Chloe is a final year student of BA Theology at King’s College London, with a particular interest in women in the New Testament. She is currently researching for a dissertation focusing on the story of the ‘sinful woman’ found in Luke 7:36-50. Twitter: @ChloeSheila_
“It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying, that a man like you, can waste his time, on women of her kind.” – this is a criticism of Jesus made by Judas in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar (as well as in the musical of the same name). Judas is bemoaning the damage done to Christ’s image for letting Mary touch him, given her profession. It happens to be one of the many examples of media wherein Mary Magdalene is depicted as a sex worker, as well as a love interest for Jesus (Ehrman, 2006, p. 180). Another incredibly controversial example is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 epic, The Last Temptation of Christ, which includes a scene where Jesus waits at the back of a queue of men, who are each paying for some time with Mary. He doesn’t have sex with her, rather he’s there to (somewhat pathetically) plead for her clemency for previously dumping her. Still, it managed to anger a great many people (Ibid., p.181). They were angered further, when later in a vision, Jesus is shown to marry and sleep with Mary.
Such ideas about Mary Magdalene have become ingrained within our culture – her name is synonymous with sexual sin, and with sex work. But, in reality, there is absolutely no evidence in the Gospels that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. So where does the idea come from?
The ‘real’ Mary Magdalene?
Contrary to popular belief, Mary is not a particularly prominent character in the New Testament – her name is only mentioned thirteen times across all four Gospels. Furthermore, she is mentioned only once prior to the crucifixion (Ehrman, 2006, p.185). This instance is in Luke 8:2, where she is listed alongside other women who travelled with Jesus (Joanna and Susanna, respectively) in a passage which also indicates that she had undergone an exorcism, having had seven demons cast out from her. Yet we are left with no indication of what that actually means, and also, no confirmation that it was even Jesus who performed the exorcism. Exorcisms were fairly common practice at the time, and demons were thought to be the cause of a wide range of afflictions.
However, she is probably most famous for the events after Jesus’ death, when the women return to his tomb. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” Yet, it seems to be the story weaved by the author of the Gospel of John that is most well-known. After finding Jesus’ body missing, Mary is crying outside the tomb. An understandable action, I think we’d all weep at the thought of the body of the man dearest to us being thieved, having no idea who has it, or what they might be doing to it. But at that moment, Jesus appears, asking her why she is crying, and who she is looking for. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and requests that if he has moved the body, he tell her where to. Instead, he speaks her name. She recognises him then, and shouts “Rabboni!” [Teacher] (Griffith-Jones, 2008, p.47). Then Jesus says something very interesting, he tells her “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” – so, she has reached out for him, she is holding him. It is a beautiful and extremely moving image, one that The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones calls “deeply erotic” (Ibid.) commenting that “the garden of death has become the garden of love.”(Ibid.) I feel that this moment informs much of our understanding of Mary.
Moreover, a further important point, is that in all canonical Gospels but Luke’s, Mary is charged with conveying the news of the resurrection to others. Her significance within Christianity therefore seems unquestionable, despite her lack of prominence in much of the narrative.
The Creation of a Character
Why then, is our modern conception of Mary Magdalene so different? Well, much can be blamed on a muddled understanding of different identities. Mary was an enormously popular name at the time, and as such there are a number of women called Mary in the New Testament. Jesus’ Mother and Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) being two examples. In addition, there are numerous stories in the Gospels that feature women who are not named, and who are sometimes presumed to be Mary Magdalene, though most would argue that such presumptions are grave misunderstandings (Ehrman, 2006, pp.187-189). One significant story is that of the ‘sinful woman’ in Luke 7:36-50, where a woman (who some presume to be a sex worker, though there is debate about that, due to the ambiguity of the word ‘sinner’) washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. (Ibid., p.189)
These aforementioned misunderstandings are demonstrated, and seemingly cemented into cultural consciousness for the next one thousand four hundred years by a homily given by Pope Gregory I at the basilica of St Clement in 591. (Haag, 2017, p.233)
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected, according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?” (Ibid.)
So, the woman we often consider to be Mary Magdalene, the companion of Jesus, who washes his feet with her hair and tears – as well as sometimes anointing him, or being saved from a stoning, is actually a composite character of multiple women. Thus, the woman we end up with, is a penitent sex worker, saved by forgiveness from and dedication to Jesus. But she simply can’t be the ‘sinful woman’ found in Luke, because Mary is introduced in the very next chapter. It would be odd to reintroduce her, if she’s already appeared in the narrative. (Ehrman, 2006, p.189). Furthermore, Mary of Bethany is a different woman – she is from Bethany (obviously) whereas Mary Magdalene is thought to be from Magdala. And the women featured in the other stories are nameless, there is no indication at all that they are Mary. How like a man though, to be unable to process the idea of multiple female characters? Though it’d be quite hard for the Gospels to pass the Bechdel test, after all, Jesus is fairly central to the story.
However, in all seriousness, there are perhaps deeper explanations for the existence of this created character.
A Male Invention
It’s worth noting, that this conception of Mary Magdalene, is chastised for what can be understood as a very ‘female’ type of sin. Her body is dangerous. Her behaviour is dangerous. She’s seen as attractive, and thus seductive. She is a temptation to men. St Athanasius said that the importance of one being sexually pure, or chaste, was one of the most important messages from Jesus (Bullough and Bullough, 1964, p.71). The idea of Mary Magdalene, is someone who threatens that. It seems important to note then, that her redemption comes from falling to her knees in front a man, distraught and contrite. Bart Ehrman comments, that such a scenario is one that is formulated through a man’s eyes. (Ehrman, 2006, p.192). A woman must apologise for her sexuality, while also remaining alluring to men.
However, it could be argued that a near-constant companion to our cultural understanding of Mary Magadalene, is Jesus’ response to her. I started this article by quoting Jesus Christ Superstar and I think Jesus’s rebuttal to Judas’ criticism is equally noteworthy. He challenges him. “Who are you to criticise her? Who are you to despise her? Leave her, leave her, let her be now, leave her, leave her, she’s with me now.” And I think this speaks to a wider comprehension of how Jesus treats sex workers (whether it’s theologically accurate or not is whole other debate) he doesn’t judge them, nor does he allow others to do so. (Griffith-Jones, p.235). So, despite this forgiveness also being used to justify the condemnation of women who don’t repent, and despite the fact that, when it comes to Mary Magdalene, many of our perceptions are wrong; a character who is a sex worker has been created. And she is treated with kindness by arguably the most significant man in the Western world. That will absolutely mean different things to different people. But when I watch a film, or read a book, where Mary Magdalene, the sex worker, is respected, defended, and met with compassion, I can’t help but smile.
Bullough, V. and Bullough, B. (1964). The History of Prostitution. New York: University Books.
Ehrman, B. (2006). The followers of Jesus in history and legend. Oxford University Press.
Griffith-Jones, R. (2008). Mary Magdalene. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
Haag, M. (2017). Quest for Mary Magdalene. Profile Books Ltd.
Jesus Christ Superstar. (1973). [DVD] Directed by N. Jewison. Universal Pictures.
The Last Temptation of Christ. (1988). [DVD] Directed by M. Scorsese. Universal Pictures.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Anglicised edition (1979). Hodder and Stoughton Publishers.