Mary Magdalene was never a Prostitute. In fact, she was the 13th disciple of Jesus and his most loyal follower and supporter. So, why was she branded a Prostitute for so many years? And, why do so many people still consider her one? I'll explain.
First, I want to start off by saying that I am a huge supporter of sex work and sex workers. This article is in no way meant to shame anyone for the work that they do or the life that they live. Instead, I'm approaching this article from a place of patriarchal rule and authority. Why does the patriarchy want us to believe such a thing about women? And, how do patriarchal systems inform the way most people think about Prostitutes and Prostitution in general? Okay. Let's begin.
Mary of Magdala was actually a loyal follower, supporter, and chosen leader of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. According to many current scholars, Mary's "last name" or epithet Magdalene suggests that she came from the town of Magdala, "...a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee." Being a woman and having such an epithet during this time period also suggests that Mary came from a family of means and wealth. It is Mary who supported Jesus while he traveled around the land spreading his gospel. It was Mary's wealth and influence that allowed for easy passage for Jesus and his other 12 disciples. Mary had such great influence that it is said that she was even granted an audience with Pilate after the resurrection of Jesus in order to criticize him and deliver the news of the resurrection to him.
Some accounts tell us that the devotion and intimacy between Mary and Jesus caused tension between the other disciples as the men wanted a closer relationship with Jesus. It's also important to note that the name "Mary" itself is thought to be a name given to many women throughout the Bible as a symbolic name and not a true name, thus resulting in various Mary's throughout the text itself. In attempting to translate the Biblical mythology of Christianity into English and other languages throughout history (which, of course, we know is impossible because no language can perfectly translate another without losing symbolism, nuance, cultural allegories and so on), we run into a few problems with the name of Mary and the relationships and roles each one of these Mary's held. "In the gospels several women come into the story of Jesus with great energy, including erotic energy. There are several Mary's—not least, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus. But there is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. There is Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary the wife of Clopas. Equally important, there are three unnamed women who are expressly identified as sexual sinners—the woman with a “bad name” who wipes Jesus’ feet with ointment as a signal of repentance, a Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at a well and an adulteress whom Pharisees haul before Jesus to see if he will condemn her." This compounding of multiple Mary's made it very easy for the Church to decide that women were whores and that they must repent for their inherent sinful nature in order to be a follower of Christ and receive forgiveness.
Now, we could be fair and say that because a great many of the biblical accounts are not first-hand accounts but were written some years later, the memory of the writers might be construed and twisted. But, I feel it is more accurate to say that, like the figure of Eve in the garden, putting the blame on the downfall of humanity (especially when sexual desire is involved) onto women is an easy way to justify the treatment of women as "less than" in a society dominated by male archetypes and structures. But, because Mary of Magdala was seen as a Saint and a disciple of Jesus, there were a great many female Priests up until a decree was issued by Pope Gregory I in 591 CE that said women could no longer be Priests because of Mary's true nature as a sinner in need of salvation. So, for approximately the 1400 years that followed, this new fictitious invention of Mary Magdalene became the accepted norm and created almost a cult-like symbol for repentance and absolution of sin. It wasn't until 1969 did the Catholic Church attempt to acknowledge and correct this created misconception (but like, barely).
So, what's the real and lasting problem here? The problem is that in 591 the church took the figure of an independent woman of means who supported Jesus and his ministry and turned her into something else. She was a witness at the crucifixion, a witness at the resurrection at the tomb, and an active proclaimer of the Risen Christ. Mary went from a woman of status to a woman that men considered to be lowly and sinful. This caused a ripple effect within conservative Christian circles. Now, it's easy to say that women can't be trusted with responsibility and positions of power. Women are inherently sinful and are in need of constant guidance. As James Carroll puts it, Mary's branding as a prostitute and sinner, solidifies the way in which her legend has been used: to discredit "... sexuality in general and [disempower] women in particular."
In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Carroll sums up the concocted figure of Mary Magdalene throughout history by saying, "In one age after another her image was reinvented, from prostitute to sibyl to mystic to celibate nun to passive helpmeet to feminist icon to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty. How the past is remembered, how sexual desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how sweet devotion can be made to serve violent domination—all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth."
The feminist ideas we should be focusing on moving forward, regardless of our religious leanings, are the following:
The Bible was written by and for men
There is little mention of women of importance in the Bible save Jesus' mother Mary, who is somehow both a virgin and a mother all at once
Biblical history (and history in general) is controlled by the patriarchy
All religious and spiritual practices should be liberated from patriarchal constructs
When reading/listening to/thinking about any kind of religious text, especially when it has to do with history, Professor Gina Messina asked us the following in a Christianity and Paganism class:
Who are the silenced?
What responsibility do we bear?
What action is required?
And how do we respond?
To be honest, I have somewhat of a traumatic and difficult time with Christianity in general. By uncovering these truths and digging deeper into the actual origins of Christianity and some of the real mystical and spiritual elements of Christianity, I am finding that there really is space for some healing to finally happen. If you are someone who also has a difficult or complicated relationship with Christianity, I invite you to lean into the female figures in Christian mythology and to find obscure symbols and references that actually tie many of the Pagan (and other religions) beliefs together. The red egg that Mary holds, for example, is a great image for fertility and rebirth and is used to demonstrate that Jesus is, in fact, reborn. When we peel back many of the sexist layers of any religion, we can begin to find some true wonder and beauty; even if that particular religion doesn't align with our belief systems. Maybe, just maybe, that can lead us all on a path of acceptance and community.
After today's article (and podcast episode!) I'll be leaving the realm of Christianity for a while. I'd love to focus on any topics or ideas you might have as well! Please feel free to reach out via email or leave a comment right below!
Sources and additional reading/viewing: