She’s arguably one of the most maligned biblical figures in history, for centuries referred to as a “prostitute” both inside and outside of theological circles.
In reality, this label was never affixed to her in scripture and is, in fact, a blatant misrepresentation and error.
No doubt, Mary Magdalene is an important figure in that she was around for most of the key events in Jesus’ crucifixion and is the first person to find Christ’s tomb empty. Those details, in themselves, are significant, but it’s also noteworthy that she’s seen as a reliable witness at a time when women weren’t always treated as such.
Over the weekend, NPR explored the unfortunate prostitute label given to Mary Magdalene, with host Ray Suarez speaking to Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak about the fact that the gospels never refer to her as a sex worker, despite centuries of claims and oral tradition to the contrary.
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Dvorak specifically spoke about the potential origins of the centuries-old, “viral” rumor.
“The best I could see that scholars found was in 591. Pope Gregory gave a sermon conflating all the stories of all the Marys that were in the gospels, and all the stories — many of the stories of women actually — the scene that we’re so familiar with, the prostitute who is weeping … on Jesus’s feet, washes his feet with her hair,” she said. “That is in scripture, but it’s not Mary. Nobody ever said it was Mary.”
The woman Dvorak is referencing is mentioned in Luke 7, but as the text shows, that woman is unnamed and is in no way definitively linked to Mary Magdalene. Verses 36-39 read:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Perhaps the placement of this story in Luke 7 and the descriptions that follow in Luke 8 contribute to some of the confusion surrounding Mary Magdalene. In fact, Luke 8:2 introduces Mary and tells us that Jesus drove seven demons from her; it’s a stunning detail, but does nothing to link her to the woman in the previous chapter.
But as history forged on, someone started the rumor that the woman in Luke 7 was the same as Mary, and, alas, that’s how we ended up where we are today. Either way, it seems there’s increasing pushback to try and clear Mary’s name.
In a Washington Post piece published earlier last week, Dvorak noted that a group of Christians in California known as the Junia Project came out this Easter with an important message for pastors and Christians, alike: “As you preach this Sunday, please note: Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute. Thank you.”
Gail Wallace, a founder of the Junia Project, told Dvorak that she and her peers are “fed up with the way women’s stories in the Bible have been retold in a way that sexualizes them unnecessarily and in ways that aren’t supported by the biblical texts.”
Dvorak argued that the problem of mislabeling Mary Magdalene a prostitute has persisted for centuries. Certainly, some might wonder why the myth has persisted, and the reality is that — on the surface — the story of a woman who was a prostitute before changing as a result of encountering Jesus is incredibly moving.
And considering the importance of Mary Magdalene in the scriptures, the wrongly assumed notion that she underwent such a miraculous change is appealing and helps build upon the biblical narrative.
That debate aside, Mary was clearly witness to most of the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion and, for that alone, she is an important biblical figure, even if she’s been misrepresented over the ages. Read more about her here.
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