Who Was Mary Magdalene: Prostitute, Apostle, Different in Different Texts

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20120507-Mary Magdalene Lanfranco_magdalene.jpg
Mary Magdalene Lanfranco
James Carroll wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The whole history of Western civilization is epitomized in the cult of Mary Magdalene. For many centuries the most obsessively revered of saints, this woman became the embodiment of Christian devotion, which was defined as repentance. Yet she was only elusively identified in Scripture,and has thus served as a scrim on to which a succession of fantasies has been projected. In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminine icon to matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty...Christians may worship the Blessed Virgin, but it is Magdalene with whom they identify.”

"After the Virgin Mary," Father Thomas Michelet, who helps oversee a Mary Magdalene cave in France, told National Geographic, "Mary Magdalene is the most important woman in the New Testament. And yet we speak of her very little. It's too bad, as many could be touched by this woman, who was a sinner and who was chosen by Christ as the first witness of his resurrection. He didn't choose an Apostle or the Virgin Mary. He chose Mary Magdalene. Why? Perhaps because she was the first to ask forgiveness. It was not yet the hour of Peter," he said, referring to Peter's rise to fame as a miracle worker and the founder of the Catholic Church. "It was the hour of Mary Magdalene."

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: “It is a rare thing indeed that being mistaken for a sex worker brings someone fame and eternal renown. And yet this is exactly what has happened to Mary Magdalene, the financial backer of Jesus, whose misidentification as a prostitute has followed her for 1,500 years. In a society that is increasingly areligious, Mary has cemented her place as a cultural icon. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, January 2, 2022]

Ancient opinion about where Mary was also varied. Several of the earliest commentators on the Gospels — for example, the third-century writer Hippolytus of Rome — assumed that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Martha and Lazarus mentioned in the Gospel of John. If true, this would mean that Mary, like her siblings, was from Bethany and is the woman who anoints Jesus in John 12. (This woman, Schrader and Taylor argue, is distinct from the anonymous sex worker who also anoints Jesus in Luke 7. It’s worth noting that anointing was not a once-in-a-lifetime affair in antiquity). To make things even stranger, the early fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea thought there were two Mary Magdalenes. Eusebius had actually visited a “Magdala” himself but, according to him the town was in Judea, in the south. We are clearly way off course. Schrader and Taylor conclude that “the ancient position that Mary Magdalene hailed from Bethany remains within the realm of sensible exegetical possibility” but her name is more about her religious character than anything else.

Websites and Resources: Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar catholicsaints.info ; Saints' Books Library saintsbooks.net ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection colecciondeverda.blogspot.com ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Lives of the Saints: Catholic.org catholicism.org ; Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org;

Mary Magdalene as a Character

Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio

Andrew Todhunter wrote in National Geographic: “Mary Magdalene epitomizes the mystical saint, closely associated with grace and divine intercession. Other saints, including Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, play a similar role among Catholics, but none has exerted a stronger pull on the imagination, or created more controversy, than Mary Magdalene. Once maligned as a reformed courtesan, venerated today by millions worldwide, she was a significant presence in Christ's inner circle. [Source: Andrew Todhunter, National Geographic, March 2012]

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Mary Magdalene is certainly one of the characters who crops up a lot in the gospels and then is very much discussed in Christian literature the fourth and fifth century particularly. It's interesting to see what happens with her character. We know practically nothing about her, but quite early on she gets conflated with the sinful woman who is said to come in to a dinner party where Jesus is being entertained at the home of a Jewish leader and who washes Jesus' feet and dries the feet with her hair and she is called a sinner. Now it doesn't say what kind of sinner she is, but this story gets conflated with the Mary Magdalene story. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Mary Magdalene's probably a good example of a character who appears a number of times in the biblical text itself who then gets raised up and developed and elaborated upon. This is probably fairly typical of what happens to a lot of characters. Their lives get embroidered upon in ways that we wouldn't really know from the biblical text itself. So Mary Magdalene is thought of as this sinner who repents. This gets elaborated into repentent prostitute particularly when Christianity takes a very ascetic turn in the fourth and fifth centuries; to repent from being a prostitute would certainly be a very wonderful thing for a woman to do if she were a Christian....

Mary Magdalene in Non-Canonical Texts

Ariel Sabar wrote in Smithsonian Magazine,““The gospel of Philip, one of the Nag Hammadi texts, goes further, describing Magdalene as a “companion” of Jesus “whom the Savior loved more than all the other disciples and [whom] he kissed often on the mouth.” But whether these “kisses” were spiritual or symbolic or something more is left unstated. [Source: Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012 ***]

Gospel of Philip

“The gospel of Mary, which surfaced in January 1896 on the Cairo antiquities market, casts Magdalene in a still more central role, as confidante and chief disciple. The text, King argues in her book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, is no less than a treatise on the qualifications for apostleship: What counted was not whether you were at the crucifixion or the resurrection, or whether you were a woman or a man. What counted was your firmness of character and how well you understood Jesus’ teachings. ***

“The efforts of historians to reclaim the voices in these lost gospels have given fits to conservative scholars and believers, who view them as a perversion of long-settled truth by identity politics. “Far from being the alternative voices of Jesus’ first followers, most of the lost gospels should rather be seen as the writings of much later dissidents who broke away from an already established orthodox church,” Philip Jenkins, a historian at Baylor University, writes in his book Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way. “Despite its dubious sources and controversial methods, the new Jesus scholarship... gained such a following because it told a lay audience what it wanted to hear.” ***

“Writing on Beliefnet.com in 2003, Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek’s longtime religion editor, argued that “Mary Magdalene has become a project for a certain kind of ideologically committed feminist scholarship.” He added that “a small group of well-educated women decided to devote their careers to the pieces of Gnostic literature discovered in the last century, a find that promised a new academic specialty within the somewhat overtrodden field of Biblical studies.”“ ***

Mary Magdalene, Another Apostle?

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In all four Gospels the first person to witness the resurrection is a woman and Mary Magdalene is in that key group. In the Gospel of John she is alone at the time and it is because of this she is known as the “Apostle to the Apostles,” a truly elevated title and status.Throughout the Gospels there are references to Mary “following” Jesus and she (like some of the other women) witnesses and, we might infer, supports him during his crucifixion. All of which suggests that Mary was a disciple and part of the core group of Jesus followers. Her presence in Jesus’ inner circle does not mean that she was his wife. In fact, there is something mildly heteronormative and chauvinistic about the assumption that she was. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 14, 2018]

Professor Elaine H. Pagels told PBS: “The gospels of the New Testament tell stories about Mary Magdalene, and there she appears along with the women.... [In Luke], Mary was one whom Jesus had healed. But in other gospels, she appears quite differently. She appears in fact as one of the disciples, not only one of the disciples, but one of those chosen for special teaching, for deeper teaching and wisdom. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she appears as the one disciple who has courage and comforts the others in despair. She appears as the one who speaks to the others to encourage them. So she seems to be one of the great disciples according to some of these other sources. [Source: Elaine H. Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Later tradition suggested she was a prostitute and that she was the one who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair. This is not said in the gospels. It has no foundation in history at all. I suspect that there were Christians who were trying to challenge her status among certain groups who saw her as a great one of the disciples. For example, even today on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, there's a Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene as a great saint. And others countered, I suggest, by saying, "Oh no, she was a prostitute." So there, in the person of Mary Magdalene, [we see how] groups fought about the status and role of women.”

Christ and Mary Magdalene by Rembrandt

Karen L. King of Harvard University told PBS: “The newly discovered Egyptian writings elaborate this portrait of Mary as a favored disciple. Her role as "apostle to the apostles" is frequently explored, especially in considering her faith in contrast to that of the male disciples who refuse to believe her testimony. She is most often portrayed in texts that claim to record dialogues of Jesus with his disciples, both before and after the resurrection. In the Dialogue of the Savior, for example, Mary is named along with Judas (Thomas) and Matthew in the course of an extended dialogue with Jesus. During the discussion, Mary addresses several questions to the Savior as a representative of the disciples as a group. She thus appears as a prominent member of the disciple group and is the only woman named. Moreover, in response to a particularly insightful question, the Lord says of her, "´You make clear the abundance of the revealer!'" (140.17-19). At another point, after Mary has spoken, the narrator states, "She uttered this as a woman who had understood completely"(139.11-13). These affirmations make it clear that Mary is to be counted among the disciples who fully comprehended the Lord's teaching (142.11-13). [Source:Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“In the Pistis Sophia, Mary again is preeminent among the disciples, especially in the first three of the four books. She asks more questions than all the rest of the disciples together, and the Savior acknowledges that: "Your heart is directed to the Kingdom of Heaven more than all your brothers" (26:17-20). Indeed, Mary steps in when the other disciples are despairing in order to intercede for them to the Savior (218:10-219:2). Her complete spiritual comprehension is repeatedly stressed.

