History of Interpretation
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:
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: