First witness

Daily Reading for July 22 • St. Mary Magdalene

The tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute is among the most extraordinary and implausible inventions ever woven out of gospel texts. The reasoning behind the tradition followed this far-fetched course: the woman who anointed Jesus in Luke (7:36-50) was ‘a sinner’; the scandal of Jesus allowing himself to be touched by a sinner (Luke 7:39) may imply that she was a prostitute (this despite the fact that Luke uses a different word for prostitute elsewhere: 15:30); the woman who anoints Jesus in John’s gospel is Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8); therefore Mary of Bethany was a prostitute; Luke’s anointing story is immediately followed by information that Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ followers, and that seven devils had been driven out of her; therefore Mary Magdalene was a terrible sinner (this despite the fact that this exorcism is given as an example of healing from infirmity, 8:2, and that exorcism usually refers to illness rather than sin); therefore Mary Magdalene may have been the sinner referred to a moment before (this despite the fact that no link is made with the previous mention, but remember that it has been decided that the ‘sinner’ was called Mary); therefore Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Strangely the idea has remained that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute even after her supposed identification with Mary of Bethany—on which it depends—has been largely forgotten. . . .

The tradition of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute has become almost immovable in our received tradition, largely because of the rich artistic work it has inspired. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as an emotional, even hysterical woman with long, loose red hair and a brilliant scarlet dress, weeping at the cross or seeing the risen Jesus in the garden. Though this character has its own appeal, the drawback is that it has also reinforced the identification of women with sexual temptation, for the two classic ways in which a woman can follow Jesus are summed up in the archetypes of Mary the blue-robed mother of Jesus, who has never known sex, and the red-robed Mary Magdalene who has repented of knowing sex.

It is also to be deplored that the prostitute tradition has robbed Mary Magdalene of her dignified stance as leading woman disciple and first witness to the resurrection: from being an example of women’s leadership and ministry she has been sidetracked into being an example of women’s weakness, changeability and need for repentance. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell comments: ‘Anyone who loves the biblical Mary Magdalene, and compares her with the “Christian” Mary Magdalene, must get very angry. . . . The great sinner, of whom Luke speaks (Luke 7), and Mary Magdalene, whom all four gospels report, have as little to do with each other as Peter and Judas’ (The Women Around Jesus, p. 64).

From “Mary of Magdala” in Six New Gospels: New Testament Women Tell Their Stories by Margaret Hebblethwaite (Cowley Publications, 1994).

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