“She is, however, most prominent in the early second century Gospel of Mary, which is ascribed pseudonymously to her. More than any other early Christian text, the Gospel of Mary presents an unflinchingly favorable portrait of Mary Magdalene as a woman leader among the disciples. The Lord himself says she is blessed for not wavering when he appears to her in a vision. When all the other disciples are weeping and frightened, she alone remains steadfast in her faith because she has grasped and appropriated the salvation offered in Jesus' teachings. Mary models the ideal disciple: she steps into the role of the Savior at his departure, comforts, and instructs the other disciples. Peter asks her to tell any words of the Savior which she might know but that the other disciples have not heard. His request acknowledges that Mary was preeminent among women in Jesus' esteem, and the question itself suggests that Jesus gave her private instruction. Mary agrees and gives an account of "secret" teaching she received from the Lord in a vision. The vision is given in the form of a dialogue between the Lord and Mary; it is an extensive account that takes up seven out of the eighteen pages of the work. At the conclusion of the work, Levi confirms that indeed the Saviour loved her more than the rest of the disciples (18.14-15). While her teachings do not go unchallenged, in the end the Gospel of Mary affirms both the truth of her teachings and her authority to teach the male disciples. She is portrayed as a prophetic visionary and as a leader among the disciples.

Mary Magdalene, a Prostitute?

Was Mary Magdalene really a prostitute, as the early Church claimed? She is often described as one although there is no mention that that was her trade in the Bible. All it says is that she was a person of means, and a follower of Jesus who was once possessed by seven demons that Jesus cast out. The prostitute label grew out of description of her in the Gospels as having "certain ways about her a little freer than modesty allows.”

Mary Magdalene at the Feast of Simon the Pharisee by Rubens

In art, Mary Magdalene is often semi-naked, or an isolated hermit repenting for her sins in the wilderness: an outcast. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. But we know her best as a prostitute. The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is fallen and redeemed, is a very powerful image of redemption a signal that no matter how low one has fallen, one can be redeemed. Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. [Source: July 20, 2011BBC |::|]

“Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, but not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or a sinner. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from Luke's gospel (7:36-50) both of whom wash Jesus' feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made this assumption official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation still lingers. |::|

“Mary Magdalene is considered a saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches with a feast day of 22nd July. The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers which is the second Sunday after Pascha (Easter). She is also an important figure in the Bahá'í faith. |::|

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “ Mary Magdalene comes to be thought of as a repentant prostitute. Now why this would have great appeal for the early Christians I'm not entirely sure except that she is an example of somebody who is a very notable sinner and yet repentant and found great praise in the eyes of God. She's also represented as being a witness to the resurrection in the gospels, and this is an important point that here you can see the difference in Paul's letters. Paul does not have the women as witnesses to the resurrection whereas all the gospels have women as witnesses to the resurrection and Mary Magdalene very prominent among them. [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Mary Magdalene and Jesus Lovers? Hints in the Apocryphal Texts

According to the BBC: “One of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is the Gospel of Philip, in which Mary Magdalene is a key figure. It has been the cause of one of the most controversial claims ever made about her. During their long burial in the desert, some of the books were attacked by ants. In this Gospel, the ants made a hole in a very crucial place. The text says: “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." [Source: Susan Haskins and Belinda Sykes, July 20, 2011, BBC |::|]

“The lacuna, or gap, which hides where Jesus kissed Mary has tantalised scholars for decades. Were Jesus and Mary lovers? Some scholars have interpreted the kiss in a more spiritual sense and see kissing as a symbol for an intimate reception of teaching of the word of God, of learning. The image of Jesus and Mary as engaged in mouth-to-mouth closeness suggests not necessarily sexuality, but the transmission of divine knowledge.

“Mary Magdalene appears in this text also not only as the disciple he loved most but also as a symbolic figure of heavenly wisdom. These stories of Mary - as Jesus' closest companion and a symbol of heavenly wisdom - are in sharp contrast with the Mary Magdalene of popular imagination. |::|

“"Apocryphal" took on very negative connotations, especially in comparison to the Bible. It often means that it's not to be read, not to be taken seriously, not to be considered, not true. The contents of these books are regarded by many people as legends. So can we believe the Gospel of Philip? Was Mary really Jesus' closest companion? Well, there is other evidence for this, and some of it is even in the Bible itself. |::|

Mary Magdalene and Gnostic Gospels

Some of claims made Mary Magdalene are based on ancient texts that were written around the time of Gospels. “The Gnostic Gospel of Philip” described Magdalen as “the one who called [Jesus] companion” and claimed that he “used to kiss her on her [mouth].”

