Mary Magdalene Revisited

Titian's Magdalen

Having just passed through Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, and hearing and seeing many images of Mary Magdalene in movies or in the readings from the pulpit, I thought it might be an interesting and necessary time to post a section of an essay I published a few years ago called The Three Marys.

The section I’m posting has to do with Mary Magdalene, repentent prostitute, as she is portrayed in any movie about Jesus, humble, tears flowing, loving. She is never presented as a woman of means who was an early disciple and who likely financially supported Jesus’ travels and ministry. Likely a business woman, no evidence supports the idea that her business was prostitution.

Here’s the section:

One of the things scholars say is that the Gospel of Luke was written by a second or third-generation Christian who probably did not personally know any of the first disciples. The dates of the writing are considered to be in the early 80s ACE, in other words, approximately fifty years after Jesus died.

Luke’s Gospel is often called a “friend of women” because women are written about more often than in any other gospel.  However, a careful reading might offer a different interpretation than that of “friend.”  Jane Schaberg, author of The Illegitimacy of Jesus, writes:

“The Gospel [of Luke] attempts to meet various needs, such as instructing and edifying women converts, appeasing the detractors of Christianity, and controlling women who practice or aspire to practice a prophetic ministry in the church. One of the strategies of this Gospel is to provide female readers with female characters as role models: prayerful, quiet, grateful women, supportive of male leadership…”

Luke never names the women in this Gospel “apostles” or “disciples”; rather the women are portrayed as listeners, pondering what they don’t understand. Who would benefit from this image of women as “prayerful, quiet,” and “supportive of male leadership”?  As Schaberg says, “Luke restricts the roles of women to what is acceptable to the conventions of the imperial world.”

Mary Magdalene

Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisees. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

                                                                                    Luke 7:37-38

The name “Mary Magdalene” evokes a very particular kind of image: red-haired, voluptuous, the repentant prostitute who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with the costly ointment she has carried in an “alabaster jar.”

Interestingly, all four gospels have an account of a woman anointing Jesus with a costly ointment: Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12: 1-8.  In Matthew and Mark, the woman brings an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment and pours it on the head of Jesus; in John’s Gospel, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, “took a liter of costly perfumed oil…and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair.” Only Luke describes the woman as a “sinner.”

How then, and even why, did the account evolve from a woman anointing Jesus to one of a repentant prostitute named Mary Magdalene wiping his feet with her hair?  Who would benefit from such a story?

Mary Magdalene, scholars now say, was probably a cherished disciple of Jesus. From the information on early Christianity gleaned from the fragments of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, she was likely vocal, smart, and a leader in the early community.  She also challenged the leadership of Peter.

From Luke’s Gospel we know she followed Jesus from town to town, along with “the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities,” and that Jesus had driven “seven demons” from Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:1-2).  She was also a woman of resources; she helped bankroll the ministry of Jesus, says Professor Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School.  “Women,” Levine goes on to say, “paid his bills”(Luke 8:3).  If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a poor prostitute, where did she get her money?

In fact, says Jane Schaberg, first-century Judaism contained great diversity: “Inscriptions, papyri, and archaeological data as well as literary sources indicate that…some Jewish women were leaders in synagogues, were financially
independent landowners and businesswomen, and acquired religious education.”

Why then do we have this consummate image of Mary Magdalene, repentant prostitute, washing the feet of Jesus with her hair?

We have that image because Pope Gregory VIII, at the end of the 6th Century, wrote a sermon connecting Chapter 7’s woman with the alabaster jar, a woman who is called a “sinner” (nowhere in that passage is she called a prostitute), with the woman Mary Magdalene at the beginning of Chapter 8. Gregory’s sermon effectively revised history, changing Mary Magdalene from the woman who financially and emotionally supported the ministry of Jesus, the first one to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, from a disciple to a prostitute.

Gregory’s view held sway for fourteen hundred years and gave artists a rich palette of feminine imagery to complement and contrast to the virginal mother.

The Vatican officially rescind that view in 1969, but the damage to women was done.  In the intervening centuries, the image of a woman repentant and humble before the Lord became an overriding symbol for the way women ought to act. A woman, in the image of Eve, was the original sinner; now, before the Lord, Mary Magdalene was given the chance to be saved, repentent and humble.

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2 thoughts on “Mary Magdalene Revisited

  1. Ahhhh, the power of the papacy. I remember reading an italicized footnote in my Catholic Daily Missal, pre Vatican II, which “explained” that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM was actually added to the church liturgy after a certain pope had a dream and declared it true! Man, if only I do the same with this lousy losing Mega Millions Lottery ticket.

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