Feast of St. Mary Magdalene: Prostitute, Wife of Jesus or Apostle to the Apostles?

TINTORETTO - Magdalena penitente (Musei Capitolini, Roma, 1598-1602) - copia.jpg
TINTORETTO -Magdalena penitente (Musei Capitolini, Roma, 1598-1602)

My eldest child’s middle name is Magdalena. It was chosen to honor Saint Mary Magdalene and her Egyptian uncle Madgi. July 22nd is Saint Mary Magdalene’s feast day, the day she is celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox. On this day, I go to great lengths to celebrate the glory of this “Apostle of Apostles” and “Patron Saint of Contemplatives”.

What most are unaware of is that there were a few people named Mary in the Bible. One of them was a trusted friend of Jesus. One of them was a sister of his friend, Lazarus. One of them was most likely a prostitute. Although there is nothing wrong with being a sexworker, the early Church is argued to have used this last Mary as a means to demean the Mary who was Jesus’ trusted companion. As a result of their work, rather than being the leader of the Apostles, she, the only woman that was part of Jesus’ ministry, becomes little more than a wretched follower of Christ, grateful for His forgiveness but in no way influential with the running of things in the early church. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is annibale_carracci_-_holy_women_at_christ_s_tomb_-_wga4454.jpg
Holy Women at Christ’s Tomb (c. 1590s) by Annibale Carracci. In Matthew 28:1–10, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” encounter an angel at the tomb, who tells them that Christ has risen.

Fresno City College Distinguished Alumnus, Robert Cargill, Associate Professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa pointed out that,

“There are many scholars who argue that because Jesus empowered women to such an extent early in his ministry, it made some of the men who would lead the early church later on uncomfortable,”.

“How Early Church Leaders Downplayed Mary Magdalene’s Influence by Calling Her a Whore” (Sarah Pruitt) https://www.history.com/news/mary-magdalene-jesus-wife-prostitute-saint

Cargill continues that the two responses to this observation was to make her a repentant prostitute or a lover of Jesus. The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code are two of the more popular versions of the idea that Mary was Jesus’ lover or wife. There is no biblical evidence to support these interpretations.

Image of The Da Vinci Code
Black thorns against a blood red background.
Image of the Last Temptation of Christ Film

These interpretations are just as likely as the Magalena comics series that describes Mary as the mother of a line of sexy female warriors who work for the Catholic Church in secret. 

Cover of Magdalena TPB by Eric Basaldua

Again, none of these interpretations are supported in the Bible. Additionally, all of these interpretations sexualise this companion of Jesus to such an extent that her role among the early followers of Christ is limited to lower, baser, non-intellectual drives. 

What I take from this is that Mary Magdalene was a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle. She was a disciple. Although the Church that came up after Jesus was misogynistic and nuclear family oriented, that was not Jesus’ mission. He spent his time with single men and women, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and other outcasts.  

In 1969, Pope Paul VI wrote an Mysterii Paschalis or “official letter” pointing out that Pope Gregory the Great was incorrect when he referred to these different Marys as one person in 591. It took the Catholic Church 1378 years to make this correction. But to this day, when I tell people her middle name, they still wonder at why I would name my first born child after a prostitute.

My response: I didn’t. I named her after the Apostle to the Apostles, which I take to mean, the leader of the Apostles and the first person who the risen Christ showed himself to.

Postscript added in April 2021

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity By: Cynthia Bourgeault goes much further into these matters than I ever could. It’s a great read I just found. Below is a brief description of the text I took form the author’s website.

Mary Magdalene is one of the most influential symbols in the history of Christianity—yet, if you look in the Bible, you’ll find only a handful of verses that speak of her. How did she become such a compelling saint in the face of such paltry evidence? In her effort to answer that question, Cynthia Bourgeault examines the Bible, church tradition, art, legend, and newly discovered texts to see what’s there. She then applies her own reasoning and intuition, informed by the wisdom of the ages-old Christian contemplative tradition. What emerges is a radical view of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ most important disciple, the one he considered to understand his teaching best. That teaching was characterized by a nondualistic approach to the world and by a deep understanding of the value of the feminine. Cynthia shows how an understanding of Mary Magdalene can revitalize contemporary Christianity, how Christians and others can, through her, find their way to Jesus’ original teachings and apply them to their modern lives.

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