A key passage from “Gnostic Gospel of Mary” depicts Jesus preaching to his disciples after the resurrection, and telling them there is no such thing as sin and they should follow no rules or authority and simple look into themselves. After delivering this he quickly departs, leaving the disciples confused and in fear. Mary Magdalene then turns them and says, “Do not weep or grieve or be in doubt.” She then describes a private vision she received from Jesus. On hearing this Peter says, “[Did] Jesus really speak with a woman without our knowledge?” The disciple Levis comes to her defense, saying, “Peter you have always been hot-tempered...If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely, the Savior loves her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.”

The “Gnostic Gospel of Mary” was not written by Mary Magdalene . Rather it emerged from a community that recognized her importance. It had been lost and forgotten for centuries when an incomplete 5th century version of a 2nd century version was rediscovered in 1896 in Cairo. Later other fragments of text were found and the all the know pieces were put together and translated and analyzed in “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle” by Karen L. King

Truer Portrait of Mary Magdalene in the Apocryphal Texts

Karen L. King of Harvard University told PBS: The most prominent woman “in the ancient church was Mary Magdalene. A series of spectacular 19th and 20th century discoveries of Christian texts in Egypt dating to the second and third century have yielded a treasury of new information. It was already known from the New Testament gospels that Mary was a Jewish woman who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Apparently of independent means, she accompanied Jesus during his ministry and supported him out of her own resources (Mark 15:40-41; Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:1-3; John 19:25). [Source:Karen L. King, Professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity at Harvard University Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Mary Magdalne by Vermeer

“Although other information about her is more fantastic, she is repeatedly portrayed as a visionary and leader of the early movement.( Mark 16:1-9; Matthew 28:1-10; Luke24:1-10; John 20:1, 11-18; Gospel of Peter ). In the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus gives her special teaching and commissions her as an apostle to the apostles to bring them the good news. She obeys and is thus the first to announce the resurrection and to play the role of an apostle, although the term is not specifically used of her. Later tradition, however, will herald her as "the apostle to the apostles." The strength of this literary tradition makes it possible to suggest that historically Mary was a prophetic visionary and leader within one sector of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.

“In another text, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, Mary also plays a clear role among those whom Jesus teaches. She is one of the seven women and twelve men gathered to hear the Savior after the resurrection, but before his ascension. Of these only five are named and speak, including Mary. At the end of his discourse, he tells them, "I have given you authority over all things as children of light," and they go forth in joy to preach the gospel. Here again Mary is included among those special disciples to whom Jesus entrusted his most elevated teaching, and she takes a role in the preaching of the gospel.

“In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of three Marys "who always walked with the Lord" and as his companion (59.6-11). The work also says that Lord loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often (63.34-36). The importance of this portrayal is that yet again the work affirms the special relationship of Mary Magdalene to Jesus based on her spiritual perfection.

Effort to Diminish Mary Magdalene’s Importance

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: In a peer-reviewed article published in the journal Harvard Theological Review, Duke doctoral student and text critic Elizabeth Schrader argues that Mary Magdalene’s role in the Jesus story was deliberately obscured by those who copied out the Bible in order to dilute the importance of Mary Magdalene. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, July 20, 2018]

To make her case, Schrader turned to the earliest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament and initially looked at the story of the raising of Lazarus told in the Gospel of John 11:1-44. According to the version in our Bibles, Lazarus had two sisters named Mary (Maria) and Martha and, throughout the centuries it has been debated whether this Mary is the same Mary as Mary Magdalene.

When Schrader looked at P66, a papyrus codex (book) traditionally dated to the second century which is also the oldest existing manuscript of the story, she noticed something odd. In John 11:1, someone had scratched out the Greek iota (the “I” in Mary) and replaced it with a “th” changing the name of a second Mary to read “Martha.” Then, two verses later, Schrader told me, “the copyist actually splits a woman in two—one woman's name has been scratched out and corrected to say ‘the sisters,’ and the verbs describing the woman are changed from singular to plural.”

It’s not just this manuscript. Schrader argues that “for virtually every verse where Martha is mentioned in the Gospel of John, there are manuscripts where Mary is mentioned instead. Her study shows that in John roughly one in five ancient Greek manuscripts and one in three Old Latin manuscripts have “something strange happening around Martha.” All of this suggests, she says, that Martha was added to the Lazarus story by later editors and copyists of the New Testament.

There’s some evidence in the writings of Early Church clerics and theologians that support Schrader’s argument. Several commentators on the Gospel of John seem to think that Mary did things that our modern Bibles attribute to Martha. Schrader points out that Tertullian of Carthage, who wrote around the turn of the third century, thinks that it was Mary who tells Jesus “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27).

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except Mary Magdalene Cave in France from Catholic Travel Guide

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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