April 30, 2023
Mary Magdalene has been maligned with a sullied reputation for centuries. Presented as a prostitute, a woman of ill repute, she has endured incorrect identification.
“Nevertheless, she persisted….”
Today, we will explore how this misidentification developed.
There are many unnamed women in the gospels. There are also many “Marys” named. (There are at least 8 Marys in the New Testament records). Magdalene has been inaccurately identified with several of the unnamed women in the gospel accounts or conflated with some of the named Marys, in particular, Mary of Bethany. At different stages in Christianity, Mary Magdalene has been named as the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3-11, and in some circles, named as the woman at the well. Both are inaccurate. Magdalene was consistently identified as the sinful woman who anoints Jesus as accounted in three of the gospels and named Mary of Bethany in John’s account (Matthew 26;6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-8). In naming Magdalene as a central figure in this story, a story full of sensuality, scandal, and intimacy, she came to bear labels of sinner or prostitute. Even the conjecture that it might have been Magdalene associated her with the reputation of being “that sort of woman.”
Pope Gregory I added to this mischaracterization in Homily 33 preached in 591 CE:
“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?….It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts” (Investigating Mary Magdalen, Christopher Witcombe).
With this papal statement, Gregory established Magdalene as a sinner and prostitute—and one of questionable sanity. This inaccuracy and malignment did not get rectified in the Roman Catholic Church until 1969.
Over the years, conjecture and inaccuracy have continued to creep into scriptural interpretations and theological conversations about Mary Magdalene. Among other things, this illustrates how knowing and being close to Jesus can be costly.
Love endures. Truth surfaces. The Risen Christ lives.
Mary Magdalene was a faithful follower of Jesus. She is the “apostle to the apostles.” Thanks be to God for her life, love, and witness.
As you consider Mary Magdalene’s historical representation, consider some of these questions:
When in your life have you been misrepresented, maligned, or wrongly reputed?
What did this require of you?
Practice courage today in the face of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
Prayer: Holy One, help me know you more clearly and follow you more nearly, especially when I am misunderstood or misrepresented in my love for you. Amen. Alleluia.
Prayer: Richard of Chichester, 1244 adapted
Photo: Mary Magadalene by Giampietrino, Burgos Cathedral, Spain