Image: Mary Magdalene by Anthony Frederick Sandys
In the sixth century Pope Gregory I gave a sermon that profoundly changed the the reputation of one of the most significant figures in the New Testament. And in doing so, he may have unwittingly given us a Mary for our time:
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. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.
Mary of Magdala, the first person to declare the resurrection of Jesus, thus became, in Christian art and literature, a reformed prostitute and a symbol of the redeeming power of Christ. Christian writers had been conflating the unnamed sinner in Luke with Mary Magdalene since at least Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, but it took a Bishop of Rome, the “first among equals” of the five great metropolitan bishops to cement that connection. While Gregory also conflates the sinner with Mary of Bethany in John's Gospel, the reputation has stuck to Mary Magdalene.
Gregory's sermon also makes the case that Mary, in her earlier life, had been guilty of all seven cardinal sins, thus making her even more a symbol of Christian repentance. But the human obsession with sex was surely there in the sixth century as it is in the twenty-first, and the image of Mary Magdalene has, at least in Western Christianity, been one of a reformed prostitute.
The Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant traditions have until very recently followed Gregory's lead. Until 1969 the Gospel reading for the feast of Mary Magdalene (July 22) in the Roman Catholic Church was Luke 7:36-50 (I'm using the King James Version, though Catholics would have used the Douay Bible or another translation from the Latin Vulgate):
36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat.
37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
39 Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.
40 And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on.
41 There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.
42 And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?
43 Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged.
44 And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
45 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
46 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
47 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
48 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
49 And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
50 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
It's a powerful story. While the Pharisee Simon is concerned with legalities of a sinful woman touching a man, Jesus says she showed more hospitality to him than Simon. A sinful woman, perhaps a prostitute, is accorded more grace than a righteous Pharisee. And in the passage, Jesus gives hope to women and men who have sinned greatly. But Luke never gives her a name. And a figure so important in Christian theology deserves a name. She has been accorded the name Mary (Miriam) both in Eastern and Western Christianity.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches she's one of the four Marys, along with Mary the Bearer of God, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany. Here in the West, she became identified with Mary Magdalene. And in much of popular culture she still is. “Bad reputations, though, are hard to live down!” writes Carol Ann Morrow in The American Catholic. Popular works on the Gospels including Franco Zeffirelli's TV minseries Jesus of Nazaraeth, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ portray her as a prostitute.
She's been given an exalted title, thanks to Dan Brown's blockbuster novel The Da Vinci Code: that of Jesus' wife. Brown bases his contention on the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Ants had eaten parts of the papyrus, so there are some important gaps in the text:
And the companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [...]. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness."
A character in Brown's book contends that the Greek word Koinōnos, translated above as “companion,” really meant “wife.” However, Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman say it means “companion.” Brown's book also fills in one of the gaps, saying that the text likely read “used to kiss her often on her mouth.”
If the historical Mary Magdalene was neither harlot nor literal bride of Christ, who was she? Luke 8:1-3 gives us a clue:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out—and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Most contemporary scholars believe the seven demons, or devils are not a sign of sinfulness, but physical or mental illness. Presbyterian scholar George Buttrick, in his 1962 Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, writes: “She had been cured of a serious illness... The number seven would accentuate the serious nature of her condition or possibly its recurrent nature.”
Luke's comment that the women were “helping to support them [Jesus and his disciples] out of their own means” suggests that Mary and her companions had some wealth. Rather than a reformed prostitute, she was more likely a wealthy widow.
In the words of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), “The Holy Spirit made Magdalene the Apostle of the Apostles.” She not only supported Jesus financially, she was a leader in his ministry. She stayed with with him during his crucifixion, while the men fled. (The men had good reason to flee, as their presence might very well have led to their execution.) And she was the one to proclaim the empty tomb in Mark and the Resurrection in John.
Today the Gospel for the Feast of Mary Magdalene is John 20:11-18:
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Yet her “bad reputation” has surely comforted many who could identify with one who has sinned greatly. At least according to the popular image, she's one who's “been there, done that,” as have most of us. The image of Mary the Mother of Jesus as “perpetually virgin,” though perhaps as undeserved as that of Mary Magdalene, is diffuclt for those of us outside Roman Catholic or very high Anglo-Catholic circles to identify with. The reformed sinner might give us a more sympathetic ear. (Maryologists would disagree; I'm suggesting this is the view of someone looking at both Marys only by their popular images.)
It will probably be futile to change the popular image of Mary Magdalene in our lifetime. But perhaps the the Western churches should make a start by taking a page from the Eastern Orthodox churches and honor the woman from Luke 7 as a saint in her own right. Perhaps Mary of the City would be appropriate.