Mary Quite Contrary

Whoever She Is, Mary Magdalene Still Matters

I have learned the six magic words that will wake up any high school religion class:

“Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.”

Every year I get the same strong reaction from my students to this simple truth.

  • “But wasn’t she the woman caught in adultery?”
  • “My religion teacher said she was the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with perfume.”
  • “How can you say that when the movies portray her as a prostitute?”

It seems that popular culture has more authority than the Bible.

Mary Magdalene in the Bible
When I point out that Scripture says nothing about Mary Magdalene being a sinner, invariably a student will claim that I can’t prove that she wasn’t a prostitute.

I could point out that the New Testament only says that she was a woman from whom Jesus cast out “seven demons” (Luke 8:1-3). I could tell them that the problem is that, from the time of Pope Gregory the Great, the Church confused Mary with:

  • the woman caught in adultery (never named in John 8:1-11) and
  • Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus feet in John 12:1-8 (and who is herself confused with another “sinner” who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50).

But I have realized that this is not the point.

Sex and forgiveness
It took several years of this kind of debate before it occurred to me why my students want Mary Magdalene to be a prostitute. Sex is the sin that my students are wrestling with. They really want to believe what society tells them about causal sex, that it is good and can even be healthy, but they are also the byproduct of a Puritan ethic that still infuses our culture—with an unhealthy dose of Catholic guilt thrown in for good measure. If Mary Magdalene’s sexual sins could be forgiven… then there is hope that their experiments with sex can be forgiven too.

If not the repentant prostitute, then who was Mary Magdalene?

Wife of the Savior?
That seems to be the question of the moment. She made the cover of Newsweek early December 2003 and has been the topic of endless discussion because of the book The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

I began hearing about this book from my students last year. Their parents would inquire through their daughters if it were true that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. I knew I had to make the time to read the book when even my mother asked me that question. I finished The Da Vinci Code in two days, and I can understand now why my reminders that the book was fiction were difficult to accept.

With pieces of the truth thrown in here and there, and just enough anger at the Catholic Church due to the recent scandals, Brown has opened the door for even mainstream Catholics to contemplate funky conspiracy theories for the first time.

Will the real Magdalene stand up?
But Mary Magdalene is neither the repentant prostitute nor the wife of Jesus. What we really need today is to understand who she was in her response to the message of Jesus—not whom she had sex with.

Mary Magdalene believed so strongly in Jesus that she stuck with him through his arrest, crucifixion, and burial. It was because of this deep faith that Mary Magdalene was given the gift of being a witness to the resurrection—the first witness by many accounts—and entrusted with delivering the news to the other disciples, who were in hiding.

It is the title ‘Apostle to the Apostle’ by which we remember her today.

The Magdalene legend, East vs. West
The Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity remembered Mary Magdalene differently. It was Western Christianity that perpetuated the idea of Mary Magdalene as the repentant prostitute. The story goes that she went to Provence in France after the resurrection and lived a life of penance seeking solitude in a cave as an ascetic.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene was a woman of means who traveled to Rome where she performed the miracle that is represented in the icons of her. After informing the Emperor Tiberius of the resurrection of Jesus, Mary was challenged with the response: “A man could no more rise from the dead than this egg,” Tiberius gestured to a hardboiled egg served on a tray, “on the table could turn red.” When she picked up the egg it had miraculously turned red. Mary Magdalene then traveled to Ephesus in modern day Turkey where she lived out the rest of her life.

The woman remembered in the Eastern tradition is the Mary Magdalene that I feel drawn to. It doesn’t seem likely that a person who understood the message of Jesus would withdraw to a cave to live a life of penance. I believe Mary Magdalene would have taken to heart Jesus’ message of forgiveness of all sins and carried the Good News to the whole world.