Reclaiming Mary Magdalene

Ask most people to name one of Jesus’s female disciples or followers, and they will probably say Mary Magdalene, and if you probe a little further, they will say, “wasn’t she a prostitute?” In my May 2022 blog, I talked about the Bible’s “bad girls”, those to whom history has not been kind. When good women are given a bad reputation, it reduces them to a type and prevents us from hearing their voices as people of faith.

How would you feel if your character was always called into question in Bible studies and sermons? Or what if this was your mother, wife, or daughter? I hope this blog will help to dispel this enduring myth. It’s time to take a fresh look at Mary.

What do we know with certainty about her?

The first mention of her is when she is named in a group of women, and we are told Jesus healed her of seven demons. She became a devoted disciple of Jesus and supported him out of her own means. (Luke 8:2). She was present at Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it was to her that Jesus first appeared. There are over a dozen times where she is mentioned and always with the name Magdalene. So far, so good.

At this time, women were often referred to in relation to either a husband, father or son, such as Mary, the mother of James, in Luke 24:10. Some are called by where they are from, such as Martha of Bethany, possibly showing her as widowed or unmarried and her father dead. Mary was one of the most popular names in the first century, and there are many Marys in the New Testament. Where does that leave us with Magdalene? There are a couple of possibilities.

The most common idea is she was from Magdala, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. One other possibility is that Magdalene was a nickname, such as Rock for Simon Peter, or Sons of Thunder for James and John. Magdala means tower or fortress in Aramaic and may indicate she was a particularly tall or strong woman. She travelled with Jesus and was with him in his most difficult times, which would have taken enormous inner strength.

There is no reference to her past before she met Jesus. What she was healed and released from is uncertain and may refer to what today we call a severe illness or a mental illness. There is no suggestion in the least that she was a prostitute and nothing to give her the bad girl reputation.

This enduring myth continues in popular fiction today, and novels, musicals, and films still love this persistent image of her. It has captured the imagination of artists throughout the centuries, who have repeatedly painted her as either the repentant whore, often scantily dressed or the demure saint. But neither of these opposites is true. Unfortunately for Mary, artists, preachers and movie directors like the idea of a salacious past. Would a musical based on Mary’s true ministry sell many tickets?

In my June blog, where she was interviewed by Aemilia Metella and in my novel, Leaving Bethany, I try to show what her character may have been and her past as a sinner in need of healing and salvation as much as each one of us, rather than a release from a sexually immoral past.

I would like to add that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never had the image of Mary as a reformed prostitute and remember her as a teacher of the faith who preached the message of mercy.

How has her story become so distorted?

It was on the 14th of September 591 that Pope Gregory, the first, gave a sermon in Rome. He labelled the seven demons she was released from as the seven deadly sins and incorrectly combined Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the unnamed woman referred to as a sinful woman who washed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7. In overtly sexual terms which today would be slanderous, he talks about her forbidden acts, scandalous behaviour, kissing with her mouth, and delight. Before she turned her crimes into virtues and served God entirely in penance. A highly sexual charge sheet that was addressed to “brothers”.

This combination of the three women, often called the composite Mary, has held sway for over 1,400 years. It happened at a time when celibacy for the priesthood was coming into vogue and sex became to be seen as a sinful act. Women were viewed as either seducers or saints, and they could view Mary as both. Her repentance only highlighted her sexuality. We can see this in paintings of her, many too sexually explicit and pornographic for my blog, but not on art gallery walls! Art has only further sullied and reinforced her bad reputation and ingrained these ideas into people’s minds.

One of the earliest mentions of Mary outside the Bible was by Hippolytus of Rome in 235 AD, who called her the “Apostle to the Apostles”. A reference to Jesus’s commission to tell the male apostles that he was alive. Showing that early in the history of the church, Mary was remembered for her ministry, with no reference to a supposed salacious past. Later, in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas reinforced her as the “Apostle to the Apostles”.

It took a more recent pope to change this. John Paul II in 1988, attempted to restore Mary’s reputation as the “Apostle to the Apostles” and separated the three women once more. Unfortunately for Mary, the news of this has not travelled quick. However, in June 2016, Pope Francis affirmed this title and elevated her liturgical celebration to the same rank as that of the male apostles.

How shall we celebrate and remember Mary Magdalene?

I hope no longer as the penitent whore or saintly devotee, but in her rightful place as a healed, restored and forgiven disciple who followed Jesus and stuck it out to the end, when so many did not and then played a critical role in the early church. When women were rarely placed as witnesses, Jesus chose her as the first witness to his resurrection, and we can follow her example and speak up for what we believe. When we label a woman as a bad girl, she is silenced and her right to be heard is taken away. It’s time that Mary’s voice and the voice of the many Biblical women are heard once more.

In a future blog, I will examine the depictions of Mary Magdalene in art through the centuries.

Mary Magdalene by Viorel Trandafir

She became a devoted disciple of Jesus and supported him out of her own means

This enduring myth continues in popular fiction today

The Penitent Magdalene by Titian

The Magdalen Weeping
Workshop of Master of the Magdalen Legend

Pope Francis elevated her liturgical celebration to the same rank as that of the male apostles

Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical Biblical fiction novel written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany, a friend of Jesus. The sequel, Return to Caesarea, will be out in early 2023.

If you liked the blog, why not join Susan’s mailing list and receive a free copy of her eBook, The Interviews of Aemilia Metella?

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