The tarnished reputation of Mary Magdalene

The Feast of Mary of Magdala will be celebrated on 22 July. Recently this feast day was elevated to the same status as the Apostles and Mary was given the title "Apostle to the Apostles".

Over many years, there has been confusion about who Mary Magdalene was. This has resulted in her having a tarnished reputation and portrayed as a prostitute.

In art pieces, writings and theology, she is often depicted as a repentant prostitute after meeting Jesus.

Frank Woods Professor of New Testament, University of Divinity, Dorothy Ann Lee, told The Conversation how this came to be:

“The tradition of Mary Magdalene as the penitent prostitute can be dated to a sermon preached by Gregory the Great in the sixth century CE.

Admittedly, there are a confusing number of women called “Mary” in the Gospels and we might assume Pope Gregory was tired of distinguishing between them. He reduced them to two: on the one hand, Mary, the mother of Jesus, perpetual virgin, symbol of purity and goodness, and, on the other, Mary Magdalene, promiscuous whore, symbol of feminine evil from which the world must be redeemed.”

However, no mention of Mary Magdalene in the gospels is associated with prostitution.  

Instead, she is a strong disciple of Jesus, and one of the first to know of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Unlike many of the other disciples, she does not flee when Jesus is arrested. She remains at the cross when he dies and later visits his tomb to find it empty, with a vision of angels declaring his resurrection.

Mark’s Gospel, speaks of Magdalene as a disciple of Jesus who has followed him from Galilee along with other women. At the crucifixion, these women disciples stay near the cross, despite the danger of them being present.

Three of them, including Magdalene, visit the tomb on Easter morning where they meet an angel who announces that Jesus has risen from the dead (Mark 16:1-8). The women leave in fear and silence, and this is where the Mark’s Gospel abruptly ends. An ending added later makes mention of the risen Jesus making an appearance first to Magdalene.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Magdalene meets the risen Christ as she leaves the tomb, this time with only one other female companion, who is also called “Mary” (Matt 28:1-10). In Luke’s account, Magdalene appears at the cross and at the empty tomb to hear the angel’s words, but she and her female companions are not believed when they convey the message of the resurrection to the apostles (Luke 24:1-11).

In Luke, she is present, along with other women, as a disciple and supporter of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3). Ms Lee explains that the description in this verse as having had seven demons cast from her may have lead to the misunderstanding “that the many “demons” refer to her unfettered sexuality.

“But that would be erroneous. Exorcisms — the casting out of evil spirits — are common in the first three Gospels. Those suffering demonic possession are never described as sinful but rather are victims of external evil.

“These days, we would associate their symptoms with physical maladies such as epilepsy or mental illness. Magdalene, in other words, has been the victim of a serious illness and Jesus has healed her,” Ms Lee said.

In the Gospel of John, Magdalene comes alone to the tomb on Easter morning, finds it empty, tries unsuccessfully to gain help from two other prominent disciples, and eventually meets the risen Jesus in the garden (John 20:1-18). He is alive and commissions her to proclaim the message of his resurrection.

On the basis of John’s story, later tradition gave Magdalene the title of “apostle to the apostles” and recognised something of her significance for Christian faith, witness and leadership.

She is truly a woman for us to honour and to learn from this feast day!

Read how Louise Roach changed her view of Mary Magdalene and how that influenced her life.


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Brooke Robinson Image
Brooke Robinson

Brooke is Content Officer for the Communications Team in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle