Rehabilitating the image of the Magdalene

By Beatrice Gormley

On social occasions people always politely ask me what I’m writing. These days, I tell them my latest book is a young adult novel about Mary Magdalene.

Some are startled. “This is a book for young people? But she was a prostitute.”

I gently disagree: nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute. The legend of her as the archetypal repentant sinner grew up several centuries after her death. I’m tempted to explain in more depth, but if I go on to summarize a close reading of the Gospels, plus an overview of early church history, the other person is likely to excuse himself and head for the bar.

On the other hand, some people react in quite a different way. An intense light comes into their eyes. “I’ve always been fascinated with Mary Magdalene,” they say. Clearly, whether they know a little or a lot about Mary, they feel a personal connection with her.

For a long time, I have to admit, I was one of those who accepted the traditional legend of Mary uncritically. I didn’t think much about Mary of Magdala. I only began to change my mind while studying the Gospels for a class. Going over Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John line by line, I learned that Mary the prostitute was nowhere to be found in the text.

But—then what was the basis for all the famous Magdalenes in religious art, such as Veronese’s painting of a remorseful (but bare-breasted) young woman, or Donatello’s statue of a hideously aged but spiritually purified hermit? What about Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, or the many film versions of Jesus’ life that depicted Mary as a prostitute? They could all be traced back to the sixth-century sermon in which Pope Gregory I conflated Mary of Magdala with other women in the Gospels, and identified her as an iconic repentant sinner.

This “penitent whore” legend obscured the already faint knowledge of what was really important about Mary: She must have been a key disciple in Jesus’ following. Otherwise, the Gospel writers wouldn’t even have mentioned her name. They wouldn’t have described Mary and other women disciples as having the courage to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, while the male disciples hid. Mary, in particular, was so close to Jesus that according to Mark and John, she was the first to see the risen Christ.

By the time Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was published, I knew enough about Mary of Magdala to be really irritated by his portrayal of her. Although Brown rejected the traditional concept of Mary as a whore, it was only to substitute the idea that she was Mrs. Jesus, the “vessel” that bore his child. One could write volumes discussing how much is wrong with this, including the ludicrous idea that Jesus passed on his spiritual power through his genes.

Meanwhile, I had been busy writing historical novels based on stories in the Bible. Those Bible stories! They’re some of the most dramatic tales ever told, full of passionate love, deadly jealousy, overweening pride, devastating loss. But many of them are tantalizingly sketchy about the female characters, practically begging to be expanded and fully imagined.

I wrote into novels the stories of several of those young women: Miriam, about the girl who saves her brother Moses from Pharaoh’s soldiers; Adara, about the Israelite slave girl in General Naaman’s household who connects him with the prophet Elisha; Salome, about that girl who danced for the head of John the Baptist. But I’d never considered Mary of Magdala for one of my books, because I thought she was too old.

Then, casting around for an idea for my next novel, I asked my friend Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick for suggestions. Her answer was instantaneous. “Obviously, Mary Magdalene.”

Before I could object that my teenaged readers weren’t going to go for a story about a middle-aged church lady, something clicked in my brain. I was still harboring an unexamined assumption about Mary: that she was older than Jesus. In fact, Mary may not have been even twenty when Jesus and his followers set out on that last journey to Jerusalem. So my story of Mary could cover her life from preadolescence to young adulthood and still include her encounter with Jesus. My story would answer the question, what kind of girl was she? By what rocky journey did that girl grow into an extraordinary spiritual leader?

Writing a novel is all about challenges. A particular challenge of this novel, since I intended to stick as closely to the historical record as possible, was that there was almost no solid information about Mary of Magdala. Only a few sentences in the Gospels, plus the later, extracanonical Gospels of Mary, Thomas, and Philip. All my other research had to be indirect, carefully constructing possibilities about Mary from what was known about life in first-century Galilee. I examined many scholarly speculations (some of them contradictory) about Mary’s background and decided which ones seemed most plausible, as well as most useful for my story.

A different kind of challenge, in Mary’s story, was daring to portray Jesus. It seemed presumptuous, almost sacrilegious, to write about the way he might have looked, might have talked, might have acted with his followers. I had to keep telling myself that Yeshua of Nazareth was, after all, a historical person. It was my function as a novelist to imagine his physical presence. In order for a character in a novel to come to life in the reader’s mind, the writer has to provide details about that person.

Illogically, I also worried about the effect on my faith, if I succeeded in describing a convincing Jesus. Would that trivialize him in my eyes? Would that make him small enough to fit inside the covers of a book?

I had to point out to myself that I was not, after all, trying to write a definitive biography of Jesus of Nazareth. I was not trying to understand him. I was writing Mary’s experience of knowing Jesus, the man who healed her and transformed her life. Poisoned Honey would be the story of Jesus’ effect on Mary, and I was qualified to imagine that. I know many people who have been healed and transformed by faith, including myself.

And I felt strongly drawn to defend Mary, maybe the most misunderstood person of the Bible. I know that a good story can be more convincing than all the scholarly arguments in the world. I wanted very much to tell what I thought was Mary of Magdala’s real story: An idealistic young woman, blocked by her social environment from developing her gifts, suffers and struggles but finally finds her mission as a close disciple of Jesus. This is the Mary of Poisoned Honey.

Beatrice Gormley is the author of many novels and biographies for young readers, including Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene. (Knopf, 2010, ISBN 978-0-375-85207-7) She is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea, Little Compton, RI. Her website:

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