with individuals who found him to be a growing threat.
On the evening he was scheduled to die, his disciples were unsuccessful in preventing the inevitable. After the Texas Supreme Court refused to grant a stay and the governor failed to grant clemency, despite pleas from both sides of the aisle, Jesus, his mothers, and his disciples gathered at the penitentiary for his last meal. As they sat down to eat, Jesus invited his prison guards to the meal. He took the bread, gave thanks, then gave it to his disciples, his moms, and his prison guards, and said, “Take this and eat. It is my body, which I will give up for you.” He then did the same with the wine. “This is my blood, which I will pour out for you and the many like you who have been oppressed for far too long. Do not ever turn people away from this table, for you know what it feels like to be turned away. This table should be a hallmark of inclusion. Other places will build walls to keep people out, but I say to you, make a meal and invite people in.”
When the clock struck midnight Jesus was escorted to the room where he would be put to death. As he was being strapped down to the table, the executioner prepared the syringes with the drug cocktail that would end his life. As this process was being completed, Jesus uttered his last words to his mothers, who were on their knees in tears. He said, “Forgive them, mothers, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Then, he turned his head to the crowd, and declared, “I’ll be with you always. Whenever you see love, compassion, and inclusion, I am there in your midst.” The executioner plunged the needle into his vein. With this, at 12:05 a.m., Jesus breathed his last.
His mothers and disciples left the prison together and drove home in utter silence. When they turned onto their street, Emmaus Road, they noticed that pastors, rabbis, imams, and over five hundred people had gathered alongside their street with candles singing, “We Are Called.” Remembering Jesus’ words from the table, his mothers knew their son was alive.
“We are Called”
Song by David Haas,
Verse 1: “Come! Live in the light! Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord! We are called to be light for the kingdom, to live in the freedom of the city of God!
Refrain: We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God.
Verse 2: Come! Open your heart! Show your mercy to all those in fear! We are called to be hope for the hopeless, so all hatred and blindness will be no more!
Verse 3: Sing! Sing a new song! Sing of that great day when all will be one! God will reign and we’ll walk with each other as sisters and brothers united in love!
I thought it would be fitting around Mother’s Day to share some information about the “mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20), Eve.
In Genesis 2-3 and 4:1-2 we read about Eve, whose name in Hebrew, Hawwah, comes from the root word meaning “to live.” But instead of being the world’s best-known mother, she is perhaps the world’s best-known temptress–often depicted as and understood to be the naive, easily deceived woman, who after failing to obey God’s one and only command, leads an unwilling Adam into sin and subsequently takes humanity down with her. Our world is imperfect, and it is all Eve’s fault–blame her.
This understanding of Eve does not come from the Genesis 2-4 narrative itself; it comes from Christian tradition and later interpretations of her story. Eve is actually not mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible after she has relations with Adam in Genesis 4. But what the Hebrew Bible lacks concerning Eve, Christian tradition has filled in. And it is fair to say that tradition has not been kind to this mother.
Eve is mentioned twice in the New Testament (2 Cor 11:13 and 1 Timothy 2:13), when the apostle Paul and the author of 1 Timothy provide their interpretation of Eve in Genesis. Neither of them relay that she is an equal or counterpart to the male since she came from his side (rib), nor do they share that she is the mother of all living (Gen 3:20). Instead it is the serpent’s deception of Eve that finds center stage.
Early Christian interpreters followed suit and even increased the charges against this mother. Tertullian, a Christian author from the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E. focused his attention on Eve in his writing, “On the Apparel of Women” where he suggested that all women are each an Eve and because of that we are (wait for it, Ladies, this is about to get good) “the devil’s gateway,” “the unsealer of that tree,” “the first deserter of the divine law,” we “persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack,” “destroyed God’s image, man,” and because of our actions “the Son of God had to die.” Then there’s St. Augustine (4th and 5th centuries C.E.), the bishop of Hippo, who said “…it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman…I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children” (In his letter to his friend, Laetus).
One can quickly notice that the “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20) becomes the easily deceived woman in the New Testament and then a seductive temptress (or “devil’s gateway” if you prefer), a destroyer of God’s image, and the one who bears responsibility for the death of the Son of God in later interpretations.These interpretations of Eve, over time, not only became more and more egregious, they made it clear that Eve is every woman and every woman is Eve.
That was, of course, until women started sharing their interpretations of Eve.
During the 19th century suffrage movement in the US, women began to reread Eve’s story. Instead of relying on the male interpretations, they read with fresh eyes recognizing the male bias that permeated interpretations of Eve at every turn.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, famously used the story about Eve in her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. In a culture that had unquestioningly believed what tradition had taught for so long–that all women are responsible for ruining the world because of Eve– Truth responded with, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, then these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” The interpretations that had, for so long, blamed a woman for ruining everything were in fact tacitly admitting that women had immense power.
Mary Baker Eddy and later Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that male bias had clouded interpreters of the Bible. Urging a removal of that bias to see Eve clearly, Stanton wrote, “the unprejudiced reader must be impressed with the courage, the dignity, and the lofty ambition of the woman, [Eve]” (Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, 24). By removing the layers of male-biased interpretation, one sees a completely different Eve–even an Eve worthy of emulating.
The 20th century was full of female biblical scholars who followed the lead of Truth, Eddy, Stanton and other women who came before them. They read the story with fresh eyes. What emerged for them was an intelligent woman who engages in the first conversation about God in the Bible; one might even say that Eve was the first theologian. She was caring in that she was the first to provide food for another human when she handed Adam the fruit. This is actually more representative of women’s roles in food production in the ancient Israelite society and less about some innate desire that women have to tempt/seduce men [but I can see why centuries of male interpreters wanted to depict Eve as having that desire]. Also, when Eve appears in Genesis 4, she has relations with Adam, conceives a child, and proclaims, “I have created a man together with the Lord” (Gen 4:1). The word create here is qanah. It is often used in the biblical text of God’s immense creative power. It is used elsewhere in Genesis as an epithet to God, “the most high God, creator (qanah) of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19, 22).
Eve is intelligent, she is caring, and she is powerful.
I believe early interpreters of Eve were right about one thing: Eve is every woman and every woman is Eve; they were just functioning out of the wrong depiction of Eve.
For more information on the history of interpretation, women in scripture, and how archaeology and ethnography can inform our understanding of women in ancient Israel, please click on the icons below: